Philly’s 101st Thanksgiving Day Celebration is made for the small screen

The oldest Thanksgiving parade in America will go on, but it will be tailored for the small screen this year.

Daniel Tiger floats down Market Street during the 98th annual Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day parade, November 23, 2017. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Daniel Tiger floats down Market Street during the 98th annual Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day parade, November 23, 2017. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

No one will be lining the Parkway to watch floats and balloons and marching bands, but the 101st Thanksgiving Day Celebration in Philadelphia will go on … on television.

As the longtime producer of the annual tradition, 6ABC has created a virtual parade that will be broadcast Thursday morning.

“You’re going to see all the types of performances and displays and excitement that you always see in a parade, just not on a parade route,” said 6ABC vice president John Morris.

Morris and his team, with lead sponsor Dunkin’, have been working since June to pre-record and assemble a parade’s worth of material: high school marching bands performing on their home fields, giant balloons filmed surreptitiously in front of City Hall (early on a Saturday morning in October, to avoid a crowd of onlookers), and hundreds of dancers who filmed themselves individually, then submitted their recordings to be assembled into a giant video collage that will spool on television.

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“Sort of like the ultimate Zoom call, but it’s high-quality video and music with all of them doing their dance performances … and they are all synced up,” said Morris.

There will also be several celebrity singing vignettes, pre-recorded at iconic Philadelphia sites like the Art Museum, Independence Hall, the Philadelphia Zoo and Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park. Broadway star Mandy Gonzalez (“Hamilton,” “Wicked,” “In the Heights”) was taped singing a program dedicated to frontline health care workers at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington.

Early in the pandemic, Philadelphia shut down all parades for the year, up to and including the Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day. Normally, 6ABC televises a half-dozen street spectacles, including the Juneteenth, Puerto Rican, Italian Heritage, and Pride parades. This year, because of the pandemic, the station instead put together television specials featuring the organizers of those events talking about the communities they represent, often with old footage of parades.

But the Thanksgiving parade is entirely 6ABC’s production, soup to nuts. It’s also the oldest Thanksgiving parade in America. Morris said the station would not let the year go by without a spectacle, even if it could not be in the street.

“We can’t imagine a year — particularly a year when people need something to celebrate — we couldn’t imagine not doing something,” he said. “It was too important to keep the tradition alive, even if it looks completely different.”

Though the television broadcast is entirely pre-taped and edited together into a show, the 6ABC website will livestream a simultaneous online watch party, featuring on-air personalities Adam Joseph and Alicia Vitarelli hosting from their homes with special guests.

The parade usually involves hundreds of volunteers on the street, directing the marchers and interacting with the crowds. Joseph “J.R.” Ryan was one of them. He started volunteering in 1999, when a dance teacher at Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts urged him to sign up.

At the time, as a teenager, he had never seen the Philadelphia parade.

“I was a Macy’s watcher,” said Ryan, referring to the parade in New York City. “But then I realized New York has nothing on Philly.”

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Last year, Ryan volunteered to direct a troupe of clowns, whose job it is to interact with spectators on the street — waving, shaking hands and generally boosting spirits.

But this year, there are no clowns, and nobody for them to interact with.

“The whole point is seeing those kids on the sidelines looking at the balloons, looking at those clowns, looking at those floats. They’re bundled up and clapping and laughing,” said Ryan. “That’s what makes the parade. I do it every year because I love latching onto that magic.”

For the first time in 10 years, Ryan will not be waking up before dawn to get down to Benjamin Franklin Parkway by 5 a.m. and wait in the cold for the parade to start. He said he will probably be at home, tuning into his TV to see what 6ABC has put together.

“It will be entertaining,” he said. “But it will be entertaining without the magic.”

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