Fear & Floating at the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade

November 22, 2017 | by Michael Bixler

I have never been to a Thanksgiving Day parade in Philadelphia, and I will probably never go to one. It’s not that the 6ABC Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade isn’t a streamlined spectacle worthy of a crowd. Nor should it suffer comparisons to that other Turkey Day street party thrown by our neighbors in New York City. Philly’s parade, which celebrates its 97th year tomorrow, is a fine, varnished display. If you like Disney movies, aggressive branding, and all of the corporate trappings of generic, sponsor-driven events, by all means, enjoy. But what our parade does lack these days–at least from what I’ve gathered from watching it on TV–is actual hometown authenticity and that unmistakeable touch of Philly delirium, something that the original Gimbles Thanksgiving Day Parade seemed to have had in spades. 

The following is a little holiday tribute to the weird, menacing hilarity of parade float designs that graced the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the 1950s to the 1970s. You will see a giant raccoon with a revolver, a vicious vampire in front of the Art Museum, an utterly crazed depiction of Samson, and other charmingly nightmarish examples of Philly-style lunacy. The cute, the kooky, and the downright creepy.

This Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks for shedding some of the city’s worst, worn-out cliches as we slip into something a little more contemporary. But let us remember that what gives Philly its identity–the grit, the humor, the artful cynicism, and the genuine sincerity–is well worth preserving.

All photographs courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection at Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

“Giant Elephant makes its way down the Parkway.” Thanksgiving 1976. | Photo: Charles J. Tinney

“Giant raccoon balloon is accompanied by 11-year-old Lynn Janke, of Lansdale, along Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade sponsored by the city and Gimbels.” Thanksgiving 1970. | Photo: Jack Tinney

“Ape and Hippo balloons float above the heads of Linda’s Lassies Twirling Corp.” Thanksgiving 1968. | Photo: Jack Tinney

“American Jet Lunar Flight. Just having landed on the moon this space craft with passengers in the windows shows the space pilot coming out of the hatch waving an American flag. The John F. Kennedy Plaza Hospitality Center can be seen on the right.” Thanksgiving 1962. | Photo: Dominic Pasquarella

“Dog–which is part of the Dog, cat, rat and the Cheese [sic] grouping.” Thanksgiving 1966. | Photo: Dominic Pasquarella

“Vampire–a pretty vicious looking fellow.” Thanksgiving 1965. | Photo: Dominic Pasquarella

No caption, year, or photographer name provided.

“In the foreground: ‘The Pig that Went to Market’ followed by: ‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock’, and ‘Panda the Bear.'” Thanksgiving 1968. | Photo: Dominic Pasquarella

“Mother Goose character waves to the crowd.” Thanksgiving 1968. | Photo: Jack Tinney

28 “Boris Bless, age 7, of City Center Annex School, gets a tune played to him by Scottish Bagpiper.” Thanksgiving 1964. | Photo: Dominic Pasquarella

“Giant red squirrel carries an acorn in the Thanksgiving Day parade heralding the arrival of Santa Claus. Thanksgiving 1962. | Photo: Dominic Pasquarella

“Clowns lead the float ‘Samson between two pillars.'” Thanksgiving 1961. | Photo: Dominic Ligato

Thanksgiving 1961. No caption or photographer name provided.

“Float salutes Navy’s 200th birthday.” Thanksgiving 1975. | Photo: Don Camp

“One of the giant balloons in the Thanksgiving Day parade features a guitar-playing owl as part of an ‘Owl and Pussy Cat’ float.” Thanksgiving 1961. | Photo: Dominic Pasquarella

“Ancient Egyptian sphinx sporting a sad looking face.” Thanksgiving 1962. | Photo: Dominic Pasquarella

“Patients from Children’s Hospital get a preview of Gimbel’s 38th annual Thanksgiving Day parade by watching workmen inflate a 60-foot-long balloon model of the submarine Nautilus at 24th and Chestnut Sts.” The Baltimore and Ohio Passenger Station can be seen on the right. Thanksgiving 1958. | Photo: Joseph Wasko

“Children from the Albert M. Greenfield School pose on the 72-foot ‘Gulliver’ float. From top: Gary Ferguson, 8; Amy Goldsmith, 9, and Angela Whittington, 9.” Thanksgiving 1973. | Photo: — Owens

“Giant balloon leopard travels along Benjamin Franklin Parkway.” Thanksgiving 1964. | No photographer listed.

