History of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

History of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Feature Photo: gary718 / Shutterstock.com

Every Thanksgiving Morning, millions of people from around the United States turn their televisions on to watch Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. With the smell of Turkey usually already in the oven and crisp cold air seeping through an open window, Thanksgiving Morning stands as one of the most enjoyable mornings of the year for so many. That morning is accompanied by the sound and visuals of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television. For New Yorkers, the opportunity to stand somewhere along 34ths Street is well worth battling the crowds, traffic and busy public transportation to get to Midtown Manhattan. With the smell of the city streets filled by all the food vendors and the unique smell of Manhattan, there is no better place to be than 34th Street on Thanksgiving Morning.

Since 1924, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been a reflection of cultural trends. The parade has featured a mixture of balloons that have always represented pop culture from Snoopy to Spiderman to Pokeman. Whatever is popular in the current year, fans will probably embrace a balloon that represents whats’ hot. Of course, musical performers that are popular as well as the latest Broadway play actors have always been featured in the parade. It’s like halftime at the Super Bowl. The parade has one of the largest television audiences of the year when so many people have off from work and school.

How it Began

The first parade began in 1924 when the employees from Macy’s Herald Store on 34th Street dressed up in colorful costumes as they marched to this location. While they were riding floats, there were professional bands and borrowed animals from the Central Park Zoo. When the parade reached its final destination, Santa Claus would be welcomed into Macy’s flagship store.

The first parade featured Santa sitting on Macy’s balcony at the 34th Street store entrance where he would be crowned “King of the Kiddies” before an audience of over 250,000 New Yorkers and visitors. Because this parade was so successful despite the lack of media coverage, it was declared at that time this would become an annual event.

The success behind Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was enough to push Ragamuffin Day into obscurity. Ragamuffin Day was a popular holiday activity for kids that ran from 1879 into the 1930s that featured them running around as an alternate version of Halloween. However, what used to be a popular event eventually became unpopular. By public demand, Ragamuffin Day was shelved into obscurity as of 1956 while parades like Macy’s continued to gain ground as a crowd-pleasing favorite.

Adding to Macy’s popularity as a favored annual event were the impressive animal-shaped, helium-filled balloons that hovered above the floats. This was a practice that began in 1928 that replaced the live animals that were previously borrowed from the zoo

Tony the Talent

Anthony “Tony” Frederick Sarg originally from Guatemala whose family moved to Germany, then London, England, moved to New York so he could perform on its city streets with his puppets. As soon as Macy’s learned about him they asked him to design a parade-inspired window display for the store.

A New Yorker since 1915, Sarg’s popularity as a puppeteer soared in 1920. Ever since he was a young boy, he admired his grandmother’s collection of puppets that would become a hobby of his own. By 1917, he went from being a collector to a professional puppeteer. Come 1921, he animated The First Circus as an inventive cartoon for Herbert M. Dawley. This led to Sarg producing a series of cartoons from 1921 until 1923 known as Tony Sarg’s Almanac.

Starting in 1928, Sarg and his protege, Bill Baird, designed helium-filled balloons measuring as long as 125 feet. Shaped to look like animals and cartoon characters, this became a staple feature in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It was Sarg’s 1934 design of the iconic Mickey Mouse from Walt Disney that made its grand appearance as one of the parade entries. When Macy’s approached him in 1935 to design elaborated animated window displays for their stores between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the man’s popularity soared even further.

Unfortunately for Sarg, as well as New Yorkers, he passed away from a ruptured appendix on March 7, 1942. His legacy, however, continued until 1980 by Ohio-based Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. This was the same company Sarg used since 1928 that produced balloons for Macy’s, as well as other high-profile parades that were held throughout the nation. It was also their inflatables that were used in Macy’s giant balloon races that ran from 1928 until 1932.

Macy’s and WWII

Clean through the 1930s, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade graced the streets of Manhattan which would see over one million people lining up just to watch the event. As the popularity of this parade continued to grow, the city’s local radio stations began to broadcast the event in 1932. This continued as an annual occasion until 1941.

From 1942 to 1944, the United States of America became one of the nations embroiled in World War II. During this time frame, the helium that was used in the balloons for Macy’s was needed for the war effort. It wouldn’t be until 1945’s Thanksgiving Day that Macy’s would grace the streets of Manhattan with its annual parade. This was also the same year the radio stations began to broadcast the event again. Until 1951, they continued to cover the parade and its festivities. However, thanks to television, broadcasting a highly visual event on the radio eventually became obsolete.

The resurrection of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1945 saw this annual event expand its reach from a local event to a nationwide one. In 1947, it was one of the main features behind the cult classic Miracle on 34th Street. Footage of its 1946 Thanksgiving Day parade and festivities became part of the movie’s storyline. In 1948, the parade would be televised on a network for the first time.

History of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Photo: Glynnis Jones / Shutterstock.com

Parading On

From 1984 until 2019, Raven Industries from Sioux Falls, South Dakota picked up Sarg’s legacy as balloon designers from its Raven Aerostar Division. 2019 also marked the year when the cast of Sesame Street led Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as the popular children’s show celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. This was the first time since 1985 that the New York City Police Department Highway Patrol did not lead the parade from its starting point.

In 2001, with New York still nursing the wounds sustained from the September 11 terrorist attacks Macy’s invited family members from Tuesday’s Children to cut the ribbon at the start of the parade. The nonprofit organization specializes in helping families directly impacted by terrorism.

During the 2005 Thanksgiving Day parade, a balloon accidentally knocked over a street light. This incident caused spectators closest to it to become injured. Since then, new safety measures were put in place in order to prevent similar accidents from happening again. This included the installation of wind measurement devices that would alert parade organizers of any potentially unsafe conditions that could cause control issues with the balloons. There was also the requirement for these blown-up decorations to be kept closer to the ground.

