The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: Keeping tradition alive in 2020

By Amy Nicole Tangel

In the days leading up to a Thanksgiving holiday where not much seems to remain the same, I began to think about what past traditions have been most special to me, and how I could carry them on in spirit this year.  The first to come to mind was how I start my Thanksgiving celebrations; watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

Heading into the 94th season, the parade will kick-off in unprecedented fashion, but the show will go on for viewers to watch exclusively from home.  Live broadcasting by NBC will remain as always from 34th Street, but for television only as the procession of floats, balloons and performances are all being pre-recorded at various times throughout the days leading up to and including Thanksgiving Day. 

Since I was a child, I have always loved watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a tradition I have passed on to my own children which is still carried on today.  I remember as a child, my brother and I waking up Thanksgiving morning bright-eyed and ready to watch the parade just a few minutes before the 9 a.m. start time as to not miss the grand opening.  We would sit on the floor with the greatest anticipation of what was to come; giant balloons, floats, marching bands, musical performances, and the biggest moment of all—the arrival of Santa.

Fast forward to present day, and the parade that I have loved all my life is still here this year when so many other things are not.  I am grateful the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade did not give up and was innovative in creating a plan to safely keep the annual tradition alive.  I am thankful for all the people who have worked and volunteered their time and care to do something to bring joy to not only New Yorkers, but across the entire nation when it is so desperately needed.  This year’s parade is not just about bringing smiles to faces, but about giving people hope to keep marching forward in a time with so much fear.

In a recent press release commencing the kickoff of this year’s parade, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade executive producer Susan Tercero said thanks to partnerships with the city, state of New York, agency partners and a resilient team, they have been working together to keep America entertained safely from the comfort of their homes this Thanksgiving.  While it may look different in execution, she said the Macy’s Parade invites viewers to share the celebration on television and experience all the dazzle, whimsy and world-class performances that make it so special.

“Our safely reimagined broadcast will continue that cherished tradition, as viewers nationwide celebrate together bringing a much-needed sense of normalcy to our lives,” she said.

Looking forward to the tradition of seeing the larger-than-life balloons as I do every year, I was surprised and delighted to learn not only will balloons still float in this year’s broadcast, but two new balloons will make their first appearance this year.  The Boss Baby from “The Boss Baby: Family Business” by DreamWorks Animation and Red Titan from “Ryan’s World” by Sunlight Entertainment and Pocket Watch will make their grand debut on Thursday morning.

With a total of 12 giant character balloons floating this year, classic balloon characters like my all-time favorite Snoopy is keeping tradition alive and will make a milestone 41st flight; the most of any balloon characters.  Astronaut Snoopy by Peanuts Worldwide honors the 2018 50th anniversary of the moon landing and future space missions.  According to the kickoff press release, the new balloons will not be handled by the 80 to 100 people required to float each one but will instead rely on innovation using specialty vehicles helping to safely reduce the number of people needed to float the balloons.

Carrying on the theme of first-time appearances, four new floats will also debut this year. They include Christmas in Town Square by Lifetime; inspired by a scene from a holiday film, Big Turkey Spectacular by Jennie-O, Her Future is Stem-Sational by Olay; inspiring females to pursue their dreams in careers such as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and Tom & Jerry’s Tourist Trap by Warner Bros. Pictures to commemorate the upcoming 2021 film, “Tom & Jerry.” With 19 floats in total, performers such as Pentatonix, Lauren Alaina, Ally Brooke, Brett Young, Sofia Carson and KeKe Palmer are all scheduled for performances on floats throughout the parade.

The greatest moments of the parade for myself right next to watching Santa riding his sleigh into Herald Square are the Broadway performances.  Growing up I began performing at a young age and dreamed of being on Broadway one day.  Year after year, every time I would watch the performances in the parade I would fill with tears of inspiration and excitement, but this year I am preparing for more tears than any parade before when I hear the heartbeat of Broadway for the first time since the pause. 

