In 1924, Charles F. Wendel, display manager at the J.L. Hudson Company, conceived the idea of a grand Thanksgiving parade down Woodward Avenue, with Santa alighting from his sleigh at Hudson’s to take up residence at the 12th floor Toyland.
His idea would become one of Detroit’s longest-running and most beloved traditions.
Wendel’s initial inspiration came from a stunt in Toronto where Santa arrived at Eaton’s department store in an old time Tally-Ho carriage, but Wendel elaborated on the idea. A European trip with his wife had introduced him to the Italian carnivals in Venice and Viareggio featuring dancing through the streets and giant papier mache heads, and these would become the foundation for his parade.
The first parade in 1924 had four bands, huge heads carried on the shoulders of marchers, 10 floats depicting nursery rhymes, and bands from Highland Park, Hamtramck and Northwestern high schools. Floats included The Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe and Mother Goose.
In 1925, 300 male employees of Hudson’s marched in the parade. Detroit Creamery loaned its horses and wagons to pull the 26 floats and Santa. A live elephant was used to promote a toy sold at the store.
By 1939, there were eight brass bands and 1,008 assorted characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Donald Duck was there along with the biggest candystick in the world.
The giant heads came from a small studio in Viareggio, Italy, hand made by Alfredo Morescalchi and his staff. Morescalchi was the chief designer of floats and masks for the Viareggio carnival, the largest in Italy. Over the years he made hundreds of heads for the Hudson’s parade. The heads in Italy are three stories high, but because of overhead wires, the Detroit heads were smaller. In Detroit, Charlie Gettel patched and pampered the heads for more than 45 years. Famous people portrayed by the more than 600 heads included Henry Ford, Rosa Parks, Charles Lindbergh and Joe Louis.
Detroiters flocked to the parade right from the start. Crowds ranged from more than 100,000 in the ’20s to close to a million in the ’90s. The crowd were so large, in fact, that the Protestant Pastors Union of Greater Detroit consulted with Hudson’s in 1940 complaining that the Thanksgiving Parade was interfering with services. Early morning services, even if scheduled at 7 a.m., had parents leaving early. A later service, at 11 a.m., had people straggling in late. The pastors considered the Thanksgiving Parade only a little less detrimental than if it were held on Easter morning!
World War II and its attendant shortages of manpower, gasoline and supplies brought a temporary halt to the festivities. The 1942 parade was the last before the hiatus. There were no holly, ribbons, trees, wreaths or lights. The giant rubber creations and floats moving down Woodward bore signs: “I’m on my way to the Rubber Salvage.” After the parade the giant animals were punctured, sliced and slashed in the alley between the east and west Hudson’s buildings and went into the war salvage drive.
Santa made a triumphant return on November 22, 1945, to the cheers of 200,000 onlookers in 24-degree weather with snow falling on Donald Duck, the Toy Soldiers and the Wizard of Oz. There were 600 characters, eight bands and 75 clowns.
A perennial feature of the parade was the lost children station. In 1946, The Detroit News described a dozen children howling in the care of the women’s division of the police department. They included 11 boys and one girl, Miss Mary Marjorie Turkaly, age 5.
Children were, of course, the main audience for the parade. In 1948, the Rotary, the Board of Education and the Legal Division of the Detroit Street Railroad joined forces to provide 29 buses to bring 650 handicapped children to the parade.
1948 saw a crowd of 500,000 downtown and many more watched the parade for the first time on television. In 1952, NBC broadcast the parade nationally, allowing the entire whole country to see the 85-foot goozlebug and the spouting Wheezy the Whale. Television’s popular Kukla, Fran and Ollie joined the 25 floats, 1,000 marchers and 11 bands.
From the beginning, the parade was the creation and responsibility of the Hudson’s display department. In 1954 Hudson’s display manager Art Wright, dressed as a poodle, carried a chart under his fur showing where every marcher had to be at every moment.
