SCHENECTADY — The Schenectady Holiday Parade has been snuffed out by the coronavirus this year.
The parade has been a major draw for years.
“It’s an extremely successful event and we don’t see a way to manage and scale it back and still maintain social distancing and minimize potential spread or contact of the COVID virus,” said Mayor Gary McCarthy on Monday.
The Daily Gazette has been a major sponsor, with Vice President of Advertising Bob O’Leary calling it a “very important part of our November at The Daily Gazette.”
“As the organizer of the parade for the past three years, we were looking forward to once again bringing this amazing event to the city,” O’Leary said. “It’s as disappointing to The Daily Gazette family as it is to our residents that we will not be able to present the parade this year.”
The annual bash to kick off the holiday season is among the region’s largest holiday events and draws up to tens of thousands of spectators to downtown Schenectady in late November.
The event has been branded as the largest evening holiday parade in the Northeast, with last year marking the 51st formal installment of the Schenectady Holiday Parade.
McCarthy said he was unclear if this year marks the first time the parade has been cancelled (although the 2015 terrorist attack in France forced the city to bolster security, said county Historian Bill Buell).
Merritt Dance Center of Schenectady has been involved since the beginning.
“It’s very sad because our kids look forward to it,” said co-founder Marlene Merritt. “A lot of people change their vacations for Thanksgiving Weekend just so they can be in the parade.”
While going on its 52nd year, there have been several previous incarnations — including a similar event sponsored by the Union-Fern store chain in the 1940s.
“It was held during the daytime (and) died out at some point,” Buell said.
Merritt also recalled a series of precursor holiday events, including a motorcade of dancers and twirlers from the studio joining Santa Claus as they headed along Nott Terrace.
The parade in its current incarnation began in 1969 and was organized by the Schenectady Downtown Merchants as a way to bring people downtown to shop, Buell said.
The two key figures were Joe Dalton and Ed Lewi.
Among the inaugural participants were animal characters of the popular Sunday morning television show “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.”
The debut year was an important one for the city.
Workers from General Electric went out on strike for 102 days beginning in October.
In 1969, GE had about 27,000 employees, Buell said, “so GE meant a lot to the city and county.”
“Six weeks later, the Christmas parade was an opportunity for families to feel good about something before the strike ended,” Buell said.
Earlier that year, American Locomotive Company, the city’s other major company, had closed its doors.
The event had originally been held the Friday after Thanksgiving before moving to an earlier date sometime just after the year 2000, Buell said.
Some of the more memorable appearances over the years included then-mayor Brian Stratton driving in his father Sam Stratton’s yellow Volkswagen that he utilized during congressional campaigns, Buell recalled.
Each year brings a different theme to the longstanding event, including history in 2009, and the celebration of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 2013 with actors from the Classic Theater Guild, who were putting on a production of the show, taking part in the parade.
“As a young kid growing up in Glenville, going to Schenectady to see the parade was one of the highlights of the Christmas season,” Buell said. “I got to watch much of it from the third floor of the old Gazette building right by the railroad overpass.”
Merritt recalled numerous changes in what’s become an indelible holiday tradition, with families passing dancing uniforms down through the generations.
“Way back we could twirl fire batons,” Merritt recalled. “We always loved the parade, and we always showed up.”
McCarthy said officials are eyeing an alternative event to safely celebrate the holiday season and promote downtown attractions.
“How do we continue that and provide opportunity to those who live and want to come here to take advantage of good food, good entertainment and good friendship?” McCarthy said.
Schenectady Holiday Parade isn’t the only scaled-back holiday event:
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday there will be no live Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the iconic event will instead be presented virtually.
Despite the cancellation, downtown Schenectady will not be totally bereft of holiday cheer:
Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation (DSIC) will still outfit streets with decorations, including Little Italy and down Erie Boulevard as part of their newly-expanded service area.
And the annual holiday tree, a partnership with Transfinder, is still on (albeit with an online lighting ceremony).
“Details are still being worked out and we certainly want to keep that part of the holiday season downtown,” said Jim Salengo, DSIC’s executive director.
Salango acknowledged the parade’s cancellation will put an additional squeeze on downtown business owners battered by the pandemic-caused shutdowns and restrictions.
Officials are working on events to help support businesses during the holiday season, he said, including the annual Small Business Saturday designed to encourage people to shop local.
O’Leary said The Daily Gazette is already eyeing 2021.
“Rest assured, we are already working on ways to make the 2021 Holiday Parade bigger and better than ever,” O’Leary said.