Pandemic Prompts New Path for Macy’s 94th Thanksgiving Day Parade

Macy’s Great American Marching Band. | Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.

WHAT: The 94th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
WHEN: Thursday, November 26, 9am–Noon 
WHERE: Airs nationwide on NBC and Telemundo

BY TRAV S.D. | What if they gave a parade and nobody came? This year we will find out when, due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will step off into the unknown. By foregoing its traditional 2.5-mile Manhattan route, it will, notes the press material, “be reimagined over the course of several days as a television-only event leading up to the live Thanksgiving Day broadcast that will feature the breadth of its signature elements.”

Those elements include “giant character balloons, animated floats, exciting street performances and marching ensembles, musical acts, whimsical clowns and the arrival of the one-and-only Santa Claus.”

The drastic measure is not totally without precedent; after all the parade was cancelled for three years during World War II. But normally the credo is “the show must go on”—a philosophy that has allowed it to enliven spirits during some truly dark periods, including one that took place a week after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and one that was presented two months following 9/11, when the dust had scarcely settled downtown

Still, with 3.5 million potential spectators, a 2020 parade would likely be one of the bigger super-spreader events in history. That said, we offer up this brief history of the parade and its founders by way of a consolation prize.

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 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.

Before the addition of inflatables three years later, live animals ave 1924’s first Macy’s Parade then called Macy’s Christmas Parade some visual panache. | Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.

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 with 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.

Donald Duck, 1962. | Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.

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 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, and (coming to my era) The Bugaloos! 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. Roker will be one of several hosts anchoring the event this year.

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. So, while it won’t be possible to attend the parade in person this year, there is more than one way to experience it on your television and computer screens.

It’s 2020! Why should Thanksgiving be any different?

The appearance of Santa means only one thing: Parade’s over, time to start shopping. | Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.

A Lot of Facts and a Little Befitting Hype: Details on What’s in Store, from the Mouth of Macy’s 

–A minute selection of elements will be showcased on television from previous Parade (appearanonsecutive)? year, NBCUniversal and Verizon, are partnering on Verizon Live: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade which will be streamed beginning at 9:00 a.m. ET on YouTube.com/Verizon, Twitter @Verizon and select Verizon Media properties, including Yahoo.-The award-winning, Emmy-nominated production, hosted by Mario Lopez, will also bring audiences across the country together through innovative and immersive experiences. For the first time ever, a Parade Portal powered by Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband will be accessible to viewers at home. Watching the livestream from both their 4G or 5G enabled mobile devices, viewers will be transported into the center of the activity in Herald Square with 360-degree views. A QR code will be available within the livestream across all platforms, where viewers can easily scan the code for a second-screen experience.

—For the first time in Macy’s Parade broadcast history, in an effort to create a more inclusive experience for blind and visually impaired viewers, NBCUniversal is proud to present the full NBC broadcast with live audio description on the Secondary Audio Program channel (SAP), provided by Descriptive Video Works. This year’s broadcast will be available with additional audio narration, describing the rich visuals of the Parade including the magnificent balloons, floats and performances, to complement the storytelling and celebration that make the Parade an annual Thanksgiving Day tradition for millions of Americans.

For an insider’s look at the holiday procession, fans nationwide should visit macys.com/parade for regular updates including behind-the-scenes previews, special tours, interactive historical information, educational activities, and more. Fans can also follow @macys on various social media networks and join the conversation using #MacysParade.

Figure with Heart by Keith Haring, 2008—the third Blue Sky Gallery Series Balloon. | Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.

A REIMAGINED NATIONAL SPECTACLE | The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is annually the nation’s most anticipated holiday celebration. To safely bring the spectacle to millions of viewers nationwide during this unprecedented time, the annual production will forgo marching down the traditional 2.5-mile route in Manhattan in order to avoid gathering large crowds. Instead it will be reimagined over the course of several days as a television-only event leading up to the live Thanksgiving Day broadcast that will feature the breadth of its signature elements. Broadcast nationally on NBC and Telemundo on Thursday, November 26, the TODAY Show’s Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb and Al Roker will host the live three-hour telecast for NBC, with the Spanish language simulcast on Telemundo hosted by Adamari López, Jessica Carrillo, Rodner Figueroa and Nastassja Bolivar.