In 1958, Hudson’s began a design contest for elementary school students. Children designed and drew a float concept. The winning design was actually made into a float, and the artist won a cash prize. The first winner was 10-year-old Carol Kulesza from Detroit. A later winner, David Acosta, 12, had left town by the time the winning design was announced. His family had moved to Los Angeles, but an uncle was able to track him down after news stories reported that Hudson’s was searching for him.
There was a squabble in 1959 over the television rights to the parade. Although Hudson’s had an agreement with ABC to air the parade nationally, CBS wanted to broadcast a portion of the parade along with Macy’s and Gimbel’s parades. Hudson’s threatened a lawsuit but CBS went ahead. National coverage ended completely in 1988, but will resume this year with Chrysler returning as a sponsor of a half hour’s coverage on CBS.
Detroit City Councilman Louis C. Miriani created a stir in 1966 after he told the Oak Park Jaycees they should get a passport and visa to sell popcorn at the parade. He was attacked for “trying to build a Berlin Wall around Detroit.” Earlier, as mayor, Miriani had been caught on television during the 1960 parade telling Christmas Carol, who was making her speech introducing Santa, to “Hurry it up, kid!”
Mishaps have been few throughout the history of the parade, but when they occurred they were spectacular. In the early years, horses were used to draw the floats. One year a team of horses, startled by a marching band, panicked and took off, destroying a gas station building as well as the float they were pulling. After that, Hudson’s employees pulled the floats, as many as 24 for a single float. Metal wheels freezing to street surfaces and sticking in trolley tracks made it a grueling job, and eventually mechanized floats became the norm.
In 1960 five children were pushed underneath the Santa float by a surging crowd. Leonard Tarnowski, 9, suffered injuries to an arm and leg; the other children were pulled out unharmed.
In 1964, the Grand Marshall was Lassie. The television star was supposed to bound from a perch of artificial snow to a pedestal at the reviewing platform, but stage fright paralyzed the dog. The trainer coaxed for four minutes while the network seconds ticked away, and Santa’s arrival was delayed. Finally the collie made the leap, and Santa got his time on TV.
In 1969 a bomb threat caused a slight delay while a thorough search was made of Santa’s float. Nothing suspicious was found and Santa continued on his journey to Toyland.
In 1980, the city had to pay $36,000 to modify brand new street lights and traffic lights on Woodward so parade floats and balloons could get past. Although the parade had been mentioned during planning sessions for the new fixtures, someone apparently said they wouldn’t interfere with the parade. They did. The city had to cut 11 feet off the crossbars of nine lights.
The Most Rebellious Parader award goes to Chilly Willy, a rogue 30-foot-tall penguin. Chilly Willy pulled free of his tethers in 1990 and took off on a 25-mile journey up the river to Lake St. Clair. He was apprehended by the Coast Guard just off Walpole Island at 4:18 pm. The next summer, Chilly Willy, still rambunctious, was on a promotional engagement at a car dealership when he knocked a former parade official off the dealership roof, breaking her arm and leg.
Although they can’t prepare for every untoward circumstance, parade officials have had a back-up Santa hidden on the Santa float as a kind of understudy in case of misfortune.
In the late ’70s, Hudson’s began soliciting sponsors for the parade and in 1979, gave up primary sponsorship and turned over control of the parade to Detroit Renaissance, which in turn handed off to the Michigan Thanksgiving Parade Foundation in 1983. The Parade Company took over in 1990, and keeps the show running with thousands of volunteers. Many Detroit businesses are sponsors of the parade and the Distinguished Clown Corps is made up of many well-known Detroiters who contribute $1,000 to march as clowns in the parade, including Richard Kughn, A. Alfred Taubman, Avern Cohn, Edsel Ford, Art Van Eslander, Dave Bing and Denise Ilitch Lites.
Because of these well-wishers, the parade is going strong. Last year’s parade had 2,000 costumed marchers, 5 equestrian units, 15 bands, 14 balloons, and 28 floats.
2020 Update: Due to the current Coronavirus Pandemic, the Detroit Thanksgiving Parade will be a virtual presentation.
Source: “Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day Parade“, Detroit News, November 25, 1999.