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We Love a (Macy's) Parade

November 20, 1994|MICHELE WILLENS

NEW YORK — Willard Scott says he only had one big dream as a budding broadcaster.

"When I was just starting out in the business, I used to love to watch Lorne Greene doing the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade," says Scott, the "Today" show's affable weatherman. "I said right then that's what I want to do someday, and it's been one dream that has come true."

Scott once again co-hosts the parade this Thanksgiving Day with Katie Couric. The NBC telecast, which airs from 1 to 4 p.m., is always one of NBC's highest-rated daytime events of the year, even though the competition tries its darndest to offer other treats to entice viewers their way.

Here in New York, Macy's has held its parade, replete with floats, stars, high-flying balloon characters and a live stage show featuring Broadway numbers, for 68 years, rain, shine or snow, bankruptcy or no. (You think we're kidding? Last year, when the department store chain was being sold to Federated, the judge stipulated that the parade must go on regardless of new management.)

The key for the networks is to capture the street flavor and high feelings generated by the parade Thanksgiving morning, from its inception point at 77th and Central Park West, to its final destination outside Macy's.

"The greatest challenge is to translate the incredible excitement that takes place to the television audience," says Brad Lachman, executive producer of the NBC telecast. And to hold to tradition while finding something new. "This year we're doing some different feature pieces that can run during the telecast," he explains. "We're doing one on the blowing up of the balloons the night before, which is an event in itself. We're also following one of the bands in the parade from their hometown in Arizona, where they raised all the money to get themselves here."

During the telecast, Lachman must decide when to simply stay with the parade, when to cut to the stage show at Macy's, when to catch Willard and Katie conversing with some viewers on the route. As Scott says, the key is to program down to the last second, yet leave room for spontaneity.

"We rehearse and everything, but you can't really plan how you're going to react to certain things," says Scott, who feels the mood is so high one can even fight the elements. "I remember standing one year three hours in the freezing slush but, you know, I never sneezed once. I always wear my long johns just in case, but it's those cheerleaders, those kids in the little dresses, who are the real heroes."

Weather is certainly the major contingency that Macy's and NBC have to worry about. "It's our overriding concern," says Jean McFaddin, Macy's vice president. "About seven years ago, we had overnight snow, which at first we thought was magical. But by the time the parade started, all the sandbags that hold the inflated balloons were wet and heavy, and we were all trying to chip ice off the floats. We also had lots of volunteers coming from New Jersey who couldn't get through on the roads and we had to use our local people to do twice as many things.

"Another year it rained for three straight days and it was really our worst parade ever in terms of damage," adds McFaddin. "We were sure no one would come out. But when we started, we looked around and there were thousands of people huddled together in every doorway, looking out every window, even standing in plastic bags."

Aside from the weather, there are also those fickle huge balloons, (16 a year) featuring characters such as Betty Boop, Olive Oyl (she was the first woman), Snoopy, Clifford, and--making their first appearances this year--Barney and Cat in the Hat. Held and literally choreographed from below by about 40 people, their fortunes tend to blow, well, with the wind.

"The crowd loves it when they think a balloon is coming down," notes McFaddin, referring to the oohs and ahs that accompany an uncooperative balloon. For McFaddin, who has to make split-second decisions regarding the parade itself, the situation can be more painful.

Last year, for example, she had to take Sonic the Hedgehog out of the parade midstream, because he got caught on a light and was too torn to go on. No such luck the year she saw a crippled Kermit the Frog literally swimming (lying horizontally as opposed to vertically) down Broadway and tried to take him out of his misery. "People got wind of it and 10,000 of them booed me," she says with a laugh. "So I left him in."

Such are the backstage secrets that television viewers are rarely made aware of. Last year, over at CBS, which counter-telecasts with some coverage of Macy's, other parades and ice skating--a very cold co-host, Marilu Henner, was demanding more and more heat inside the CBS bubble.

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