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Macy's parade begins the Christmas season

Sunday, November 19, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It seemed like such a wonderful, made-for-Christmas memories idea.

Jean McFaddin, producer-director of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, decided to have Santa Claus alight from his sleigh and enter the store. First, though, a little girl would hand him a balloon and he would reach into his sack and pull out a teddy bear.

Well, Santa stepped down from the float and a mob scene ensued. Security guards, unaware of the planned exchange, tried to muscle Santa through the crowd. "The little girl, knowing this is her moment in fame, lunges through and grabs Santa's pants and yanks real hard," McFaddin remembers.

And then it happened. "His pants fell off on national television." Santa, to everyone's relief, was wearing jeans underneath to keep warm.

Macy's, however, was deluged with belts of all sizes and makes. Now, the jolly man wears a jumpsuit underneath his distinctive coat, along with hand-tooled leather accessories and bells that match the ones on his reindeer. It's the same outfit as in Macy's Santaland, since some eagle-eyed observers noticed the clothing didn't match.


74th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

When: Thursday 9 a.m. to noon


Hosts: Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Al Roker


If you're a faithful parade watcher, you probably know who McFaddin is. She's at the head of the pack in red coat, black slacks and black Texas cowboy hat.

"I have the great privilege and honor of being the person who officially leads the parade down Broadway, with two fellow parade officials on either side, and actually I cut the ribbon Uptown with Al Roker," she says. He and "Today" colleagues Katie Couric and Matt Lauer will host the parade on NBC from 9 a.m. to noon Thursday.

This will be McFaddin's 24th - and final - parade. "It's the 74th and it's my last official one, and obviously my intention is to make it the greatest show that's ever happened," she says.

She took over in 1977 when the parade was showing its age. The tradition, which started in 1924, had gotten "dog-eared and tired as a piece of entertainment. And while it was a well-loved tradition, there was great concern not only about the quality of the parade but the future of the parade."

Macy's decided to hire a professional producer-director with entertainment experience. "Here was this great tradition and legend, which I first saw on TV in black and white when I was 8 years old. And all of a sudden, it was a chance to really do something with it. That's why these 23 years - 24 years, I guess now - have been so wonderful and rewarding."

McFaddin started by updating the balloons - Kermit the Frog was the first addition - and painting pictures from the ground up for spectators and TV viewers. "I see the parade as being confetti in the sky," and that means incorporating small and mid-size balloons along with the mammoth ones.

Under her watch, the parade has doubled in size to 6,000 to 7,000 participants, including Macy's employees from as far away as Boston and Washington, D.C., 14 marching bands, clowns, cheerleaders, dancers, singers, float and balloon handlers, Rockettes, entertainers and Broadway performers.

She decided to capitalize on the parade being the longest-running show on Broadway and incorporate stars into the proceedings. She and NBC realized the parade is actually several shows at once, such as the moving march and the performance area, and justice must be done to all of them. McFaddin and an NBC director worked to set up the telecast's format, which allows viewers to see the parade step off and to share that early magic.

This week, some favorite balloons will return and four will debut: Bandleader Mickey Mouse; Cassie from PBS's "Dragon Tales"; answer man Jeeves carrying golden keys of knowledge; and a revamped Ronald McDonald. Entertainers will include the Baha Men, BBMak, The Corrs, Aaron Carter, Kenny Chesney, Jennifer Day and Miss America, accompanied by 24 Hawaiian dancers.

In the days before video tryouts, McFaddin and others would travel to the hometowns of the bands expected to participate. One year, she was in a place so small that it had no hotel; she stayed with the band director and his wife. Her assistant and an NBC director, both men, were housed in the town's showcase mansion, open for tours but lacking electricity or running water.

In a way, she misses those days. Today, videos from 300 prospective bands pour in and 12 to 14 bands representative of the regions of the country are picked.

Although McFaddin tells herself that rain lets the streets glisten and the balloons shine, she's praying for good weather. Still, she remembers the parade in the late '80s when Manhattan had been hit with days of torrential downpours. She scanned the sidewalks and was disappointed to see only garbage bags. "All of a sudden, the parade starts and all of the little garbage bags come to life." Parents had cleared the shelves of Glad bags and tucked their tykes inside them.

Yes, McFaddin loves the original "Miracle on 34th Street" with Maureen O'Hara and Edmund Gwenn. She thinks it captures the spirit of the holiday, the importance of family and Macy's now-unmistakable relationship with the parade and Santa. In the movie, a bedraggled O'Hara shares a turkey dinner (prepared by someone else) with her young daughter and handsome neighbor after the parade.

McFaddin usually arrives home at 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving. She immediately goes to sleep for the first time since early Wednesday morning (although she dashes home at 2 a.m. on parade day to change clothes and freshen makeup). She sleeps for six or seven hours and then watches the parade on tape till 6 a.m. She then gets dressed and heads to the store.

"I make sure Santa's OK and the kids are OK," in his store residence. "Then I go eat my Thanksgiving Day lunch at noon on Friday" with fellow staffers and their families. "That's when we have our turkey and dressing and say our own thanks for a safe, wonderful, happy parade."

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