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Friday, January 07, 2011

Diary of a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade banner carrier

I love parades. When I was a child I would be in every local parade I could, dressing up to be on floats as Cinderella or with the local library.
I was always big attention whore, and that has not changed much.
After I moved to NYC I fell in love with the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade the first time I saw it. The following year and for the past seven I have work on it as a marshall. While working one Halloween, I met someone who loves parades even more than I. Jerry ("The Parade Guy") has worked on nearly every parade in the country and has a great website
He got me involved with staging the NYC Dance Parade and Coney Island's famous Mermaid Parade.
It is really fun to experience a parade from inside the barricades looking out vs looking in at it. It makes you appreciate all of the detail and work in staging areas that goes into making it seamless-or a hot mess in some cases.

Even with all those years of parading experience under my belt, I tried unsuccessfully every year to work on the king of all parades. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Since childhood I had watched the gigantic balloons and Tom Turkey on TV with awe
When I finally saw the parade for the first time in person, I loved how magical it was live.
But my yearly inquiry's to volunteer to be a part of this parade were met with rejection for seven years.
I finally found out that anyone who wants to volunteer to work on or be in Macy's parade must be a employee of the company or be sponsored by one and complete an application process with the entertainment department. 

That said, I finally found my "in" when working on The Mermaid Parade with a Macy's organizer last spring. He agreed to sponsor me, and I was assigned to be a "banner carrier" (which I chose over balloon handler). The float escort and costumed people seemed more coveted and already full.

The night before Thanksgiving I went to Central Park to watch the balloon blow up. It was a crazy mob scene of people and screaming kids, but worth drudging through.

The next morning, I would have to be up and checked into The New Yorker Hotel at 5am sharp.
Below is My Thanksgiving Day Parade diary. Enjoy!

Thanksgiving Day 2010
4:00am. Alarm clock from hell goes off. It's still dark out, I have a wine hangover, I can't get out of bed this early. I want to die or kill myself but still get in the shower. I try to calculate how many layers of clothing I will need to stay warm on the parade route and decide on the following: socks, spanks, footless tights, leggings and leg-warmers. By the time I'm all dressed I can hardly move like the Christmas Story kid, and decide I may have over-layered.

4:30 am:The subway really smells like fresh homeless man pee this early doesn't it? I wait and wait for the train that I am convinced will never arrive. 25 minutes later it does, and it's surprisingly full of other people-mainly tourists heading to watch the parade.

5:15am: The fact that I'm a bit late to the hotel doesn't seem to matter. Huge lines of parade participants are outside the hotel and we are grouped by our assignments. Everyone is super friendly and cheerful for 5 am. I am grouchy, tired and want some coffee or I might put a pin in the kermit balloon.

5:45am:After having checked in with four people, I was led into the bright hotel lobby. Hundreds of people in crazy clown, princess, cheese, teddy bear and bird costumes milled around excitedly. I was led up to the third floor where the banner carriers had a specific wardrobe area. The costume racks were well organized with our names on our pre sized costumes, hats, earmuffs and gloves. After getting into my Macy's garb I looked over the balcony at everyone below getting into fun outrageous costumes and felt excited for the first time.

6:30 am With some downtime I finally get my coffee and breakfast at a deli across the street, which perks me up a bit. My urge to stab the happy Thanksgiving people subsides slightly. I chill for about 40 minutes before we are all led onto yellow school buses to take us up to the parade starting point. It was surreal getting on this bus with costumed Macy's parade characters. I sat next to a giant block, and we took off to the start point uptown.

7:15am: After sitting in traffic a bit we are all dumped off uptown and walk through the balloon holding area, to a staging area. Since I was on one of the late busses when I got to the banner carrier area there were not many banner options left. I got to choose from the remaining ones and decide if I would rather walk toward the front or back of the parade. I went with someone I had never heard of toward the front: Takashi Murakami who was float #13A.

7:45am:Every ten minutes or so the balloons above and next to me launch with an exciting countdown and cheer, as a voice booms "KERMIT THE FROG, YOU MAY NOW JOIN THE PARADE!" taking them into the parade route. I felt like a five year old again as Kermit, Elf's, Spiderman and Panda floated around high above me.

8:30am: All of the banner carriers are lined up in order of our floats. We chat and exchange glove hot packs to keep warm. The excitement starts to build up ahead as t.v. segments start to film live, and the parade starting line ribbon is rolled out to be cut. The floats in the staging area move foreword and Tom Turkey pulls up directly in front of me. Between this and the balloons up above I feel like I am in a surreal Thanksgiving dream.

9:30am: After having a front row seat inches away from the parade going by, it is finally my turn to join. I get a bit nervous as I take my solo banner onto the street and face the thousands of people and cameras ahead. Takashi waves to me and his float drivers say hi. They are all super excited to see his banner for the first time. His camera crews take a ton of video and photos of us all together. The NBC announcer broadcasts "Takashi, welcome to the parade!" and we start down the route.

10:15 It is amazing to walk inside the Macy's parade and see the families with babies to 95 year old grandmas making holiday memories. Everyone waves and wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving from the crowd. By this point I am ear to ear smiles and having so much fun. No one knows who the heck Takashi is but the audience cheers to be polite. He has some really cool giant balloons of his design floating behind us, and I have to look back very often to make sure I stop for the spinning balloon choreography. Keeping a correct parade pace is harder than it seems, but I have a great marching band ahead, and will hear jingle bells played 300 times in a row. Over forty blocks later I realize I have really over layered and am sweating. The only thing freezing were my toes.

10:45am: We approach the mecca of the parade area: Macy's Herald Square.
Because of the tv performances on the green, we are held for at least twenty minutes here and prepared by the producers as to what to do when we reach the prime broadcast area.
When I approach I am instructed on where to stop and for how long as they announce Takashi for tv. Over ten boom cameras rise overhead, and paparazzi surrounds us. Afterward we head toward 8th Avenue and are herded quickly forward, as the floats are instructed turn off and head back uptown. Takashi and his crew wave goodbye to me and wish me a Happy Thanksgiving. I drop my banner in the banner pile and walk back toward the New Yorker Hotel. My job is finished.

11:30am: After exiting in costume, a huge crown of public is on 9th avenue waiting for a last chance view of the parade, and cheering wildly as we exit the route. For ten minutes I take photos with children and public before heading back into the hotel. I could have seen the rest of the parade from a front row view but my toes were so frozen, I just wanted to get inside and out of my spanks and pee.

11:45am: After being welcomed back with water bottles and snacks, I change out of my banner carrier costume, return it to its hanger and get comfy. I am given a couple of gifts before heading out including an official 84th year participant pin. Through all the craziness and the parade still going on, I hop on the downtown train and head back home to Brooklyn for a nice nap.

Later in the afternoon, as I put my bird in the oven, I watched the parade on DVR. Unfortunately I didn't end up on the broadcast but could see myself in a few quick snippets.
Overall being a participant in the Macy's parade was a childhood dream come true, and a very, very surreal dreamlike experience which I will never forget. If you ever have the opportunity to be in the parade, do it! It is magical:) 

1 comment:

Jerry said...

Thanks for the shout out! You looked great and can come play in any of my parades!

Parade Guy