Dedicated to all children past and present that spent their Thanksgiving morning with eyes glued to the television set watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while the delicious aroma of roasting turkey made their stomachs rumble. 

Meier & Frank ad from Statesman Journal dated Nov 9, 1956. newspapers.com

It was a cool, misty Saturday morning on November 10, 1956. Salem city parking structures and streets were lined with excited children and their parents waiting for the first ever giant balloon parade in Oregon, if the newspaper ads could be believed. Themed “Four Happy Days in a Child’s Life – Christmas, Easter, birthday and circus day” the life-size animal and storybook character balloon parade would begin at 10:00 a.m. The parade was sponsored by the Salem Chamber of Commerce and funded by merchants throughout the city with the idea that it would herald the opening of the Christmas shopping season. 

Extra law enforcement officers were brought in as the crowd swelled to 20,000 and created a gigantic traffic jam.  With overhanging power lines and traffic signals, the streets of Salem were not conducive to the high-flying helium balloons used in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Instead, the balloons produced by Giant Balloon Parades Inc. were designed to be mounted on platforms or trailers and wheeled along the parade route with the help of local volunteers.  There would be twenty-three balloon entries in all including a giant Santa Claus, birthday cake, Easter egg and rabbit, dragon, Noah’s Ark and a parade of circus animals ending in the grand finale, a parade of elephants 150 feet in length. 

Joining the balloons would be eight bands from Willamette University and local schools such as North Salem, Dallas, and Cascade Union to name a few.  Additionally, the Shamrockettes, a drill team from Waldport High School had applied for permission to take part in the parade.  With them would be 7-year-old Diane Kirkland the reigning Pee Wee Champion in the National Baton Twirling Association.  Part of the group agreed to perform in Santa suits.  The parade marshal, on horseback, was County Judge Rex Hartley. 

Supervision of the rubberized parade entries were under the direction of Phil Sonneborn and three employees of the Giant Balloon Parades company. Their truck, full of the rubberized balloon shapes and wheeled trailers arrived in Salem Thursday afternoon.  Inflation and mounting on platforms began at 5 p.m. Friday evening and continued through the night to prepare the leviathan balloons for the parade.  Facilities and supplies for this process were donated by both Judson’s Electric and Portland General ElectricEarly Saturday morning Sonneborn and his employees trained local volunteers in the do’s and don’ts of balloon handling in preparation for their role in the parade.  Twenty-five men from the Junior Chamber of Commerce served as balloon captains, escorting their assigned balloon and its Boy Scout volunteer crew through the parade route.  One hundred and twenty-five Boy Scouts walked the parade route pushing or pulling the floats and balloon figures as needed. 

Parade headed north on Capitol St. between Marion and Union. WHC 2006.002.1506.005

From the staging grounds of the Capitol Mall the parade would proceed to Chemeketa St. Then west on Chemeketa to High St., south on High to State St., west on State to Liberty St., north on Liberty to Center St., east on Center to Capitol St., and north on Capitol to Union St. where the group would disband.  A 17-block long route. The parade went off without a hitch and began a Thanksgiving tradition in Salem that would last until 1962 when city leaders made the decision that two parades in November stretched local resources thin.  Instead they committed their future support and resources to the annual Veteran’s Day Parade.  Sadly, community support and participation in the Veteran’s Day Parade never equaled the popularity of the earlier holiday parades, so after five years it was discontinued as well.  It would not be until 1989 that another holiday parade would be proposed and organized, the Festival of Lights. 

Giant Balloon Parades, the company behind the traveling balloon parade idea was organized in the 1930s by Joseph and Gladys Sonneborn of White Plains, New York.  Of interest to note is the fact that entrepreneurial Gladys was the first to see the magical potential of bringing Disney cartoons to the theater.  It was a huge success in her hometown, as you can probably imagine, so she took the idea and show to Carnegie Hall.  After that, Walt took over. Then Gladys turned her creative talents to the design and manufacturing of giant rubber balloon figures and the Giant Balloon Parades Company was formed. For many years, the balloon parades produced by the company were a Thanksgiving tradition in towns across the United States.   

This article was written by Kaylyn F. Mabey for the Statesman Journal newspaper where it appeared on Sunday, November 17, 2019.