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Santa and his reindeer arrive in front of Hudson's at the end of the 1982 Thanksgiving Parade
The Michigan Thanksgiving Parade (also known as "America’s Thanksgiving Parade") was founded in 1924 and since that time, the Parade has been a one-of-a-kind spectacle of fantasy, holiday spirit and community enthusiasm. The Parade is Detroit’s most visible civic event, a positive demonstration of the best this community has to offer to its people and the greater American community. Exceptional curbside attendance as well as extensive live radio and television coverage, on a regional and national level, combine to create unparalleled marketing and promotional exposure for the City of Detroit.
The Parade has grown to include more than 75 separate parade items, including floats, balloons and marching bands in procession and has taken place along Woodward Avenue in Detroit.
The route of the Parade originally started near Mack Avenue and ran Southbound towards the Detroit River. The ending point was near Congress Street in the main business district of Downtown Detroit. This route was moved to Second Ave for a few years because of the Streetcar power-lines along Woodward posing a hazard to floats and their riders. This route remained until 1956 when streetcars ceased operating and the power-lines were removed and the Detroit Department of Street Railways converted to an all-motor-bus fleet. The route was then changed back to Woodward and has remained on that route since.
For many years, ending with Hudson's withdrawal in 1979, the parade began at Woodward and Putnam near the Detroit Public Library and ended at Hudson's Marquee near Gratiot Avenue where Santa exited his sleigh and received the key to the hearts of children of Detroit from the mayor of the City of Detroit. In 1979, the starting point was moved several blocks north beginning at Antoinette Street and ending at Adams Street near Grand Circus Park. During this time, Santa went to the steps of the Detroit Institute of Arts to be welcomed by the mayor, then remounted to travel the remainder of the parade route.
Since 2006, the starting point returned to the Mack Avenue location as it was when the parade started in 1924.
A spaceship and aliens make a guest appearance at the 1935 Thanksgiving Day Parade
The idea of a Holiday parade was probably started with the The Eaton Department Store "Santa Claus Parade" way back in 1905 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where Santa arrived at Eaton's department store in an old time Tally-Ho type carriage. Although the parade didn't run on either the United States’ or Canada’s Thanksgiving Day (which falls on the second Monday in October) it heralded the coming of Santa and therefore, served as inspiration to department stores in the United States looking for a similar holiday marketing gimmick.
The first department store in the US to sponsor a parade was the Gimbels' Department Store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, the JL Hudson's in Detroit and Macy's in New York City were the ones that eventually became national Thanksgiving Day traditions and were both launched in 1924 simultaneously.
The Detroit Parade tradition started as an idea of the Display Manager at J.L. Hudsons. Charles F. Wendel had known about the Santa Parade in Toronto but wanted to elaborate on the idea. A trip to Europe with his wife had introduced Wendel to the Italian carnivals in Venice and Viareggio and featured dancing through the streets along with giant papier mache heads which would become the foundation for his parade.
With these ideas, Wendel created a production that would become a Detroit tradition that millions of Metro Detroiters would enjoy for many many decades to come.
The Mother Goose float led off the first J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day parade (1924)
The very first Detroit parade in 1924 had four bands, huge heads carried on the shoulders of marchers, 10 floats depicting nursery rhymes, and bands from Highland Park, Hamtramck and Northwestern high schools. Floats included The Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe and Mother Goose.
Some of the Papier Mache Heads that have been part of the Parade (recent)
The original giant heads came from a small studio in Viareggio, Italy, hand made by Alfredo Morescalchi and his staff. Morescalchi was the chief designer of floats and masks for the Viareggio carnival, the largest in Italy. Over the years he made hundreds of heads for the Hudson's parade. The heads in Italy are three stories high, but because of overhead wires, the Detroit heads were smaller. In Detroit, Charlie Gettel patched and pampered the heads for more than 45 years. Famous people portrayed by the more than 600 heads included Henry Ford, Rosa Parks, Charles Lindbergh and Joe Louis.
Nowadays, some of the "antiquated" heads are being restored by a volunteer organization that raises money for the restoration of the heads and provides volunteers to wear the heads in the parade.
The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe float from the 1925 parade.
Horses were later banned when a team was spooked by a marching band and destroyed a gas station.
The 1925 parade would include 300 male employees of Hudson's marching in the parade. Detroit Creamery loaned its horses and wagons to pull the 26 floats and Santa on one of those floats. A live elephant was used to promote a toy sold at the store.
In 1931, the parade had it's first broadcast on Radio on WWJ-AM (am950). Television broadcasts would come 18 years later in 1959.
By 1939, there were eight brass bands and 1,008 assorted characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Donald Duck was there along with the biggest candystick in the world.
St. Nicholas greets the crowds in front of Hudson's at the conclusion of the 1937 parade.
