A Photo Tour: Backstage at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade Studio

by Forrest Hanson

My coworker Ally and I had an opportunity to tour the Hoboken production shop and initial staging ground at which the floats and balloons for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade are constructed. This rococo monstrosity is the first thing you see when passing through the studio’s surprisingly fortified entryway. Housed outside, we found an unidentified sleigh construction (not Santa’s; it turned out to be the Dora float), three iconic Macy’s stars, red and inflated, and a blue cat on a rusty tin roof, all surrounded by barbed wire and a scattered few forklifts.

I didn’t immediately recognize the above as the OfficeMax float. (When it finally dawned on me, I thought to myself, “Those herky jerky moves? I am a better dancer than that.” No, I am not.) These elves did not rest once in the two hours we were there.

Planning is a year round process. If memory serves, there are around 25 floats in each parade, and this year seven will be new. To become a sponsor — like our host, Homewood Suites — you must submit an assumedly lofty proposal more than a year out. If accepted, you meet with the Macy’s crew — everyone at the studio is a Macy’s employee, as are most/all those who appear as balloon handlers/clowns/etc. — to discuss the overall vision. Once that is settled, it is in Macy’s hands until completion.

And here’s the final product. FOX 5 was there shooting a segment, and their enterprising reporter snagged school kid Donald Hill to help out with the report. Sick buffalo club hat!

John Piper, Macy’s VP of Parade Production or some similarly awesome title, told us that anyone hired to work at the studio must wear multiple hats. If you’re a computer designer, you also paint. If you’re a carpenter, you also help test the balloons, etc. (There’s more on that here.)

The Morton’s Salt float centers around anodyne folks dressed as cupcakes and gingerbread men frolicking in the land of hypertension, which struck me as a bit nefarious except I am offended by the concept of unsalted butter and so am in no position to judge.

This is a model of the Keith Haring float that made the trip down Broadway in 2008 and had a run-in with Meredith Vieira and the Today Show’s broadcast booth. Unlike most floats, which lean forward and lurch along, “Untitled (Figure with Heart)” was fully upright and thus much harder to control. Tom Otterness and Jeff Koons have also had their work immortalized in balloon form…

…and you can add the omni-present Takashi Murakami to that list.

Meet KaiKai and Kiki, Murakami’s weirdly adorable rabbit-and-fanged-chakra tandem. KiKi’s top land speed must max out around .5 MPH because those costumes are like being shackled with cotton candy, so you should look for these on one float or another. My money is on Kanye’s float since he is performing (“Hell of a Life”, hopefully!) and he and Murakami are pals, but I can’t confirm that.

Kanye has also offered to inflate each of this year’s balloons using hot air from his Twitter feed. Just kidding! The balloons will be filled with helium like you’d expect. Interesting fact though: I always thought of parade balloons as being single hollow volumes, but they are actually made up of many smaller pockets designed to support the structure and even out lift. Each pocket is inflated and left for six hours to prove that it’s completely sealed. If any compartment deflates, the team will patch and repeat as necessary. (Above: Po of Kung Fu Panda fame.)

If you would like to volunteer as a balloon handler, you must be an NFL ref with a sweet mustache.

Makes you long for a time when the world only existed in fiery-orange hues.

The paint-spattered floor and the myriad plans and models of past glory in John’s office suggest just how storied a space this studio is. Hoboken has been the parade’s true home for the past forty-fifty years and you can tell. John mentioned wistfully that they’re in the midst of constructing a new studio deeper in Jersey, closer to the storage facility. They are going to have a lot of packing to do.

Joan Rivers is this year’s Snow Queen, and this is her sleigh. True story: Melissa was initially part of the float design but has since been relegated to accompanying her mother’s float on horseback. Note the terrifying disembodied elk head. Gah.

Still dancing! Did I mention that nearly everyone involved in the parade is a Macy’s employee, including the hundreds of folks who volunteer their Thanksgiving morning to see the parade off without a hitch? One Maine outlet’s employees annually close up shop on Thanksgiving Eve, caravan through the night to Central Park West, dutifully escort the parade south through Manhattan, then return north in time for Black Friday. Something to remember as you stuff yourself in the cozy confines of home. Not that anyone can blame you. Happy holidays!

Forrest Hanson loves a parade.