Retro Charlotte

Carrousel Parade: A Thanksgiving tradition

Contestants mob Carolinas' Carrousel Queen Beth Troutman of Concord in 1994. (You may recognize her as a WCNC news anchor.)
Contestants mob Carolinas' Carrousel Queen Beth Troutman of Concord in 1994. (You may recognize her as a WCNC news anchor.) The Charlotte Observer

In 2013 the Queen City’s annual Thanksgiving parade was in dire financial straits and had, in fact, been cancelled. Novant Health stepped in as primary sponsor and the Carrousel Parade became the Novant Health Thanksgiving Day parade. Novant’s official color, aubergine, is evident throughout, right down to mascot Queen Charlotte Turkey’s robe.

This 1988 Observer story describes the parade’s origins and continued popularity:

“At 2 p.m. Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, the 40th version of the annual Carolinas' Carrousel parade will lurch down Tryon Street. There will be some urban dazzle, some unexpected delights. But mostly, the Carrousel will be a gathering of cherished cliches: children squealing, bands blaring, crowned lovelies waving. Santa Claus with plastic reindeer and a somewhat shiny white beard. Shriners, clowns, fluffy fake snow. Fun. It's a slow cooker in a microwave world.

“But still it endures. Why? Because all the videos and multiple-use toys apparently don't compare to leaning into a street for that first glimpse, feeling the drumbeats clear into your stomach. ‘You are going to see people 12 deep on Tryon Street the whole way. We have a half-million watching (on WBTV, channel 3),’ said Debbie Moser, executive director since 1973 of Carolinas' Carrousel Inc. ‘This is one of the single largest events here free to the public. I think people will always want it just the way we do it,’ Moser said.

“The first Carrousel was the lunch-hour brainstorm of the late Earl Crawford, promotion director for The Observer. In June 1947, Crawford asked P.H. Batte, William Lupo and Charles Dudley to join him at Thacker's Restaurant on Tryon. He was looking for a way to show off Charlotte. Lupo, manager of the downtown Sears store, and the others were looking for ways to promote downtown Christmas shopping. The result was the Charlotte Christmas Festival, an evening parade to kick off the lighting of downtown's Christmas finery. The necessary elements, the men reasoned, were big-name celebrities, pretty girls and music. That November, N.C.-bred movie star Ann Jeffreys led the parade, followed by 33 princesses in evening gowns from surrounding counties - representing the counties whose residents came downtown for Christmas shopping. About 125,000 people watched, newspapers called it ‘the Southeast's largest festival’ and a tradition was born.

“The parade wasn't set on Thanksgiving Day until 1950. Famous names dotted early parades - actors Hopalong Cassidy, Tex Ritter, Buster Crabbe, E.G. Marshall, Michael Landon and Emmett Kelley. Cassidy, who rode his horse Topper in the 1958 parade, pronounced that the Carrousel ‘rivaled the Tournament of Roses parade.’ The pinnacle of Carrousel history, most agree, was in 1968. Crawford convinced CBS to televise part of the parade nationwide in its annual Thanksgiving Day broadcast. The parade was moved to the morning for the broadcast, with 52 floats and 38 bands from across the state. But 1968 also marked the beginning of a slow decline in parade enthusiasm and budget. Because of the national broadcast, CBS required all the Carrousel floats to be self-propelled, like floats in more lavish New York and Los Angeles parades. That meant the floats cost an average of $10,000 each - a stiff price then and even today, Moser said, when most floats are pulled by garden tractors and cost less than $10,000. The parade was in debt, and it scaled back. In 1973, recession woes hit, and financial difficulties worsened. There was talk of ending the parade. In late 1973, Jim Stegall was recruited to lead the Carrousel out of its hole. He doubled the budget, added events, altered others and dreamed up some stunts to spark new life - including changing the route and having Santa parachute into Marshall Park during the late 1970s. Stegall still sits on the Carrousel corporation board.

“‘I still have 40-year-olds coming up to me saying they won't miss (seeing) it. It's like they say - you never outgrow it,’ says Moser.”