A little over 10 years ago, when I started working for Macy's, I noticed this peppy and playful person parading -- yes, I'm using that word -- through the office. "Who in the hell is that guy?" I remember asking. "He's Wesley, and he works with the Parade," a fellow member of the PR staff told me with a look that said, "isn't it obvious?" Parade seems fitting for sure, because if anyone should be working on a production of jubilant pageantry, it should be Wesley.
After 16 years at Macy's, Wesley Whatley is now among the leadership, helming the creation, as the creative producer of the most famous parade in the world, and according to him, "...the last surviving, long running variety show on television."
"This will be my 17th Parade, which is really hard to imagine," Whatley told me during a conversation with him at what is undoubtedly his busiest time of the year. "I started on the bottom rung at Macy's and have progressed up the chain all these years. I'm very fortunate to love what I do!"
Whatley started his career in performance as a member of his high school marching band in his hometown of Valdosta, Ga. After graduating from Stetson University, he headed for Universal Studios in Florida, and while there, met with some folks from Macy's. Before he knew it, he was on his way to New York City. "During college, I worked one summer at Disney World performing in the parades in the Magic Kingdom with all the fireworks, dancers, and the audience. It was there that I fell in love with the idea of a parade."
Over the years, Whatley has lent his talents to all aspects of putting the Macy's parade together, including writing songs, helping with the logistics and staging, working with celebrities and his beloved marching bands. "The production of the parade starts anywhere from 18 months to at least a whole year out," Whatley explained. "For example, we start choosing bands for the following year's parade in February and March of the preceding year, and we look far and wide, and across the world, for the best marching bands to participate."
Perhaps it's because of his experience during his youth, but the process and excitement of plucking out the best marching bands is Whatley's most rewarding responsibility among a whole host of others. "Our team reviews videos and submissions of marching bands' field shows during football games, and that's where the fun begins. We take great care to select each band, knowing it will be a pivotal moment in these young people's lives."
Whatley travels, personally, to each of the winning school bands, and only the Macy's Parade team and the band director know what's coming. The students are then surprised during an elaborate rally. "It's such a joy to show up and create all this fanfare for the kids," Whatley said. "We make it a very celebratory event."
The Macy's Parade is a full-time job and journey for Whatley and his team, since many days require him to work on not one, but two parades simultaneously. "On any given day, we're not only working with the bands, but our partners and participants on the famous floats and balloons, celebrities, musical numbers, and our volunteer army of Macy's employees who all contribute to the dynamics of the parade," Whatley explained. "There's a tremendous amount of collaboration, and in the end, not only does the whole ensemble have to resonate warmly and vicariously with the audience, but it also must complement the culture and beautiful background of the parade, which is of course New York City and the Manhattan skyline."
When I asked him if he had one parade that stood out, or was unique to him, he said that was a difficult question to answer since they're all quintessential. "I do know that after 9/11 happened in 2001, two years before I started, that parade had a different meaning since it was the first major event in New York City after the tragedy," he pointed out. "But on a personal level, it might be to see the faces of the kids from the bands every year, many of whom have never been to New York City, and who are awed by the metropolis and spectacle of the event. Those moments and those memories are magic."
This year's parade, always a Thanksgiving tradition, will be the 93rd edition, and includes a line-up that features nearly 60 balloons, 26 floats, 1,200 cheerleaders and dancers, more than 1,000 clowns, and 11 marching bands. Additionally, celebrity performances and appearances this year include Black Eyed Peas, Ciara, Celine Dion, Idina Menzel, and Billy Porter.
"With the amazing Billy Porter, our challenge is to match his style with spectacle, so this year we created a larger than life moment for him," teased Whatley. "He will perform on a carriage led by a dinosaur, with a full circus around him. Let's just say it should be spectacular."
In addition, as he does almost every year, Whatley will have his own musical numbers incorporated into the parade. "This year, I wrote a few songs for the show," Whatley pointed out. "One is a brand-new Christmas carol called the 'The Holidays are Here.' We believe that original music is an important and distinctive element to our show, and we try to add new musical moments to the parade each year."
One thing that might interrupt on the fun is the fact that Whatley hasn't spent a Thanksgiving with his family in quite a long time. I asked him if he misses that. "Oh, for sure," he said. "One thing I have to tell you, my mom came to work with me on my first day at Macy's in New York City. I was so young, and I guess she wanted to make sure I was in good hands. I remember that she met my boss and said to him that you can have him for Thanksgiving so long as I get him for Christmas, so that's been the deal ever since."
When I asked him if he stayed in bed, exhausted, the day following the parade, he laughed and said that the celebration continues on that Friday. "The day after the parade, the entire Macy's Parade team meets at the Macy's Parade Studio facility in suburban New Jersey where we build the floats and balloons and materials for the parade. We have a big turkey dinner catered for everyone, and that is one of my favorite traditions."
To Whatley, the most singular moment of the parade is when he sees the mass of excitement start approaching him for the first time. "I sit in the production truck with our NBC broadcast partner in front of the Macy's Herald Square store on 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, and without fail, every year, when I see the start of the parade make the turn down Sixth Avenue towards us, I get goose bumps. Still do after all these years and will for sure this year as well. When another Parade comes safely down the street, it'sa dream come true for all of us."
The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade begins at 9 a.m. Eastern/Pacific on Thursday and airs on CBS.
JohnCasey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.