The best of Broadway musicals will once again shine bright in this year’s parade with cast performances of “Hamilton,” “Jagged Little Pill,” “Mean Girls,” “Ain’t Too Proud-The Life and Times of The Temptations” and by the beloved New York staple, “Radio City Rockettes.”  Star appearances of the parade include performers such Dolly Parton, Patti Labelle, Jimmy Fallon and The Roots, and Matthew Morrison.  The entertainment continues with marching bands such as The West Point Marching Band and the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums.

Macy’s is working with local and state government to ensure health and safety is the highest priority across the board.  In addition to modifying the parade to avoid gathering crowds, Macy’s has put a comprehensive health and wellness plan into effect across all areas of production.  All participants will be tested for COVID and undergo wellness checks before participating in the parade.  Performers will be appropriately socially distanced and there are no participants under the age of 18.  In addition to wearing face coverings and social distancing, the overall number of participants have been reduced by 88 percent according to Macy’s Safety Precautions guidelines.

“For nearly 100 years the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has served as a milestone celebration that brings joy to millions of families nationwide and kicks off the holidays with unparalleled spectacle,” Tercero said.

While I have always dreamed of going to the parade in person one day, the truth is I have had plenty of opportunities over the years, but I have never felt like I was missing anything by watching at home while cooking a turkey.  This year I will continue to enjoy the parade from home as I always have before and be ever more thankful for all those who have worked to try and bring a morning of joy to our homes this day of Thanksgiving.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will air Thursday, Nov. 26 from 9 a.m. to Noon on NBC and Telemundo in all time zones hosted by The TODAY Show’s Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb and Al Roker.  In addition, the parade will be streamed live at 9 a.m. as well as on YouTube, Twitter and Yahoo as part of, Verizon Live: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, hosted by Mario Lopez. For more information on the parade and to download printable parade-themed activities for kids visit, www.macys.com/parade.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade New Balloons Preview

Photo/Video credit: Macy’s, Inc.

Turning Tragedy into Saving Lives and Serving Others

By Amy Nicole Tangel

The survivor of a horrific boating accident that killed her young daughter 15 years ago, has, through incredible strength and perseverance, become a leader across Long Island using her strong voice to advocate for boating safety.

Gina Lieneck, who has made it her life’s mission to make positive changes concerning boating safety, saw her hard work pay off when Brianna’s Law went into effect in New York State on January 1, 2020. After years of tears and tireless hours of work by the Deer Park, N.Y., resident, new requirements for boat operators may prevent what happened to her daughter from ever happening again.

Under Brianna’s Law, which was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on August 6, 2019, all boaters operating a power boat; including sail boats with auxiliary power must complete a boating safety course.  According to the law, all operators of power boats are required to take the course by 2025.

Prior to this, boating faced limited regulations. “There’s not many laws to boating. Not even a reckless boating ticket; nothing,” Lieneck said.

It was the summer of 2005, when Gina and her 11-year-old daughter Brianna were enjoying a day of boating with the family when she said a boat came crashing into their boat full-throttle outside of Bayshore, N.Y., on the Great South Bay.  The out-of-control boat ripped off their boat canopy which collapsed on Brianna and killed her.  Gina also suffered serious physical trauma from the accident and was devastated to find out days later from a visiting doctor, who didn’t know she was Brianna’s mother, that her daughter had passed away.

The men occupying the boat that hit Gina’s had spent the day on Fire Island attending a company party when they decided to take a personal boat home instead of taking the ferry. Gina said the vessel of four dropped off one passenger in Patchogue, and then blindly made their way towards them.  She said the boaters were lost in the bay for two hours prior to the accident. Alcohol was on their breath, but due to the lack of Boating While Intoxicated (BWI) laws, the blood alcohol level of the operator was not tested until six hours had passed and charges could not be upheld.

