The History of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!

A decade has passed since my first post on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a look at the coffee table book America’s Parade. This year, it is our pleasure to regale you with the run-down on the whole history.

Macy’s Department Store was the brainchild of R.H. Macy (1822-77), a Nantucket Quaker who went off to sea as a cabin boy and gradually put together a stake that allowed him to become a merchant. He opened his first store in Haverhill, Massachusetts, moving to New York City when the first one went belly up. After he passed away, his stores fell into family hands, until Isadore Straus purchased it in 1895, which is how it became part of the Abraham and Straus empire. (Straus famously died on the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912 with his loyal wife Ida by his side). Macy’s famous Herald Square flagship location opened in 1902 on the former site of Koster and Bial’s Music Hall.

The idea of a self-organized Christmas parade was first floated (ha! I said “floated”) by Macy’s employees in 1924. As America can boast of parades and celebrations that date to the 18th century, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is far from the oldest, but it can certainly lay claim to being one of the largest. This was true even from the start, when in addition to a large contingent of costumed employees, there were dozens of circus clowns, scores of zoo animals (including elephants and camels), several marching bands (including a Harlem jazz combo), and numerous horse-drawn floats.

To replace the headaches of caring for live animals, the parade planners came up with the novel idea of large inflatable balloons. Introduced to the parade in 1927, they were initially filled up with air and held aloft with large sticks. Lighter-than-air helium became the medium of choice the following year. Believe it not, for the first several years, parade staff ended each parade by releasing all of these giant balloons into the sky! These flying behemoths would sometimes travel for miles before finally coming down, often in inconvenient places. Those who retrieved them, were then encouraged to bring them back to Macy’s warehouse in Long Island City for cash bounties. This practice caused no end of havoc and pandemonium and was discontinued in 1932.

The early balloons, and many floats and other features of the parade, were designed by legendary puppeteer, cartoonist, animator and illustrator Tony Sarg (1880-1942), who also designed many of Macy’s fabulous holiday window displays, as well as attractions for the 1933 and 1939 World’s Fairs. There is a refreshing purity and innocence to many of the early parade designs. In the beginning, everything wasn’t some sort of cross-promotion or product placement. Many of the early parade characters were generic but charming and whimsical figures like clowns, elves, pirates, pilgrims, turkeys, firemen and the like. And of course well-known characters from literature like Santa Claus (who has always been the star of the parade) and Mother Goose.

But it didn’t take long for remunerative considerations to creep in, and for fame and celebrity to play a role. In 1934, Macy’s struck a deal with Walt Disney, and thus Mickey Mouse, Pluto, the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs took their place in the proceedings. In 1935 Harpo Marx marched in the parade, and a giant Eddie Cantor balloon was introduced. A half-decade later, 1940 saw the introduction of the first Superman balloon, mere months after the character had made his comic book debut. The decades since have seen a veritable flood of cartoon characters from film and television, animated cartoons, breakfast cereal mascots, and so forth. The Rockettes brought their kick-stepping act to the parade starting in 1958.

Some of the major entertainment figures who participated during the early decades included Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, the orchestras of Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman, Martha Raye, Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, Ginger Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Shirley Temple, Soupy Sales, Basil Rathbone (as Scrooge), Fess Parker (as Davy Crockett), Eddie Fisher, Connie Francis, Paul Anka, Ann Miller, Alan King, Victor Borge, Doug Henning, Diana Ross, The Munsters, The Bugaloos, Lorne Greene, Betty White, and Ed McMahon.! My candidate for the weirdest? Jack Palance. Believe It Or Not.

Naturally, coverage in mass media further fed the participation of stars. Regular national radio coverage began in 1938. Local TV (then in its infancy) started to carry the parade in 1945. NBC’s annual national telecast began in 1948. When I was a kid in the ‘70s the annual TV co-hosts were Lorne Green from Bonanza and, as many of her many younger fans will be thrilled to hear, Betty White. This pair was followed for several years by Ed McMahon of The Tonight Show. Other multiple year hosts have included sportscaster Bryant Gumble, weathermen Willard Scott and Al Roker, the widely loved Katie Couric, and the now disgraced Matt Lauer.

And let us not forget the holiday classic film Miracle on 34th Street, which premiered in 1947, starring Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood, John Payne and Edmund Gwenn, then later remade numerous times. What’s that? You forgot it? I’m sorry, that’s just not possible.

If you can see it in in person, my advice would be to do so. It’s really the only way to experience it. I went several times with my kids and its a pure, quiet and nice (if sometimes bitterly cold) experience. (By contrast I’ve hated watching the obnoxious, overly commercial NBC telecasts of the parade since I was a child. It’s strictly for consumer-dupes and bubbleheads.) Also highly recommended is watching them blow the balloons up on Central Park West the night before. They used to that in front of my old work place, The New-York Historical Society, and it was part of our annual ritual for years.

Okay, enough hot air. Time for this parade to step off. Happy day for those who celebrate; somber remembrances for those who mourn. How’s that for working both sides of the street? For some other Thanksgiving/Day of Mourning related posts go here.