The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the second-oldest Thanksgiving parade in the United States, tied with Detroit. Philadelphia boasts the oldest parade, starting in 1920.
The first “Macy’s Christmas Parade” was held in 1924, when costumed employees marched from 145th Street to 34th Street. Floats, bands and live animals from the Central Park Zoo also participated. More than 250,000 New Yorkers gathered to watch the parade and it became an instant tradition.
The live animals were retired when the parade’s signature balloons made their first appearance in 1927. Felix the Cat, a very popular cartoon character of the day, was produced by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
In 1928, the balloons were released into the sky at the end of the parade. Unfortunately, the helium balloons popped, so the following year, the balloons were equipped with release valves and return address labels in case they floated away.
The parade and its popularity continued to grow and by the mid-1930s, over a million spectators were gathering along Broadway to watch balloons shaped like their favorite Walt Disney characters. Those who didn’t attend the parade could listen to the broadcast of Santa’s arrival at 34th Street on the radio.
Many famous characters have flown above the streets of Manhattan. This year, new balloons of Kool Aid Man, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Kung Fu Panda will join classics such as Kermit the Frog, Spider-Man and Mickey Mouse.
The parade was suspended from 1942 to 1944, when rubber and helium were used to contribute to the war effort. With American troops fighting overseas, giving up their beloved parade was just one of many sacrifices that New Yorkers made to help win the war.
With the war won and helium and rubber no longer in short supply, the parade resumed in 1945. In 1946, parade-goers unwittingly became a part of the classic Christmas film, “Miracle on 34th Street.” Actor Edmund Gwenn, portraying Kris Kringle in the film, actually rode in the parade as Santa Claus, shooting his scenes live in front of the massive crowd. Additional scenes were shot in Macy’s flagship store at 34th Street and Broadway.
In 1948, the tradition extended beyond the New York area. While nearly 2.35 million spectators attended the parade, the few lucky Americans who owned a television set could, for the first time, watch the CBS broadcast of the procession from the comfort of their living rooms. That same year, Howdy Doody, who first hit the TV airwaves in 1947, introduced Santa Claus at Macy’s.
The parade has been the scene of performances by top performers and other famous faces since its early days. In the 1950s, with a rapidly growing national audience, celebrities such as Sid Caesar and Danny Kaye made appearances. This year is no exception. Kanye West, Jessica Simpson, India.Arie, and many other singers will perform, in addition to the casts of Broadway shows Memphis, American Idiot, Elf, and Million Dollar Quartet.
While the parade itself is a Thanksgiving Day tradition, New Yorkers who can’t wait to catch a glimpse of the balloons have their own tradition on the day before Thanksgiving. Thousands of curious onlookers gather to watch as crews inflate the balloons on the Upper West Side, on 77th and 81st streets, near the American Museum of Natural History. The event was made famous in a 1994 episode of Seinfeld where Jerry, attending a party in an apartment overlooking the event, knocks a trophy out of a window, which lands on Woody Woodpecker, popping the balloon.
Around 3.5 million spectators will attend today’s parade, but many more will watch on television—around 50 million are expected to tune in while the turkey roasts.
Coverage of The 84th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade starts on Thanksgiving Day at 9 a.m. on NBC.