‘Twas the night before Thanksgiving and somewhere in Hoboken, Santa’s elves checked the pockets for a Lincoln Tunnel token”.
Sound ridiculous? Not to John Piper, vice president of the Hoboken-based Macy’s Parade Studio. “My predecessor used to have to stand at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel and pump dollars into the machine.” Nowadays they’ve stepped it up to E-Z Pass, but aside from that many things remain the same.
This year will see the 83rd staging of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Since 1924, the parade has been a celebrated rite of Americana which symbolically kicks off the traditional holiday season. For a brief stretch during the Second World War, the parade was pragmatically suspended as the rubber balloons were scrapped and donated to the Allied war effort. Getting a substantial post-war charge of staying power from the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, the Macy’s parade continues to delight revelers both on the streets of Manhattan and worldwide via televised simulcast. But as anyone around here will tell you, nothing gets to 34th Street without first going through Hoboken.
For over 40 years the Macy’s Parade Studio has operated out of a warehouse in the northern end of town. Riverfront property at the time, the building was erected as a foundry in 1898 that boasted easy access to water and high, vented ceilings to deal with the heat generated within. Eventually the property was converted to a candy factory–Tootsie Rolls, to be precise. In 1968, Macy’s continued to keep the old building young at heart as they took it over for the headquarters of the parade’s operations. “There were still piles of cocoa beans on the floor when my predecessor moved in,” says Piper.
As rampant waterfront development pushes the actual river further and further away, the factory itself seems like a dreary industrial ruin. Clad in concrete and skirted by a chain-link fence with barbed wire, the foreboding NO ADMITTANCE sign seems almost comically intimidating when you consider the mirthful nature of the contents within. But in this day and age, everyone has their guard up–especially Santa.
“He has a brand new float this year,” says Piper. “Of course everyone knows Santa has more than one sleigh, answering the question ‘How can he go all over the world in one night?’” The Santa float has long been the crowd favorite and most anticipated spectacle in the parade; this year the man in red promises not to disappoint. “It’s beautiful,” confides Piper. “It depicts Santa as he takes off from the North Pole transferring from sleigh to sleigh on that magical journey that takes him to all the good boys and girls of the world in one night.”
Piper is a man who takes his job very seriously, while having a tremendous amount of fun doing it. That elf-in-a-workshop atmosphere permeates throughout the facility, and once inside the ominous gate of the fortified float factory the mood seems light and cheerful, as though the artisans are carefully conscious to evoke nothing but positivity when crafting these magnificent structures that will in turn bring so much joy to the world. Then again, maybe they’re just pretty darn good at keeping their emotions in check.
It’s obvious that a tremendous amount of work and pressure goes into the conceptualization, construction, detailing and display of each and every float and balloon. And the bulk of the work is done right there on the premises, evolving from idea to image to icon.
“The signature element of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is those giant character balloons,” says Piper. “Each one of them starts as a sketch, then we work on the computer with a drawing of the skeleton and a steel model called an armature.” The models are then covered in clay and detailed to the exact scale specifications of the balloon. Castings are then made and one model is painted to look precisely like the balloon will when all is said and done. “From that we can layout all the fabric, cut all the seams, glue it all together with the heat sealing machine, put it all together and paint it,” he says, “then finally we bring it out and inflate it with helium.”
In addition to the balloons, the floats are absolutely integral to the parade’s attraction. The benefit of the high foundry ceilings certainly comes into play, but alas the advantage is short lived. “Every float we make has to fold up and fit out that door,” says Piper, as he grudgingly acknowledges the metal doors leading out onto the Hoboken streets and into the Lincoln Tunnel. “The doors,” he says, “are actually slightly larger than the lanes of the toll booths to the tunnel,” which adds even more last minute calibration, calculation and anxiety on the night of the staging.
Hobokenites in the know have long gathered on Thanksgiving Eve to catch a glimpse of the impressive crafts as they make their way out of the Mile Square, under the river and onto the world stage. As a testament to the impact Macy’s Studio has had on the city, the Hoboken Historical Museum (1301 Hudson Street) has sponsored exhibits detailing the history of the parade and its connections on this side of the Hudson. Piper himself was a longtime Hoboken resident. “We still have many Hoboken residents on staff,” he says, “including one gentleman who has over 30 parades under his belt.”
While the Macy’s parade has a significant impact on Hoboken, a Hoboken parade has a significant impact on Macy’s. “Hoboken has its Memorial Day Parade on the Thursday after the holiday,” says Piper. “That date normally coincides precisely with the six month mark before our parade. Once Hoboken has its parade, we know we’re halfway there.”
While every Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is truly remarkable, according to Piper there are some that simply stand out more than others. “When John F. Kennedy was assassinated it was days before the Thanksgiving holiday and many wondered if the parade would or should go on,” he says. “The Kennedy Family and President Johnson demanded it take place so that Americans could come to grips with the events and still celebrate the holidays.”
Piper saw a lot of parallels years later in 2001 following the attacks of September 11th. “If you remember, New York was basically shut down,” he says, “but everyone came together to ensure this tradition that transcends us all.” Reflecting further, he pensively adds, “It was a test of endurance; the heart of America was out there on that street that year.”
While the parade itself is rarely in doubt, the connection to Hoboken is always tenuous. The Macy’s Studio operates in a leased space, and rumors abound that the operation may be moving elsewhere. Considering Hoboken’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for residential development which has characterized the city over the past 15 years, residents are left to wonder just how long Santa’s Jersey workshop will remain in our midst. “It being a lease, that’s the nature of the business,” says Piper diplomatically, adding, “I know we like it here.”
Every year the parade introduces new floats and balloons, and the studio is rather tight-lipped about what is or isn’t coming out of the factory for this year’s event. “There are 4 new floats and 4 new balloons,” says Piper, unable to share much more than that at the time. “Rumors always come and go,” he says, “but I guarantee you Santa will arrive in front of Macy’s on 34th St. at noon on Thanksgiving.” And this year, at least, he’ll be doing it by way of Hoboken.
To see the parade floats, the way Santa’s elves would love you to see them, head into Manhattan on Thursday, November 26th for the 83rd Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.