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Jean McFaddin, Who Made the Macy’s Parade What It Is, Dies at 75

Jean McFaddin, Who Made the Macy’s Parade What It Is, Dies at 75


Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which dates to 1924 and is often called “the longest-running show on Broadway,” became a celebrated national event under Ms. McFaddin, telecast by NBC to 60 million viewers and attracting tourists from across the country and around the world.

The stars were a changing cast of helium-filled balloons that Ms. McFaddin developed with Manfred Bass, Macy’s chief balloon and float designer. Over the years they included Kermit the Frog, Snoopy, Spider-Man, Betty Boop and later Cassie the Dragoness, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Tom Turkey and Blue, the star of Nickelodeon’s “Blue’s Clues.”

The biggest of the marvelous monsters were held down and guided by ropes and strong men trained in what Ms. McFaddin called “balloonology.” Still, many of the characters were obstreperous.

“When you’re 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide, you go where you like, or try to, despite the 50 people hanging on to your 35 guidelines,” The New York Times reported in 1995.

Ms. McFaddin oversaw everything: financing, sponsors and broadcast rights; decisions on who, what and how many would join the parade (some years she auditioned 300 bands); construction of balloons and floats in a warehouse in Hoboken, N.J.; the transporting of everything before dawn into Manhattan; liaison with police, fire and safety units; promotion and publicity; and on and on. It took months.

“The world was Jean’s stage,” said William Schermerhorn, Macy’s creative director for special events, who worked with her for 17 years. “Coming from a background in street theater, she could transform a parking lot, a department-store marquee, a park lawn or 34th Street into a wondrous showcase. Above all, I remember the heart, joy and scale she brought to Macy’s events. She shaped the events into what they are today.”

With the wisdom of experience, she urged parents to dress children in layers of bright clothing and to pin name tags (with phone numbers) on them, just in case.

“Bring garbage bags,” she advised. “They’re easy to carry. You can sit on them or use them as windbreakers and then use them to collect any trash you left on the street after the parade. They are the ultimate in Thanksgiving Day wear.”

By 6 a.m. every Thanksgiving Day, the balloons were inflated, the floats were lined up and 3,000 volunteer cheerleaders were ready. At 9 a.m., Ms. McFaddin, usually dressed in Macy’s colors — a red coat, black slacks and a black cowboy hat — made her way to 77th Street and Central Park West, cut a red ribbon and stepped off, leading the parade on its proud two-and-a-half-mile march to Herald Square.

Al Roker, who covered the parade for NBC for years, recalled Ms. McFaddin as an outsize personality with a deep Texas drawl.

“As marchers, balloon handlers, clowns and myriad parade workers got ready,” Mr. Roker said in an email, “she would be weaving in and out among them with a look of pleasant professionalism, and then she’d spot me, break out into a grin and greet me with, ‘Al, darlin’, we are gonna have us a beautiful parade!’ ”

Photo


Jean McFaddin in 2010.

Credit
Judith Bailey

Ms. McFaddin and her entourage braved bitter cold, drenching rains and, once, a snowstorm that drove crowds away. Gusting winds often blew down balloons, sometimes injuring spectators. In 1997, the Cat in the Hat struck a lamppost, parts of which hit a woman, who suffered a serious head injury. After that, balloon sizes were limited and restrictions were imposed in high winds.

There were other mishaps. Ms. McFaddin once grabbed the trailing rope of a runaway balloon and was briefly carried aloft. Another year, as TV cameras caught the action for a national audience, a little girl trying to catch Santa accidentally pulled his pants down. (To everyone’s relief, he wore jeans underneath.)

But the sun was bright and there were no calamities at Ms. McFaddin’s last parade, in 2000. To celebrate her 24th anniversary as its organizer-director, the City of New York renamed Macy’s corner, 34th Street and Broadway, “Jean McFaddin Way” for a month.

