Detroit: A City on the Rise: Thanksgiving Day Parade

BY CHRIS ZADOROZNY, Staff Columnist

Detroit was a growing city, the fastest, in fact during the Roaring Twenties.  As Detroit grew and became one of the largest in the country, the city needed something to solidify it as one the best cities in the country too.

Santa waving in front of the J.L. Hudson Building after the Thanksgiving Parade in the 1930s

America’s Thanksgiving Parade, as it is now known, was the answer.  The parade, which began as the “J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day Parade,” brought in people from all around the Metro Detroit area from 1924 until 1979, when the J.L. Hudson Company could no longer put forth money to make a profit.

It was then that the Detroit Renaissance Foundation took over the parade for four years, before transferring it to the newly formed Michigan Thanksgiving Parade Foundation in 1983.  Finally, The Parade Company took over in 1990 and has since held the rights to the parade, re-naming it America’s Thanksgiving Parade.

Since 1924, the parade has grown larger with each year.  In its first year, the parade only had four bands, 10 floats, and a small number of people dressed up in large heads.  Today, it draws over one million people downtown. It is the second oldest parade in the country, tied with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, and just behind the 6abc Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia.

During World War II, in 1943 and 1944, the parade came to a halt to help the war effort.  In 1942, the last year before they stopped the parade, the balloons, floats, and anything rubber had signs on them stating, “I’m on my way to the Rubber Salvage.”  All of the giant animals and other balloons were sliced up behind the Hudson’s Building after the parade and went directly into the war effort.

When the parade returned in 1945, over 200,000 people came out to witness the first parade in three years and they were rewarded with over 600 characters, eight bands, and 75 clowns, including Donald Duck, the Toy Soldiers, and the Wizard of Oz.

It’s obvious that children are the main audience of a parade, and in 1948, the Rotary, Board of Education, and Legal Division of the Detroit Street Railroad combined to bring over 650 handicapped children in 20 buses to the parade.  For the kids, Santa is the main attraction and seeing him brings a smile on every kid’s face.

For Hudson’s, it was important to be the biggest name out there to market the Toyland, which was located on the twelfth floor of the building.  In 1958, Hudson’s began a contest for students to design floats for the parade and the winning design actually had their float built, which still continues today.  The first ever winner of the float design was 10 year old Carol Kulesza.

The parade has also been broadcast live nationally on television, first in 1948 locally, then on NBC in 1952.  As the parade became more nationally known, CBS wanted to broadcast it live but Hudson’s had a contract with ABC.  CBS did air it even though it was threatened with a lawsuit in 1959.  The national coverage ceased to exist in 1988, but resumed back in 1999.

One other aspect of the parade is the Turkey Trot, a 10k (6.2 mile) race before the parade starting usually around 7:30 or 8:00 am.  This year it starts at 7:45 am, for its 29th year.  There is also a 5k (3.1 mile) race and a one-mile fun run.  Last year it drew over 17,000 runners and they welcome all ages.  There is a costume contest and when registering, you receive a number bib, timing bib, and a pullover with the logo.  This year, officials are expecting 20,000 runners, which is their limit.

America’s Thanksgiving Parade in 2007

The current parade route starts at Woodward Ave. and Mack Ave. in the Midtown District and moves south down Woodward Ave. ending at Congress St.  This was the first route taken back in 1924 when the parade started.  It has had to change courses over the years it has existed, though.  It will take the same route this year on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 24.  It will step off, as they say, from Mack Ave. and Woodward Ave at 9:05am.

America’s Thanksgiving Parade is a great event to attend and it doesn’t cost a dime.  It’s totally free and if you get a good spot early on Woodward Ave., you will be able to see not only the runners run and cheer them on, but you also get to see a great parade.  Make sure to dress warm, bring some hot beverages and snacks, a couple of chairs and blankets, and you are ready to go.

It is such a historic event, even if you aren’t a kid, the enjoyment of seeing the different floats, bands, and people and the holiday cheer the parade brings won’t disappoint you.

Next week we will look at the buildings in the Lower Woodward Historic District, as well as what is being done to them to revive the area that was once the busiest in the city.

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