For Gina, Brianna’s Law is just the beginning of what she has set out to accomplish.  Gina said she has been haunted by reliving the night on the boat right before the accident when she said Brianna kept asking her if she could come sit by her and nudging her like most 11-year-old girls do. Gina refused to let Brianna sit by her fearing for her safety.  Thinking she was being a protective mother, Gina argued with Brianna, and the last words she spoke to her daughter were stern words to go sit down. She has vowed to not stop until BWI has stricter consequences, and she said she has promised Brianna she will never give up. 

“I am not done yet, because there are many more laws to be passed,” she said.

During the first two years following her daughter’s passing, Gina said she became reclusive and was stuck between two worlds.  She said she couldn’t go to work, could barely make it through the day, and had a hard time being a parent emotionally to her older daughter while being overridden by grief.  The day came though, when Gina said she woke up one morning and told herself it was time to get back to work.  She wanted to make things right for her daughter who was still here and decided to take action.

She opened her own business, Breezy’s Field of Dreams, an indoor sporting facility and, she said she worked a part-time job at BOCES which helped her grow and learn to be social again.  Ultimately, she said getting back to work taught her it was okay to smile.  Gina said she realized she had a lot to smile for. She had her daughter Danyelle, and she was going to make things right by talking to and supporting other families who had gone through similar tragedies.

“A lot of families reach out to me that have lost children and I tell them, ‘Don’t make the same mistake I did; you have other children.’  I try and take my learning experience and help other families that are feeling this way,” she said.

While Gina said it has been hard to bring anything to the floor of the New York State Senate this session with COVID, and things have had to be temporarily set aside, she has continued to move forward doing what she has done for years by working to help those in need in her community and across the island. 

In 2018, Gina was a Community Service Award Recipient in the Town of Babylon’s 29th Annual Women’s History Month Program, and in 2019, Gina was honored as one of 18 receiving the Suffolk County Women of Distinction award as well as being named County-Wide Woman of Distinction.  Gina has most recently been selected as a 2020 Woman of Distinction honoree by long-time supporter Senator Phil Boyle. 

Gina said she never imagined in her life she would receive a woman of distinction award and her focus has been on simply being grateful for the communities that have been lifting her up from the beginning.  There were days she said she remembers when she just kept falling, and the good people of her community kept lifting her and her family back up.

“On my darkest days and my family’s darkest days the community was here to help us, so I feel like I need to pay it forward,” she said.

Paying forward this holiday season, Gina is busily working on her annual Thanksgiving food drive collecting items for dinners and collaborating with friends and members of her community to sponsor families for meals in need.  For the past 14 years, Gina has held an annual holiday toy drive in memory of Brianna.  Last year, she said she collected almost 300 toys for children in need and has set a goal to double that this year.  In a letter written by Gina to commence this year’s toy drive she wrote, “There’s no better feeling in the world than knowing that we all helped put a smile on so many children’s faces Christmas morning.”

At the end of the day, Gina said she often thinks about what Brianna would be like today.  It brings her to tears to think about the milestones that will never be, but she fondly remembers how her daughter was “a character” and said she made her presence known everywhere she went, especially when she routinely walked on the softball field asking everyone, “How are you doing?

“She made her mark here.  In her 11 short years, she made sure she let everyone know who she was,” Gina said.

For more information on how to donate to the Brianna Lieneck Annual Memorial Toy Drive please call Gina at 631-872-9764.

The Becoming of The Barefoot Fiddler

By Amy Nicole Tangel

Stories of musicians and their struggles to keep the music alive during the pandemic are countless, but as the fog starts to lift, glimpses of hope are shining through and a fiddler player in Nashville is not only persevering in her career, she is carrying on a family legacy.

Fiddle player Merna Lewis was born into a family of women who were pioneers in paving a path for female musicians playing instruments long before she was born.  With new-found time on her hands, Merna has turned to her ancestry to learn more about her family tree and has in-turn found stories of profound women in music history. 

Growing up in Monte Vista, Colorado, Merna started playing fiddle at age seven under the instruction of her aunt Bettie, an accomplished fiddle player who began giving her lessons.  For Merna’s aunt, her mother and her mom’s sisters, it was a family requirement for the children to learn to play an instrument, and in keeping that tradition she grew up playing the fiddle and learning from her family band known as, The Bowen String Band.