On her watch, the parade had doubled in size to 8,000 marchers, balloons had jumped tenfold to 85 and spectators had swelled into the millions. Ms. McFaddin shared more than a dozen Emmy Awards with NBC for the parade telecasts, and in 1999 she was inducted into the International Festivals and Events Association Hall of Fame, the industry’s most prestigious honor.

After a night’s rest, she began her next project — Santaland. From the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, 300,000 children and parents visited Macy’s eighth-floor setting for the rites of seeing Santa. They received tickets for the North Pole Express, saw an enchanted forest, chatted with elves who told stories of Santa’s workshop, and finally met St. Nick.

“It was about keeping the magic and miracle of Christmas alive for the thousands of children who came to believe that this was the true Santa,” Mr. Krauss said.

A few months later, Ms. McFaddin’s indoor flower show at Macy’s — filling the main floor with lilac bushes, azaleas, rhododendrons, tulips, amaryllis, primrose and begonias — unfolded in the first flush of spring. It was an enormous hit every year.

“Move over Central Park, the Macy’s Flower Show is back in town,” Herbert Muschamp wrote in a review for The Times in April 1996. “For two weeks each year, the world’s biggest store is home to New York’s most fantastic park: a colorful hybrid of commerce and nature in full and fragrant bloom. For those too old for Santa, the Flower Show is the true miracle on 34th Street.”

Jean Eleanor McFaddin was born in Lufkin, Tex., on July 13, 1942, the second of three children of Ora Lance McFaddin, a real estate developer, and the former Eleanor Clark. Jean and her siblings, Janet and Lance, attended Lufkin High School, from which Jean graduated in 1960.

Intending a career in theater, she received an associate arts degree at St. Stephen’s College in Columbia, Mo., in 1962 and, at the University of Texas at Austin, earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1964 and a master’s in theater production in 1966.

She acted in companies in Oklahoma and California, and in Los Angeles directed the Liquid Theater, whose cast interacted with audiences in unplanned talking and touching. It ran in New York, London and Paris. “It embraced you,” Ms. McFaddin recalled. “It asked strangers to be friends and to trust one another.”

She produced “Coucou Bazaar” in New York with the French artist Jean Dubuffet. It caught audiences in psychedelic swirls of pictures flashing on walls and Kabuki-like dancers. She directed a 1975-76 Bicentennial program for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington and oversaw New York City’s Fourth of July Land Festival in 1977. That drew the attention of Macy’s, a festival sponsor, and she was hired to revive the store’s faded parade.

Ms. McFaddin was soon inspiring all of Macy’s holiday celebrations. She rose to senior vice president of public relations and events for Macy’s East, comprising scores of stores. Events included “Tap-O-Mania,” a summer gathering of thousands of tap dancers performing on 34th Street.

Her Macy’s fireworks display every Fourth of July dazzled millions. Launched from barges in the Hudson River or New York Harbor after dark, it was the city’s biggest pyrotechnic display of the year — a booming, scintillating barrage of rockets and starbursts that bathed the awed crowds in eerie light and echoed off the facades of a city that lived on imagination.

In 2010, she and her companion of 37 years, Susan Falk, were married at their home in Ridgefield, Conn. Besides Ms. Falk, she is survived by her brother, Lance, four nieces and two nephews.

Video

Vows: Jean & Susan

Jean McFaddin and Susan Falk met in 1962 at the University of Texas. They view the legal marriage of their 40-year relationship as an affirmation of a lifetime of promises that were already fulfilled.


By Vijai Singh on Publish Date September 11, 2010.


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Watch in Times Video »

In her later years, Ms. McFaddin continued to produce events for corporations, civic groups and charities like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

But she had officially retired in April 2001, a few weeks after her last flower show. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, at a City Hall news conference, proclaimed “Jean McFaddin Day in the City of New York.”

And she received a handwritten note from Maureen O’Hara. “Your wonderful contributions to Macy’s, to New York City and to womanhood will never be forgotten,” it said, and signed off, “from one Parade Lady to another.”



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