Backstage at the Big Parade

The question is always the same: "Did Santa's pants fall off?"

It's our Thanksgiving tradition here. First thing in the morning, I prep my apple sausage stuffing and get it into the crockpot for a long, slow cook. (It starts with two sticks of butter and kind of goes downhill from there....) I grab my second or third cup of coffee and, as I have for as long as I can remember, sit down to watch the NBC broadcast of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. As the years pass the list of guest celebrities gets less and less familiar; I'm currently at "The Cast of Sesame Street" when recognition finally dawns on me. But one thing over the years has never changed.

I'm here for the bands.

But back to Santa. My wife Jen swears that sometime in the early 1980's, at the end of the parade when he arrived at 34th Street and Herald Square, Santa stood to wave to the cheering crowds--and due to either a faulty buckle or mischievous elf he lost his pants. She distinctly remembers her and her Grandma Edna looking at each other with the expression of "did that just happen?" I've never seen video evidence of long-lost footage on YouTube, nothing of the sort. She has found other people with the same memory, but no proof. Just like Area 51, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Cubs winning the World Series.....I want to believe.

We have lots of great memories of this holiday classic, mostly viewed through increasingly larger TV screens. One of our favorites was watching at home as our alma mater, Illinois State University's "Big Red Marching Machine" brought in the jolly man himself:

But for me, nothing tops where I was one year ago--when I actually got to BE there for the first time.

It was one of the last tours I organized, for a school and a director who had become dear friends over many tour experiences together. The American Fork High School Band from Utah was making a return trip to the parade, and I decided this time around I wanted to be there with the group to finally experience the Macy's Parade first hand.

During the planning process of something like this, and then actually being there, you learn a lot that generally you would never know sitting in front of the television in your slippers with a hot cup of coffee. It greatly increases your appreciation for the hard work that goes into a performance at this event, and how this gives hundreds of band students a glimpse into the world of professional entertainment.

First, the area where the bands perform for the cameras on 34th Street in front of Macy's is much smaller in person:

No, those aren't jazz hands.

It feels smaller still on parade day when they bring in the lights, cameras, bleachers for special guests and the broadcast booth. Not to mention the massive broadcast team that runs the show. You would look at this and wonder how the large bands can maneuver as they do in that tight space. Apparently, the camera not only adds ten pounds, but about 30 feet as well.

It's also a very precisely timed event. Just off camera there is a red starting line on the street, and each group has precisely 75 seconds once they begin crossing that line to do their entire camera performance. That includes getting everyone into the staging area. If you've watched and it looks like the bands--especially the large ones with 200+ members--are practically running into their spots, it's because they are running in step to their spots.

Bands film their routines in advance to send to the Macy's Parade creative team for approval of length as well as critique and suggestions. The Macy's creative team is there to help these groups look and sound their best during this "once in a lifetime" moment, and this collaboration works to create a performance that has a professional polish and appeal for the millions in the TV audience.

But the truly amazing part of this is what leads up to this moment. The part behind the curtain that goes unseen on parade day.

The day usually starts for some of these bands around 1:00 AM. And it's earlier if the band is staying outside of the city and needs to drive through the Lincoln Tunnel. We stayed in midtown which allowed us to sleep in to the lazy hour of 1:30 AM. They get into full uniform, load themselves and their instruments (and nothing else) onto their buses and make their way to Herald Square for camera rehearsal.

The camera rehearsal serves two purposes. It gives the camera team their opportunity to finalize what you the viewer will see by deciding points of interest in the performance, setting proper camera angles and getting the timing "just right". It also gives the group their only "run through" of that routine they've been perfecting for months on the actual stage. Often this will be the first time they will have had the opportunity to review the routine as a full group since leaving home days before.

This will also be their only practice with the creative team who will give them their visual "GO" cue for that critical 75 seconds to start. Visual because of the factor that is still not in place and won't be until their actual performance moment--the overwhelming sound of cheering crowds echoing off of the canyon of buildings on 34th Street, making it virtually impossible to hear an audio cue. At most groups will get to run this twice...and that's usually only if the camera crew feels they need another look. This gives a completely new definition to being "on" in a rehearsal, and the focus demanded of a group is tremendous.

So now it's about 4:30 AM, you're in midtown with very little to do until parade line up around 9:00 AM. What to do before traveling 50 blocks uptown to the step off point? Shawarma take-out for 300?

Many groups will do a combination of the following, in no particular order:

  • Find a quiet street, park the buses, and get some sleep. In full uniform. With your instrument on your lap.
  • Get breakfast.
  • Repeat the sleep plan.

We had set up a buffet breakfast for the band at Planet Hollywood, and they and locations like Hard Rock Café tend to be some of the "go-to" places for the Macy's bands. They are incredibly efficient at serving multiple bands of hundreds of students and chaperones in these early hours of the day. It is likely one of their biggest days of the year--and the day hasn't even started at that point.

I can also tell you this: one of the most surreal things you can ever experience is Times Square at 5:00 AM on a holiday.

I half expected to see Charlton Heston running down the street yelling something about soylent green.

Finally the groups arrive near the American Museum of Natural History, and to say the atmosphere is festive is an understatement. Bands and parade units lining up, floats being boarded, the iconic balloons being inflated....and everyone in a jovial mood and happy to be there, despite the likelihood of complete lack of sleep. It is a truly unique and wonderful experience that, in a city with a reputation for brusqueness, exudes the warmth and generosity of the holiday.

Here's the truly amazing part to think about. When you see those bands from the warmth and comfort of your living room, you're seeing about 200 teenagers who have been up since 1:00 AM, have had a rehearsal at about 3:30 AM, have slept sporadically on a bus, have just marched almost 3 miles in who knows what kind of weather....and are giving the performance of a lifetime at the end of the parade.

And they're nailing it.

Tomorrow I'll watch the parade, as I always have, but with a new set of eyes and a bigger sense of awe and appreciation that comes from the perspective of having been there. And I'll be thinking about the incredible memories of that experience, grateful for having had the opportunity to peer briefly behind the curtain of magic of this holiday tradition.

And of course, watching Santa closely. Because you never know. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!