The year was 1924; the place, New York City. A group of animals from the Central Park Zoo marched down a street in Harlem accompanied by a very special group of people: a handful of immigrant Macy’s employees, who wanted to express how thankful they were for living in the United States that year. And thus, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was born.
Though today the event is a big blowout, with A-list stars, Broadway performances and millions of spectators on hand to watch the marching bands, floats and balloons make their way downtown, the parade had humble beginnings, outlined in the book Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: A New York City Holiday Tradition, by former PEOPLE editor Stephen M. Silverman.
Want to impress your Thanksgiving guests with some supercool facts about the parade, now in its 91st year? We’ve got you covered.
The first-ever balloon was Felix the Cat
The “biggest star of his time,” as Silverman tells PEOPLE, Felix debuted in 1927. He was filled with air and not helium, however, so instead of soaring above the New York City streets, he was held up on stilts. To commemorate the parade’s 90th year last Thanksgiving Day, Felix made a triumphant return — filled only with air and carried on stilts.
A rubber shortage put the parade on hold
For a few years during World War II, Macy’s canceled the event, in large part because there wasn’t enough rubber or helium to create and inflate the balloons.
Macy’s wasn’t the first department store to have a parade
That honor would go to Gimbels, a now-defunct Philadelphia-based chain that launched its own parade one year before Macy’s.
The balloons used to be released at the end of the route — but there’s a good reason that stopped
Seriously. “In the early years, they would untether them, and they would fly away and invariably end up somewhere on Long Island,” Silverman recounts. “If you found one, you could claim a reward.” The problem? Aside from the environmental toll, people would rip the balloons apart and bring in small pieces in hopes of earning said reward.
The tradition ultimately came to an end when one loose balloon became entangled in the propeller of a small plane, nearly taking it down. “The pilot said she had something extra-special to be thankful for that Thanksgiving,” Silverman says. These days, the balloons are simply deflated, crated and stored in New Jersey once the parade ends.
Not all balloons are created equal
While square balloons present the biggest challenges — “Any pointed parts are difficult to design, inflate and balance,” Silverman says — round balloons can be tricky, too: “It actually took them a while to get Olive Oyl well balanced,” he shares. What finally made it work? “They put Sweet Pea in her arms.”
And if a balloon is sporting an accessory, look out! One year, so much rainwater collected in Popeye’s cap that it spilled out and drenched the crowd as the balloon made a tight turn.
Bonus: How much do you think the parade costs?
That one we’ll never know, Silverman says. “Macy’s won’t disclose that,” he explains. “As they say, it’s a gift to the city, and as with any gift, you don’t leave the price tag on.”
Catch the 91st Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade at 9 a.m. ET on NBC.