On a day dedicated to gratitude and family, furniture mogul Art Van Elslander is especially grateful this year for an on-the-spot decision he made 25 years ago to save a beloved Detroit tradition: the Thanksgiving Day parade.
As the parade was on the brink of being canceled in 1990, after losing its primary sponsor and facing other problems, Van Elslander made a decision. He’d write a personal check for $200,000 to keep the parade going. It stopped a downward spiral for the parade, now in its 89th year, and started a new era of stability.
“I’ve been asked did I ever question at any time whether I would do it again. Never,” says Van Elslander, 85, patriarch of the Art Van furniture chain. “It’s probably one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done. Because when you see the lives that you’ve been able to affect, it’s pretty cool.”
“Save” may seem like a big word, but Tony Michaels, president and chief executive officer of the Parade Company, which puts on the parades, says Van Elslander did, in fact, save the parade.
“In 1990, he saved the parade. And that act had positive repercussions for many years to come,” said Michaels.
And Art Van is continuing its commitment. This week, Van Elslander announced that he and the Parade Company had signed another three-year contract for Art Van to continue as the parade’s presenting sponsor through 2018.
The Michigan Thanksgiving Parade was founded in 1924. In 2013, when Art Van became the parade’s presenting sponsor, the name was changed to America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade presented by Art Van. It draws as many as 1 million spectators each year. About 800,000 people are expected to see the parade in person Thursday, fewer than usual, because of the M-1 construction.
But beloved as it may be, the parade hit hard times in 1980. Hudson’s stopped sponsoring it. In 1988, its troubles escalated when companies pulled their support after CBS-TV ended national coverage.
Van Elslander remembers eating breakfast in 1990 when he read a newspaper story that the parade was on the brink of being canceled. He said like most people, he thought, “Gee, that’s a shame” and continued on his way.
When he arrived at Art Van’s corporate offices in Warren that morning, his first meeting was with his advertising team. The topic of the parade possibly being canceled came up. Cathy DiSante, Art Van’s vice president of advertising, told Van Elslander that the company shouldn’t let it happen.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ They said, ‘No, we really shouldn’t let this happen.’ And I said, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ just like that, honestly like that. They said, ‘It just shouldn’t happen. This is a Detroit tradition.’ ”
Van Elslander relented. He asked DiSante to make a few calls to see what he could do. The news wasn’t good.
“She came back and she said it’s the 11th hour,” Van Elslander remembers. “They don’t even want to talk to me. They’ve been promised so much by so many people that it’s either a check or it’s going down. It’s on the way down.”
The parade company needed a $200,000 check right away. Van Elslander’s eight-member team was adamant: Don’t let the parade go down.
“I thought about it and I just said, ‘This shouldn’t happen. I’ll write the check,’ ” Van Elslander said.
But the check was just beginning. Van Elslander said what he didn’t realize was how bad things really were — unpaid vendors and creditors, ineffective management, and other issues. And now he was involved.
“What I realized and what I didn’t pay any attention to previously is that the parade ... is a business,” said Van Elslander. “And it takes money to run.”
Slowly, Van Elslander and the Parade Company began to make changes and rebuild. They created other events, such as the Hob Nobble Gobble fundraiser, to generate revenue and brought in a new board and management team. And other sponsors started to commit.
“It needed money,” said Van Elslander. “It needed systems. It needed everything. It was really broken.”
Michaels says Art Van’s commitment to the parade spurred other companies to get involved and lend their financial support. The Parade Company spent $1.9 million last year on the parade and related activities, according to federal IRS documents.
Today, more than 200 companies support the parade in some way.
Van Elslander showed “this is more important than some people thought,” said Michaels. “He sent a message.”
And while he wasn’t really involved in the parade before 1990, though he says he always enjoyed it, it’s now become a family tradition. He rides down three-mile route in a car separate from Art Van’s company float, joined by different celebrities each year. And for years, his 10 adult children and 31 grandchildren have been involved, often riding on floats.
“They look forward to it. They love it,” said Van Elslander.
His trick to staying warm: an electric blanket and hand warmers.
So as he starts down the parade’s three-mile route Van Elslander will be an especially reflective mood.
“The one thing it’s taught me is we take a lot of things for granted,” said Van Elslander. “We really do ... At the time, what no one really realized if the parade goes, it goes down. People go out of business all the time. We just wouldn’t have had a parade. (But) I think about that each and every Thanksgiving Day when I ride that parade route, how thankful I am that I did it.”