Floats, Balloons, and Celebrities, Oh My!: Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

By Timothy Horning and Hillary Kativa

Since 1920, Philadelphia’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade has been a city tradition. Although the Macy’s parade in New York City is perhaps better known, Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is recognized as the oldest in the country and was originally the brainchild of Ellis Gimbel, one of the founding brothers of the eponymous department store. Ever the industrious capitalist, Gimbel imagined the parade as a clever marketing tool for his store, which would not only signal the start of the holiday shopping season, but also remind Philadelphians that Gimbels department store could serve all of their holiday needs.

The first parade in 1920 was made up of only fifty Gimbels employees but quickly grew into a festival of floats, balloons, and high school marching bands that draws thousands of spectators each year. Traditionally, the parade began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and moved down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway before concluding at Gimbels department store on Eighth and Market Streets. A float featuring a costumed Santa Claus and his sleigh typically closed the parade as Santa Claus, upon reaching Gimbels, would scale a fire truck ladder to the store’s eighth floor, conveniently the home of Gimbels “Toyland.” Over the years, the parade became immensely popular and other cities and stores, including Macy’s in New York City, quickly instituted their own annual Thanksgiving Day parades based on Gimbels’ prototype.

The parade continued for sixty-five years until the Gimbels department store was taken over by Allied Stores Corporation and renamed “Stern’s” in 1986. The new company had no interest in continuing the annual parade and, without its chief creator and sponsor, the fate of the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Parade was very much in doubt. Ultimately, local television station WPVI, an ABC affiliate who had broadcast the parade since 1966, took on the costs of producing it and eventually convinced other corporate sponsors to join. WPVI partnered with Reading-based department store chain Boscov’s for several years and, seeking to compete with the ever-popular Macy’s spectacle, organizers decided to expand the parade by adding more floats, balloons, and bands as well as feature celebrities in the parade. The 1986 parade boasted twenty bands, twenty floats, and forty-eight balloons, as well as 4,500 people assisting with the production. 76ers basketball star Julius Erving served as the parade’s grand marshal and was joined by such illustrious pop culture figures as Fred Flintstone, the Care Bears, and Mickey and Minnie Mouse. In 1986, the parade, freed from its long-standing association with Gimbels, also reversed its route and ran from 20th and Market Streets to City Hall before turning onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and concluding on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

From 1986 forward, Boscov’s and WPVI/6ABC continued to sponsor the Thanksgiving Day Parade until Boscov’s filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Swedish furniture maker IKEA, whose U.S. corporate headquarters are located in nearby Plymouth Meeting, stepped in to co-sponsor the parade following Boscov’s bankruptcy. The 2010 6ABC/IKEA Thanksgiving Day Parade, now in its 91st year, will begin at 8:30 AM at 20th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard and follow the route begun in 1986, moving up to City Hall, then the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and finally the Art Museum steps. Special guests include Sam Champion from “Good Morning America,” singer and “Dancing with the Stars” contestant Brandy, Miss America 2010 Caressa Cameron, and the Philadelphia Eagles Cheerleaders. For those who are not able to attend in-person, the parade will be broadcast live on 6ABC and, of course, the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade’s illustrious history is also chronicled in the fun and festive photos on display here at PhillyHistory.org.


Sources:

“2010 6ABC IKEA Thanksgiving Day Parade.” 6ABC.com. <http://dig.abclocal.go.com/wpvi/html/wpviThanksGivingParade.html>(18 November 2010).

Detjen, Jim. “Wet Walk in Showers, the Annual Parade Heralds Shopping Season Start.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 November 1985. Newsbank. Accessed 16 November 2010.

Gillin, Beth. “A Glorious Day, A Grand March the Sun Shines and City Spirits Glow for the Thanksgiving Day Parade.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 28 November 1986. Newsbank. Accessed 16 November 2010.

Kadaba, Lini. “Thanksgiving Parade Draws 500,000.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 November 1987. NewsBank. Accessed 16 November 2010.

Nunnally, Derrick. “Tradition Marches On At Thanksgiving Parade.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 November 2008. NewsBank. Accessed 18 November 2010.

Woodall, Martha. “The City is Set to Let Loose a Parade of Thanksgiving.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 November 1987. Newsbank. Accessed 16 November 2010.

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