Cold, wet and joyful Thanksgiving Day Parade returns to Detroit

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sydney Fields' first Thanksgiving Day parade came a year late.

Her parents, Rhonda, 34, and Mychael, 33, of Novi had planned to take her to America's Thanksgiving Parade on Woodward Avenue in 2020, the year they also wanted to introduce her to Santa Claus, but the pandemic meant the 2-year-old would have to wait. 

Thanksgiving may be a placeholder holiday for Sydney, who seems to have already chosen Christmas as her favorite, her parents said. Her request of a Barbie doll has been logged with Santa, whom she will finally meet in the coming weeks.

Nevertheless, Sydney still woke up Thursday morning yelling "Parade! Parade! Parade!" 

From her vantage point, comfortably perched on the shoulders of her grandfather Chris Fields, 59, near Campus Martius Park, she could hardly peel her eyes away from Woodward, where the parade floats, marching bands, cheerleaders and clowns would soon make their way past Sydney and her family. 

"She's definitely ready for it," said Rhonda Fields. 

A year after a pandemic-friendly, pre-taped broadcast of the event in 2020, America's Thanksgiving Parade roared back to life, live and in-person, for its 95th edition. The spectacle kicked off at 8:45 a.m., in the rain along a nearly 3-mile stretch of Woodward from Kirby to Congress. 

"I feel a little cold and wet, but it's great to be back," said Joe Fleck, 67, of Oakland Township. 

The Flecks, including Joe's wife, Meg Fleck, their children, Erin, and Mike and daughter-in-law, Jennifer, all were wearing customized clown costumes and, through hats droopy with rain, beamed after the march down Woodward. Along the way, they helped toss 400,000 colorful bead necklaces to spectators and posed for photos with kids and with the other members of the Distinguished Clown Corps. 

The group, marching for its 38th year, was formed "when the parade was actually in kind of financial difficulty," said Joe Fleck. "And it was a group of business leaders and community leaders who came together to help fund the parade and keep it alive." 

The corps makes contributions to the parade every year. When the group formed in 1979, Fleck said, they had around 25 clowns. This year, 150 contributed and marched. 

"In return for that, you get an outfit," said Joe Fleck. "And there's some other perks along the way, and then the right to come down Woodward on Parade Day and make some little kids happy." 

The outfits are color-coded. White means a clown started in the past five years. Silver means they have marched for five to 10 years, gold signifies 10-15 years, and a coveted cape means a clown has been down Woodward more than 15 times. Every Fleck has a gold outfit but Jennifer, who is in her sixth year, and wears silver.

Clowns get to design their own costumes. Erin Fleck, 41, of Chicago, chose a jackalope theme. Mike Fleck, 37 of Rochester Hills, went with a banana for his hat. Their father said he went for a more traditional mascot. 

"I'm the Thanksgiving Hamster," he said.  

"Yeah, very traditional," said Meg, also 67. 

The Flecks' conversation was punctuated by the sounds of marching bands making their way down Woodward, sandwiched between company floats and alternating between holiday songs and the occasional pop anthem.

The Detroit Public Schools All-City High School Marching Band performs in America’s Thanksgiving Parade down Woodward Avenue in the rain on Thanksgiving morning.

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As the Rochester High School Falcon Marching Band serenaded onlookers who lined both sides of the avenue with Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas is You," and the Detroit Public School marching band did a choreographed, almost-orchestral rendition of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," Ann Gaines looked out from the doorway of her daughter Regina's wine store, House of Pure Vin. 

Gaines, a retired teacher who now wears an apron branded with the wine store's logo, lives in Southfield.

"But just across the border, so I still consider myself a Detroiter." 

She grew up in Detroit and said the parade has been a lifelong tradition. Her father would bring her and her siblings to watch the parade near the Wayne State University campus, then go to the Lions' game — "back when they were a winning team."

"We used to stand in front of the Vernors factory. That tells you how old I am, right?" said Gaines, 75. 

She returns to Detroit every year to help Regina with the store, remarking that she is "cheap labor," and uses it as an excuse to get a great view of the parade. 

"Coming down here to watch this parade and helping my daughter, I almost get tears in my eyes," said Gaines. "Because it brings back some really good times for me in this city." 

Gaines just got her booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, and said that seeing the crowds of people at the parade gives her hope that the pandemic may soon be over. 

"I don't fool myself. I know we have a really long way to go, " she said. "But we have come so far. And I just hope this kind of thing keeps happening for us."