Stefanie Pintoff and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade
Sometimes it’s the setting that inspires the story.
My new book, CITY ON EDGE, begins when a child is kidnapped in the hours before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I live on the Upper West Side near where the balloons are inflated at the American Museum of Natural History. And for years, I’d thought how this event would make a great backdrop for a thriller.
I kept this idea in mind, even as the balloon inflation setting changed. It was once strictly a neighborhood affair, with residents in-the-know passing by to watch as Spider-Man and Snoopy sprang to life. Now, it’s a major tourist draw, and cops direct massive crowds through blocks-long lines.
And some of the real magic? It still happens overnight, after the pre-parade crowds go home, but before the Thanksgiving Day revelers arrive. I discovered it early one Thanksgiving when my dog took ill, having gotten into part of our cooking day feast. Rather than the deserted streets we’d normally expect, we entered a whirlwind of activity. Vendors who sold candy and toys were positioning their goods. Parade volunteers continued prepping the balloons and the floats. The police were securing our neighborhood blocks. But there was also music. Food. Laughter. And a palpable excitement, as everyone got ready for the happiest day in New York City’s year.
Some of the facts below are what I’ve learned over the years—from what I’ve seen, from people I spoken with. Others I learned through more traditional research. Most became part of the backdrop of my book, when I surveyed the chaos and the activity and the magic—and began to think: what if …?
1. It takes about 90 minutes on average to inflate a giant character balloon, such as Spider-Man.
2. The first Macy’s parade was held on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 1924—but it was advertised as a “Christmas Parade” to inspire parade-goers to think about their holiday shopping. It was small—just two city blocks long—and featured floats pulled by horses, Macy’s employees in clown costumes, and a handful of animals on loan from the Central Park Zoo.
3. The parade route has altered over the years. The first parade started in Harlem at 145th Street and Convent Avenue—and continued for six miles to Herald Square. Today, the parade is only two-and-a-half miles, and begins at the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side before winding its way down Sixth Avenue.
4. The floats and balloons change, just a little, every year. In 2015 Angry Birds was introduced and Batman is expected in 2016. One constant, however, is Santa Claus; he, together with his reindeer and sleigh, have marked the end of every parade to date. (Except in 1933, when he led the parade).
5. The first giant character balloon was Felix the Cat, who made his debut in 1927. At the end of the parade, they let him loose. He flew high into the sky—and popped!
6. There are about a thousand clowns in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade—and the employees and other volunteers who fill the role attend a one-day Clown University to prepare.
7. It takes between 50 and 90 volunteers to steer a giant character balloon along the parade route—and the ropes they use to control the balloons are called “bones.”
8. In the early years, at parade’s end, the balloon’s handlers would simply let the balloon fly up into the sky. Each had a return address inside, and anyone who found a deflated balloon could return it to Macy’s for a prize.
9. The character balloons are created and stored at a special Parade Studio that Macy’s maintains in Moonachie, New Jersey. About a hundred designers and fabricators—as well as painters, carpenters, and electricians—work there to bring the characters to life.
10. In addition to floats and character balloons, the parade also now features what are called balloonicles—a combination balloon and vehicle. A recent example is Kool-Aid Man.
11. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade went on hiatus during World War II. In fact, the Macy’s balloons were donated to the government to help with the rubber shortage.
12. The parade was first televised in 1946—expanding its audience beyond the parade route to the nation at large.
13. Snoopy has appeared in the parade more times than any other character balloon.
Stefanie Pintoff is the author of a thriller series featuring Eve Rossi—a straight-laced FBI agent who is sometimes forced to rely on a motley crew of ex-cons called the Vidocq Unit. The second in the series, City on Edge, is set during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and is available now wherever books are sold.