Friends, I’ve never taken the time to say this before, but I deeply appreciate the fact that you’re reading this. It means you’re taking time away from the Big Game on TV, or from nibbling at the bowls of pre-feast snacks, or discussing politics with your oddball uncle, the one who insists that the Commies spiked our drinking water with saltpeter back in the ‘50’s to reduce American population growth. (O.K., so maybe reading my column isn’t that much of a sacrifice, after all.)
But thanks for stopping by, and I’ll try to make it worth your while.
To-day, I’m going to talk about a famous department-store chain and its annual holiday parade.
Now, if you’re a long and faithful reader of my Deck Log, you’re probably thinking that you’ve heard me talk about this before. But, no, this isn’t a re-run of my 2009 Turkey Day column. There’s a new story here. But to get there, I’m going have to go over some ground that’s going to sound familiar.
It was the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, and life was good. Especially so for the president of what was then the largest chain of department stores in the country. It was a family business, founded by his father, and three of his brothers served in key positions with the company. But “El”---to use the family nickname---was in charge of the whole ball of wax, including seven major stores spread from coast to coast, with net sales exceeding one hundred million dollars.
It was a time of prosperity in America, and El was certainly prosperous. In the fall of 1920, with the holiday season looming, he came up with an idea to show his appreciation for the public who had made his stores a rising success. In those days, when commercial radio was new, movies were still silent, and television was only a concept rattling around in Philo Farnsworth’s noggin, the biggest public attraction was a parade.
But El didn’t want just any old parade. He wanted it to be something memorable, a spectacle of entertainment and delight, to show thanks for his good fortune. And to make sure that everybody had a chance to see it, the parade would be held on Thanksgiving Day, when people had the day off from work. And it would go right through the centre of town.
A gesture like this didn’t come out of the blue. El was already known as something of a philanthropist. Every year, he sponsored “Orphans’ Day at the Circus”, in which he treated some ten thousand parentless children to a day at the “Big Top”, with all the peanuts, lollypops, and ice cream they could eat.
“I think you’ll enjoy hearing ten thousand children laughing at once,” he once said. “If you’ve ever been to a circus, that’s explanation enough.”
But let’s not be too quick to hang a halo on him, either. El was also aware that the sort of grand pageant he had in mind would be a great marketing tool. It would remind potential customers that the holiday season had arrived and there were lots of gifts to purchase. Why not buy them at the friendly store, from the generous folks who had put on such a great show?
There were permits to obtain, along with the support of the police and fire departments and the street-maintenance workers. The company lawyers handled all of that. As for the parade itself, fifty store employees volunteered to give up their Thanksgiving to march down the length of the city in the chilly autumn weather. Many of the volunteers were immigrants, and they saw the parade as a chance to display their gratitude for the new lives they had found in this country. El provided whatever they needed for costuming and meals and transportation.
So, when the big day came, on Thursday, 25 November 1920, what the parade lacked in size was more than made up for with enthusiasm. Newspaper and bill advertising had done its job, and the sidewalks were crowded with spectators to see the passing troupe of happy marchers. They came on bicycles, on stilts, on horseback. They juggled, played instruments, twirled batons. Their merriment was infectious, and the crowds stamped their feet and clapped their hands to the music.
There were clowns and cowboys, and many of them were attired in traditional costumes of their native lands. And to the delight of the children, the whole review was capped off by a horse-drawn wagon carrying Santa Claus and his sleigh.
The parade ended at El’s flagship store in the heart of town, where Santa scaled a ladder, obligingly provided by the fire department, up to the eighth-floor home of “Toyland”. From there, Jolly Old Saint Nick exhorted to the joyous throng that this was the place to do all their Christmas shopping.
It was the first Thanksgiving parade ever held in a city, and by any standard, it was a success. Public sentiment was overwhelmingly positive. The newspapers praised El and his company for their civic-minded altruism.
And El’s stores saw their highest holiday sales ever.
Sometimes, you know right from the beginning when a tradition is set; this was one of those times. With each succeeding Thanksgiving, the parade grew more impressive, with floats and balloons and high-school marching bands. El gladly paid the licensing fees to have Mickey Mouse and Popeye pass down main street. Stars of cinema and radio, and later, television, served as grand marshals or waved at admiring throngs from the backs of open limousines.
It grew to the point where El had to hire a full-time employee whose only responsibility was to produce the parade.
It didn’t take long for the idea to catch on. Within that first decade, other businesses in other big cities were sponsoring their own Thanksgiving Day parades, just as splendid in their pageantry. But El’s was the first.
As El had expected, the annual parade proved to be an endless stream of publicity for his chain of stores. And they got another boost from the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, where the boss got to see himself portrayed on screen.
El served as the head of the company until his death, in 1950. The Thanksgiving tradition he started outlived him. His nephew succeeded him as company president, but for decades, the parade marched on just as it always had, bringing joy and ushering in the Christmas season for the people of Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia?! Don’t you mean New York City, commander?”
Oh, I see . . . you thought I was talking about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
No doubt about it, the most famous Thanksgiving Day parade in America is Macy’s. The Macy’s parade is virtually synonymous with the holiday. But, the man responsible for the first Thanksgiving Day parade in America, the fellow who originally came up with the idea, was “El”---for Ellis Gimbel, president of the Gimbels department-store chain.
You know, the other guys.
From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving Day, and many more of them.