A lifetime of memories at Philly’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for Santa’s helper

Philadelphia’s holiday event has been serving up floats, marching bands, and Santa Claus, too, for a century.

Robert DiBenedetto holds a photo of himself working Philadelphia's Thanksgiving Day Parade in the early 1980s. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Robert DiBenedetto holds a photo of himself working Philadelphia's Thanksgiving Day Parade in the early 1980s. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

When it started a century ago, the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia was basically a Santa Claus delivery system.

The procession of floats, marching bands, and dignitaries originally came up Market Street headed toward the Gimbels department store at Eighth Street, where Santa Claus would climb a fire engine ladder into the window of the toy department. That announced his arrival and the start of the holiday shopping season.

When Robert DiBenedetto started working the parade in 1961 as an employee of Gimbels, it started at the Art Museum and worked its way down the Parkway to the store, where Santa ascended through a blizzard of confetti.

“The street was mobbed. You couldn’t move,” DiBenedetto said. “You have the excitement of the music, the excitement of him going up, the crowd smashing, it was just a tremendous ending.”

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For those marching, the parade started and ended on the basketball court of St. Xavier’s Catholic Church on 24th Street. That’s where they would go before dawn to have coffee and doughnuts, get into their costumes and makeup, and hustle out to the floats that were being pulled out from behind the Art Museum.

“Afterwards, they bused back to the church,” said DiBendetto. “A hot cup of soup, half a sandwich, some hot chocolate, and you’re on your way home.”

DiBenedetto worked in the Gimbels men’s and boys’ clothing departments, rose to store manager, and retired. All that time, he worked the parade, first as a float-puller and balloon-holder, then eventually becoming part of the parade committee.

Every year, he worked the street. For DiBenedetto, being outside with people was his reward for the year of volunteer planning work.

“You did it because of the relationships with the people you got to know every year, and the kids,” he said. “As you walk down the street – it was always on the street – when you’re on the street, you’re meeting people. They don’t care about you, they just say: ‘Hey, mister! When’s Santa Claus coming?’ You have to love the excitement on their faces.”

Every year, DiBenedetto saw the same people come out early in the morning to stake out exactly the same spots on the sidewalk. Every year, he saw those families grow, taking up more space on the street.

“Once I got to be Santa. That was the most exciting thing in my life,” he said. “Every time the parade stopped, parents would bring their kids up to the float. You’re not supposed to touch them or come near them, but parents would stick them up there, snotty noses and all. You have to love it.”

Gimbels’ Center City store isn’t there anymore. It was bought and sold a couple times, shrank into a smaller building, and then closed for good more than 30 years ago.

The Thanksgiving Day Parade is now run by TV station 6ABC, which reversed the route. Instead of sending Santa into the window of a toy department, it now shuttles him to the steps of the Art Museum, where a highly choreographed performance can be televised.

The parade is very different than what it was 50 years ago.

“Back in the day, there were not as many people, and very little TV. People could walk in and out and across. There was not all this fear,” said DiBenedetto. “Today, it’s secured by police and fire and Homeland Security. There are more barricades and blockages to protect everyone and make it a happy, safe parade.”

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