One of my absolute favorite Detroit traditions is the Thanksgiving Parade. Sadly, I’ve never actually gone downtown to watch it, but every year I watch it on television. It just isn’t Thanksgiving if I haven’t watched the parade. And Detroit’s parade has a long, rich history – started in 1924, it is tied with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York as the second oldest Thanksgiving Day parade in the country. Philadelphia’s parade beat them both out by four years. I’ll be cleaning and cooking tomorrow morning, but you’ll bet I’ll still have the parade on.
Now officially known as America’s Thanksgiving Parade (a name I always thought made it sound like it is trying too hard), Detroit’s parade was originally sponsored by the city’s main department store, Hudson’s. Charles Wendel, Hudson’s display director, got the idea after seeing a similar event in Toronto where Santa arrived at a department store in an old fashioned carriage. He expanded on the idea, creating a full blown parade. The first year the parade featured a few marching bands from local high schools, floats pulled by horses depicting nursery rhymes and participants wearing large papier-mâché heads modeled after ones he had seen in Italy (more on that later). The next year the parade included 300 employees from Hudson’s and a live elephant to promote a toy at the store. The parade had become a huge hit and continued to grow as the years went on.
There were a few snags in the parade’s history. One year, the horses pulling a float got spooked by a nearby marching band and bolted, destroying the float and a nearby gas station. After that, Hudson’s employees had to pull the floats, at least until mechanized ones took over. During WWII, many parade materials were needed for the war effort, so floats were scrapped and the parade was cancelled for two years. The last wartime parade took place in 1942, with floats holding signs reading “I’m on my way to the Rubber Salvage.” They were dismantled immediately after the parade.
The parade was first broadcast on television in 1948, and 1952 NBC broadcast it nationally. It has bounced around the networks, but a portion of it is still generally shown on national TV. In 1979, Hudson’s gave up sponsoring the parade (only a few years before it closed its downtown store). The parade was taken over by the Detroit Renaissance Foundation for a few years before the Michigan Thanksgiving Parade Foundation was formed in 1983. Since 1990, The Parade Company was formed to oversee operations. The organization also puts on the Windsor-Detroit International Freedom Festival (long name for the fireworks over the Detroit River) and it also helped organize the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup victory parades in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.
There’s a number of unique aspects to Detroit’s parade. The Big Head Corp is one. As I mentioned before, these have been part of the parade since the very beginning, as Charles Wendel had seen people wearing giant fake heads in Italy during Carnival and wanted to bring the idea here. The heads were made in a studio in Viareggio, Italy by Alfredo Moreschalchi and staff. The ones used in Detroit are smaller than the ones used in Italy. The heads depict characters, animals and famous Detroiters/Michiganders such as Henry Ford, Joe Louis and this year, Sparky Anderson.
Another interesting group in the parade is the Distinguished Clown Corps. Clowns in a parade are nothing out of the ordinary, but what is different about these clowns is that they are local corporate and community leaders who donate $1,000 for the opportunity to dress up in costumes and face paint and walk down Woodward Avenue giving beads to kids. This year for the first time, a woman, Rebecca Sorenson, a senior vice president of investment at UBS Financial Services will be the clowns’ Grand Jester.
My favorite feature of the parade, however, is the Fred Hill Briefcase Drill Team. Started in 1985 in Plymouth, this wacky group of guys marches in the parade in suits and ties and do drills with their briefcases. It’s kinda something that has to be seen to understand:
One last crazy parade story: In 1990, the penguin balloon Chilly Willy broke free and floated away. Of course, he did what anybody fleeing Michigan does – he headed straight for Canada. He made it 25 miles to Walpole Island before he was captured by the Coast Guard that afternoon.
It’s unlikely anything that exciting will happen at this year’s parade. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to listening to the marching bands, seeing the new floats and laughing at the briefcase guys. And I’ll be giving thanks that this wonderful part of Detroit’s history is still going, 88 years later.
“4 new floats to glide down Woodward in Detroit for America’s Thanksgiving Parade” Detroit Free Press, November 20, 2012
“America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” Detroit Historical Society. Encyclopedia of Detroit.
“Business as Unusual You Know the Drill: Fred Hill Ensemble Highlights the Thanksgiving Parade” Detroit Free Press, November 21, 1999
“First Class: Distinguished Clowns: Area Leaders March in Thanksgiving Parade” Detroit Free Press, November 16, 2008
“Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” Detroit News, November 26, 1999