In actuality, New York City already had a law imposed in 1997 about full-sized helium-filled balloons. If the wind was gusting at more than twenty knots, these were not allowed to soar so high in the air. Although there had been several close calls, the law was not enforced until the 2005 incident. It was also required by law for balloons to submit a risk profile as a means to determine how well a balloon can handle windy conditions. Only in 1971 did Macy’s infamous parade keep the balloons grounded. The parade itself, however, continued as scheduled.

Even when the weather is less favorable, the annual parade continued. The downpour of rain during the 2006 event didn’t stop it, nor did the brisk nineteen degrees in 2018.

Macy’s Routes

Originally, the parade began in Harlem at 145th Street and would work its way to Macy’s Herald Square location in Manhattan. This six-mile route would continue south on Amsterdam Avenue, then turn east at 106th Street. It wasn’t far from this location the balloons would be inflated before proceeding. Once reaching Columbus avenue, the balloons needed to be lowered in order to pass under the Ninth Avenue Elevated Line. Once past the tracks, the parade continued east to Central Park West, then head south as they reach Macy’s flagship store.

In 2009, Macy’s changed the parade route that began on 77th Street and Central Park West served as the starting point. From there, it would head south along Central Park until it reached Columbus Circle. It would then travel east along Central Park South before turning right at 7th Avenue. Once it reached Times Square it would turn left at 42nd Street and continue east before heading south at 6th Avenue. Then, at 34th Street it reached its Harold Square destination. It would then head west to 7th Avenue so that the floats could be dismantled.

The initial reason behind the route change was it allowed more space for spectators to see the parade from the sidelines. This came at the same time Broadway was turned into a pedestrian-only zone at Times Square. However, the route was changed again in 2012 which took Times Square out entirely as it chose to stay on Central Park South until it ventured south on Sixth Avenue to Herald Square.

As for the balloon race teams, this ran through Columbus Circle as the winds are higher in this flat area. When New York City officials comb over the parade route in an attempt to minimize potential hazards, this includes keeping viewers at bay from 38th Street to the end of the parade’s route. This final stretch is used by NBC when broadcasting the live event.

Macy’s On Film

The first televised broadcast of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was in 1939. It wouldn’t be until 1945 that it would be televised again, primarily because of the events revolving around World War II at that time. Then come 1948, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) became the second network to feature the annual event. Since they had a studio in Times Square, it was easy for CBS to show unauthorized footage of the parade until Macy’s steered it away from the view of the cameras in 2012. However, this wasn’t enough to lock CBS out as they also have cameras in its Black Rock headquarters along Sixth Avenue.

Although NBC has had the parade committee’s endorsement as the official broadcaster since 1953, that exclusivity only extends to the public view of the parade itself. It’s not enough to prevent other broadcasters from covering Macy’s annual event entirely. There are no exclusive rights to prevent other networks from covering special events that take place in restricted-access venue locations. Because of this, CBS is able to cover the parade as a special event as the streets of Manhattan that are blocked off to host it technically becomes a restricted-access venue.

Up until 1961, the three-hour parade was televised as an hour-long program. By this time, viewers watching from home were able to watch it in color as that began in 1960 It was briefly expanded to two hours before it was reduced to ninety minutes. In 1965, it became a two-hour broadcast before 1969 began filming the full three hours of the parade gracing the streets of Manhattan.

From 1963 until 1972, Lorne Green of Bonanza fame was the host who covered NBC’s coverage of the annual parade. It’s also been hosted in subsequent years by Betty White, David Hartman, and Karen Grassle. The Tonight Show’s Ed McMahon served as the street host in the meantime before becoming the main host from 1977 until 1981. After him, it was NBC-appointed hosts from its Today news program. Since 1979, NBC’s coverage of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has earned nine Emmy Awards for its outstanding achievement in special event coverage.

As for CBS’s involvement as a broadcaster, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was part of its All-American Thanksgiving Day Parade footage that featured a collection of parades that were held across North America. This continued until 2004 when CBS chose to focus strictly on Macy’s annual parade. However, in order to avoid legal issues, they won’t mention them by name.

Adding to the televised coverage, Verizon had a virtual reality live telecast of the parade that ran from 2016 until 2019. With minimal commentary, the footage was available for viewing on YouTube. In 2020, there was Verizon’s simulcast of the event that would become the first time Macy’s parade was broadcast internationally.

Macy’s and COVID-19

With the COVID-19 pandemic still causing issues, the 2020 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade continued as an event that was accessible by televised broadcast only. Because of the social distancing enforcement, as well as other issues, there were far fewer participants who took part in the parade. Even the balloons that year found themselves tied to a specially rigged anchor of five vehicles instead of them being carried by handlers.

Starting in 2002, Macy’s Studios has partnered up with NBCUniversal’s Universal Orlando Resort. This is where the balloons and floats from New York City arrive at this Florida-based theme park each holiday season. Macy’s Holiday Parade carried a daily performance that included a Santa Claus float. In 2017, it was renamed Universal’s Holiday Parade Featuring Macy’s.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the parade did not run. As an alternative, the walkthrough of Universal’s Holiday Experience Featuring Macy’s Balloons took its place. It still displayed the collection of floats and balloons that would otherwise be seen in a normal parade. In 2021, there was some normalcy that was returned to the parade as over two million spectators lined up the streets to watch an event that had 6,500 participants in it.

Macy’s Today

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade remains one of the shining beacons that put New York City in the spotlight for the impressionable city it is. No matter what goes on, nothing beats a good parade to lift people’s moods. It’s the one thing children of all ages enjoy. In a parade, there’s something for everyone, just like in Macy’s Department Store.

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