The History of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade + Top Performances from Years Past

Since our concert options are lacking in 2020, limited mainly to drive-ins and livestreams, the next big “live” event many of us may watch is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Admittedly, I’ve never been much for parades (or celebrating Thanksgiving, for that matter), but given how rough this year has been for so many, we’re probably all seeking some comfort in traditions. I thought it’d be fun to take a look back at the history of one of America’s holiday traditions, as well as some of the most notable performances over the years!

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade  1979
Image from Wikimedia user JonHarder, via CC BY-SA 3.0

Origins of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Almost as American as apple pie is the modern tradition of starting your Christmas shopping immediately after (or on!) a day dedicated to thankfulness. In fact, the original Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was actually the “Macy’s Christmas Parade” – an idea started by other department stores to encourage consumers to start thinking about their holiday shopping! The first parade in 1924 featured animals from Central Park Zoo, employees in various costumes, and nursery rhyme themed floats to match the store’s Christmas display. Of course, being a Christmas parade, the first parade ended with Santa on his sleigh, as is still tradition today.

For the next decade, the balloons (much more manageable than zoo animals) were the stars of the show. In 1934, Eddie Cantor became one of the first celebrities to appear in the parade! He also later appeared with a balloon version of himself in the parade. 1934 is also the first year a Mickey Mouse balloon made an appearance. 

The parade took a hiatus from 1942-44 (due to balloon materials like rubber being in high demand for the war), but returned in 1945 with contracts to be broadcast on local TV for the first time. 1948 is the first year the parade was broadcast nationally.

Here’s a home recording of the parade in 1945:

For a more detailed history of the parade, visit Macy’s website. At the bottom of the parade site, they offer an interactive history of the parade by decade, with important dates, photos of floats, and more! 

1950-80s Performers + Appearances

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the celebrities and live performances became a large part of the event. Notable 1950 appearances include Shirley Temple, The Rockettes, Jackie Gleason, Roy Rogers, and Ginger Rogers. In the 1960s, even more celebrities began to appear: Shirley Jones, Betty White, William Shatner, Neil Armstrong, and the casts of Bonanza and The Munsters. Musical performances over these years included Aretha Franklin, Jack Greene, Bobby Vinton, and Dionne Warwick. 

1964 is the first year the event was broadcast in color. It was also the first year when many performers began to lip-sync, due to the technical restrictions and difficulties of performing on a moving vehicle, on live TV, in chilly November NYC weather. However, there have been a few notable true ‘live’ performances in recent years (more on that in a bit).

In the 1970s, the event continued to grow! Appearances included Jessye Norman, Diana Ross, Ben Vereen, even stuntman Evel Knievel! Other musical acts featured in the parade included Dolly Parton, the Village People, and Gloria Gaynor. Unfortunately, many of these videos are not available online currently. The 1980s brought musical appearances from the likes of Donny Osmond, Melba Moore, New Kids on the Block, and Don McLean. 

If you’d like, some of the 1980 parade is available to watch on YouTube.

2000s to Now – More Iconic Moments From the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

If the 2000s are your jam, you might enjoy this throwback to Rihanna’s appearance with “Pon De Replay” in 2005, or Miley Cyrus with a song from the film Bolt (where she voiced Penny) in 2009 (simpler times, amirite?).

In 2014, KISS got their chance to participate. They, of course, played their hit “Rock and Roll All Nite,” because what’s more rock and roll than Thanksgiving?

The next year, 2015, there were plenty of performances by notable names in the alternative/pop rock scene, including Plain White T’s, Panic! at the Disco, Daughtry, and Pat Benatar.

And who can forget this iconic moment from 2008?

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been giving tons of funny pairings over the years, too, like Ariana Grande’s 2013 performance on the Dora the Explorer float:

Or the Jonas Brothers on a float with The Ruff Ruffman:

And while all of the above performances were lip-synced (some of them, quite obviously), Kelly Clarkson’s 2018 performance of “Heat” was live! It was only 19 degrees out that day, so this is pretty impressive!

2020 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

It’s the first parade of a new decade but this year’s parade will look quite a bit different than the rest. Instead of following their usual 2.5 mile route, parade organizers have instead made plans to stage the parade in Herald Square for recording. Instead of balloon handlers, special anchor vehicles will transport the balloons. For those who are used to attending in person, you’ll get to watch the parade like the rest of us this year – on NBC.

This year’s performers will include Bebe Rexha, CNCO, Dolly Parton, Jordan Sparks, Keke Palmer, Leslie Odom Jr., Patti Labelle, Pentatonix, and others! Selected high school and university marching bands for 2020 will perform next year instead. However, many local professional bands will still perform. You can view the full lineup of performers and balloons on Macy’s website.

Will you be watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year? Are there any performances (or balloons) you’re looking forward to? Let us know in the comments!

Like history? Consider reading our articles on the History of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the History of Live Music Broadcasting.

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