The parade was a hit with the public from the start. Detroiters flocked to the parade and crowds ranged from more than 100,000 in the '20s to close to a million in the 1990s.
In the early 1940's, the crowds were so large that the Protestant Pastors Union of Greater Detroit consulted with Hudson's complaining that the Thanksgiving Parade was interfering with their Thanksgiving Morning services. Even if the Services were scheduled at 7am, some parents would leave early to make the parade. A Later service, scheduled for 11am, had folks coming-in late to church from the parade. The pastors considered the Thanksgiving Day parade only a little less detrimental if it had been held on Easter Morning.
During World War II, the parade was temporarily put on-hold for the War effort. The 1942 Parade had no holly, ribbons, trees, wreaths or lights. The giant rubber creations and floats moving down Woodward bore signs: "I'm on my way to the Rubber Salvage." After the parade the giant animals were punctured, sliced and slashed in the alley between the east and west Hudson's buildings and went into the war salvage drive.
Marchers having fun with "The Big Fish," trying not to let it get away in 1945
Three years later, after the War had come to an end, Santa made a triumphant return on November 22, 1945, to the cheers of 200,000 onlookers in 24-degree weather with snow falling on Donald Duck, the Toy Soldiers and the Wizard of Oz. There were 600 characters, eight bands and 75 clowns.
A perennial feature of the parade was the lost children station. In 1946, The Detroit News described a dozen children howling in the care of the women's division of the police department. They included 11 boys and one girl, Miss Mary Marjorie Turkaly, age 5.
Children have always been, of course, the main audience for the parade.
In 1948, the Rotary, the Board of Education and the Legal Division of the Detroit Street Railroad joined forces to provide 29 buses to bring 650 handicapped children to the parade. That same year the crowd downtown numbered 500,000-plus and many more watched the parade for the first time on television.
National television coverage would be expanded in 1952 when the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) broadcast the parade nationally, allowing the whole country to see the 85-ft "Goozlebug" and the spouting "Wheezy the Whale" floats.
The Candy Stripe Kitty float is guided
down Woodward Ave., accompanied by marchers in tiger and lion costumes during the parade. (Unknown date)
Also in 1952, television's popular Kukla, Fran and Ollie joined the 25 floats, 1,000 marchers and 11 bands, even though the parade itself was not televised that year.
From the very beginning, the parade was the creation and responsibility of the Hudson's Display department and in 1954, Art Wright (the display manager at the time) dressed as a Poodle and carried a chart beneath his costume showing where everyone was to be positioned during the entire parade length.
In 1958, Hudson's would begin a contest for Elementary Students to design a float concept. The winning design would actually be made into a float and the artist was to win a cash prize. The 1958 winner was 10-year-old Carol Kulesza from Detroit and a later winner, David Acosta, had moved away to Los Angeles with his family by the time the Winning design was announced. He was eventually located by family that was still here, after hearing reports that Hudson's was searching for him so he could claim his prize.
In 1959, the parade came to television on local stations WWJ-TV (CBS-TV affiliate) AND WXYZ-TV (ABC-TV affiliate) as there was a "squabble" over the television rights to the parade. Hudson's had an agreement with American Broadcasting Corp (ABC), however, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) also wanted to broadcast a portion of the parade along with the New York Macy's parade and the Gimbels parade in Philadelphia, PA. There was a lawsuit threatened by Hudson's, but it never materialized.
1961's Parade was more rainy than snowy.
The program was on the local ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV (TV-7) in Detroit and was hosted by ventriloquist and puppeteer Shari Lewis and her sock puppet Lamb Chop.
In 1960, the CBS broadcast network began to air portions of the parade and continued to do so for the next twenty-five parades. After a brief break in the mid-1980s, CBS returned to cover the parade through 2002 as part of its All-American Thanksgiving Day Parade compilation show. Over the years, several other well-known personalities were commentators for the Detroit parades, including John Amos, Ned Beatty, Kathy Garver, 'Captain Kangaroo' host Bob Keeshan, Linda Lavin, Esther Rolle and Andrew Stevens.
After being broadcast on WWJ, later WDIV, for over twenty years, local coverage switched to WXYZ for several years in the 1980s before returning to NBC-affiliate WDIV in the mid-1990s. It is televised on other stations around Michigan and across the U.S., as well as through Internet television. The coverage of the parade typically includes a preshow featuring a variety of musical acts, often with celebrity performers. The coverage concludes with the Mayor of Detroit giving Santa Claus the key to the city.
Two youngsters from Redford Township sit impatiently on the curb waiting for Santa in 1977.