CELEBRATE AND GIVE BACK | Since its inception, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has served as a reflection of the finest of American popular culture. From the best of music to the brightest lights on Broadway and everything in between. The impact of this year’s pandemic related cancellations on some of New York City’s most beloved arts, entertainment and cultural events was a huge loss felt by both New Yorkers and visitors alike who enjoy them annually as part of New York City’s thriving and vibrant communities. To give the nation a dose of the lost magic of some of these beloved events, this year’s Macy’s Parade will feature a selection of performances representing a sampling of the annual traditions that had to scale back, cancel or indefinitely postpone their events or performances.

The best of Broadway will once again be featured in the Macy’s Parade with performances from the casts of Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations, Hamilton, Jagged Little Pill, and Mean Girls. In addition, the show-stopping Radio City Rockettes® will bring their signature magic to Herald Square.

Entertaining viewers nationwide with their signature flair will be a special performance from the all-female samba drumline Fogo Azul NYC along with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and Mermaid Queen Lynn Nottage and Dick Zigun representing the Coney Island USA Mermaid Parade; Danza Fiesta representing the National Puerto Rican Day Parade; The Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps Band representing the NYC Pride March; the Sugarplum Fairy from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® representing the New York City Ballet; the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums representing the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade™; and a special performance entitled CaribeFuturism featuring a collective of acts including partners Pan in Motion, Batingua Arts, Sesame Flyers, and Kaisokah Moko Jumbies with Carnival Queen Kay Mason representing the West Indian American Day Carnival Association.

The fun doesn’t stop there with additional performances from The Big Apple Circus, The NYPD Police Band, The West Point Marching Band and the step skills of Zeta Phi Beta.

STARS ON PARADE | Setting the stage for entertainment on Thanksgiving Day will be stars for everyone in the family to enjoy. Featuring a mix of musical genres from Pop and R & B to Country and Latin music, the Parade will be the ultimate television party destination this November. Joining the festivities will be Lauren Alaina, Ally Brooke, Sofia Carson, CNCO, Jimmy Fallon and The Roots (opening the show), Karol G, Tori Kelly, Patti LaBelle, Miss America 2020 Camille Schrier, Matthew Morrison, the cast and Muppets of Sesame Street®, Leslie Odom Jr., Keke Palmer, Dolly Parton (on behalf of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store®), Pentatonix, Bebe Rexha, Jordin Sparks, Sebastián Yatra, and Brett Young; with an extra special appearance by the one-and-only Santa Claus.

Returning for a fourth year by popular demand, a special presentation of the Macy’s Singing Christmas Tree will feature the harmonious voices of 60 Macy’s colleagues who will join us from their homes across the country coming together in a golden-voiced chorus filled with the spirit of the holiday season.

Donald Duck, 1962. | Courtesy of Macy’s, Inc.

INFLATABLE ICONS | Since 1927, when the Parade’s character balloons first joined the revelry, the inflatables have become a signature element featuring some of the world’s most beloved characters. Over time, the inflatables have morphed from air-filled characters carried on sticks to high-flying giants, balloonheads, hybrid inflatables with vehicles inside (balloonicles) or tandem tricycles (trycaloons).

New giants joining the line-up this year include The Boss Baby by DreamWorks Animation’s “The Boss Baby: Family Business” and Red Titan from “Ryan’s World” by Sunlight Entertainment and pocket.watch. The newest balloon stars will take flight without the traditional 80-100 handlers, instead employing an innovative, specially rigged anchor tether framework of five specialty vehicles field tested and approved by the relevant agencies in the City of New York. Their Thanksgiving Day flights will be manned by a smaller vehicle team helping to safely reduce the overall number of people needed underneath each balloon.

