“Evel Knievel. And the one and only … Santa Claus.”
There were lots of stars in the 1976 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—the 50th edition of the event. But those are the only two I cared about the last time I watched it, when I was seven. And also the only two I care about now, as I watch the parade again on the miracle of YouTube, and try to take us back.
This was the most boring show every year. I dreaded it. Two hours of old people talking, obscure adults singing show tunes, marching bands marching, baton-twirlers twirling to be endured in order to get two minutes of Santa Claus, who you strongly felt should be hard at work at the North Pole by this point, and not preening in Manhattan.
Still, you couldn’t miss Santa Claus—and anyway, Gramma was doing terrible things with “giblets” down in the kitchen. So you might as well endure this.
And who knew when Evel Knievel might come on, and what he might jump his motorcycle over!
Ed McMahon is hosting this year, and all America’s the sidekick. Parade announcers are Della Reese and McLean Stevenson.
Acts include: The New York mounted police, the Tate High School Band, the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, the Bruin Band from Bonnabel Senior High School in Metairie, Louisiana. “The unbelievable Chinese acrobats from Taiwan,” as McMahon describes them. The all-Black Morris Brown College band. The U.S. Military Academy Cadet Glee Club. The U.S. Naval Academy Drum & Bugle Corps. The Air Force Academy Drum & Bugle Corps. The Coast Guard Windjammers? The Rockettes. And a bunch more marching bands, fuck it.
Balloons include: A giant turkey, a giant Snoopy. A giant Mickey Mouse. A giant Underdog. Dino the Dinosaur. Bullwinkle. A giant lion, who looks just terrible. Smokey Bear. And a hangover balloon.
“Incidentally,” says announcer Stevenson (who played Colonel Blake on M*A*S*H*): “These are the worst cue cards I’ve ever seen.” Incidentally, indeed.
Exactly who was this spectacle designed for? I couldn’t have known, as a seven-year-old. As a grown father, it makes sense: This might have been genuine entertainment before the TV era. By 1976, it could only have meant to be reassuring background TV, letting the parents believe for one lousy day in the year that nothing shifted permanently in the 1960s and during Watergate, and nothing ever will. Everything, somehow, is still okay.
No wonder I found it so boring as a kid. Boring was its main objective.
A side-wheel steamer float approaches. “Well, the old paddle-wheel showboat is steaming into Harro Square with a shipload of entertainment for our parade watchers, McLean,” says Della Reese. I would assume she ad-libbed that gross pun out of her own boredom and disgust, but it actually looks like she read it off one of those terrible cue cards, written in boredom and disgust.
Now suddenly Reese is somehow riding upon a gigantic caterpillar, singing I’ll be damned if I care what. Now Laverne & Shirley are dancing in front of an old hotrod, mouthing to “Da Doo Run Run.”
“You know what, they also have ladies at the Naval Academy,” Stevenson says to Reese, now off the caterpillar and back on the announcing stand. “I wonder why they don’t call those guys, ah, ‘Midshippersons?'”
At seven, I knew this was boring. Now, it feels like a carefully orchestrated cultural fiasco. And also boring. “I feel like I’m doing a kids’ show, says Stevenson.
At this point, Grampa would have been pouring himself a half-eggnog and half-milk, so he could have more. I’m about to do that with bourbon and beer, for the same reason.
“Do they have girls in the Coast Guard?”
“I don’t know, McLean.”
“Gee, that’s funny, cuz I’ve been dating one.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”
This is the hour of lead.
He didn’t jump over anything. And honestly, that could be anybody under that helmet. Barry Manilow took a much bigger risk, briefly turning the Macy’s parade into the Gay Pride parade:
“The man of the hour has arrived, Santa Claus at last!”
“Can you believe it, McLean, there’s only 29 days til Christmas!”
That’s not a beard. That’s not even an attempt at a beard. If anything, that’s an attempt to tip off the kids that Santa is a sham, just as the whole parade seems designed to express that America is a sham. I should have known right then. I think I did know right then, but I didn’t want to upset the grown-ups, on their special day.
Still, I’ll have something nice and Thanksgiving-y and sentimental here tomorrow, because now I’m a grown-up, too.