A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

I arrived at the warehouse that November morning to help set up artificial Christmas trees and spray fake snow onto plywood cutouts. It was the early ’80s, and I was

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

I arrived at the warehouse that November morning to help set up artificial Christmas trees and spray fake snow onto plywood cutouts. It was the early ’80s, and I was

Here Comes the Big Parade

I arrived at the warehouse that November morning to help set up artificial Christmas trees and spray fake snow onto plywood cutouts. It was the early ’80s, and I was a student at Charlotte’s Harding High School, working part-time in visual merchandizing at Belk department store downtown. Normally, I would have been dressing mannequins in power suits or arranging leg warmers on display shelves. But the holidays were approaching, and my boss had asked me to help with the creation of the store’s magnificent float that would roll through the center of the city during the annual Thanksgiving Day Carrousel Parade.

We attached the Belk logo to either side of the mammoth, multilevel stage-on-wheels, then secured a wintry backdrop scene to a riser on which the Carolinas’ Carrousel Queen would stand and wave regally to the roadside crowds. When it was finished, the float shimmered with holiday spirit: oversize gift boxes in shiny wrapping paper, a three-member animatronic deer family, and an onboard audio loop of the Jerry Herman classic “We Need a Little Christmas.”

Charlotte’s Thanksgiving parade has become more culturally diverse in recent years, with staples like a big inflatable turkey. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

A few days later, I watched with pride as the float that I helped create glided down Tryon Street, a symbolic welcome to the holiday shopping season. Enthusiastic employees dressed as happy shoppers danced around, encouraging onlookers to visit Belk for their every Christmas purchasing need.

And then, just as quickly as my float had arrived, it continued on down the street, followed by Clydesdale horses, school marching bands, local TV and radio celebrities in vintage convertibles, clowns, beauty queens, and Shriners in fez hats looping around on minibikes.

Oh, and Santa, of course. Any Thanksgiving parade worth its salt isn’t over until the fat man ho-ho-hos atop a North Pole-themed float complete with sleigh, reindeer, and elves.

• • •

Since 1947, Charlotte’s annual Thanksgiving parade has brought together people from across the Carolinas for a shared experience of joy and happiness. It has thrilled children and adults alike with high-stepping, musically unchallenged marching bands, extravagant costumes and floats, and a who’s who of local, regional, and national celebrities. Over its 76 years, the parade has seen surprise attractions ranging from an elephant named Vicki and a 19th-century horse-drawn fire truck to the obscure French vaudeville performer Denise Darcell and local TV cowboy Fred Kirby astride his horse Calico.

Katherine Owens, whose family moved to Charlotte in the early 1960s, fondly remembers venturing downtown with her parents every Thanksgiving Day from the time she was about 6 years old. “Charlotte seemed like such a big city to me,” says Owens, now 65. “We’d get dressed up in our Sunday best. Sometimes I would wear a hat and gloves and even an overcoat.”

For children in the ’60s, one of the biggest thrills was getting to see TV cowboy Fred Kirby and his loyal horse Calico. Photography courtesy of MILLICAN PICTORIAL HISTORY MUSEUM

Owens’s family was just one of thousands that have poured into downtown Charlotte every Thanksgiving since four local businessmen — Earl Crawford, P.H. Batte, W.S. Lupo, and Charles Dudley — came up with a plan that would help prime the holiday shopping pump. The means to that end: a parade full of enough splash and exotica to attract Christmas shoppers to the busy retail corridor earlier in the season.

It wasn’t an entirely new concept. The idea of using parade and pageantry as an economic booster began in 1920, when Gimbel Brothers Department Store in Philadelphia staged what’s thought to be the first Thanksgiving procession with 50 people, 15 cars, and a fireman dressed as Santa Claus. Four years later, this annual Thanksgiving ritual was etched into America’s popular consciousness when Macy’s began its famous parade in New York City.

By the time Charlotte jumped aboard the trend in the late ’40s, the city’s downtown streets were filled with restaurants and storefronts that turned a trip to town into a family event. For those watching their budgets, stores like Grants, Woolworth, and Kress offered less pricey opportunities, while Tanner’s Hot Dog Stand and Green’s Luncheonette kept the kids fed without leaving pockets empty. More upscale shoppers could go to Ivey’s or Belk and enjoy a fine meal in those stores’ top-floor restaurants.

