Every year at this time, I break out my copy of this handy Life Magazine coffee table book chronicling the history of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.The book is a souvenir from when we had an exhibition about the parade at New-York Historical Society back in 2001.
The book is an invaluable tonic to swallow in preparation for actually viewing the parade, which really can only be done properly in person. Non-New Yorkers might refer to their television sets, but I must tell you the difference between the experiences is one of apples and oranges. The televised parade is, to me, like fingernails on a chalkboard: all hideous, moronic, superficial chatter delivered by bubble-headed pseudo-celebrities, interlaced with unbearable, plastic, lip-synced Broadway show-tunes (which in reality are commercials for current hit shows), intertwined with innumerable parade baloons and floats that are commercials for tv cartoons, feature films, toys and breakfast cereals….intercut every five minutes, it feels like, with three minutes of actual television commercials.
The live experience is so much nicer, if only because it is so much less a barrage of aggressive, predatory marketing overkill. Much remains in the parade that is charming and pure…not just the marching bands that come from all over the country….not just the army of clowns (many of whom are friends and acquaintances of this reporter), but because there still remain dozens, scores of balloons and floats that pre-date the shameless commercial prostitution that now dominates.
If there is one name I hope you take away from this post, it is Tony Sarg. Sarg was a puppeteer and illustrator, and he became the parade’s first designer in those early years of the 1920s and 30s. Having no precedent for such an event, he drew solely from one place, nowadays unthinkable: his own imagination. It’s always been a given that the overall parade exists to promote Macy’s. But in the early days there were no marketing tie-ins. The balloons and floats existed only to be admired in and of themselves. This tradition went on at least until the 50s. When you see a balloon or a float that is just a clown, an elf, a fireman, a dog….and not Mickey Mouse, Spiderman or the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee…that’s what I’m talking about.
I like to think that, just like this parade, America has a purer foundation, some remnants of integrity that aren’t somehow calculated and harnessed to shill for some faceless, soulless, inhuman corporation. But perhaps that, too, is a balloon over-ripe for bursting.