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So You Want to Be a Clown in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?

So You Want to Be a Clown in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?

Clown U: a sneak peek at what it takes to be a clown in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Early on Sunday, Nov. 12, I made my way to the Big Apple Circus’ big top nestled in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center. I wasn’t there to see the circus, though I did see a show: Clown U, a daylong crash course for those lucky few who get to be clowns in the 91st Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And a handful of professional clowns, including Grandma and Mr. Joel from the Big Apple Circus, were there to coach the eager participants in how to act on the big day.

RELATED: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Big Apple Circus

A Day at Clown U

When I walked in, nearly 150 clown trainees sat ringside mingling with each other, wearing their red-and-white Clown U scarves, and taking selfies with the professionals (who were…clowning around—sorry!). 

As training began, nearly 30 clown captains representing the 33 clown groups in the parade marched in, including the Arrrsome Pirates, Birthday Party Clowns, Hi-Roller Skating Clowns, Corny Copia Clowns, Nutty-Cracker Ballet Clowns, Hoedown Clowns, Viking Clowns, Turkey Tech Players & Sports Fans, and Keystone Cops & Robbers. And yes, they were dressed in full clowning regalia.

Clown U Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

The Clown U students were asked to raise their right hands to take the clown pledge.

Everyone was asked to raise their right hand for the clown pledge, promising appropriate behavior, full costume and makeup on turkey day, timeliness, and to “have fun and continue to wave and smile, spreading joy and tossing confetti each and every mile.” After a brief warm-up, the Clown U students went with their respective captains and a professional clown to learn the tricks of the trade, choreograph their marching style, and figure out what to do each time the parade stops to keep the crowd entertained. As the morning was winding down, all the clowns came back together to show off what they learned and decided to do during parade pauses: The Turkey Tech Players & Sports Fans decided to re-enact a football play, while the Nutty-Cracker Ballet Clowns performed a mini ballet recital, and the Birthday Party Clowns chose a random person in the audience to sing “Happy Birthday” to.


How to Become a Clown in the Parade

So you want to be a clown in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? You have two options: Be a Macy’s employee or know a Macy’s employee who will sponsor you. 

“Actually, this parade started in 1924 by the Macy’s employees, and it continues to this day,” said Susan Tercero, group vice president, Macy’s Parade and Entertainment Group. She oversees production and operations of the parade, and this is her 14th parade with Macy’s (second as group VP).

Typically, Macy’s recruits volunteers from almost 80 stores in the Northeast region who are bussed in for Thanksgiving. There are a little more than 4,000 volunteers who take part in the parade festivities, and nearly 1,000 of them are clowns. Other key volunteer positions are balloon holders and float escorts.

clown u clowns talking macy's thanksgiving day parade

Mr. Joel (center), from the Big Apple Circus, coaches the Birthday Party Clowns on what to do (sing "Happy Birthday" to an unsuspecting spectator) when the parade pauses along the route.


Planning Ahead—Way Ahead

The planning process for the parade starts 18 months in advance. “We do a whole selection process with our bands, and we have to identify which partners we’re going to work with in terms of what groups are going to perform, [and] who we’re going to work with to bring in different floats and balloons,” Tercero said.

In the weeks leading up to the parade, Macy’s hosts Balloon Fest, during which they debut the new balloons; Float Camp, during which the float escorts learn what to expect; and Clown U.

RELATED: What's New for the 91st Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Fulfilling Thanksgiving Day Dreams

While Clown U is intended to teach newbies the ropes, a lot of returning clowns were also in attendance. John Delaney, a Macy’s employee, will step off in his 10th parade this year as a Corny Copia Clown. “I got in it because as a kid I always dreamed of being in the parade,” he said. “It was a family tradition watching it, and now I get to be a part of everybody else’s tradition in watching it.”

“This is my fifth year in the parade,” said Linda McCourt, a former Macy’s employee who will be part of the Keystone Cops & Robbers troupe. “It’s just fun to interact with the crowd on Thanksgiving Day.” McCourt is also sponsoring Peggy Chicoris, who will be participating for a second year. “I’ll be back as long as they’ll keep me,” Chicoris added.

I did speak with one volunteer who is participating for the first time. Cara Via, a Corny Copia Clown, was sponsored by Wanda Perez, the group’s captain. Perez is celebrating her 15th year marching in the parade, and said her favorite part of being in the parade is that she gets to be herself. “I’m always a clown, and I’m always hyper. Anyone that knows me knows that I’m always clowning around,” she said. “I get to be myself. That’s my day that nobody can say ‘Oh, you’re acting crazy. You’re being over-exaggerated.’ I’m being myself and everyone loves it.”

Perez and Via met randomly at a bakery in NYC back in February and bonded over a love of dressing up for Halloween (Via was wearing a T-shirt for her children’s book, Halloween Holly). When Perez mentioned she is a clown in the parade, Via knew it was the universe at work. “I’ve always wanted to be in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade because, like Wanda, I’m a clown by nature,” Via said. “And thanks to Wanda, I am here today.”

corny copia clowns clown u diploma

Corny Copia Clowns Wanda Perez (captain), Cara Via, and John Delaney with their Clown U Certificate of Achievements 

Regardless of how many years the returning clowns have been in the parade, all of the volunteers had one thing in common: They love to be in the parade to bring joy to those watching.

“I love turning the corner and seeing the kids’ faces,” Chicoris said. “It gives such a good feeling inside that you’re doing something worthwhile.”

“I love to make a difference in the lives of others, and I feel like being out there on the parade route is where I make that happen,” Marshall added. “It’s such a rewarding feeling.”

On the day before Thanksgiving, the parade crews will begin inflating the balloons on the Upper West Side and the floats will be brought in. At around 3-4am on Thanksgiving day, the crew will start getting the volunteers’ costumes ready for when the volunteers start to trickle in to get dressed and put on makeup. Once they’re dressed and ready, the volunteers will be transported to the start of the parade route, and then, well…you can watch what happens next on TV—or from the sidelines if you decide to brave the crowd.

Main image: The Nutty-Cracker Ballet Clowns' captain skips to center ring as he's introduced to the Clown U students.
All photos by Katelin Walling


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Katelin Walling

Author: Katelin Walling is the former editorial director for NYMetroParents. She has been writing about parenting, health, finance, education, fun things to do in NYC and the surrounding area, and more for nearly 10 years. She also has 20+ years of child care experience and was a babysitter in NYC for 8 years. Katelin graduated from the University of Maine in 2011 and attended the NYU Summer Publishing Institute during the summer of 2011. To unplug in her free time, she can often be found reading, knitting (or general crafting), or whipping up a vegan treat—all with a cup of coffee nearby. See More

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