Years later, Merna is using her experiences as a musician and her family history as tools to inspire future generations and pass the baton by sharing her story.  Merna said that while she was growing up she knew what she was doing was special, but she also knew she was not like other kids and it was the female musicians who she especially looked up to who welcomed her into their circles when she was young and encouraged her to keep going.

“I want kids to know it’s a cool thing they are doing (playing an instrument).  It’s okay to be different; It’s okay to play music, and if it is something they really love, to keep pursuing it,” she said.

Merna’s great grandmother and namesake, Merna played piano, and Merna’s grandmother Marie played violin.  Merna said her grandmother was “a little virtuoso” at the age of four who eventually attended Julliard and taught lessons to people in high society such as the daughters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the children of Irving Berlin.  Although her grandmother passed years before Merna was born, Merna said she has been learning more about her grandmother’s life and legacy every chance she gets.

During junior high, Merna said she became involved in school activities and put fiddle playing on the backburner to an extent until she turned 14 and her aunt Bettie was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Merna’s aunt turned to her and asked for her help to take over her students’ lessons while she went through her treatments.  In turn, Merna stepped-up and took over teaching a roster of 40 students per week all while going to school.  In addition to her teaching students and going to school, Merna’s aunt was also teaching her how to play songs with bands she was in, so when she became too sick to play Merna would be able to also fill-in on stage.

“She was teaching me how to play, ‘Amarillo by Morning,’ ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ and ‘Fiddle in the Band,’ so when I was 14, at night I was in the bars on the weekends playing with these bands; that’s where I got introduced to that and I fell in love with it,” she said.

Sadly, her aunt lost her battle with breast cancer, but Merna continued to grow and build on everything her aunt had taught her as she went through her high school years and continued playing with bands.  Merna would travel two hours each way for certain gigs and said she was able to experience more than many musicians her age thanks to the people who played with her who protected her and always kept a close eye on her.  Merna’s parents accompanied her on any performances close to home, and she said her father loved to dance, so it was a perfect opportunity for him to have fun.  She played regularly at Harold Dean’s Saddle Saloon in Pueblo, Colorado, and said not only did the lead singer of the band she played with and his wife keep things in check on stage, they were also the owners of the establishment, so regulars were well aware and looked after a young Merna when she traveled with the band.

“People there knew, don’t mess with Merna,” she said.

When she was about 17 years old, Merna said she had a poignant moment in her life when she was listening to an interview on the radio with country music artist Lee Ann Womack and learned the singer attended college to study music in Levelland, Texas, at South Plains College Bluegrass and Country Music Program; the only of its kind in the country.  Merna said she knew right then that was the only school for her.  She applied to that school only and was all-in.  She was accepted and drove to Texas to begin the next phase in following her family tradition.

It was during her time in college when she became known as “The Barefoot Fiddler.” While playing at a club in Amarillo, Texas, when she was with a band called, Copperhead, Merna said she recalled wearing horribly uncomfortable shoes, so she kicked them off.  A regular follower of the band came up to the front of the stage with a cardboard sign that said, “You have pretty feet!” She said ever since that moment it stuck, and she is more comfortable playing barefoot, especially when she is in a recording session or onstage with someone she admires; leaving her feeling more grounded.

“I only play with shoes on if it’s highly inappropriate to be barefoot, if it’s really a cold stage, or a cold outdoor gig.  I’m currently looking for a shoe that I can wear that protects the bottom of my feet, but doesn’t show on the top,” she said.

Before even finishing college, a once in a lifetime moment came when she played alongside LeAnn Rimes during the 2002 Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day Half-time show at Texas Stadium in Irving, Texas. Following that, upon her graduation from college in 2003, Merna moved directly to Nashville from Texas and never looked back.  A couple of months before her permanent move, she visited Nashville and played for the first time at the historical landmark, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.  She said a friend of hers was playing there and helped her get her foot in the door, but it was a time where you couldn’t just walk in and people would hire you, so she auditioned and then sat in with the band where they decided how good you were. Only then you would get calls to play after you passed the tests, she said.

