On the day after Thanksgiving, Santa Claus arrived in Fort Worth by helicopter. He was in town for a parade held on November 23, 1951 — the day after Thanksgiving — sponsored by the downtown Retail Merchants Association. Santa traveled light, but in style, in what appears to be a Bell model H-13 ‘copter with United States Air Force markings. That would have been an appropriate public relations appearance since Bell’s new Texas plant was under construction near Hurst and Carswell Air Force Base was nearby.
Santa and his pilot, Bill Quinlin, set down in the triangle area where West Sixth and West Seventh streets meet near Burnett Park. Where’s Santa? He quickly popped out of the helicopter and posed for photographs with the crowd — and can be spotted just to the left of the Guy Simons United Motor Service sign. Of course, the gaggle of press photographers also help give Santa’s location away.
The parade was the equivalent of a “Black Friday” promotion long before the term changed from one describing a calamity or disaster to a nickname for the rush of shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving. By the early 1980s, “Black Friday” was reconceptualized to indicate the day of the year that retailers first turned a profit. In coverage of the 1951 parade, the press repeatedly reminded readers that there were only 32 more shopping days until Christmas.
The parade wound its way through 30 blocks of downtown delighting over 125,000 onlookers, heading east along West Seventh and passing sponsoring businesses along the way. Local high school bands and a group of “pretty maids” from the YWCA were interspersed with floats, which included Superman, a Teddy Bear, Pinocchio, Peter Rabbit, a pirate, and a 100-foot long Ugly Duckling mother and seven ducklings.
The inflatable characters didn’t float above the crowd as in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but were tethered to wheeled dollies pulled down the street by Boy Scouts who were supposedly dressed as “elves” but look more like they were wearing clown suits.
In the parade photograph, several Fort Worth historic buildings, the Neil P. Anderson and the Texas Electric Service Company (which contained the Hollywood Theater) and Fort Worth Star-Telegram feel enough like skyscrapers to set the mood. All three are still standing (though the Hollywood sign is gone) and provide a gateway to the downtown section of West Seventh Street. Only the Medical Arts Building in the background has fallen to the theoretical march of progress.
This “day after Thanksgiving parade” didn’t have the enduring tradition of the Stock Show Parade. It appeared under various titles as the “Wonderland Parade,” the “Fabulous Christmas Parade,” and the “Santa Claus Parade” during the 1950s and early 1960s, but finally reemerged in the early 1980s as the “Parade of Lights.” Van Cliburn and his mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, were the marshals for the 1981 parade. The warm tradition continues, though it usually occurs a few days before Thanksgiving to allow for more shopping days until Christmas.
Carol Roark is an archivist, historian, and author with a special interest in architectural and photographic history who has written several books on Fort Worth history.