Also making appearances on the national broadcast are giant balloon favorites including Astronaut Snoopy by Peanuts Worldwide; Diary of A Wimpy Kid® by Abrams Children’s Books; Sinclair Oil’s DINO®; The Elf on the Shelf®; Chase from PAW Patrol® by Spin Master® and Nickelodeon; Pikachu™ by the Pokémon Company International; Pillsbury Doughboy™; Ronald McDonald®; SpongeBob SquarePants & Gary by Nickelodeon; and DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls.

The televised inflatable lineup also includes Sinclair Oil’s Baby DINOs and the Go Bowling balloonicles, as well as Hugg, Bjorn, Jojo and Fleck from Netflix’s “The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two,” Love Flies Up to the Sky by Yayoi Kusama©, Universal Orlando Resort’s The Nutcracker and Smokey Bear by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service.

ANIMATED WONDERS | The Parade’s floating stages have morphed from simple creations initially focused on nursery rhyme stories pulled by horses in the first processions to highly animated wonders that take spectators to new worlds. Conceived and crafted by the incredible artisans of Macy’s Parade Studio – a design and production facility that includes carpenters, engineers, electricians, painters, animators, balloon technicians, sculptors, metal fabricators, scenic and costume designers – this year’s line-up of floats sets an unparalleled stage for entertainment. The Parade’s signature floats are marvels of creative design, engineering, and skillful construction. While they may seem to float as three stories tall and several lanes of traffic wide stages, the magic is truly in the design as these floats are built to collapse to no more than 12 ½-feet tall and 8-feet wide in order to travel safely from the New Jersey home of the Parade Studio to the Manhattan starting line via the Lincoln Tunnel for the annual celebration.

This year four new floats will debut including Big Turkey Spectacular by Jennie-O (Bebe Rexha), Christmas in Town Square by Lifetime® (Tori Kelly), Her Future Is STEM-Sational by Olay (Karol G), and Tom & Jerry’s Tourist Trap by Warner Bros. Pictures.

The returning float roster and its scheduled performers include Blue’s Clues & You! by Nickelodeon (Ally Brooke); The Brick-changer by The LEGO Group (Sebastián Yatra); Central Park by Delta Air Lines (New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Ashley Bouder); Elf Pets® by the Lumistella Company; Everyone’s Favorite Bake Shop by Entenmann’s® (Sofia Carson); Harvest in the Valley by Green Giant® (Brett Young); Heartwarming Holiday Countdown by Hallmark Channel (Pentatonix); Mount Rushmore’s American Pride by South Dakota Department of Tourism (Lauren Alaina); Rexy in the City by COACH® (Keke Palmer); Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Nickelodeon (CNCO); Santa’s Sleigh (Santa Claus); Splashing Safari Adventure by Kalahari Resorts and Conventions (Jordin Sparks); Tom Turkey; and Toy House of Marvelous Milestones by New York Life (Leslie Odom Jr.).

A SAFE PROCESSION | Health and safety continue to be Macy’s number one priority. In partnership with local and state government, the Parade was modified to avoid gathering crowds. In addition, Macy’s put in place robust health measures across all areas of the production. In constant communication with government agency partners, several contingency plans were developed. This allows the production to adjust plans based on the evolving environment and any subsequent restrictions, helping to ensure the health and safety of all involved.

As part of Macy’s comprehensive health and wellness plan, below is a sampling of the current safety procedures and enhancements being implemented. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

–The traditional 2.5-mile Parade route will not be utilized this year, the only way to view the celebration is on television.

–All participants, staff and performers will be tested for COVID-19 and undergo wellness checks prior to their Parade participation.

–All participants will be appropriately socially distanced during staging and performances, and required to wear face coverings; additional personal protective protocols will be implemented based on the participant’s role.

–The overall number of participants have now been reduced by approximately 88%, and split over three days.

–No participant in the Parade is under 18 years of age. The majority of Parade participants hail from the New York tri-state area.

–Previously selected regional High School and College Marching Band performances were deferred to the 2021 Macy’s Parade, with locally based cultural and professional marching and musical ensembles taking over performance duties in the lineup.

 

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