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Truly America's Thanksgiving Parade: 97 years of festivities for the people, by the people

Beth Weiler

America’s Thanksgiving Parade steps off in Detroit for the 97th time this year. Thousands of people head into Detroit each year to see giant balloons, floats, and performers all march down a 2 1/2 mile stretch of Woodward Avenue, from the Detroit Institute of Arts to Campus Martius Park.

Lots of people, all year long

At The Parade Company headquarters in Detroit, president and CEO Tony Michaels said his team works year-round to get things ready. He knows it's a special event to a lot of people and that's what motivates him and his staff.

Beth Weiler

"It’s people taking in something that means everything to them that morning," Michaels said. "During the pandemic, we figured out how to pull off a virtual parade. We were on television and WDIV, and the cards and notes and letters that we received were incredible because people said, 'You pulled it off when nobody else could. And you kept our Thanksgiving, our Thanksgiving.'"

He said this will be the parade's biggest year yet.

The Parade Company also puts on the Strategic Staffing Solutions Turkey Trot, Hob Nobble Gobble presented by Ford, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Breakfast and the Ford Fireworks. "Uh, We're busy," said Michaels.

He also said it take the work of thousands to make it all happen. "It's a major, major undertaking. Our great team, along with the volunteers, along with the city and police chief … it comes together in a wonderful way. Really does."

History of America's Thanksgiving Parade

America’s Thanksgiving Parade was first put on by Hudson’s department stores in 1924, the same year that Macy’s started its parade in New York City. During World War II, both parades took a two-year break and are tied as the second-longest running parades in America. As the department stores took an economic hit, management of Hudson’s parade was sold off and was turned into a nonprofit organization in the 1980s.

Featured in all 97 of the Detroit events, were The Big Heads. The first ones were brought in from Italy. They’re giant wearable paper mache heads. Volunteers with The Big Head Corps pay $250 to be in one on parade day.

Big Heads and floats

The Big Heads also volunteer when there are events, like the unveiling of a new parade float. Aretha Franklin and Bob Seger are greeting guests in the Parade Company's headquarters entryway. Inside Aretha was volunteer Kelly May, and inside Bob Seger was Annette Januszczak, who's been doing this for three years.

May's been doing it about a month and said the hardest part is the weight. Aretha was close to 50 pounds. May will be walking in the parade as Rosy the Riveter. "And to me, she matches my personality, so I can't wait."

Also a mainstay of the parade: the floats. "Mother Goose was one of the originals, but it's been revamped about a hundred times. But the best part of that is it's completely revamped for this year," Michaels noted. He said he loves all the floats, but Jazz Fest is one that's special to him.

The warehouse has the feel of a carnival at rest. Among the many floats are dazzling, bright colored pieces, larger-than-life figures and characters, photos from past parades. Everywhere is something different.

The warehouse is separated into different areas. Offices, storage, and a workshop, where signs of artists at work are all around. Tools, paint, and nearly-finished figures. There's also a new float sponsored by Corewell Heath that's set to be unveiled within the hour. There’s no curtain to pull aside because it is too big to conceal.

Corewell Health employees make their way back to the workshop. Senior Vice President of Nursing Kelli Sadler is in front of the float, waiting to make the announcement. "It’s actually our first year participating in the parade, and we're super excited to be a part of it," she said.

How a float gets made

To develop the floats, Michaels and his team meet with the sponsor company, ask what message or theme they want, and then their concept artists draw up some options. It's a back-and-forth process, but, Michaels explained, "Once everyone is happy with the design, we go to work to figure out how to build it."

That's the job of Alex Fedirko and his team. Fedirko is the artistic director for The Parade Company. The challenges are different for each float, but he said this one was particularly difficult. The design wasn't finalized until September, giving him and his team less than two months to build the three-platform float.

The design also included a 25-foot-tall map of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. The beams are only 16ft high, so they added hydraulics to raise and lower the piece. It will need to lower once during the parade, too, to pass beneath the Detroit People Mover.

"We've got this amazing kind of puzzle theme going on and we got 150 feet of characters kind of passing puzzle pieces from front to back with the big character in the front kind of passing it to all the other doctor characters and football players and whatnot in the back," Fedirko described.

Beth Weiler

"We've got a team of about 20 artists that work here with all different backgrounds. We've got theater backgrounds, art backgrounds, sculpting backgrounds, and we all kind of get together and we just we pull it off. And not to mention our amazing volunteer corps, too. I mean, we've got thousands of volunteers that come out and help. So without them, we couldn't get this done this year," Fedirco explained.

When asked if he was having a proud moment, Fedirko said he's more excited to see it in action. "Thanksgiving is the moment. You know, it's like when you get it on the road and you see it on Woodward with the backdrop of the buildings and all the smiling faces and the kids and like, you know, we always get goosebumps," he said.

Floats help keep the parade afloat

These floats are a very visible testament to the partnerships The Parade Company relies on for financial support. According to it's 2020 project proposal, it's funded by corporate sponsorships, foundations and individual donations.

That proposal was for a new headquarters. The group has been in a former automotive plant for almost 25 years. It's where the floats are designed, built, and stored. And while walls are colorfully painted, and lined with photos of the past, the report said the roof leaks, the facility needs major work and the industrial location makes it hard to be a community hub.

Michaels said fundraising efforts are underway to purchase and restore the Brodhead Naval Armory. It's on Jefferson Avenue across the Detroit River from Belle Isle.

"We're at about $14.5 million right now. We need to get to $45 million. But at $35 million, we're a go and we will make this happen. So we're excited. It's probably a couple of years to three years away, but it's important and it needs to happen," Michaels explained.

Ways to watch

In-person: FREE — be along the parade route between 9 a.m. and noon. The pre-parade is from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.

From home: The parade will enter the TV zone around 10 a.m. and will broadcast on WDIV and Local 4, stream live on www.clickondetroit.com, and play on the radio live on WOMC.

The parade is also syndicated across 185 TV markets nationwide.

Katheryne Friske is the weekend morning host and producer for All Things Considered.
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