Jumping Behind the Scenes of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Hey all! Keats here to talk about the most watched performance for the Broadway community. I know you’re probably thinking, “Ah, the Tonys! Of course, he means the Tonys.” However, I do not mean the Tony Awards. The Tony Awards are for sure a big deal and viewed, on average, by six to eight million viewers each year. However, there is one live performance that is viewed by an average of forty million Americans each year: The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Having been lucky enough to perform in it myself, I could easily speak about my experiences, but I figured we’ve heard enough from me this year. Instead, I gathered eight other Broadway veterans to tell you about their behind the scenes experiences performing in one of America’s biggest celebrations and what it meant to them and our industry. 

Before diving in, let’s meet our cast of ferocious ensemble members, alphabetically of course, and find out what show(s) they have performed in the New York Thanksgiving parade with. Here they are: Chip Abbot, “On The Town”. Matt Allen, “Honeymoon in Vegas” and “Oklahoma!”. Stephanie Bissonnette, “Mean Girls”. Holly Ann Butler, “On The Town”. Stephen Carrasco, “White Christmas” and “Fiddler on the Roof”. Albert Guerzon, “Honeymoon In Vegas”. Lauralyn McClelland, “SpongeBob”. Celia Mei Ruben, “Matilda”.

It felt great to be a part of something so huge and check off an item on my bucket list.

Getting to perform in the Thanksgiving Day Parade is an awesome bucket list moment that many performers dream about since they were little. For many, it was a tradition to watch during every Thanksgiving. For example, in the Abbot house: “Growing up in a small town in Nevada the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the TONY awards were my only exposure to Broadway. I remember my Mom would always watch because she loves the Rockettes and we would take in the Broadway shows as well. I never in a million years fathomed that I would get the opportunity to perform on the parade. It’s an annual ritual in our house to wake up, make sticky buns, and watch the parade.” But for Ruben, not having grown up in the US, it wasn’t until she was “12 and [her] cousin who worked for Macy*s brought [her] and [her] sister to be clowns in it that year.” This was when she was first introduced to the magic of the parade. “I vividly remember getting up super early to get there and thinking that NYC was the most magical at that time.”

So what goes on behind the scenes and what does it take to prepare for a live performance like this? Well, not to connect back to my own articles, but most shows have to adapt a staged number from their show to work for a multi-cam performance, which takes some rehearsal time. “Chris Gattelli (our choreographer) wanted to make the staging better for the camera so we changed a lot of our opening number” says McClelland, “We rehearsed onstage at the theatre and they mapped out the Macy’s star that’s on the street for the parade so we’d have some sort of idea for how much space we needed to take up. We had a rehearsal a night or two before the parade right in front of Macy’s, and then one more early morning dress rehearsal Thanksgiving Day “ How early you wonder? “earlier than any human should be allowed to rise” reminisces Carassco. Most performers are up and at their theaters by 5:00 AM!

Albert Guerzon in "Honeymoon in Vegas"
Albert Guerzon, "Honeymoon in Vegas" at the Parade

Also to prepare, there are extra rehearsals and recording sessions. “We were quite lucky with On the Town,” says Abbot, “in that we had just opened and [finished] the cast recording. We were able to make some tweaks during our cast recording to use during the parade. Our choreography stayed mostly the same with the addition of some re-blocking to add swings (YAY!) I think we did this in about 4 hours of rehearsal time.” Four to eight hours seemed to be the normal amount of time a show gets to rehearse. In an already crammed performance schedule, shows are actually only allowed to rehearse their performers for eight extra hours a week before having to pay them overtime. 

Additionally, recording a vocal track is a long standing tradition with most outdoor live performances, (and sometimes the Tonys.) Guerzon remembers figuring this out as a kid having watched the parade growing up. “I would make fun of those who did it badly and try to catch them. I'd say "they're clearly shivering and you can't hear it" Or "They just started waving and stopped singing and the song kept going." Although it can make a performer look like a fool, recorded vocals prevent the audience from hearing the wind blasting into our microphones and hides the chill in our voices for sure. In November in New York, the average temperature is rarely over 50 degrees Fahrenheit. And it has snowed during many performances. Carrasco remembers “in 2008, The Little Mermaid was right after us. I felt so bad for them in their thin body suits and shell bra tops. They MUST have been freezing.” They were. I looked up the weather for Thanksgiving in New York in 2008 and the high that day was 32 degrees. Those were some frozen fish. However, the Mean Girls over at North Shore High School were even colder. 2018 was the coldest parade on record. Bissonnette recalls “It was a rush. It was like doing the Polar Bear Challenge but with 25 battements and high energy running/jumping. They had giant heaters for us to put our hands in until the last second. I literally put my whole right leg in it. The performance went by in a blur. It was so beautiful. The most thrilling performance of my life.” And for some shows the parade plays a key role in their longevity.

