by Rachel Dworkin
In case you missed it, last Friday was Elmira’s annual holiday parade. The beloved community tradition began life as a crass marketing ploy. In 1957, the S.F. Iszard Company was looking to boost their pre-Christmas sales, and decided to borrow the idea behind the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. For the next 31 years, Iszard’s hosted their annual holiday extravaganza on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Preparation for the parade began months in advance and nearly every Iszard’s employee was involved in one way or another. Float construction began in the spring. The team from the display department would design and construct the floats at the company’s warehouse on Sullivan Street. Bill Warner, the display department manager, and Leonor Strauss, merchandise manager for ladies’ clothing, were in charge of selecting character costumes and recruiting staff and volunteers to wear them. Every parade had to feature recurring favorites like Santa, Santa’s elves, and popular cartoons like Mickey Mouse, but Warner and Strauss tried to keep it fresh, adding in new characters from the latest cartoon craze. New costumes and alterations were handled by the tailors and seamstresses of the clothing departments.
Al Viele works on the story book float for the 1974 parade
The day of the parade, staff would arrive hours in advance to get everyone into their costumes and in proper marching order. The whole procession was divided up into segments and, in turn, each one was overseen by a supervisor whose job it was to keep the whole thing flowing smoothly. The parade route varied from year to year, but the ending was always the same. Santa’s float at the tail end of the parade would stop at Iszard’s front door. Santa would dismount and take up his throne in the 4th floor Christmas Court. During the late-1970s, they changed things up. Under the original system, children were so eager to visit Santa that they would often swarm him, packing themselves into his elevator, creating a safety hazard. Under the new system, the parade Santa would be helped down from his float and whisked into the Mark Twain Building where he could change back into his street clothes, while a second Santa would be waiting in the store to greet his adoring public.
Santa parade float, 1969
The Iszard’s Annual Holiday Parade was an instant success. An average of 15,000 people attended each year, lining the parade route and flocking to the store. Coupled with an extravagant Toyland display featuring a Christmas Court and giant Lionel model train set up, Iszard’s was theplace to shop for Christmas in the Twin Tiers.
The last Iszard’s parade was in 1988, but the tradition continued. In 1989, the Elmira Business Association took over as the parade’s sponsor. All of the old parade floats and supplies were transferred to the old LeValley McLeod building where volunteers could work on them. Despite changing sponsor’s multiple times since 1988, the parade is still going strong. Community Bank N.A. is currently the parade’s lead corporate sponsor.
Rachel Dworkin is the archivist at the Chemung Valley Historical Society. To read more from their blog, go to http://chemungcountyhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com