Parade Leader

As the new director of The Parade Company, David Danielson tries to keep everything afloat while preparing for America’s Thanksgiving Parade
Parade Leader
David Danielson carries the gigantic head of Bob Seger. Photograph by Roy Ritchie

Like a busy Thanksgiving Day host overseeing all the details of the tabletop tradition, David Danielson is preparing to serve Detroit’s annual parade in a way that meets and exceeds the appetites of fans.

As the new director of the nonprofit Parade Company, which produces the America’s Thanksgiving Parade, Danielson oversees a small army of employees and volunteers to deliver the visual feast for curbside guests.

“What I really like working on is the big, important stuff,” Danielson says. “Some of it gets real labor-intensive, like cutting a million jelly beans. Thank heavens we have volunteers.”

A graduate of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, Danielson got his start at The Parade Company during school. It was during that time that he designed the Big Green Book Worm, one of the company’s best-known floats.

“I learned the commercial side of making art — art as a skilled trade,” he says. “This isn’t the deep art you learn in art school, but it can be just as fulfilling. I’m not putting these pieces in a museum, but I’ll show them to a million people.”

By 2002, he had risen to assistant art director at The Company, but the routine seasonal layoffs were too hard on him and he left to become a full-time artist at Prop Art Studio, a privately owned company that produces mostly large pieces for corporations, such as the Red Wings’ octopus.

But when The Parade Company art director position opened, he tossed his hat into the ring. “I missed doing this kind of stuff,” he says. “It’s commercial, but as an artist you get the chance to be very creative. There’s a lot of innovation. Sometimes we have to make our own tools and just figure it out.”

In his new role, Danielson manages activities at the company’s 218,500-square-foot Detroit studio. There, he works in a setting that’s akin to an illustrated children’s book come to life, where rows of giant floats seem lifelike and eager for another opportunity to entertain, and Santa and his reindeer are poised to take a leap.

This year, the big new undertaking is a massive float for General Motors and the United Auto Workers that shows the industry’s historical evolution.

Floats are intricate feats of complicated engineering. They start as elaborate drawings, usually produced in collaboration with the float’s sponsor, and then are painstakingly assembled over several weeks. Many involve robotic parts. Each float contains a cramped space for a driver, who usually can’t see and must depend on a walker beside the float, who provides directions.

Like keeping one eye on marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes under the broiler while watching gravy thicken with the other, a lot can go awry. On the eve of the parade, “it’s a madhouse,” Danielson says. “It’s a big operation.”

But dinner and all the fixings generally get to the table while they’re hot. And to the chilly onlookers for the past 84 years, the parade spectacle glides by mostly without a hitch.

“I feel very lucky to have gotten this position,” Danielson says, sounding a bit like a host who’s hastily stashed his apron in time to propose a toast and pass the turkey. “This type of thing is what these times call for, to be able to go down to a parade in November. It’s something we can all be proud of.”

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