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On average, only four shows get to perform each year and after getting forty million viewers seeing your show, there can definitely be a bump in ticket sales or, as Allen says, it “puts your show ‘on the map’ in terms of families coming to NYC who might choose to see your show because they watched you perform on the parade before they pigged out on turkey.  And as an individual performer, it kind of helps convince people who you grew up with that you are actually doing this professionally, and not just doing it as a hobby or a summer job.” Like myself, Carrasco associates the parade with the pulse of their show. “Honestly, now I associate it with longevity. If a show is lucky enough to perform in the parade, it means it’s still open and has survived until the holidays. Most new musicals don’t.” And with the tourist season for Christmas fast approaching before the long down time after the new year, that boost in sales can keep a show open until the next summer.

All of the stress, cold, preparation, and nerves aside, performing live on national television is a RUSH and creates unforgettable moments

On a happier note, the parade is unique because it is one of the few days that multiple shows are performing at the same place. “You see each other in passing and there’s a sense of honour and gratitude that permeates the morning”, remembers Ruben and she’s not wrong. Gathering inside the empty department store, “everyone took pics in the empty store in costume like we were in a Macy's holiday campaign” recalls Guerzon. Allen also remembers a sense of community and solidarity with his fellow performers, “As we were headed to the street the cast of ‘On The Town’ was just exiting and coming off.  We were all high-fiving them and they were all shouting [words of] encouragement to us.  Not to mention we were all nervous and praying to get the performance in before the rain hit.” The weather definitely doesn’t care and some years it has POURED and the show has still gone on. The most memorable to me is the cast of Footloose. Honestly, if you haven’t watched it, take a moment to go YouTube it right now. Jeremy Kushnier lying down in a freezing puddle of rain is iconic. Go! Go watch! SO GOOD RIGHT!? Ok but more from our eight friends. Sagely, Allen also advises that when you get the chance to perform in the parade yourself to “be very careful when agreeing to do any tumbling passes or stunts for the performance. The surface looks great on TV, but it truly is the street with paint on it to make it look great on the screen.” It’s also slick! Myself and many other performers have been taken down by an unexpected slick spot. 

Stephen Carrasco in “Fiddler on the Roof”
Stephen Carrasco, “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Parade

All of the stress, cold, preparation, and nerves aside, performing live on national television is a RUSH and creates unforgettable moments. Bissonnette remembers a moment in her performance looking over at fellow cast members: at the “starting big dance break of the number. When I looked at the girls during the bridge right before we were about to do our big moment there were tears in our eyes.” It also can feel like a time warp or an out of body experience as most of the others describe it. Guerzon felt “a huge sigh of relief and pride after.  I remember heading to an almost empty Grand Central Station to catch a train home checking Youtube for a playback of our performance. Friends kept sending me screen shots and congratulations and my Facebook started to flood. It felt great to be a part of something so huge and check off an item on my bucket list!” Carrasco is barely able to recall the performance. “I vaguely remember praying silently that I didn’t fall flat on my face in front of millions of people.” Others like Butler were too in the moment to think about the fact that the whole nation was watching. Butler recalls, “I was thinking about how this was such a milestone in my career as a performer, and I wanted to dance as hard as I could and soak up every moment of joy possible. Breathing in the cold air, looking around at all my fellow artists, I felt like I was home.”

The parade is unique because it is one of the few days that multiple shows are performing at the same place.

It really is a whirlwind of a day and for some, after a late night spacing rehearsal, their regularly scheduled show, early morning call, recorded dress run, and the performance itself, the performers got to go home and enjoy their personal Thanksgiving plans. But this is not true for everyone. Even after the exhaustion of the day, some performers still have a performance that night. Allen did for “Oklahoma”, and I know I did for “Paramour”. But that’s showbiz. And I agree whole-heartedly with the wisdom of Guerzon that one should “take it all in for both yourself and as a company/family because you don't know how much longer your show will last.” This business is all peaks and valleys and I know we are all thankful (see what I did there) for the chance to perform in such an amazing and publicized event. At the same time, Carrasco’s got it right too, “Most people on that screen barely slept the night before that performance, and have been up for about 6-7 hours by the time they are twirling for your enjoyment. Throw them a bone...”

main photo: Chip Abbot in "On The Town" at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

About the author

A competitive dancer for ten years, Keats then made the leap (probably a switch second) to college and after earning a BFA in performance dance from the University of California, Irvine, he made the jump (Sauter de chat for sure this time) from working as a parade performer for the Disney corporation to dancing on cruise ships. After a year at sea, he taught as a guest artist in residence for a semester at Colorado Mesa University. Since moving to New York, Keats has been fortunate to work regionally (Pioneer Theater/ Sacramento Music Circus/ Alabama Shakespeare Festival/ La Jolla Playhouse) as well as performing in New York with Radio City's Christmas Spectacular (fittingly as the Sugar Plum Fairy Bear) and on Broadway in Escape to Margaritaville and Cirque Du Soleil's Paramour. He is a passionate, full out dancer who enjoys cultivating an entertaining life in NYC.