Merna has been getting calls ever since as news of her talent spread through word of mouth.  She still plays at Tootsie’s and also plays regularly on Nashville’s downtown Broadway at Rippy’s Honky Tonk, Honky Tonk Central and Kid Rock’s Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse.  Over the years she has played with countless musicians such as Tanya Tucker and Trent Willmon, performed on the Emeril Live show, and played the Grand Ole Opry stage alongside 105 fellow artists for a tribute to American bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley, which she recalls as one of the highlights of her career. 

“When I finally moved, I was the classic story.  I threw everything I owned in the back of my truck and drove to Nashville,” she said.

Of all of the places playing the fiddle has taken her over the years, Merna said the most meaningful and memorable times for her were when she toured in 2005-2006 with a group that played for troops overseas through The Armed Forces Entertainment Program (AFE) and United Service Organizations (USO). Merna traveled to various countries and said the troops are the best people to play for, because of the genuine appreciation they all had for the music and for the bands being there to play. She said she is so grateful to have traveled and for the opportunities she had to give back and say thank you through her talent.

“They ate it up.  You can feel the emotion, the excitement and the release too, and that in itself is the reward,” she said.

Merna said she has never been inspired to do much solo work and has played with so many people she respects that she said she just wants to collaborate with them in jam sessions and see where it goes in case she ever does sit down to create new solo work; however, with the current pandemic, Merna said she has been exploring ways to think outside of the box creatively.

This year, Merna re-released a recording she made in her early teens titled, “Fiddlin Favorites Re-Released,” and she plans to re-release another recording of cover tunes and traditional songs recorded with the family band before her aunt Bettie passed away.  She also has a Christmas recording on the horizon which she has been wanting to do for years and has promised her followers it will happen one day. But in the meantime, she said she just wants to play with the band.

“I’ve never really been inspired to be a solo artist.  I love being onstage and supporting other people,” she said.

Since the shutdown, Merna has tried to look at the blessings in disguise.  She said it has forced her to slow down and be even more thankful for all she has.  Before the pandemic, she said she was just going with the flow, living everyday with expectation she was going to be able to get up every morning and go onstage.  When faced with the idea of not being able to play onstage, Merna was forced to look at things from a different perspective, and that’s when she began doing more research about her grandmother Marie and what it meant for her to be a female violinist in her time and how it carried through generations leading up to her.

The now 38-year-old musician said she has been grateful for little gigs here and there and has been doing livestreams that kept her going when everything was completely shut down.  Through Merna’s livestreams she said she has been moved to see how much they have been helping people on the other side of the screen. Many people have reached out to her to thank her for playing for them in such difficult times.

While things continue to re-open slowly across the country, Merna said she is seeing a pick-up in business, but it is nowhere near where it was.  Setting her sights on the future, Merna said there are so many opportunities ahead for her to still experience.  Until that day comes, she said she is grateful for how hard the establishments are working to keep their doors open in safe and clean environments and in turn allowing Merna to be able to work as well. 

Currently, Merna can be found playing regularly at Nudie’s Honky Tonk and she is working on creating a more regular livestream schedule for fans to follow.  When she is not playing on Broadway, she said she is just a homebody who enjoys helping her musician husband with his Ebay business and often goes with him to estate sales, yard sales and thrift stores.  Even after accomplishing so much, she said she still has big dreams like any other artist and hopes the day will come when she gets to play on the opry itself. As she waits for the moment to happen, she said she hopes she finally hears a song she played when she turns on the radio some day.

Until then, as Merna noted, she has, “lots of things to strive for and lots of things to still do.”

To catch Merna’s livestreams and to keep up on all happenings with The Barefoot Fiddler, follow her on Facebook and Instagram, or visit www.thebarefootfiddler.com.

Photos courtesy Merna Lewis.