Arts & Culture » Culture

Festivity factory


The German shepherd slobbers a little; it could rip your head off. It stalks behind chain-link and barbed wire, gutted cars and corroded metal. A few weary workers linger, hunched over Frankensteinian welding projects, but there's no one else around.

Add a sinister soundtrack and a choppy montage to this scrap-yard scene, and it's a Tobe Hooper horror flick. Because, among the graying railroads, decaying warehouses and nightmarish abandon, you glimpse a streak of color and — gasp! — it's a clown!

And then, another clown. And another; and then another. You have no choice but to follow its jolly beckoning, its pupilless eyes and half-smile — so you move through the alleys and hope for the best.

Oops. This is overkill, isn't it? But — just understand — we're talking about a creepy place here.

Like Willie Wonka's confectionary paradise, the Parade Company on Detroit's east side is cloaked in an industrial facade. Clowns stenciled on signboards are the only indication that anyone's around — but as the staging grounds for "America's Thanksgiving Parade," the interior of at least one of these warehouses buzzes with activity.

Quick history lesson: Detroit's Thanksgiving Parade moseyed down Woodward for the first time in 1924. It was a much smaller affair then, with a handful of wagon-pulled floats, high school and adult marching bands, costumed revelers and clowns. Parade management had changed hands over the years and the Parade Company took over in 1986.

Inside the Parade Company warehouse is everything you might expect of a parade float birthplace: You're greeted with gigantic yellow-and-red lollipops, huge cherubs with perma-grins, doe-eyed, fawning reindeer and yes — more clowns. The walls are painted in jolly yellows and pinks, the air smells like chemical adhesive, and everyone appears to be smiling.

Fairy tales and fantasy are a running theme here; a 40-foot bookworm winds its way through the cavernous room (though it's clearly a pseudo-intellectual — there's no writing on its book); one parade float features "little monkeys jumping on a bed," another carries a not-so-little girl daydreaming in her messy room. There are straw huts and a wolf and the three little pigs.

Disembodied heads leer from the room's corners and down from walls. "There are over 400 historical heads here," says Joan LeMahieu, president of the Parade Company. "They were made in Italy mostly, and many of them are 60 to 70 years old."

Made of papier-mâché, the enormous heads are worn each year by strong men (and women) as they march in the parade. Yellowing Italian newspapers peek through some of the older heads, where shellac is cracked with age and use. There are also pirates, princesses, celebrities and clowns here, preserved in life-sized caricature.

One nook of the warehouse is dedicated to storing the hundreds of costumes worn by parade participants. Clown apparel is currently the most popular, worn by the Parade Company's "Distinguished Clowns." Metro Detroit philanthropists (with latent circus fetishes, perhaps — why else would you want to look like a clown?) pay thousands of dollars to wear the honorable clown getups and march the streets. These are necessary parade contributions, because the whole enterprise gets pricey.

"Over 200 corporations help finance the floats and the balloons featured in the parade," LeMahieu says. "Because each float costs anywhere between $75,000 and $150,000."

The campy and breathtaking artistry is engineered with hardened polystyrene, plywood, paint and tons of glitter. The floats are intricately detailed. Thirteen artists work full-time and several more sign on part time. In fact, this year-round enterprise sees more than 1,500 volunteers helping to keep a Detroit tradition rolling. If that's not something to give thanks for, what is?


The Thanksgiving Parade will begin at Detroit's Main Library at 9:20 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 23, and will travel south on Woodward.

Meghana Keshavan is a Metro Times intern. Send comments to


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