Monday, April 16, 2012

The Fifth Avenue Easter Parade: 
A Link to Old New York

“In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,
you’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter Parade!
On the Avenue, Fifth Avenue the photographers will snap us
and you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.”

New York City’s Easter Parade, immortalized in song by Irving Berlin in the 1948 movie, both with the same title, starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, dates back to late 1800’s.

There are no marching bands at this parade. Thousands of people do not stand behind barricades lining Fifth Avenue to cheer as the procession of schools, dignitaries, uniformed members of the police and fire departments march by. There are no floats towering above the street or celebrities in vintage cars waving to the crowds. It is older than the Columbus Day and Thanksgiving parades, two of the city’s largest events. Still it is not a parade.

It is a holiday tradition dating back to the late 1800’s
when the city’s blue bloods, members of powerful banking, shipping and industrial families who built the city and lived in mansions on or near Fifth Avenue, now one of the world’s premiere retail destinations. They worshipped at one of the four architecturally rich and important churches along this part of Fifth Avenue all completed within an eighteen year time frame of each other; St. Thomas Episcopal Church at 53rd in 1870; Fifth Avenue Presbyterian at 55th in 1875; the landmarked church of Teddy Roosevelt’s youth, St. Nicholas Collegiate Church at 48th in 1872, and demolished in 1949; and St. Patrick's Cathedral, the upstart church built in 1888 by Irish immigrants at 50th.

It began as an informal procession with the city’s aristocracy, heading to and from the church, showcasing their prestige and the fashionable and opulent styles of the day. As the event grew the churches decorated the fronts of their buildings with large floral displays. The poor and working classes came to admire the latest fashions and to watch the hoity-toity as they walked the avenue or rode in horse drawn carriages. Eventually retailers and large department stores realized the importance of the holiday and began promoting their merchandise around the event.

Irving Berlin created the melody for his song Easter Parade in 1917 and titled it “Smile and Show Your Dimple.” But it never caught on. He filed it until 1933 when it surfaced on Broadway in the musical revue As Thousands Cheer with Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb.  In 1942 Bing Crosby sang Easter Parade in the movie Holiday Inn, and featured again in The First Easter Rabbit in 1976 on television. There is also a George M. Cohan song The Easter Parade.
At the height of its popularity almost a million people showed up. Crowds have tailed off significantly and for the past few decades the parades is less reverent and more zany and colorful.  There is  less focus on the latest fashion trends and it is geared more towards the exotic, creative, although good style abounds.

Easter Parades are popular in many other cities too. Atlantic City lays claim to the first parade in 1876. Almost 500,000 spectators filled the boardwalk in the late1930’s. A far smaller event today, it is held at the boardwalk’s famed Steele Pier. San Francisco’s 21-year-old event, along its upscale Union Street, features rides, games, roller-balding cows, mini floats, and vintage cars. There is also an Easter Bonnet contest with prizes awarded for the "Best Couple, Pet, Family and Largest Hat."

New Orleans loves Easter and parades so much it has four including a gay event and two in the French Quarter; a wild one on Bourbon Street and a traditional parade by the St. Louis Cathedral.

New York’s Parade is held on Easter Sunday, on Fifth Avenue from 50th to 57th Street from about 11 a.m. to 3pm.

Photos: Color Easter Parade photo by Rudi Papiri 2009