Back in the 1920s, most of Macy's employees were first-generation immigrants. They were proud of their new American heritage and wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving Day with the type of festival they knew and loved “back in the old country.”
In the first parade, 400 Macy's employees marched from 145th and Convent streets all the way down to 34th Street at Herald Square. They dressed as knights, sheiks, clowns and cowboys. Also in the parade were professionally-built floats, famous bands and animals such as camels and elephants from the Central Park Zoo. The parade was an immediate hit.
Large helium-filled balloons first became a part of the parade in 1927 when Felix the Cat, an elephant and a toy soldier floated above the heads of millions of delighted spectators. Back then, the parade balloons were released and they randomly floated for days above the New York skyline. The lucky finder could claim a prize at Macy's.
The enormous popularity of the parade demanded that it grow larger and larger with each passing year. Even during the Great Depression era, the Macy's Thanksgiving parade saw over a million people line the parade route. New balloons continued to be added such as Walt Disney characters: Mickey Mouse, Pluto, the Little Pig and the Big Bad Wolf. There was no television back then, but radio audiences were tuned in to hear the band music and descriptions of the ceremonies as Santa Claus arrived at 34th Street at which time the Macy's holiday windows were unveiled.
The early 1940s saw an end to the tradition during World War II. Rubber for the balloons couldn't be wasted. It was needed for the war effort. The parade returned to the “Big Apple” in 1945, and in addition it was also televised. That year the parade established the route which is maintained to this day. It starts on the Upper West Side at Central Park West, moves to Columbus Circle, crosses Broadway diagonally at Times Square and continues to Downtown Herald Square at 34th Street.
When nationwide telecasts came along in the 1950s, the parade lavishly featured many celebrities such as Harpo Marx, Danny Kay, Sid Caesar, Benny Goodman and even Howdy Doody. Also, such stars of stage and screen as Diana Ross, Sammy Davis Jr., Shirley Temple and Jackie Gleason rode on floats down Broadway. In 2001, a brand-new Sesame Street Big Bird balloon was introduced.
So as not to disappoint the children, the Macy's parade personnel had a policy of “all systems GO regardless of weather or acts of God.” So, it was “bittersweet” in 1963 when “the show went on” in spite of the fact our nation was still mourning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That tragic event happened less than a week before the Thanksgiving Day Parade. All floats that year were draped in black.
In 1971, unfortunately, the balloons had to be scratched because high winds made it impossible for the wranglers to control them. Television audiences were shown pictures of the previous year's helium-filled monster-size balloons. During the next three decades, more balloons were added such as Superman, Kermit the Frog, Popeye, Elsie the Cow, Spider Man, Snoopy, Dino the Dinosaur and three Rug Rats along with a host of other comic book and pop culture favorites.
Macy's Thanksgiving Parade is a true New York magical experience for adults, as well as children. Today, young participants from all over America participate in the combined marching bands and school cheerleading units. They, along with dozens of high school and military bands, join with Broadway show-folk and the Radio City Rockettes to perform in front of Macy's for television cameras.
The Macy's Thanksgiving Parade inspired one of the most popular motion pictures of all time, “Miracle on 34th Street,” with Maureen O'Hara and child actor, Natalie Wood.
So, what started Nov. 27, 1924, by 400 immigrant R.H. Macy employees, has become as American as apple pie and one of America's most-celebrated traditions and most popular parades. The first-generation immigrants simply wanted to usher in the Christmas season with a festival similar to the ones in their homelands. They did, and their efforts constituted the start of a tradition which, nearly 80 years later, has succeeded far beyond anything they could have ever imagined.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. As families and friends gather for a cherished holiday dinner may they count their blessings and be ever mindful of the needs of others. For those who are separated for any reason, or have lost a loved one since last year's celebration, may the Lord comfort you. Also, my heart goes out to anyone who is alone on this, the most uniquely American of all our holidays.