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