Anatomy of a parade

WYDaily.com is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

Bill Schermerhorn worked with Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for 34 years. Now he's lending his expertise to his alma mater. (Stephen Salpukas/W&M News)
Bill Schermerhorn worked with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for 34 years. Now he’s lending his expertise to his alma mater. (Stephen Salpukas/W&M News)

For the last 34 years, William (Bill) Schermerhorn had what many would consider a dream job – he worked for Macy’s and their Thanksgiving Day Parade. His last post was vice president and creative director at Macy’s Parade and Entertainment Group.  In advance of this year’s Homecoming Parade, which Schermerhorn is helping to produce, William & Mary News asked the proud Tribe alumnus a few questions about the traditions and magic of parades – Ed.

What are the elements that make a good parade?

An enthusiastic spirit from both participants and spectators goes a long way into making a good parade.  It’s a joyful celebration, a ‘street theater’ experience and great storytelling all rolled into one.  The parade units should have as much variety as possible and the participants have to be both enthusiastic and dedicated to make the ‘show’ as good as it can be.  I also believe music plays a key role in any event to help set the mood.  I’ve always said ‘you can have a parade without floats, celebrities or big balloons, but you always need a marching band.’  And for this year’s W&M Homecoming parade, we got ‘em!

Hardest part of putting together a good parade?

It’s not hard with the right team.

Today, a parade is a pretty low-tech event in a high-tech world. Why do you think they remain popular?

Parades bring communities together.  It’s a chance for all participants to have their moment in the spotlight and for spectators to cheer them on.  Most parades are a tradition that people look forward to year after year.  There is something reassuring in that.  They don’t have to be as big and famous as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  The smallest hometown parade can have just as much heart and spirit.  It’s only the scale that’s different.

Cue music. Schermerhorn '82 says music is a key element in any parade that adds festivity to the event. (W&M News)
Cue music. Schermerhorn ’82 says music is a key element in any parade that adds festivity to the event. (W&M News)

You directed Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for a number of years – what was your favorite parade moment?

So many favorite moments… welcoming each and every unit in the Parade… seeing the faces of band members from all over the country as they stepped onto the parade route… looking up at the hundreds of spectators at windows and balconies along Central Park West… eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Parade on 34th Street… the Broadway show performances… working with the best people in show business… and, of course, the grand arrival of Santa Claus at the end of the Parade. It doesn’t get any better than that (except maybe seeing Kermit the Frog sitting on a log on a float filled with kids and singing an Emmy nominated song that you wrote).

What was the biggest averted oops/disaster?

Thanks to the many levels of safety nets in place – and the dedication/experience of so many wonderful Parade volunteers – most oops moments are stopped before they happen.  However, early in my career, a float went down the wrong street and had to be pushed back onto the Parade route by members of the NYPD.  And there’s nothing quite like seeing a Cabbage Patch Doll costumed character running after her float – pigtails flying – when the float left the starting line without her.

This will be your first season not directing the parade in a number of years, will you watch this year’s parade?

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ll watch or not.  After 34 years, it will be strange not standing in the middle of a New York City street or sitting in the NBC production truck. I do know the 90th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will be the best yet… that will always be the goal.

A true original. Mickey Mouse was the first character balloon to appear in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. This photo dates to the 1920s/30s. (W&M News/Web image)
A true original. Mickey Mouse was the first character balloon to appear in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This photo dates to the 1920s/30s. (W&M News/Web image)

This year you started offering your expertise to William & Mary’s Homecoming Parade, what can attendees expect to see different in this year’s parade? Will we see any balloons?

I look at this year as a first step.  We’re building on a strong and, for many alumni, a beloved tradition.  This year will hopefully see an increase in student involvement – both as participants and spectators – as well as an increase in the spirited participation of alumni and community partnerships.  I’m thrilled to be part of a terrific Parade team that is encouraging participants to go BOLD!  Once they cross the starting line – where I’ll be welcoming them into the parade – I hope each and every participant thinks of the parade route as a stage, and they each play their role in a fun-filled production that can be both zany and heartfelt.  We’re encouraging everyone to stand out in their own way through simple routines, costuming and sheer enthusiasm. There are no balloons.  At least not this year.  This parade is about the people who make up the W&M community.

What do you hope students, alumni and friends take away from this year’s Homecoming Parade? 

If everyone takes away one happy memory from the parade – whether it’s the memory of a silly routine, a stirring musical performance or the sight of a friend in costume – then we’ll have succeeded.  Above all, I hope the pride and spirit of this college community shines bright.  It’s a special place to be, and I’m honored to be a part of this tradition.