The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a time-honored tradition, but the annual holiday spectacle has changed a lot over the years.
In its 95-year history, the parade has grown from a regional attraction featuring live animals and Macy’s employees to a time-honored tradition attended by 3.5 million people and watched by tens of millions more on television.
1924: the first parade
The annual holiday parade began in 1920, with costumed Macy’s employees and animals from the Central Park Zoo. Animals were banned from participating in 1926, supposedly because they scared children. The company then recruits puppeteer Tony Sarg to design the giant balloon characters the parade has been known for ever since.
1932: the balloon meets the plane
During the parade’s early years, organizers would launch some of the balloons into the air with attached instructions on how spectators could exchange the recovered balloons for a small reward. However, when a Tom the Cat balloon got wrapped around a plane in 1932, almost causing a devastating accident, the practice was stopped for good.
1948: First television broadcast
The parade was first broadcast nationally on CBS in 1948, after several years of regional coverage. NBC became the official broadcaster in 1952.
1965: a whole new style of balloons
Prior to the debut of the Underdog balloon in 1965, all balloons displayed on screen used a similar upright posture. But when the cartoon superhero dog made his entrance with a horizontal flight pose, it quickly became the default style. “Until then, even Superman was depicted standing,” author Robert Grippo told the New York Post.
1993: peak audience
According to Nielsen, the most-watched broadcast in decades (the period in which viewership was measured) occurred in 1993, when 31.1 million people watched the parade on NBC. The ratings have been stable since then, with 25 million viewers in 2016.
1997: four people injured
In 1997, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was hit by a round of bad press when high winds sent a cat in the hat, injuring four people, one of whom was left in a coma for a month. According to the New York Times, the balloon crashed into a metal light pole, breaking one of the arms and sending it into the crowd.
2005: another accident
In a repeat of the 1997 incident, an M&M balloon was drilled by a lamp post in 2005, sending debris into the crowd and injuring two: a 26-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and her 11-year-old sister.
2013: “Kinky Boots” controversy
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has served as a showcase for some of Broadway’s greatest talents for decades, but in 2013 the decision was made to host a performance by the cast of “Kinky Boots.” received criticism about the characters dressed in drag.
2020: COVID Thanksgiving
No one associated with Macy’s Thanksgiving tradition is likely to forget the 2020 parade. During the year of the coronavirus pandemic, giant balloons were dropped by utility vehicles rather than the usual hundreds of human handlers, and the parade route itself was cut from several miles to a city block. The balloon and float counts also had to decrease, and the parade and workforce were reduced by 88%. There were no crowds and almost everyone was masked. Oh, and it rained. Yes, when it rains heavily.