New Yorker Spotlight: Behind the Magic of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with Creative Director Wesley Whatley

November 26, 2014

For one day each year, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade transforms the streets of New York City into the ultimate stage for marching bands, dancers, floats, and of course, giant balloons. As we can all imagine, putting on a parade of this magnitude is no small task. And that’s where Wesley Whatley, the Parade’s creative director, comes in.

Wesley is responsible for overseeing, developing and bringing the creative side of the event to life. His role requires vision, organization and a deep understanding of the parade’s history and its importance to both the city and America. Along with his team, he ensures it’s a magical event for spectators and television viewers.

In anticipation of tomorrow’s parade, we spoke with Wesley about selecting marching bands and performers, the logistics of organizing such a large event, and, on a personal note, what parades mean to him.

poulan south georgiaImage © Brian Brown of Vanishing South Georgia

Growing up, were you interested or excited by parades?

Growing up in south Georgia, I actually led my middle school and high school marching bands down the center of my hometown. From a very early age, I got to experience my small town pouring out of their homes onto the sides of the street and watching a little parade go by. Of course, it was super tiny and perhaps insignificant to many from the outside looking in. But to me, it was a celebration of our local community. I remember feeling so proud leading the marching band down the street and performing for our friends, family and neighbors. 

What I think is so special about the Macy’s Parade is it’s one day a year when New York City kind of feels like a small town. Where everyone just hangs out of their windows 40 stories in the air, or they pour out onto the street. And everyone is just like a child again. I think we all kind of get to remember those parade moments and memories from our childhood.

Do you have any early memories of watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV?

I always spent Thanksgiving morning at my grandmother’s in Alabama. My mother and grandmother would wake up early to start cooking, and I would hop out of bed in time for the Broadway show performances. I was very theatrical as a child. The first hour of the telecast was always one of the few moments of my year that I got to see Broadway. I remember watching right as the credits would roll at the beginning because I didn’t want to miss those performances.

macys thanksgiving day parade, snoopy balloon

You wear many hats as Creative Director. Can you share a bit about what your job entails?

The creative planning for each parade starts about 18 months in advance. It begins with the selection of marching bands that are going to participate. The schools need to raise funds to travel to New York so we start that process very early. My job is to oversee the Macy’s band selection committee. We review hundreds of applications and look at videos, and we select the lucky 10-12 bands. This year we have 12 bands participating. They are going to come and represent their state in the parade.

Believe it or not, I fly across the country and I surprise the kids with the news that they have been selected to perform in New York City. This is the best three weeks of my year. I can’t tell you how much fun that experience is. To walk into their schools unexpectedly with the local media—it’s like Publisher’s Clearing House. I get invited out onto the stage as a special guest and then slowly I reveal the news. By the time I say, “So and so high school marching band has been selected to perform and represent this state,” the place goes wild. Each and every announcement is a reminder to me that this parade will always be a New York parade, but America celebrates with us.

Then as we get closer, my job is really about casting the parade. We look at performance groups from across the country and we select a little bit of Americana whether it’s a clogging group or a jump rope group. It’s not just about celebrities or just even about Santa, it’s about all of the country feeling like they are part of it. We look at everything from clowns to stilt walkers, and we want to make sure we add color and street theater to the parade. This year we have a group from Idaho called the Red Hot Mamas and they are older ladies with walkers that do a drill routine.

On Thanksgiving morning, I am actually directing the parade from the NBC truck. For those three hours, it’s about the telecast.

macys thanksgiving day parade, sonic the hedgehog

Why do you think the parade means so much to these high school marching bands?

Marching band was transformative for me growing up. I was a shy kid and then suddenly I became the drum major of my local band and music really brought me out of my shell. I know what that experience can be like for kids in small towns participating in the marching band. But then to give the honor to that band for a job well done, and to give them a national stage with 50 million people to perform on, that’s an educational experience unlike anything available out there. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

As part of your job, you developed, direct, and manage Macy’s Great American Marching Band. What inspired you to start this tradition?

