2016 is the 90th Anniversary of what was organized in 1924 by R.H. Macy’s immigrant employees as a street carnival. The group would undoubtedly be surprised to discover efforts to celebrate their new country with European traditions became an international symbol of Thanksgiving. As of last year, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade featured 27 floats and 17 balloons. (In 1939, floats were still pulled by horses.) The parade has marched every year but two since then, pausing only during wartime when rationing of helium and rubber necessitated hiatus. Planning for each procession takes 18 months.
Photographer Matt Harnick’s earliest memory of the parade is waking up to tubas and trumpets. His family home on the 14th floor of a venerable Central Park West building overlooks the staging area for bands and floats. Buses pull in early. Drum majorettes in skimpy outfits with epaulets huddle together for warmth. Musical instruments and stilts are unloaded. Half dressed clowns and headless animals on hind legs go in search of hot coffee. Tune up begins. In those days, balloons were quietly inflated on 86th Street. “It was a little dicey up there,” he recalls.
By the 1980s, maintenance moved to 77th and 81st between Central Park West and Columbus where balloons are laid head to toe and inflated by a team of specially instructed Macy’s employees. (There are stilt walking classes and a clown school as well.) Night-before viewing became the festive public event it is now with slow rivers of parents and children touring around a flattened Charlie Brown or raised fist and burgeoning muscles of Spider-Man. “On one side of each balloon is an easel with its character’s name posted, on the other are directions for inflation-which chambers to fill first…” Matt tells me.
Though he remembers sitting on his dad’s shoulders in front of the building, most Thanksgivings the Harnicks spent the morning preparing turkey to take to family dinner in New Jersey. Eventually Matt would cook the bird himself making him even busier. He didn’t take advantage of opportunity to see an entire parade until 2014. (This year he’s cooking and shooting.)
Sheldon and Margery Gray Harnick’s children both expressed interest in taking pictures when they were very young. A former actress and exhibited painter as well as a photographer, his mom learned the latter from her father. Matt grew up with it. Seven years ago, he received his first digital camera and headed out Thanksgiving morning. Most of those shots were unfortunately lost with a data card.
The next year, he approached the parade “with the intention of taking the best pictures I could.” Year after year, Matt would squeeze his way up to the barriers, sometimes running into the same local denizens, sharing notes. Cameras improved, Matt grew more skilled.
In 2013, book proposal accepted, Matt sat down with Bill Schermerhorn, Creative Director of Macy’s Parade and Entertainment Group since 1983. They had a wide ranging discussion and the photographer was invited to Macy’s 70,000-foot Moonachie, New Jersey facility. Where most of us would have described the place as Santa’s Workshop on steroids, “The first thing I thought of seeing all the maquettes hanging from the ceiling was, my God, this is just like (puppeteer) Bill Baird’s workshop.'” he says. “My parents did three shows with him. It was a very magical place.” (Musical theater icon Sheldon Harnick wrote scores, and both he and Margery gave voice to characters.) There’s something benignly innocent about the recollection. Floats, balloons and costumes are assembled across the river. Matt’s first love are the balloons.
Starting in 2014, project in hand, he’s had an all-access pass to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “2014, I stood on 77th Street in a raging ice storm and shot almost the entire inflation of the Thomas the Tank balloon.” The largest balloon, Thomas is 53-feet long, 23-feet wide, and 47-feet high. “If you look underneath, you can see they’ve detailed the crankshaft in the machinery,” Matt says with enthusiasm. Those photos are, alas, not in the book. You can, however, see several sharp images of Scrat (the acorn-obsessed, saber-toothed squirrel from Ice Age) as he becomes a fulsome 59-feet long, 24-feet wide, 41-feet tall.
“The balloons I remember as a kid were sausage-like, but they’ve discovered the technology of using a webbing of ropes on the interior to hold shapes in position…Today, they’re incredible feats of engineering as well as artistry.”
Matt never asks people to pose. He thinks of the parade as “a living organism. It’s like nature photography. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible.” The book offers evocative images of bands, floats, clowns, dancers, the Moonachie Workshop, and balloons from all angles. In addition, there are Macy’s archival photos, some of which date way back. Early shots of The Rockettes, Mickey Mouse as you likely never knew him, and, balloons most of us don’t recognize, are priceless.
Still unjaded, Matt Harnick intends to continue photographing the parade. “I don’t know what’s going to be new this year and I don’t want to. There are always different floats and balloons, the order changes as does the music. It’s like Christmas. To me-there are so few surprises anymore…The important thing is that there are no small parts, even if someone just shows up, puts on a costume and walks down the street…I love it.”
This is a terrific gift book for anyone with memories of the parade, those who can’t watch the event in person, tourists. Its THE perfect present if you’re going to someone’s home on Thanksgiving. (Both Amazon Prime and Barnes & Noble promise to deliver in 24 hours.) Vibrant photos give one a real feeling of the tradition, while text by Steven M. Silverman is as entertaining as it is illuminating.
All photos by Matt Harnick
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade-A New York City Holiday Tradition
Photography by Matt Harnick & The Macy’s Archives
Text by Stephen M. Silverman