“Mother Goose section features the Old Woman in the Shoe as the traditional holiday salute moves along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the downtown shopping area.” Thanksgiving 1959. | No photographer listed.

“Buffeting winds didn’t quite seem to agree with the Gimbel Thanksgiving Day balloon floats on preview today. Not only is the Giraffe’s neck heading south with the wind, but some where in his travels [he] seems to have picked up a horse and its rider in its back.” Thanksgiving 1965. | Photo: Dominic Pasquarella

“Dressed in costumes from Poland. Four-year-old Christopher Fuchs from Roxborough holding up the Elephant’s trunk and seven-yr-old Judy Ann Reidy, from Lafayette Hills.” Thanksgiving 1972. | Photographer: Charles J. Tinney

Woman riding inside of Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater float in Thanksgiving Day parade.” Thanksgiving 1954. | No photographer listed.

“Art Museum statue of horseman seems ready to spear inflated Frog Footman from Alice in Wonderland.” Thanksgiving 1969. | Photographer: Dominic Pasquarella

“Workmen carry giant balloon (horse) across Parkway in front of the Museum of Art on way to Thanksgiving Day Parade preview.” Thanksgiving 1972. | Photo: Charles J. Tinney

“Michael Judge from Giant Balloons, Inc. inflates ‘The Cat.'” Thanksgiving 1971. | Photo: Charles J. Tinney


About the Author

Michael Bixler is a writer, editor, and photographer engaged in dialogue and documentation of the built environment and how it relates to history, culture, and the urban experience. He is the editorial director and chief photographer of Hidden City Philadelphia.


  1. John J. Kline says:

    The forth photo from the end, is on Broad Street below Arch, when the Original Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade route was from Broad and Columbia Avenue to 8th and Market Sts the Original Gimbels Store location, before the parade moved to the Parkway and Gimbels moved to 10th & Market Sts. I marched and performed in the Broad Street Parades of 1952…1956 Parades with the Northern Liberty Drum and Bugle Corps.

  2. Jim Clark says:

    Interesting, looks like they mixed up Halloween with Thanksgiving!

  3. Rob Bender says:

    If you want to see some of these horrifying balloons in action, check out “Fun in Balloonland”. Best to watch the RiffTrax version (by the Mystery Science Theater cast)

    1. Michael Bixler says:

      Great find, Rob. What a loopy time capsule. The entire “movie,” sans RiffTrax overdub, can be seen here:

  4. Davis says:

    Delightful photos.

  5. Philly Guy says:

    Terrific pics of Vintage Philadelphia! Being of a certain age many of the photos unlocked some very deep memories of attending the parade in the fifties and sixties!Even then as a wide eyed Philly kid I often had trouble guessing exactly what some of those floats where trying to represent! Whatever they were it was pure Philly grit and all!

  6. Bob Kremer says:

    Great group if photos. It would be great to see some from the pre balloon days when the floats were hand made on trailers and stored all year in the Gimbels warehouse down by the Schukyll river. My Dad was second in command of the parade from 1946 to 1979 and from the time I was three I got to ride with him in the motor cycle side car to help keep the parade moving as it should. As a youth I was on some of the floats representing Philly icons like WFIL.As a teen I helped pull the inflated floats with friends and family. I left Philly in 1968 but try to find a televised version when available.

  7. BARRY LUTZ says:

    I think you’re confusing the Thanksgiving Parade with the Mummer’s. The Thanksgiving Parade was never meant to be uniquely Philly. It was meant to ewww and awww children still young enough to believe in Santa Claus. As a side benefit, it provided a rather prestigious showcase for high school marching bands from all over the country, to strut their stuff and validate all the hard work and sacrifices these participants have contributed since the summer.

    Our ‘uniquely Philly’ parade happens on January 1st. This is when we relax the rule and urinate against our most iconic buildings and vomit throughout our most desirable zip codes. It’s also a day to set aside political correctness and allow our true ignorance and bigotry to blossom and flourish.

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