Virtual America's Thanksgiving Parade celebrates frontline workers and children

Melody Baetens Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the amount Blue Cross Blue Shield donated to an east side Detroit neighborhood. It is $5 million.

It won't be a grand procession down Woodward, but this year's America's Thanksgiving Parade will still be marching into homes nationwide via television Thursday morning. 

Like this year's city fireworks display and Campus Martius tree-lighting event, revelers will have to enjoy the magic of this 94-year-old tradition from their own living rooms because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Clowns walk with a float from The Parade Company at a previous event.

The grand marshals for this year's televised-only event are a group of 10 frontline workers from a variety of industries. Though the format is different this year, the parade  will still showcase floats, clowns, balloons and musical performances. Most of the action is pre-taped, but there will be live commentary from WDIV-TV (Channel 4) anchors and a "live surprise" at some point in the broadcast. 

"It really is a television show. There is nowhere to come down here and stand and watch," said Parade Company president and CEO Tony Michaels, adding that the only way to see all the musical performances and colorful larger-than-life floats is by watching WDIV's broadcast Thursday morning. "We're doing something great for the city, the region and the state." 

In September, the Parade Company announced the production would be a live event from downtown Detroit without spectators or grandstands, viewable only on television. 

Michaels told The Detroit News the plan was to have around 800 people execute the event live from Woodward near Campus Martius, but they would have been spread out over a mile and a quarter to ensure social distancing. He also said there would have been temperature checks and staggering so not all 800 were on site at one time. 

That plan changed last week when Detroit's chief public health officer Denise Fair said the plan the Parade Company had for executing the event did not mesh with Michigan's new restrictions banning outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people.

Michaels said the Parade Company went into a "very creative mode" after Fair's decision came through and worked with WDIV to evolve the format and move away from their plan to broadcast the floats live from Woodward. 

Instead, four new floats and a couple of holdovers were taped Saturday in front of a new backdrop, set up a few blocks from the Parade Company warehouse on Mt. Elliott. The five high school marching bands were taped three weeks ago, at staggered intervals, outside Comerica Park.

The bands managed to march and play while maintaining social distancing. "The kids are a little further away," Michaels explained. "There’s a special netting for the instruments, just for the saliva and all of that."

Footage of last year's all-city band will be spliced into the broadcast, as will some of last year's floats and specialty acts that were scheduled to roll, trot or dance down Woodward on Thursday.

The Distinguished Clown Corps and Big Head Corps assembled Saturday and were filmed along with the new floats.

The pre-show coverage starts at 6 a.m Thursday on At 8 a.m. the television broadcast begins with a "America's Thanksgiving Parade Preview with Live in the D" with WDIV anchors Jason Carr and Tati Amare. 

The show runs 9 a.m.-noon a.m. with one hour syndicated for national broadcast to more than 185 cities across the country. 

There are four new sponsored floats to watch for, including one from the new presenting sponsor, Gardner-White. The furniture chain signed a three-year agreement in the midst of the pandemic, Michaels said, "with two three-year additions if they love it."

He said company president Rachel Tronstein was more than sympathetic when he told her the crowd-free procession on Woodward had to be revamped:

"She told me, 'Don't worry. What else can we do for you?' It made my day."

With its float theme, "There's No Place Like Home," Gardner-White is tapping into the likelihood that people have been spending more time with their couches this year than ever before.

"The Gardner-White float is fabulous," said Michaels. "It's about real comfort in furniture, how furniture comes alive and makes you feel great."

Other new floats for 2020 come from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which has a health-themed display. The healthcare company has donated $5 million to an east side Detroit neighborhood, and will reflect that area in the float with street signs. 

The new "Hope Starts Here" float from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Kresge Foundation will make its debut Thursday at the televised version of America's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is presented by Gardner-White.

Two first-time sponsors this year, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Kresge Foundation have teamed up for a new float, "Hope Starts Here," which aims to send a message of hope to children and celebrates early childhood care and education. The new Skillman Foundation float, "The Genius of Children," also centers around young people, and was designed by Bates Academy 8th grader John Baker IV. 

Instead of one grand marshal this year, the award-winning parade — which has a theme of "We Are One Together" — is led by a group of 10 people that were on the front lines during this pandemic. 

"Each one represents front liners from all different industries, a doctor, a nurse, a truck driver, a group that worked on the ventilators over in Auburn Hills, a teacher ... so that's really cool," Michaels said. 

Two fundraising events that traditionally surround the parade have been changed as well.

The Turkey Trot is being held as a virtual race, with participants running at a time and location of their choosing, not downtown Thursday morning as a group. Visit to register. 

The Hob Nobble Gobble, an annual black-tie fundraising party for the Parade Company, has been completely canceled for 2020 and will return Nov. 19, 2021. 

More:Detroit's Thanksgiving Day parade upended by city health department

More:Campus Martius' outdoor ice rink temporarily closes

More:Bright spot: Holiday light displays around town are a dazzling, safe activity

Twitter: @melodybaetens

America's Thanksgiving Parade presented by Gardner-White

9 a.m. Thursday

WDIV-TV (Channel 4)