“The first thing I think of when I hear the word parade is, We better be ready because it’s coming whether we want it or not,” Bill Schermerhorn joked over the phone just days before his biggest day of the year (not to mention a celebratory one for Americans): Thanksgiving.
Schermerhorn is the creative force behind the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He’s been the director for more than a decade, but his involvement with the organization dates back to 1983, when, he says, he was looking for work as a struggling actor in New York City.
“I moved to New York right from college. To pay the rent, I flipped a coin: Will I work at Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s?”
Macy’s won and Schermerhorn started out on the floor selling Calvin Klein underwear. Before long, he found his way to the company’s parade office, where he scored a full-time job working on the yearly holiday extravaganza.
“I just climbed up the ranks and kept getting to do more,” he explains. “One year [while working on the parade] I said to the director at the time [Jean McFaddin], ‘Can I change something in the script?’ She said, ‘Sure, do that,’ and it soon became part of my job. I became creative director/director of the parade in 2001.”
So what exactly does Schermerhorn do?
He calls himself a storyteller, troublemaker — and chef. “Two weeks before the parade I may say, ‘This order does not work. Let’s flip this float with this balloon and change this clown group and move it here.’ That’s kind of what I do. I’m the cook who puts everything together.”
The audience for this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (currently in its 89th year) can expect an event chock-full of marching bands, clowns, floats, and — of course — Broadway shows. An estimated 53 million people are expected to watch (3.5 million in attendance, 50 million at home).
Choosing the handful of Broadway shows to be featured in the 2015 parade was a difficult task for Schermerhorn, a self-proclaimed “Broadway baby.” He says he attends the theater frequently and notes that this year in particular was “a bountiful year” on the Main Stem.
The parade will kick off at 9 a.m. November 26 Latin-style, with the new Gloria and Emilio Estefan musical, On Your Feet! — conga line and all. The opening number will start uptown (77th Street and Central Park West) and will end with a big Gloria Estefan mega-mix down in Herald Square.
Other shows slated to appear in the national telecast include The King and I, featuring 2015 Tony award winner Kelli O’Hara and children performing “Getting to Know You.”
The company of Finding Neverland is set to perform the song “Believe,” and the cast of Something Rotten will pay tribute to Broadway with an abbreviated version of its showstopper “A Musical.” Also, members from the upcoming revival of Fiddler on the Roof will perform “To Life.”
In addition, the company of the live TV presentation of The Wiz — which airs on NBC December 3 — will perform the song “Brand New Day.”
If you keep your eyes peeled for the iconic guitar company Gibson, its float will feature the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical, the film-to-stage transfer of School of Rock.
And what would the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade be like without marching bands? The parade’s creative director assures this year’s marching band lineup will include more than a dozen of the best high school and college groups from around the country, as well as bands comprised of New York City’s bravest and finest: the FDNY and NYPD.
Schermerhorn explains it takes him and his colleagues about four days to go through all the hundreds of submissions each year. Not only do they look at where the bands come from regionally, as well as the sizes and styles of the troupes, but even things like the colors of their uniforms. For instance, he says, “you don’t want six bands wearing blue and white or red and gold.”
He adds, “Aside from the individual marching bands, we’re going to have 550 cheerleaders from all across the country — a group called Spirit of America Cheer and 500 dancers participating in the parade. Also, we’re going to have the return of The Great American Marching Band, something we established years ago because there are certain states we don’t get submissions from but want to represent in the parade. So we bring band students together from all around the country to New York. In four days, they learn the material and [that’s how you get] 250 members in this national band.”
He says he feels gratified when he and his team finalize and confirm the young participants in the parade. “For a lot of these kids, it’s their first and only visit to New York City, so being in the Macy’s parade we hope that they will cherish this and get their moment to shine!”
With the 89th parade set to happen on Thanksgiving, rain or shine, the creative director says he’s already planning next year’s event: the 90th anniversary celebration. “Think of it like Tony-winning director Casey Nicholaw and all his projects. He’s always working on upcoming projects while he has shows playing and opening on Broadway — and so are we.”
And while Schermerhorn admits the week of Thanksgiving is always intense, he says he’s prepared to sleep after the holiday — or even during.
“I’ve been known to fall asleep in mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner.”