What event in MI history is eighty-eight years old, has 22,000 racers, 4,500 volunteers, clowns, music and Santa? Even though you might guess the New York City Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Michigan’s past and present is proud to boast an equally magnificent display: I have just described America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of Detroit, MI.
Founded in 1924, the same year as New York’s Thanksgiving Parade, by retail tycoon J.L. Hudson (remember when Macy’s was called Hudson’s?), the first Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit was envisioned and organized by Charles F. Wendel, display manager at Hudson’s. After traveling in Europe and seeing the papier mache works of art in Italy, Wendel included ten floats, an assortment of marching bands and a line-up of giant papier mache heads in the first ever Michigan Thanksgiving Day Parade. While the parade has grown yearly, the tradition of the heads has continued and have become renowned for the artistry that goes into them. In 1985, the Distinguished Clown Corps joined the Big Head Corps as another parade exclusive; influential men and women could donate $1,000 to the parade fund and in turn could walk the parade as the most distinguished of clowns.
While $1,000 may seem like a lot just to wear a costume and frighten clown-fearing adults, funding a parade of this magnitude became a huge endeavor. In 1979, Hudson’s stopped financing the parade in its entirety and the responsibility was left to an assortment of interested financial backers. It was the little things that made it hard for a sole sponsor to take over; in 1980, the city paid nearly forty thousand dollars to raise the streetlights on Woodward Ave. to accommodate the balloons. After a few years in the hands of the Detroit Renaissance, The Parade Co. was founded by a conglomerate of hundreds of local business owners that joined together in sponsorship in 1990. While many businesses contribute sizable donations, their biggest fundraiser of the year happens the day of the parade and has become just as infamous as the Big Heads themselves…the Detroit Turkey Trot!
The parade this past Thursday was the Turkey Trot’s 30th year and offers a 10K, 5K, and 1 mile option to the over 22,000 enrolled racers. This laid-back event attracts serious runners and even more clowns; dogs, strollers, costumes and elaborate decorations are encouraged. The entry fees alone contributed over $200,000 to the parade funds, a number that parade officials predict growth for as the event continues to draw crowds.
Detroit began reaching out to crowds with their event in 1931, when the 8th annual parade was radio broadcasted. In 1959, TV channels got involved, leading to a national broadcast with commentator Shari Lewis. Lewis garnered a following of her own with her beloved puppet Lambchop (“this is the song that never ends,” anyone?) commentating beside her, and Detroit’s contribution to the season of thanks became available to viewers around the country. People away from our beloved mitten and people that haven’t visited yet get to see Foxtown, Detroit’s Fox Theatre, Hockeytown Cafe, Comerica Park, Grand Circus Park and views of the Grand River all along the parade route.
As I am an unabashed lover of all things holiday, Detroit ends their parade with the perfect combination of holiday symbols. As the parade enters the televised area, Santa brings up the caboose on his Toyland float, a whimsical preview of the December month kids dream about. Finally, the mayor of the city (Dave Bing since 2009) presents Santa with the key to the city, a promise to the kids that he’ll be back! As we consider the economic roller coaster Detroit has ridden for the last eight years, it’s a true testament to Michigan community that this Thanksgiving event has only grown and flourished in the last 88 years. From the 100,000 viewers in 1924 to the millions watching in 2012, this holiday tradition is just one of many things Michigan has to be proud of.