Years ago, I helped lead media relations for retailers Toys “R” Us, Sears, Kmart, and Macy’s, and there were no breaks between November 1 and Christmas Day.
Despite the endless hours, I always liked working for Macy’s, since the Herald Square Store in Manhattan was my home base and arguably the center of Christmas in the United States. You couldn’t help getting into the holiday spirit. Media from around the world used the store as a backdrop for all their holiday stories, and my job was to make sure they got all that they needed.
Part of that job included launching the holiday window, and I took CNN backstage once for a sneak peek at the machinations. I tripped and fell into an elf, knocking him over along with a few decorations. There were looks of consternation on the faces of the window dressers.
I also had the opportunity to assist media covering the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and I remember watching, along with attending media, rehearsals in front of the Herald Square store the nights before the parade and going right into the early morning hours of the next day traipsing up to 77th Street and Central Park West, which was the start of the parade and where hundreds of media gathered. It was exhausting.
One year, I went on a bus tour up and down the East Coast with the Santa Claus from the parade. It was no miracle on 34th street, and while yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, the one I spent hours on end in a bus with was a far cry from Edmund Gwenn.
There have been a lot of changes over the years since I left, including a new CEO for Macy’s, Jeff Gennette, who is gay. And while Toys “R” Us closed its stores and went through bankruptcy, the company has reemerged with its own shops in Macy’s.
(All images by Max Kilsheimer)
However, one thing that hasn’t changed is the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to put on what will this year be the 96th annual Thanksgiving parade.
While at Macy’s, one of the things that I discovered was that putting on a parade is more than a year-long, herculean effort. Once the parade ends this year, the team goes right back to work and starts to focus on 2023 and then 2024. There are so many moving parts, it really is a wonder that they pull it off spectacularly each year. I always thought that the intense planning would make for a great reality show, and it would have a bright star.
That would be my talented friend Wesley Whatley, who is the creative director of the parade. Whatley has been with Macy’s for 20 years, and he’s arguably the most popular person at the retailer. Whatley is also out and proud, and he’s prouder than ever this year, since Macy’s is introducing even more LGBTQ+ cast and performances, including an all-queer band.
First, I wondered how Whatley was holding up with all the sleep deprivation. “Each morning, I go to Starbucks and get the biggest cold brew they can possibly pour for me, and that and a whole lot of joy keeps me moving,” he said.
I asked Whatley to talk about the importance of having the first all-queer marching band, Queer Big Apple Corps Marching Band, in the parade’s long history. “If I can, I’d like to start by explaining how it’s affected me personally. As a kid growing up in south Georgia and being in marching bands, I never imagined that I’d ever see a queer marching band in the parade,” he recalled.
“I’ve been thinking about how much that would have changed the way I felt and saw myself if I had seen a queer marching band when I was young at a big national event like the parade. You just can’t underestimate the power of representation, and that’s what we strive to do, is make sure everyone watching feels included.”
Whatley said the band had to meet all the criteria the Macy’s team establishes for bands that submit themselves for consideration to march in the parade. “It was about seven or eight years ago, I got a call from Marita Begley, the band’s artistic director. She asked me what it would take for them to be a part of the event. I gave her some advice, including building the band’s numbers and playing in tune. It was never about the queerness of the band; it was about their performance level.”
Whatley said that each year, the band made improvements, and this year, it met all the requirements for participation. Previously, the band took part in the 2020 virtual parade during the coronavirus pandemic.
Another queer performer is Betty Who, who I worked with for a National Coming Out Day column last month. “Betty Who is clearly such an icon,” Whatley gushed. “She will be singing her current hit, ‘Blow Out My Candle.’ I’ve listened to that song many times, and it has such a clear and intentional message in it, including ‘You can blow out my candle, but you’ll never put out my fire.’ She’ll be speaking through her song directly to queer kids across the U.S., who will hear that message of ‘don’t stop’ and feel so proud.”
Twenty years ago, when Whatley did his first parade, did he ever think there would be such a queer presence in the parade some day? “I remember when we first had the Broadway cast from Kinky Boots years ago, and while some celebrated their involvement, others thought it was a big controversy, but we stood behind them, and now we’re so proud to have them,” he said.
“Then in 2018, we had the cast of the Broadway hit The Prom and the first same-sex kiss. The decision to do that was a very thoughtful one, and primarily because it was so important to the theme of the show and an honest expression of the story, and sure, there was some controversy again, but overwhelmingly it was welcomed and celebrated.”
Whatley said the more inclusive parade is a measure of how the country has evolved on LGBTQ+ and other communities. “We have many of the top best bands in the country here, and they are so diverse. That includes Carmel High School in Indiana, which has won the best band in America five times. We also have a marching band from Benedict College from South Carolina, a historically black college, and Delfines Marching Band from Mexico, which is a mariachi band. Again, having inclusive representation is so important, and at the same time, all of these bands are so entertaining.”
While the parades generally don’t have an official theme, Whatley said this year there will be lots of families represented. “That includes immediate families and families you choose. We will have Gloria Estefan and her entire family, Mariah Carey and her two kids, and I’d go so far to say that we’ll have the family that is the Queer Big Apple Corps Marching band. We know in the queer community how important it is to make our own families, so I know what that’s about, and I also know from my experience with marching bands that they create their own families as well. We want every type of family watching the parade to feel like they are being represented.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.
Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.