Love a Parade

Detroit’s 90th Thanksgiving Day show is a tradition — especially for volunteers


The parade begins at 8:50 a.m. Nov. 24 on Woodward Avenue, and will be shown on WDIV-TV Local 4 at 10 a.m. Radio coverage is on WJR-AM. The Hob Nobble Gobble fundraiser is on Nov. 18 at Ford Field. It will include hip hop artist Flo Rida, plus rides, carnival games, and a Parade of Stars. The Strategic Staffing Solutions Turkey Trot takes place early on parade day, and benefits the Parade Company, the Detroit Mounted Police Division, and Michigan Humane Society. 

Emily Thompson is following in her father’s footsteps. But not too closely. 

She has only a dozen years under her belt — most of them under a balloon — as a Thanksgiving Day parade volunteer. 

Thompson joined the crew at age 18. Her husband, Chris Matus, is even more of a rookie. He’s put in only six years.

But Thompson’s father, Brian, has been at it for over three decades. Not that he’s got a big head about his tenure — although he once wore a big head in the parade. 

That was before Brian Thompson found a home on the “flight crew” that fills the parade’s signature balloons and gently guides them down Woodward Avenue each year. Except for that time in 1990 when Chilly Willy “escaped” on an unauthorized flight plan some 25 miles northeast into Lake St. Clair. 

But that’s another story.

At first glance, the parade is all about kids and culminates with Santa’s arrival. But adult volunteers make it happen — and they love every minute of it! 

On parade day, most arrive well before dawn. Others donate to join the Distinguished Clown Corps or don a large head. And some of the city’s most famous folk have become downright giddy when asked to participate in the parade.

This Detroit tradition gets an even bigger shot in the arm as America’s Thanksgiving Parade celebrates its 90th anniversary.

It nearly didn’t make it to this ripe old age. The Michigan Thanksgiving Parade was founded in 1924. In 1979, Hudson’s stopped sponsoring it. And after CBS-TV ended national coverage in 1988, the bleeding escalated. By 1990, the parade was on life support. 

But Art Van Elslander saved the day. He wrote a $200,000 check, and later became the primary sponsor (thus the trademarked name “America’s Thanksgiving Parade Presented by Art Van”).

The excitement culminates on Thanksgiving, but it’s more than a one-day event. Parade Company staff, its board of directors, and some 2,500 volunteers work year-round to make it happen. 

“It takes a huge village to do this,” says Tony Michaels, Parade Company president and CEO. That includes everything from the artists who sculpt Styrofoam figures to the unsung heroes who follow the equestrians with shovels on parade day.

Michaels, former CEO of Big Boy Restaurants, joined the parade in 2009. Over the years, the financial woes have turned around with the help of events like Hob Nobble Gobble, where as many as 2,000 guests help raise some feed. 

A team of 14 full-time employees and 30 freelance artists are housed in a 200,000-square-foot ParadeLand studio that was once a Plymouth auto plant. It serves as a warehouse for around 25 existing floats, over 3,000 costumes, and 180 big heads. It’s also where they make 3-8 new floats each year. 

Those numbers add up to what U.S. News & World Report Travel has recognized as one of the country’s best Thanksgiving parades and second in size only to Macy’s in New York City.

This year’s Co-Grand Marshal Federal Judge Damon J. Keith joins a lineup of past marshals, including actor Tim Allen, former Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, and WJR-AM’s Paul W. Smith. 

There will be plenty of dignitaries and entertainers on hand, from Mayor Mike Duggan to, of course, Santa. 

Because it’s all about the kids, right? 

For information, visit Want to volunteer? Email
Edit Module
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Archive »Related Content

Web Exclusive: Meeting the Beatles

Fifty years ago, a Detroit-area teenager won a contest to meet The Beatles.

Rocking in Style

John Varvatos and Alice Cooper talk about their musical and fashion influences — and Detroit’s comeback

Well-Versed in Classics

DSO oboe player tools around town in a rare pair of turquoise 1962 Lincoln Continentals

All Dressed Up & Ready ...

Cobo Center is still a work in progress, but Auto Show visitors will notice a host of improvements

One Night Only: Steven Spielberg and John Williams at the DSO

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. The Makings of the Shinola Hotel
    When the Detroit brand’s first foray into hospitality opens its doors, it’ll offer customers...
  2. My Two Christmases
    An Armenian-Iranian, Detroit-based writer reflects on transposing the holiday across continents
  3. New Year’s Eve, Brooklyn Style
    Tips for celebrating 2019 from the pros at Brooklyn Outdoor
  4. Main Review: SheWolf
    Born in Detroit but inspired by Rome, SheWolf takes diners on a culinary journey
  5. The Art of Gifting
    Metro Detroit tastemakers from all walks of life offer a glimpse of what’s on their holiday...
  6. Comeback Catering
    Dish, in Detroit, pushes through hard times with consistently delicious food
  7. Meet the Makers: Tait Design Co.
    How an after-work hobby ascended to a booming business
  8. Precious Metals
    Layering necklaces, stacking rings, and placing bangle upon glitzy bangle: a definitive guide to...
  9. Food Recipe: Braised Beef Brisket
    Chef Aaron Lowen, of Empire Kitchen & Cocktails, shares one of his favorite holiday recipes
  10. An Hour with ... Ricki Friedman
    Founder, Break the Weight