No snow, no rain, no gusty winds or the Great Depression have resulted in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade being canceled in its 96-year history. On Thursday it appears ready to come to power through a pandemic.
The other New York City parades have fallen one at a time as city and state officials decided it would be unsafe to continue with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Pride March, and Puerto Rican Day Parade because they attract so many people. The West Indian American Day Parade on Labor Day had to go virtual for similar reasons.
But the Thanksgiving Day Parade continues to sail, largely because the millions who ordinarily attend have been told to stay home and the event has been reduced to a television show, though many see this as a ritual marker of the holiday.
So the parade route will be a block, not two miles. These high school bands from around the country won’t be marching, and instead of about 2,000 balloonists to be coordinated, there will only be about 130.
But anyone who thinks holding this year’s parade was a layup, not a feat of logistical legends, is too deeply immersed in the holiday blow.
Beginning in March, the Macy’s and NBC parade planners who air the event had to tear up the carefully calibrated script and create an entirely new draft, which evolved as new questions emerged every day.
What are the physics of flying the balloons that are normally handled by humans using squat utility vehicles instead?
How and when are coronavirus tests and temperature checks done for the 960 people who work on the parade?
How can you arrange socially distant stage acts that capture the magic of Broadway without endangering the health of others?
How can you tell the balloonists and marching bands, some of whom see the parade as a place between a lifelong dream and a religious event, that they will not be involved this year?
“What I knew about Thanksgiving a month ago is different from what I know now,” said Susan Tercero, who is the event executive producer for Macy’s. “How do you plan something in June that will happen in November when you have no idea where the country will be?”
History has set a high bar for the cancellation of the parade, which has been held every year since 1924, with the exception of three years during World War II.
“Maybe we were crazy to think that way the whole time, but I think we just tried never to go there,” said Doug Vaughan, executive vice president of special programs at NBC Entertainment.
Instead, planners kept in touch with city and state officials and responded as evidence of a second wave in New York that reduced the number of attendees a second time from 25 percent of their typical workforce to 12 percent. Instead of around 8,000 people completing a crowded parade route in a normal year, the efforts of 960 people are spread over three days of shooting.
The giant balloons were cut from 16 to 12, the floats from 26 to 18.
At one point the parade planners had envisioned a shortened route that would allow a few more journeys through the streets of Manhattan. But even that was determined to be too big an invitation for the crowd, and the officers eventually landed on a parade stub on 34th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. The result is a broadcast based on Macy’s flagship department store, where much of the parade was pre-recorded.
Macy’s firmly believes there will be nothing for viewers to see on Thursday, and police officers have been hired to disperse any crowds. Even so, police officers have cut the details with which the parade is normally conducted by 80 percent, said Terence A. Monahan, the department head.
“It’s a lot less work for us, that’s for sure,” he said. “But I’d rather be challenged to protect hundreds of thousands of people from the parade than protect a show that people see on TV.”
Also disappointed are the high school and college marching bands selected for the cast. Usually Wesley Whatley, the parade’s creative producer, flies across the country to surprise the band members with news that they’ve scored points on the parade route.
This year his tour ended before it started.
The parade planners toyed with the idea of sending out film crews to capture the marching bands on their home lawn, but that idea was discarded because it would involve a lot of cross-country travel, and in many cases the young band members would have gotten out of the Learned remotely, was out of school for several months and could not practice in person.
Finally, Mr. Whatley called the directors of the bands that were due to perform this year with the news that they couldn’t come in November but would secure them spots for the 2021 parade. The bands set for 2021 would move to 2022.
Most balloonists also stay at home. Typically, every giant balloon – from the 49-foot astronaut Snoopy to the 53-foot Pikachu – is carried by 80 to 100 uniformed handlers. Those numbers were unsustainable during a pandemic.
So the parade team devised a plan to counterbalance the balloonists’ weight with a formation of five utility vehicles (in a typical year, each giant balloon would only anchor one of these vehicles in the center). The parade’s engineering team used the weight of the vehicle plus two “normal” 175-pound people – a total of 2,985 pounds – to calculate the correct formation of handlers under the balloons, said Kathleen Wright, the parade’s production manager.
Each of the large balloons is assigned around 25 people who either run or drive along the block-long parade route in the utility vehicles.
One handler who made the cut was Kathy Kramer, a Macy’s employee who has been on the balloon team for 36 years. She is a balloon pilot who steps backwards about 30 meters in front of the balloon and controls the handlers with hand signals and a whistle.
But this year Ms. Kramer will be wearing a mask, and she discovered during training runs that it was too difficult to operate a whistle, so Macy’s switched to electric hand whistles.
The balloons are inflated on the radio overnight before flying down 34th Street. Some will make the trip live on Thanksgiving. Others will have had pre-made flights.
“Although it’s a short parade this year, my stomach will turn on Monday and it will stay that way until we deflate,” said Ms. Kramer.
In another arch to a special year, Macy’s has organized it so that some groups whose parades have been canceled now have a place in the Thanksgiving event. Parade viewers on television can expect to see the New York Fire Department’s Emerald Society band in their bagpipes and bearskin hats and the lesbian and gay Big Apple Corps marching band in their rainbow sashes, all pre-taped.
The dancers, stilt walkers, and steel pan players who would have lit Eastern Parkway for the Carnival will be recorded on Wednesday. But they’ll start putting on makeup on Tuesday night because the process can take hours, said Anne-Rhea Smith, vice president of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association. She hopes the makeup session resembles the prep and feel of a typical Brooklyn carnival night.
“Nothing can replace that feeling,” she said, “but we’ll try our best to get as close as possible.”
This event replaces the absences of the parades of the past few months and becomes a kind of ode to New York, once the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States and a cultural beacon that has largely gone dark in recent months. While Lincoln Center visitors will not be able to see George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker this year, parade viewers can see Ashley Bouder, a lead dancer for the New York Ballet, perform as the pink tutu-ed Sugarplum Fairy. Similarly, numbers from four Broadway shows that have closed since March were recorded in Times Square ahead of Thanksgiving Week and will be part of the parade.
And despite the cancellation of the “Christmas spectacle” in the Radio City Music Hall, 18 of the 80 Rockettes appear in their wooden soldier costumes with tailor-made masks. (This particular Rockettes number was chosen because the dancers have limited contact with one another, which means there is no kickline.)
Floating above the hectic planning process was a feeling that New Yorkers and Americans need that spirited joy in a time when there is much to grieve.
That mission was also made clear in 1963, six days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when Macy’s, in national mourning, decided against canceling the parade.
The parade resumed in 2001 when New York struggled to recover from the 9/11 attacks. The sharpness of the moment was noticed in some patriotic touches: a Lady Liberty cart replaced Tom Turkey, for example, and the red and white candy canes in Santa’s sleigh wore red, white, and blue ribbons.
On Thursday, when this year’s parade ends, planners say they will be thinking about next year’s parade almost immediately. Will it be another version of the pandemic, the socially distant, mask-wearing, joyful, but scaled-down kind, or will it be something people can take their children to?
“Hopefully,” NBC’s Vaughan said, “the 95th anniversary of the parade will be very different than this year.”