A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Beth Underwood: This Thanksgiving, let us address the oversized helium-filled elephant in the room

I don’t really like parades. Did I ever tell you that? It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good parade. I do. But unless I’m an active participant or a judge, I find them rather… boring.

That’s right. I said it.

The Pillsbury Doughboy during his return to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (Photo provided)

What’s more, I’ve never fully understood the allure of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I mean, it’s cool and all, but what’s so great about watching people pull oversized helium balloons down the street? (Please direct all hate-mail to paradesareboring@hatemail.com).

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, though, I decided to dig into the history of the parade — to see if I could uncover some nugget of information that might pique my interest and prompt me to tune in. Here’s what I learned.

Originally the Macy’s Christmas Parade, the event was first held in 1924, sans balloons. At that time, horses pulled the floats along the 111-block parade route, and animals from the Central Park Zoo — elephants, tigers, camels and the like — roamed the streets, sometimes draped in advertising. I’m sure that was a sight to see. For obvious reasons, like screaming children fleeing in fear for their lives, the zoo animal inclusion was short-lived, taken over by a less threatening attraction: balloons.

In 1927, the first character balloon, Felix the Cat, made its parade debut. The first Mickey Mouse balloon followed seven years later. It all sounds so perfect, doesn’t it?

But the discerning eye would rightly suspect that everyone’s favorite parade hasn’t been without bad decisions, near misses, micro-disasters, and balloons that got away. In the late 1920s and early 30s, for example, parade organizers didn’t bother with deflating the balloons. Instead, they released them into the atmosphere. What could possibly go wrong, right?

It seems a certain student pilot was flying in New York City’s 1932 skies and spotted one of the balloons — in this case, a sixty-foot cat — floating along at 5,000 feet. For reasons that would escape a normal person, this student pilot thought it would be a good idea to ram the cat’s neck.

Consequently, the plane plummeted toward the ground. Who could’ve seen that coming? But by the grace of God and the flight instructor’s quick thinking, certain disaster was narrowly avoided.

In the late 50s, balloons were almost grounded due to a helium shortage. Once again, quick thinking saved the day. The balloons were filled with air instead of helium and dangled from cranes.

Here are a few other facts I found interesting:

• Macy’s offers clown classes – almost a thousand people volunteer to entertain the crowd each year.

• They also offer pilot training for those who think they have what it takes to be a balloon pilot.

• The Macy’s Parade Studio, where all the float and balloon building takes place, is located in an old Tootsie Roll factory.

• Speaking of floats, glitter is purchased in 25-pound bags, and each float can be decorated in up to two-hundred pounds of glitter. Good luck getting that off your skin. Ever.

• The Ronald McDonald balloon, back for its seventeenth appearance, sports size 200-XXXXXXXL-wide shoes.

• Santa Claus, “King of the Kiddies” as he was crowned that first year, always brings up the rear to mark the end of the parade and the start of the holiday season.

More than three-and-a-half million people are expected to pack the streets of New York City to attend this year’s parade.. It’s gonna be a cold one, though — with temps in the 20s and winds as high as 30 miles per hour, the real feel temperature could drop to single digits. Luckily the weather won’t be an issue for the fifty-five million of us who’ll be watching from the comfort of our heated homes.

From floats and balloons to celebrities and marching bands, this year’s parade will no doubt be a sight to see. Because who doesn’t love a parade, right? Well, besides me.

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Beth Underwood is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines. She shares stories of everyday life that entertain, inspire, and encourage others. Her books include Gravity, a narrative nonfiction account of a small group of Tennessee National Guardsmen, and Talk Bourbon to Me, a lighthearted look at Kentucky’s native spirit. Drop her a line at beth@bethwrightunderwood.com, or visit her website at bethwrightunderwood.com.

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