Detroit parade glides through decades of memories

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

When Marie Michaels was “a youngster,” as the 91-year-old says, she never missed the Thanksgiving Day parade in Detroit.

Santa makes an appearance at the J.L. Hudson parade, date untitled.

“You never saw so many people watching the parade in all your life. It was fantastic. It gave everybody happiness and laughs,” says Michaels, the mother of Parade Company President and CEO Tony Michaels, who’s orchestrating the 90th America’s Thanksgiving Parade.

“I can’t believe it’s that old already,” says Marie Michaels, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Grosse Pointe.

She remembers watching the procession every year with her girlfriends on Jefferson, where crowds gathered 10-people deep.

“They’d sit in chairs or on the curb and eat a lot of ice cream and popcorn and all that good stuff,” she says.

While hot beverages may be more popular than ice cream cones nowadays, there’s even more “good stuff” for watchers of the parade — this year themed “90 Years Together.”

The first parade, then called the Michigan Thanksgiving Parade, rolled down Woodward in 1924. (If you do the math, the parade should be celebrating its 92nd year, but two years were skipped due to World War II.)

Many of the giant heads in the parade came from a small studio in Viareggio, Italy, handmade by Alfredo Morescalchi and his staff.

“There were highs and lows, just like with anything,” Tony Michaels says of its history. “Ninety years is a very long time.”

The Parade Company was founded in 1984 as a nonprofit governed by the Michigan Thanksgiving Parade Foundation. In 1990, the parade was in jeopardy because of funding. Art Van Furniture founder Art Van Elslander then stepped forward with a $200,000 check to keep the floats and high school bands marching.

“That was one of those major milestones as far as this organization was concerned,” Michaels says, “and the past six to seven years, we have really turned the corner and sponsorship is double.”

Last year, Art Van signed a contract to be the presenting sponsor until 2018.

The Parade Company has 15 full-time staff, more than 2,000 year-round volunteers and roughly 35 freelance artists who sculpt the floats. An unprecedented eight new floats will debut this year, including Quicken Loans’ “Detroit — City of Possibilities,” featuring a robot and rocket, and The Skillman Foundation’s “Make Detroit Colorful” float designed by fifth-grader MyRee Scott. The new Shinola team will also carry a 60-foot American flag down the 2.5-mile stretch from West Kirby to Congress.

“It takes a village to put all of this on,” Michaels says.

But as his mother recalls, the parade wasn’t always such a production.

“The floats were smaller, and not as extravagant as they are today,” she says.

Other Detroiters who were alive during the first parade remember when it wasn’t even broadcast on WDIV-TV (Channel 4), originally WWJ-TV.

“I remember listening to the parade on the radio, and then reading about the parade the next day and the day before,” says U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, 94, this year’s parade co-grand marshal who’s sharing the title with actor Keegan-Michael Key, a Detroit native. Growing up on Detroit’s west side, Keith’s family didn’t have a car to go see the parade, so his viewership was limited to the radio and newspapers.

“I feel very honored and pleased to celebrate the 90th anniversary as a Detroiter and as one who has followed the parade all of my life,” he says, adding, “I know my dad and mother are smiling that their son is the co-grand marshal.”

Entitled to bring two people along for his ride with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, he chose his youngest granddaughter, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, and his nephew Luther Keith.

“I’m looking forward to waving,” he says, laughing.

Mother Goose is a must

Marilyn Morrow, 92, of Hazel Park, says she “always looked forward” to the parade. Her mother took her and her cousins every year when she was 4 to 10 years old before her family moved in 1934.

“I liked the clowns the most,” Morrow says. “There were police on motorcycles, and they would do all kinds of tricks as they rode down Woodward.”

Later, she’d take her three sons to watch the parade from the upstairs windows in the Central United Methodist Church on Woodward and Adams.

“The floats nowadays are very impressive,” Marrow says. But one has withstood the test of time.

The Old Mother Goose float, seen in 1925, was at 18 feet long and 15 feet wide when it debuted in 1924.

Old Mother Goose debuted in the first parade in 1924. At 18 feet long and 15 feet wide, horses pulled the the beloved nursery rhyme figure down the parade route. Today, Mother Goose is 30 feet long and self-propelled.

“It’s been redone and redone so many times,” Tony Michaels says. “But we make sure that Mother Goose is always in — it’s a must.”

The big jolly guy in red and white is another staple.

Santa Claus has been in every parade since 1924, according to the Parade Company historian, and most of the earlier Santas were J.L. Hudson’s employees.

“Santa Claus would get off the sleigh with the elves right at Hudson’s main entrance,” says West Bloomfield resident Sid Greenberg, 93, who lived in the North End. “He would go up to, I think, the 12th floor. It was like a fantasy, the way it was made with toys, you couldn’t believe. They had different themes like Cinderella or Snow White or things at that time that were popular. And then Santa Claus would take a seat. At that time, it wasn’t so commercial like it is now where you pay to take your picture.”

West Bloomfield resident Flossie Maloff, 90, doesn’t remember much of the parade her mother took her to watch from the curb at age 5, but she does recall growing up downtown and shopping at Hudson’s during the holidays.

“There was nothing like Hudson’s. It was the most fabulous store,” Maloff says. “It had everything from neckties to Shirley Temple dolls.”

Hudson’s sponsored the parade until 1980. Now that there’s just a parking garage on Woodward — the 32-floor department store was demolished in 1998 — Santa receives the keys to the city at the end of the parade route.

Bringing people together

While folks can now watch the spectacle from 170 cities across the nation, Greenberg emphasizes that television didn’t exist when he watched the parade in the late ’30s — before the suburbs existed, too, and everyone converged in the city.

“You had to scramble because it would be so crowded. They would stop the traffic and the lights and everyone would zigzag in every way,” he says.

Greenberg remembers one parade, when he was 14, where he secured a spot on top of the Mayor Hazen Pingree statue in Grand Circus Park. He took a street car for 6 cents to get there.

“It was a different era,” he says.

A wide-angle shot down Woodward in 1976 during the 50th Anniversary of the J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit.

Besides the route down Woodward (that switched to Second Avenue from 1925 to the ’50s), there’s one element that hasn’t changed.

“It would always be cold and raining, but people would go,” Greenberg says.

Looking toward the next 90 years, Michaels says the goal is always to improve the parade, from expanding the 60-plus floats and balloons to enhancing their colors and size. He also aims for a “true national broadcast,” where the parade airs from one network in every city.

“We have an opportunity to create smiles, camaraderie, bring people together — that’s what this is about — and then we couple that with putting Detroit on a national stage ... That’s a very big deal, and that’s great for this city.”

His mother attests the parade is “the best thing that ever happened to Detroit.”

Her reasoning captures what the season is, indeed, all about.

“It makes people happy.”

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Where to watch and listen to America’s

Thanksgiving Parade

Listen: 760 WJR 6 a.m.-9:30 a.m.; 104.3 WOMC 10 a.m. to noon

Watch: WDIV-TV (Channel 4) 10 a.m. to noon