DETROIT: Once Upon A Time……

17 Mar

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Have you ever been to the Thanksgiving Parade in downtown Detroit? If you live in the Metro Detroit area, chances are you have at least watched it on television; floats, marching bands, balloons all making their way down Woodward Ave, viewers anxiously awaiting the moment when Santa arrives. You can’t help but smile, everybody seems to be having such a grand time, no matter what the thermometer says. Thanks to The Parade Company you can take a behind-the-scenes tour of their enchanting paradeland, floats old and new all within arm’s reach. Group tours (10 or more) are made by reservation, since there are only two of us we are joining a Girl Scout troop for our journey through 200,000 sq ft of parade history and magic.

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We make our way to Huber Street and enter the driveway of what used to be the expansive Chrysler Lynch Road Assembly Plant. There is great history in the building alone, designed by Albert Kahn (really) and built in the late 20’s, it sat at the epicenter of Chrysler’s auto manufacturing domain in Detroit. On or within a stones throw of Lynch were two foundries, an axle plant, forge, marshaling center and transport facility, all owned by Chrysler.  In close proximity to Dodge main, Jefferson avenue, Mound Road Engine and Dodge Truck, imagine the beehive of activity. Even the little known Dual-Ghia, preferred by the likes of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball, was assembled right around the corner near Grinell and Van Dyke. At one time the Lynch road plant employed over 12,000 , everything from Desoto, Dodge and Plymouth to military vehicles and parts of the Manhattan Project were built here. Most renowned for its contribution to the Muscle car era; Lynch turned out many a Road Runner, Super Bee, Charger, GTX, R/T and Superbird during its heyday. You can bet a few neighbor’s were awakened by the sounds of a 440 Six pack or 426 Hemi getting wrung out by an employee. Unfortunately, after over 50 years of production the plant became obsolete, automobiles have not been built here since the early 1980’s. Make no mistake, this plant was a major part of Detroit’s manufacturing history.

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 Our guide, Steve, introduces himself, goes over a few rules and the tour begins. A bright purple wall showcases photos of Grand Marshalls through the years; most have something to do with Michigan, Thomas Hearns, Anita Baker, Ernie Harwell and Aretha Franklin. Others such as Mickey Mouse, Lassie, Big Bird and Jessica Simpson are a few of the exceptions. We enter Studio A, this is where floats are designed and built, vibrant colors cover the walls, newspaper articles on the parade are proudly displayed. We have our first encounter with giant paper mache heads; Tom Selleck, Bo Schembechler, Sparky Anderson and Magic Johnson. We are surrounded by work spaces; a metal shop, wood shop and a station filled with enormous pieces of styrofoam. Volunteers are already busy at work creating figures for the 2014 parade. Plywood shelves hold heads of sports figures wearing baseball hats, renderings of floats show the design process from beginning to end. This former factory spreads out as far as the eye can see, bicycles and scooters are often used as a means of transportation from one end to another. 

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We get our first up close view of a float, grown-ups are just as excited as the scouts, everyone wants their picture taken in front of their favorite. We learn floats are made to be pushed, pulled or self-propelled; the Wizard of Oz is made up of several sections, we are able to peek underneath and see the automobile chassis it rides on, this is so cool! It’s hard to believe how detailed everything is, from faces to flowers it’s all beautiful. The Parade Company has built floats for such things as the Indy 500, Miracle Mile Parade, even Disney, the craftsmanship is amazing. In case you ever have a need for a float, keep in mind you can rent one for your own special occasion…… One area holds pieces of floats that have been disassembled; animals, flowers, cupcakes, pancakes and a miniature Scott Fountain all wait their turn to ride in the parade again. Small push floats representing Chevrolet automobiles are parked to one side. Crossing from Studio A to Studio B  we get a glimpse of the area where the balloons are stored. Every Thanksgiving morning at 6am they are filled and come to life; only one has ever escaped–that would be Chilly Willy who decided to head south one year. Fortunately he was recovered in Canada at Point Pelee.

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Studio B is the storage area, think of it as an enchanted kingdom straight out of a fairy tale. From the Turkey Trot float to castles, gardens, ice cream and candy, I just want to climb aboard and play. Each float is a different scene, all are assured to make you feel happy. The girls are giddy, each points out something different; then it happens–we come face to face with the old paper mache pirate heads, there are tiny shrieks and gasps, they’re kinda scary sitting there in the dark. Once assured the pirates pose no danger, we move along through floats bearing Christmas trees, elves, toys and snow, sponsored by companies such as Ford, Compuware and Quicken Loans. 

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Proceeding through the maze of floats we are coming to the end of the tour, there it is, Santa’s sleigh and nine little reindeer. I can’t tell you how many times Kris and I have awaited that sight, standing somewhere on Woodward freezing, but unwilling to leave until Santa has made his appearance. It looks so much larger here, though tempting to climb aboard the sleigh, I decide against it. This is the only parade company to design, build and store floats in the same location. Costumes are designed and manufactured here too, they have over 3,000 of them! It’s kind of quiet here today, not a lot of activity in March, but come August volunteers will work around the clock to have everything ready for the 2014 America’s Thanksgiving Parade.

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All of that walking has given us an appetite, good thing we know a place to catch lunch not far from here. Marcus Hamburgers has been at this McNichol’s location since 1929. Charles Marcus opened his doors during The Great Depression with the idea of making burgers more affordable during a difficult time. He invented an all-steak burger, rectangular shaped, that fit in a hot dog bun. He built a cast iron grill that still sits in the middle of the diner nestled between the horse shoe shaped counters. My parents used to live in the neighborhood and frequented the diner often. It doesn’t look much different today that it did back then, still serving up those famous burgers that were so popular with the local factory workers back in Detroit’s heyday. We take a seat at the counter and order up burgers and fries. Before long plates of burgers with cheese, chili, lettuce and tomato are set down before us along with bowls of finely chopped onion, relish and bottles of mustard and ketchup. As we eat, customers come and go, carry-out orders are placed and picked up, people have been eating here for over 85 years. This area of the city is nearly forgotten these days, but it’s comforting to know some things haven’t changed.

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One Response to “DETROIT: Once Upon A Time……”

  1. Mike Ricketts July 8, 2015 at 8:39 pm #

    Love Marcus. Been eating there since I was 2 years old[1958], and have lunch there once a week. It’s a drive from Chesterfield…but my favorite hamburger, anywhere. I also have had PLENTY of those Lynch-Road mopars. Still have a few of the old beasts to have fun with.

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