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
Most of us grew up with Showplace of the Nation, Radio City Music Hall and The Rockettes. As locals, we’d be taken to the awe-inspiring Art Deco entertainment palace, generally on holidays, where bang for your buck included both a film and live stage show. (Duality ended in 1979.) My grandmother humiliated us by packing sandwiches in waxed paper, so we wouldn’t eat junk. The place seemed unfathomably big and eye-catching.
“New York, New York”- The Legacy Dancers – Photo by Milan Miskos
First memories recall its two, resonant, “Mighty Wurlitzer” organs sliding out as if from nowhere, the entire orchestra rising up and sometimes back as if magically propelled, Christmas carolers filling every balcony, and, inevitably, the show’s centerpiece number, “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.” Originally choreographed by The Rockettes founder Russell Markett with costumes designed by Vincent Minnelli, the number remains pretty much as conceived some 84 years ago, a wide variation of formations in military precision, ending with a cannon shot knocking the dancers over like a line of dominoes.
The dance troop, inspired by the John Tiller Girls of The Ziegfeld Follies, was inaugurated in St. Louis as the Missouri Rockets. Renamed the Roxyettes, it was brought to New York City by Samuel Roxy Rothafel to perform first at his Roxy Theatre and then, beginning with the first Christmas Spectacular December 1932, at Radio City Music Hall where the company became what we now know as The Rockettes.
“Another Openin’ Another Show”- The Legacy Dancers -Photo by Milan Miskos
Each and every Rockette must be proficient in ballet, tap, modern, and jazz dance. Height requirements are 5’ 6” to 5’ 10”. (Taller dancers are placed at the center to give the illusion of like height across the line.) Some 400 women audition annually. Often a dancer ‘gets in’ but is not actually hired until someone leaves, which can occur months or years later- such was the case when today’s speakers were company members. Rehearsal and performance schedules are daunting.
Once offered only at Christmas and Easter, the troop was gradually booked for outside events, television, and national tours. Every November, America gets a glimpse of them at The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. A current production, New York Spectacular Starring The Radio City RockettesTM , brings employment almost year round.
Make no mistake, this extraordinarily hard-working collection of leggy ladies is a family. Warmth and gratitude inform every personal story. Who else but a Rockette would understand the unique demands and rewards involved in this iconic sisterhood?
“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”- The Legacy Dancers – Photo by Milan Miskos
Hosted, Produced, Directed, and Choreographed by former Rockette, Mary Six Rupert, this afternoon’s event offers firsthand histories by alumna as well as intermittent musical numbers spotlighting The Legacy Dancers inaugurated in 2013. Ranging in age from 22 through 60, the ladies don’t all still have ‘perfect’ bodies, but extensions, synchronization and infectious ebullience abound. There are no weak links. These women can tap! Choreography is terrific fun. Alan Smith’s Costumes flattering delight.
Each ingenuous background tale, clearly written by its speaker, is accompanied by projected photos. These usually start with images of a widely grinning, two or three year-old girl in a tutu and end with photos of performance as a Rockette.
Madeleine Jay, who overcame an after-college injury that might have derailed her chosen vocation, was down with the flu when telephoned for a callback. Determined, she showed up fever and all securing a place in the “big, shiny, glossy unit.” Being a Rockette “was the hardest thing I’d ever done.” Jay remembers once “kicking out” (out of sync), anticipating serious repercussions. Instead the girl at her side was kind. Jay has performed and taught since then.
Mary Six Rupert; Bruce Michael-Photos by Richard Williams
Alina Silver, with 11 seasons under her now rather extended belt (she’s pregnant), was “hooked” from her first ballet recital. When a friend suggested going to Chicago for Rockette auditions on something of a lark, neither made the cut. Years later, however, Silver risked losing at a Celebrity Cruise job by flying to LA when the ship hit a glacier (no kidding) to once again audition for The Rockettes. She got in only to discover her friend Katie had as well. “As hard as it was, I appreciated the precision and perfectionism.”
