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
Forgive me, Grandparents and Uncles, for focusing today on another segment of the Street Seeners who walk with us weekly. But as a card-carrying expert in the ranks of “Aunting” I couldn’t resist sharing a preview chapter of Aunts, the Best Supporting Actresses set to come to updated life soon, and probably online, now that I own the rights to its literary “roots” planted in the last days of the 20th Century.
I am confronted and amazed daily with the dwellers in our urban village. They move through the coffee houses, markets, buses and playgrounds with the grace of ballerinas, marshalling their children and enough equipment to accommodate the Fifth Army. Amateurs at these feats need an alert. Aunts need to know the challenges.
It begins when someone who has yet to spend two full years on earth looks at you indulgently, takes pity on you and your obvious bewilderment and shows you how to buckle/unbuckle his/her car seat. Welcome to the gear gap.
It’s the equipment equivalent of the generation gap which separates childless Aunts, not only from their nieces/nephews and their parents but also from married-with-children Aunts who have resumes to prove that they have cracked the code of Aunt-resistant car seats, folding strollers, flip top changing tables and child-proof aspirin caps.
Fortunately, children turn out to be a lot more compassionate than most adults and will often bail you out when it becomes clear that the umbrella style collapsible stroller cannot, in fact, be folded wafer thin using the one hand that is not occupied with holding onto a little one, fishing for the MetroCard and beating off the assault of the benign-looking person whose sympathy with your plight seems to have deserted her.
Like golf and yachting, being an Aunt is a hobby that requires you to own and/or operate huge amounts of challenging and complicated equipment. It is wise to know that and to be on the look-out for certain of the most threatening elements of “the gear trap.”
Advice to Aunts from “The Gear Trap”
Strollers –These supposedly benign, even helpful pieces of equipment are really designed to test the new Aunt’s mental acumen, patience, humility, brute strength, cunning and ability to withstand the temptation to use undeleted expletives. And what cruel jokester came up with a name that suggests leisurely walking?
To meet these tests be aware of these points:
Collapsible used to describe these vehicles does not refer to the stroller itself, but to the Aunt who is likely to collapse before she figures out how to reduce said stroller to a size that permits it to fit: through normal, domestic-sized doors; into the trunk of an automobile not purchased for use by groups the size of baseball teams or larger; aboard any type of public transportation.
Be aware that there are distinctly different forms of collapsibility, deceptively described in the sales and product enclosure literature with terms related to equipment you think you know how to operate. “Umbrella-Style,” for example, hints that the stroller can be whipped from fully assembled to easily tote-able as effortlessly as one raises or lowers an umbrella. In your dreams!
There are also inward-folding and outward-folding styles. The former is designed to snap shut on one or more of your outer garments as you try to reduce its unwieldy bulk; the latter requires that you have a width of arm spread and a degree of strength in your (fully extended) fingertips that would excite envy in a Marvel Comics Super-hero. As for the front-to-back collapsers, they are apparently designed to be dropped from an upper story window so that they can be collected, neatly compacted, by the time you and your Niece/Nephew have walked down the stairs and also reached ground level.
Double is a designation you are likely to be looking for and dealing with in this era of fertility drugs and rampant multiple birthing. Don’t let your commitment to fair play and desire to avoid putting the twin nieces/nephews into situations where one must be “first” and the other “second,” fool you into thinking there is a redeeming social value in a two-abreast stroller. While it ensures that both the children get a first and unobstructed view of everything that falls in their path, it severely limits the places you can actually take them and the stroller in order to get even one, unobstructed view. They’re great in ballrooms and ballparks, but only if the first is otherwise empty and the second can be reached via helicopter drop. So opt for the single file model and change the babies’ positions to insure that baby #2 sees more than just the back of baby #1’s head. And remember that revolving doors are completely out of bounds and that you need to stay three times further away from the oncoming traffic when you cross the street by foot.
Braking Systems on strollers are more complicated than those on the most eccentric Italian sports car. Locking and unlocking them and doing so for one, two, three or four wheels at a time is no easy matter. Failure to do so, at the right time and in the right order, will leave you pushing the firmly fixed wheels over:
-sidewalks (if you’re lucky) or
-pea stones (if your worst nightmare comes to life) or
-cobblestones Manhattan has left in place and always at the entry point to MTA buses; or
-pushing the hysterically laughing Niece/Nephew around in tight little circles which he/she is kind enough to think you are doing on purpose.
Diapers –If you still remember the dear, long-gone days when the only varieties of these were unused and used, you are in for a seismic shock. So if you belong to the school of thought that says, “I love my Niece/Nephew unconditionally, except for changing,” then read no further. You can keep your consciousness unencumbered, at least until you, too, reproduce or adopt.
Cloth or Disposable seems like a pretty straightforward option. But you would have to have the sophistication of a Ph.D. in ecological sciences and the obsessive/compulsive commitment to detail of an efficiency expert to weigh all the pros and cons of this seemingly simple choice. And besides, once you’ve made that choice, it’s only the beginning. Size is no simple matter of “about this long” (said with arms extended to the appropriate dimension.) If you are asked to “pick up some Pampers on your way over,” don’t leave home, or the telephone, without determining the current weight in pounds of the small person in need of underpinnings. You need to know this within a range so exact you think it was designed for measuring gold bullion or you risk dropping the baby through the oversized leg opening of a wrong-sized diaper.
Style issues include: newborn or not; decorated with pictures of Dora or Princess Sofia the First or Mickey Mouse or McQueen, the Car or a Marvel Comics Super-Hero or Doc McStuffins. Are they to be for night or day wear; and with or without self-adhesive tabs? Note that if they are opened before the baby is changed they will stick to the changing table and, if afterward, stick (resolutely) to you. Be warned that your Niece/Nephew’s style preferences develop at a frighteningly early moment in his/her life and that long before the first phrase is spoken, he/she will not be fooled if you try to substitute a Minnie diaper for a Mickey. And remember too that this is one of the oases of non-PC designations. There really is a difference between male and female Pull-Ups and you risk ignoring them at your own peril.
By the time Niece/Nephew reaches what used to be called “the age of reason” the gear gets easier, but the highly developed preferences and peer pressures are building up. So, it’s wise for an Aunt to know that if the Niece/Nephew asks for a J. Crewcut or American Girl style or something by Justice (girls) or Under Armour (boys/girls athletes) and gets something else, your stock drops so far and fast that Wall Street would call it an unquestionable crash.
When the Niece/Nephew is heading for college, the technical nuances of sound equipment, computer hard and software and all wheeled vehicles are more surely within his/her grasp than music on CDs was to you at their age.
It’s enough to say that sooner, rather than later, living in the world of Niece/Nephew gear gets to be as challenging as, well…., as a stroller.
Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears every Sunday.
All photos from Bigstock images.