Hollywood Flashback: How Macy's Thanksgiving Parade Became TV's Longest-Running Success

NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Betty White and Lorne Greene in 1966. The parade got a boost from a cameo in 1947's 'Miracle on 34th Street.'

An estimated 46 million will watch the show NBC has broadcasted nationally since 1948.

TV's longest-running annual ratings success is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Back in 1950, the then-state-of-the-art Trendex overnight ratings system (they called 1,000 people and asked what they were watching) estimated it pulled in a 96 percent share in the New York area.

NBC has broadcast the show nationally since 1948. Celebrity hosts include Betty White and the late Lorne Greene, who did the honors from '62 to '70. "It was exciting working with Lorne," says White, 95. "We had a great time." An estimated audience of 46 million will watch the giant balloons proceed through Manhattan on Nov. 23 as 3.5 million viewers line the parade route. "The broadcast is an American tradition as much as sitting down to turkey on Thanksgiving," says co-executive producer Bill Bracken, who has worked on the NBC telecast for 24 years. "It's been passed on from generation to generation."

The event began in 1924 as "Macy's Christmas Parade," which the department store promised would offer "a marathon of mirth." There were floats pulled by horses, plus tigers, bears and elephants from the Central Park Zoo. In 1927, Felix the Cat was the first helium-filled character balloon. (Five years later, the silent film-era feline burst into flames when he hit power wires.) Mickey Mouse first appeared in 1934, the Sesame Street gang in 1978 and Spider-Man in 1991. And Snoopy holds the record for most appearances at 40. Cultural icons range from The Rockettes, who've been dancing the parade route since 1957, to pop artist Jeff Koons, who created a silver Rabbit balloon for the 2007 celebration.

"The parade goes on, rain or shine, and it pretty much takes over the whole city," says Bracken. "What impresses me the most are the 5,000 volunteers who make it happen. It really shows the best of New York." 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.