Confessions of a Parade Balloon Handler

Lorri has fond childhood memories of watching Chicago’s Thanksgiving parade on her family TV set. On Thanksgiving morning in her home, the house was full of good smells – the food was cooking but, of course, the family was unable to eat any of it yet. For Lorri, the show on TV was a convenient distraction while she waited for dinner. It was an annual tradition she adored.

As a young adult, Lorri was able to take the parade ritual one step further. She and her girlfriends found a newspaper posting seeking volunteer balloon handlers for the Chicago Thanksgiving day parade. The volunteers would become part of the celebration as they marched down State Street before enormous crowds. They immediately signed up as alternates and were fortunate to be called to official parade duty.

In the interest of time, Lorri stayed in the city after finishing her work at a downtown office building. She and her friends started celebrating the holiday a bit early that Wednesday evening, enjoying the city’s local taps. Luckily they planned to sleep at a friend’s apartment near Greektown.



After only a few hours’ worth of rest, the young ladies struggled to overcome their successful night and arrive at the staging area at 4:00 in the morning on Thanksgiving Day. Luckily they didn’t have far to travel to meet everyone in an empty parking lot just west of the Loop -- where they had practiced earlier that month.

There was an enormous crowd of volunteers, all eager to participate in the 8:00 kick-off. To combat the early morning hour, a number of folks brought the crucial provisions: coffee, cigarettes and flasks. There was a good mood among everyone, and Lorri could sense the excitement as they anticipated marching that morning. They were all going to be part of a grand televised event, marching in front of spectators and live television cameras.

The parade organizers were an organized team, which included heavy-duty practicing for all volunteers prior to parade day. The crews dressed in numerous layers for characteristic late November weather. They wrapped their hands with tape to prevent against blistering and covered them with protective gloves. With sturdy bands strapped around their waists, the workers were set for wind gusts that pulled the balloons and their bodies in multiple directions.



Marching with 3 additional handlers, Lorri realized the job was a lot of exercise and took a physical toll. The drag of the balloon and the wind pulled their arms, making them ache. After fighting the elements all morning, the volunteers were hot from exertion and sweating from the extra layers of clothing. Still, the thrill of being part of a grand show and bringing holiday excitement to families made the effort worthwhile.

Working all morning gave Lorri and her friends an appetite and it was, after all, Thanksgiving Day. Unfortunately most restaurants were closed downtown, so they finally located a small sandwich shop near Greektown, where they enjoyed a deserved gyros sandwich.

Lorri was grateful to be part of the thrilling day, noting” it was just us goofy girls having fun.” Her only regret is not taking any photos; back then no one had cell phones to take a quick picture. Her next wish is to volunteer once more, this time taking her teenage son along. He’s heading off to the Navy next year, and she wants to create similar memories for both of them. No word yet on whether she’ll allow him to bring a flask.


Photo: Adobe Stock

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