There have been very few things that have gone-wrong over the years that the parade has traveled along Woodward on Thanksgiving Day. When things have happened, however, they were quite spectacular in nature. Some of the more noted items that have gone wrong with the parade have been during the early years when horses were used to draw the floats along. One year a team of horses was startled by a marching band and panicked then took off. This resulted in the destruction of a gas station building as well as the float that the team was pulling. After that incident, JL Hudsons employees pulled the floats along, as many as 24 people for a single float.
This proved to be a gruelling job because of the metal wheels of the floats freezing to the street surfaces and sticking in the trolley/streetcar tracks. Eventually the floats were mechanized and it made it more enjoyable for those who were part of the parade.
In 1960 there were five children accidently pushed beneath the Santa float by a crowd that began to surge. One boy suffered injuries to his arm and leg, but the other children were pulled-out without any lasting injuries or harm.
1967's parade had Christmas Carol, Kris Kringle's wife, often made a speech introducing Santa to the anxious children.
There were even issues at times with smaller animals who were part of the parade. In 1964, the Grand Marshall of the Thanksgiving Parade was the animal-star of the TV show "Lassie". The dog was supposed to jump from a perch of artificial snow over to a pedstal at a reviewing platform, but the trainer couldn't get the dog to move due to what was believed to be "doggy stage fright". Santa's float was delayed as precious Network TV time ticked-away. Eventually, the trainer was able to get the animal to move after about four minutes and the dog made the leap. Santa got his time on TV and the parade moved-on.
1976: Woodward during the 50th anniversary of the J.L. Hudson's Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit
A bomb threat caused a slight delay in 1969 and caused a thorough search of Santa's float to be conducted. Nothing suspicious was found, fortunately, and Santa continued-on to Toyland and elsewhere to start the Holiday season.
The clown unit is all smiles despite a snowstorm during the 1980 Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit.
In 1980, renovations along Woodward in the downtown Detroit area included brand-new street and traffic lights. These had to be modified for the parade and cost the City of Detroit approx $36,000 to modify and cut-off at least 11' of crossbar on at least 9 lights so the balloons and floats could get past them. The parade considerations had been mentioned during the planning-stages of the project for the new fixtures, but apparently the thought was that they wouldn't interfere with the parade. They were mistaken.
During the 1990 parade, "Chilly Willy" (a rogue 30' tall penguin balloon) pulled free of his tethers while he was being filled. He was still floating at about 5,000 feet above Detroit during the parade and his journey would last about 25-miles up the Detroit river to Lake St. Clair and would later be apprehended by the Coast Guard just off Walpole Island at around 4:18 pm.
The next summer, Chilly Willy, still rambunctious, was on a promotional engagement at a car dealership when he knocked a former parade official off the dealership roof, breaking her arm and leg.
And with the "star" of the parade being Santa, parade officials have tried to ensure that there was a "backup Santa" available as an "understudy", hidden on the Santa Float just-in-case of any misfortune that could arise.
2012: Santa riding in the Thanksgiving Day Parade
J.L. Hudson's was the primary sponsor for the parade for many, many years. Unfortunately, much like many things, the cost and expense of such a production became too high and J.L. Hudsons turned-over the sponsorship to a group called Detroit Renaissance in 1979 and then primary sponsorship would be turned-over a couple years later to the a "Parade Foundation" in 1983.
Some of the Distinguished Clown Corps
In 1985, shortly after the parade experienced a major sponsorship change, the Distinguished Clown Corps made its first appearance in the parade. The corps allow local metro business leaders to serve as clowns in exchange for support of the parade.
In 1990 there was a group created to handle the parade members as well as all the floats and parts that make up the Thanksgiving Day Parade. The group is a nonprofit organization made up of hundreds of local businesses and civic leaders.
In the 1990's, Sports Champions have also given Detroit reason to celebrate. These celebrations included having parades for the teams along the "regular parade route" on Woodward and downtown Detroit areas. Floats and items have included the championship-themed floats and of course the members of the Teams themselves. One of the first "Championship Parades" was in 1997 for the Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League. Parades would also be produced for the 1998, 2002, and 2008 Red Wings Teams as well as the 2004 National Basketball Detroit Pistons.
Fans on Woodward during the 2008 Red Wings Parade celebrations.
The Detroit Pistons parade in 2004 was run along East Jefferson between Downtown Detroit and Belle Isle, instead of the Woodward route, due to reconstruction along the Woodward Ave. route.
2004 Detroit Pistons Celebration Parade.
The same group responsible for maintaining and producing the parade has also been associated with the summertime show of the international Fireworks Display shown over the Detroit River during late June/early July.
Fireworks over the Detroit River
The Detroit Thanksgiving Day Parade has been a long-time "Magical" Detroit tradition and because of the many volunteers and support over the years, it has been a wonderful part of Detroit history both past and present and hopefully will continue for many years to come.
I hope you've learned something from this cache and puzzle about a most-beloved Detroit Tradition.