That was based on my experiences in band. I remember going to leadership conferences and I performed in All State orchestras and bands. It was an opportunity for me to go interact with some of the best kids in the state and experience something special.

macys thanksgiving day parade, rockettes

What we did is we took that kind of model and we created a marching band each Thanksgiving week with 250 kids from all 50 states. They fly in and come together and we bring in a leadership expert. They get to see Broadway shows, the Rockettes, and of course they see the sites of New York. What’s most special is that these musicians who never would have met each other, meet each other. They come together, form relationships, and they become a band in just a matter of day and perform for 50 million people. It’s a very special group and this will be its ninth parade.

I think we are all really proud of it here at Macy’s because it has changed lives. In fact, we heard one story from our first year. Two kids met from different states in the Macy’s Great American Marching Band, they fell in love, ended up getting married, and word through the grapevine is they just recently had their second child. How beautiful is that? It’s a really special program.

macys thanksgiving day parade, adventuretime's jake and finn

Where do you find inspiration for new parade performances and concepts?

It starts for me in New York City itself. At the beginnings, there is a representation of this community just like any small town parade. We pull elements from the city. I live in Manhattan and love this city. It’s going to Broadway shows. I think I have seen everything that’s on Broadway. It’s going to the museums. It’s experiencing art, and for me, it’s really the performing arts because that’s my natural interest and background. We try to look for inspiration from the amazing artistry going on from dance companies and theater companies from across the country. We partner with artists to develop and design balloons.

I pull from my previous experiences as well. I am a passionate musician and I seem to see things through music. If I am looking for a moment and I am not certain who the talent might need be or what that moment needs to be, I go straight to the music. What can this moment sound like? If I can determine what it should sound like then I can usually say, “You know who should sing it? This artist.” or “You know what will be great with that? These cloggers.”

How do you keep track of all the moving pieces over the 18 months?

For me, it starts with my phone, my calendar, and keeping it all digital and in my pocket at all times. I set alarms on everything. It’s also about work/life balance as well—focusing on the work and making sure I taking care of myself by going to the gym, making sure I am seeing theater, and making sure I am not only executing the theater, but being inspired.

I think it really comes down to the team. We have a very dedicated team of professionals here at Macy’s. We are not just employees here, we are passionate, inspired folks who believe in this work. It’s pretty easy to stay that organized when there is a team of people who are that passionate.

macys thanksgiving day parade santa, macys thanksgiving day parade, santa

How many rehearsals are there before the parade?

As you can imagine, closing down 34th street is a challenge in this city. We have a limited amount of time on the street. The majority of the rehearsals for the parade happen in ballrooms in big hotels, football fields and gyms across the country. The marching bands and performers who come in from across the country are rehearsing all fall long and they send videos to us that we review and take notes.

Once we get into parade week, we have a couple of big rehearsals for our NBC telecast director on Monday and Tuesday where acts come in and they have a five to 10 to 15 minute rehearsal. We literally do as many acts as we can over the course of those two nights. It’s the only time where the performers get to rehearse on the space they will perform on Thanksgiving.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, are you checking the weather frequently?

I can only speak for myself, but I really try to wait until at least a week before to even look at it. We of course do rain or shine. We partner with the city and the National Weather Service and they give us advice. We work with the NYPD. The truth is New Yorkers are going to show up no matter what the wind conditions are and what the weather is. We want to put on a great show. We are prepared mentally to do it. I just want to wait until five days before to look and see if I need my winter coat or whether it’s going to be a nice day.

macys thanksgiving day parade, macy's elves

What makes the streets of New York City perfect for the parade?

I hear this from the marching band directors over and over again. In most cities, you don’t get to see the full crowd because you see the first line of folks as you pass by. New York is so three-dimensional and the performers notice how high our audience goes. It’s really the spectacle of people on their balconies and waving along Central Park West from their apartments.

What does it mean to be at the creative helm of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?

We take it seriously. We are the guardians of an American tradition. This isn’t my parade or our parade, this is America’s parade. We believe that we are just ushering it in for the next generation, and we are here to be caretakers.

I mean this sincerely, I just want to continue to keep it relevant, keep it special, and continue those memories. I know there will be people after me to pick up where I leave off and continue the tradition. Every plane that I sit on, I sit next to someone and we end up in a long conversation about memories and how special the parade is. It touches everyone. It’s special work.


[This interview has been edited]

Images courtesy of Macy’s unless otherwise noted

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