Mary Six Rupert, the founder of Legacy on the Line, started performing as “the Littlest Raindrop” at age 2 ½. During a 15 year tenure with The Rockettes, Rupert danced with the touring Great Radio City Christmas Spectacular and was promoted to dance captain. She spent years in musical theater and now teaches as well as choreographs.
Rupert and student Tomlee L. Abraham offer a jaunty “My One and Only,” a number she restaged for and taught the great Harold Nicholas for the stage show. Her Wagner College students Brittany Cattaruzza and Tommy Joscelyn execute an utterly charming version of “I Won’t Dance” followed by “Ding” with game, older students from Bridge Dance.
Brittany Cattaruzza and Tommy Jocelyn – Photo by Richard Williams
Ann Cooley “was always a bit of a jazzerina.” Having secured her first paid gig as a dancer at age 16, she moved to New York at 18, auditioned for the Rockettes, and was accepted several months later. Unfortunately, no spot opened up for 3 years. Cooley became a musical theater gypsy, then joined the first touring Christmas Spectacular. She has since acted as director/choreographer of her own projects which include a stint teaching Korean artists musical theater tapping.
Former Vice President and Creative Producer of The Rockettes, (at present Executive Director of The Space at Westbury) Bruce Michael got the bug at age 7 when taken to the Music Hall to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He was “completely captured” by film, show, and venue. “All through school I kept planning production numbers.” Immediately upon leaving college, Michael moved to New York and opened a bank account directly across from Radio City where he was sure he’d work. Singlemindedly hanging out at the stage door, he was eventually, rather cinematically, invited in, later becoming a stage manager. He left to start a production company, but returned in far greater capacity in 1989. Michael’s affection for the work and The Rockettes is palpable.
Katherine Corp and Kimberly Corp -Photos by Richard Williams
Twins Katherine and Kimberly Corp dreamed of being Mouseketeers. Encouraged to academic excellence, terpsichorean training rode tandem with impressive cum laude degrees in International Economic Policy. The ladies danced, toured internationally “with a famous magician,” and held substantial corporate banking positions in Japan. They currently own Pilates on Fifth and are in obviously tiptop shape. Duet performance of “The Typewriter Song” replete with eyeglasses, neckties, and briefcases on which they tap, is effervescent.
Dottie Belle spent 25 years with The Rockettes! A convention performance with a precision dance group lead to an audition for the New York company. She ‘passed,’ but there were no places for a year. Called suddenly, she found herself on a cot at The Rehearsal Club dancing four shows a day at Radio City. Belle weathered “four corporate takeovers” dancing as a Rockette at The Royal Albert Hall and with Peter Allen. She went back to school, became a corporate specialist in Health Education and Promotion and now brings fitness into private homes.
“Favorite Son”-The Legacy Dancers -Photo by Milan Miskos
Legacy numbers include “Another Opn’in, Another Show,” Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and a finale of “New York, New York” with toppers and tails. A highlight is “Our Favorite Son” (The Will Rogers Follies) which features a vocal and is performed sitting on a long bench with Tommy Tune’s intricate, imaginative arm/hand choreography and Ann Cooley’s staging. Straw hats are cleverly affixed with bells which sound when tapped. Focus is consummate.
The smoothly run afternoon was both illuminating and entertaining.
Check The Ziegfeld Society web site for next season’s events.
Visit The Legacy Dancers website for more information.
Legacy 36,LLC is an organization founded to celebrate the art of precision dance and the women that have, and continue to, perform this dance style. The mission of this organization is furthered through fully produced productions, lecture demonstrations, precision dance workshops and camps and so much more.
Opening Photo by Giff Braun
The Ziegfeld Society of New York City and Legacy 36 LLC presents for the Fourth Year
Legacy On The Line-The Road to Becoming a Rocket
A Multi-Autobiographical Musical Revue
Produced, Directed and Choreographed by Mary Six Rupert
Will Rogers Follies and My One and Only
Choreography by Tommy Tune
The Legacy Dancers: Linda Bloom, Brittany Cattaruzza, Ann Cooley, Katherine Corp, Kimberly Corp, Nicole Davey, Ashlee Fife, Madeline Jaye, Cassandra Palacio, Adrienne Weidert
Lang Recital Hall, Hunter College
June 25, 2016