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W&L's Connection with the First Macy's Parade Telecast

The following post is a reprise of the one we published on Thanksgiving two years ago, but we thought the story should be retold, and we invite you to forward it to W&L alumni, or others, who might not have seen it. Happy Thanksgiving!

When you’re comfortably seated in front of your televisions on Thanksgiving Day watching those huge balloons float down 34th Street in New York, you might want to thank a Washington and Lee alumnus, Don Hillman, for his pioneering work that put the parade on television for the first time back in 1949. Hillman, Class of 1946, had been hired as a stage manager at NBC and was quickly elevated to a director. It was as producer and director that he ran the show on the first live telecast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for NBC. Hillman went on to become the first executive producer of National Educational Television (NET), which became the Public Broadcasting System (PBS, Inc.) in 1970. There’s a terrific account of Hillman’s TV career in the Horace Mann School Alumni Magazine. It includes his several encounters with such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

But back to that first Macy’s live telecast. In an email exchange this week, Don explained how it worked in those earliest days when a coaxial cable had just been built from the West Coast to the East Coast. Prior to that, according to Don, black and white kinescopes were exchanged within four regions of the country to create a kind of network. But he remembers vividly when he first saw a live picture come up on the screen from Chicago. “It felt like Columbus discovering America.”

NBC-TV’s Mobile Unit handled the Thanksgiving Day Parade as a network telecast in 1949. It was later taken over by WNBT — the local New York City NBC station. On Thanksgiving Day 1949, Don recalls how the NBC Mobile Unit was parked on the north side of 34th Street in the middle — sideways to the Macy’s entrance, where a stage area was set up for the entertainment, i.e., Radio City Rockettes, Milton Berle — and NBC commentators Ray Forrest and Bob Staunton. The unit had a floor dolly camera plus two cameras on the roof, including one with a Bok Zoom Lens to pick up the parade and the balloons as they turned right off Broadway and down 34th Street. There was, Don says, no coverage up town where the parade organized for its march downtown.

Wrote Don: “We had to bounce our microwave signal from our dish on top of the Mobile Unit across 34th Street positioned to angle up from a building with a clear sight path to NBC’s antenna on top of the RCA Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The signal was then relayed from master control to the antenna on the Empire State Building.”

In many respects, as Don notes, the parade has always been familiar. Those famous balloons and their handlers, who were Macy employees, along with floats and vehicles carrying show business stars. The lip-synching of performances by the casts of Broadway shows didn’t come until later.

Don’s recollections about that first “hysterical” telecast were part of a History Channel special that was shown several years in a row but is now available on DVD.

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