In the 1950s, Charlotte touted itself as a beacon of progress in the New South, and the elegant floats of the era reflected that. Photography courtesy of THE KUGLER COLLECTION, ROBINSON-SPANGLER CAROLINA ROOM, CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG LIBRARY

Charlotte’s parade continued to grow over the next three years, and, by 1950, it adopted the name Carolinas’ Carrousel, which included not just the parade but also other related activities.

More change was to come: In 1968, the event was scheduled for the morning instead of the afternoon so that CBS could broadcast the parade on national TV. By the mid-aughts, the city had almost doubled its number of floats to 23, and in 2012, U.S. News & Report ranked it among the best Thanksgiving parades in the country.

The following year, however, the Carolinas’ Carrousel foundation announced that longtime sponsor Belk, which no longer maintained a downtown store, had pulled out of the Charlotte parade. With no sponsor, there was a possibility that the event would be canceled. For Charlotteans, this came as a shock. The idea of losing the annual Thanksgiving Day parade was unthinkable. “It’s a shared social experience of human connection, and with each passing year, it seemed to just get better and better,” Owens says. “How could we possibly let something like that slip through our fingers?”

Fortunately, the beloved parade escaped an untimely demise. Charlotte Center City Partners took over production in 2013, and now, Novant Health is its lead sponsor. “People keep stepping up to the plate to keep the parade going,” says Moira Quinn, CCCP’s chief operating officer. “It’s become such a community treasure. It’s an important part of our history and culture.”

• • •

People had already begun to line up along the edges of Tryon Street around 5:30 p.m. last year when I arrived at my first Thanksgiving parade in Charlotte in more than 15 years. Some of them set up outdoor seating, and an elderly couple directly across the street from me brought blankets to keep them warm.

By the time the floats began gliding by, I noticed that things had changed from years past. Gone were the sleek and sophisticated ’60s Lincolns and sporty, early-model Thunderbird ragtops toting television and radio personalities. They were replaced by removable-top Jeeps and brand-new BMW convertibles filled with local and regional politicians. And for the first time in its history, the parade began just after dusk instead of in the morning. The darkness allowed Charlotte’s downtown lights to blend with the rolling holiday decorations in a way that would have been impossible during daylight hours.

Other things remained reassuringly the same, like high school bands. There were bands that traveled long distances to perform, arriving by buses from counties like Orange and Burke. And there were local bands like the one from West Charlotte High School, whose acclaim for its drum-and-rhythm-corps style dates back to the ’70s. Those are the special moments that people from across North Carolina have traveled to Charlotte to see for the past three-quarters of a century.

“The street decorations have changed, and so have the floats,” Owens says, “but the music and drumbeats from the bands and the excited crowds still take me back to those old parades that I went to years ago.” She’s referring to those times, long ago, when her family would bring along relatives visiting for the holidays. When her father groused about it being “too early” for stores to be decorating for Christmas. But young Owens paid him no mind. She was mesmerized. “There were street vendors selling cotton candy, spinners and balloons on sticks and strings — one guy even had a little monkey,” she remembers. “And when the day was done, we would go back to the house for Thanksgiving dinner.”

• • •

If you dig around on YouTube, you can find footage of Charlotte’s Thanksgiving Day parades dating as far back as the ’50s. And it’s fascinating to see so many people unknowingly captured during such celebratory moments in the city’s past. There’s a constant incidental theme that runs throughout all of the parades, both past and present. That theme is happiness. I witnessed it during the parades of my childhood in the ’70s; later, as I worked on that Belk float during my teen years in the ’80s; and then again last year, as big balloon floats hovered above the crowd. Happiness is what Thanksgiving parades are all about, and Charlotte’s parade may be the happiest of them all.

Whether you’re watching beauty queens in the ’60s with their beehive hairdos, attendees wearing afros or feathered shag cuts in the ’70s, or scenes from the parade last year, you’ll see happiness in the faces of both the participants and the observers. Happiness over a shared experience that crosses cultures and ages and brings us together to celebrate our thanks for being alive, being part of the human experience, and being excited about what the future holds. And really, what more could we ask for in a Thanksgiving parade?

This story was published on Oct 24, 2022

David Aaron Moore

David Aaron Moore is the senior content editor of Qnotes in Charlotte, and the author of Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem.