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One On 1: Macy's Creative Director Bill Schermerhorn

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of a man who plays a huge role in one of New York's most popular events, Macy's creative director Bill Schermerhorn.

The holidays are almost here, and it’s time to make plans. Not Bill Schermerhorn.

“When I start hearing people on the street go, ÎSo what are you doing for Thanksgiving?’ I’ll go, ÎUh oh. It's coming,’” he says. “Because I'll have been worried about what are you doing for Thanksgiving in July.”

Bill Schermerhorn is never asked the question because he's the creative director at Macy's, the artistic force behind a little parade they throw every Thanksgiving. Want to get a preview of this year's parade? Check out the board in Schermerhorn’s office.

“It goes right through the opening all the way to Santa Claus,” he says. “One thing I like about the photos is I can almost get a sense of the coloration and how the parade is going to look. And if you want to see people scream I can [switch the photos around] like this and I’ve probably affected about a thousand people who are going, ÎBill, I thought it was set.’”

One part of the parade is always set.

“You’ve always got to start with Thanksgiving and you always have to end with Christmas," he says.

How that happens, and everything in between, is a year-long process. Schermerhorn and his colleagues look at hundreds of tapes of groups who want to be in the parade.

"You sometimes feel like Broadway Danny Rose. You will get some odd groups that you wonder if they've ever watched the parade before,” he says.

He's certainly seen enough tape to separate what works for the parade and what doesn’t. One group is in; hundreds of kids on unicycles cycling in synchronicity, hopefully. And like a football coach drawing up a play, Schermerhorn sees that little is left to chance.

While tapes are analyzed at Macy's, the floats are being created and tried out in New Jersey.

“I always like to tell a story in an event,” Schermerhorn says. “And people may not realize that we don’t just throw the floats and balloons on index cards up in the air and however they come down, that’s how the parade is going to run. Sometimes it's like being the chef and getting all the ingredients and then stirring it all up and creating this wonderful concoction."

Then it's time for the wonderful concoction to be served. And there's no reheating it - it has to be ready.

"Wednesday morning, I wake up, it's Thanksgiving,” he says. “I will go to sleep after the parade on Thanksgiving."

In the 24 hours before the parade, Schermerhorn works with the staging team in Herald Square and heads up the west side to check out the balloons. Two o’clock a.m.? A great time for band rehearsals on the street.

Then it's checking cues with NBC, Broadway show rehearsals, getting the groups in place, and finally at 9 a.m., showtime.

And then everything goes as planned, right? Almost always, except in 1992.

“In Times Square there was something going on, and a float had gone down the wrong street, which is hard to do,” he says. “I said, ÎDidn't you just follow what was in front of you?’”

Or there might be a timing issue.

"I'll be told I'm eight minutes over and Santa's going to be arriving when we're going to football at - not a good thing,” he says. “I would not be sitting here talking to you if that happened. Santa's got to be on time.”

Schermerhorn started working on the parade in 1983, so he knows when and how to move groups and bands around so that Santa always arrives on time. Considering how many people are involved — thousands - it's almost mind boggling that the glitches are so infrequent. And they have to be.

“People love this parade. They feel it’s their parade,” he says. “It’s not just Macy’s parade, it’s America’s parade, and so I want that to be as good as it could be."

Schermerhorn watched the parade every year as a kid. But is it allowable to say that he didn’t if he didn’t work for Macy’s?

“Yeah, I think it is,” he says. “And sometimes that's good because you bring a fresh eye to it."

Bill Schermerhorn grew up in Hudson, New York, just south of Albany, the son of a mechanic and an early lover of theater.

"I was the one who went to summer camp with a suitcase with a script and costumes for people to wear up there, saying, ÎOK, this is the show we're going to do this week,’” he says.

But he was a pre-law student at William and Mary until a fund-raising dinner and a chance meeting with Elizabeth Taylor.

“For some reason people were afraid to talk to her,” he says. “I just went up to her and we started chatting. I was actually talking about being a pre-law student and actually having a more of a love for theatre, and she said, ÎDo what you believe with your heart that you want to do,’ and I did write the classic note or letter home that night saying, "Dear Mom and Dad - Elizabeth Taylor said...’”

Schermerhorn graduated and came to New York ready to do the acting thing, which includes needing a job while you're auditioning. Schermerhorn started out as a sales clerk for Calvin Klein, then got a job in the events office.

“My starting date was actually Easter Sunday, which is an odd day for a corporation to give you a starting day,” he says. “And that day we had to go down to the White House to do the Easter egg roll. So my second day on the job I met Nancy Reagan, the First Lady, and went, ÎOK, this job is pretty good.’"

And so began the transition from acting. But the creative bug never left.

Schermerhorn writes songs for many of Macy's performances. Aside from his work on the Thanksgiving parade, he also oversees the July 4th fireworks show.

“The way the fireworks works you don't just know what the fireworks are and then put the music; it starts the other way around,” he says. “It starts with the musical score like you would in a Broadway show, and then you say, ok, now we have the fireworks that are almost like the dancers in the show. It is a masterpiece in the sky. It is art, and I want people to appreciate the art. But if they come and just want to have a good time, that's fine too. People don't need to know the muscle behind the magic. They just need to be there to enjoy it and go ÎOohhhh’ and Îahhh,’ and that's great."

But right now Schermerhorn's days are all about the parade. The work won't stop until Santa pulls into Herald Square at noon on Thanksgiving.

"Yeah, you get overwhelmed,” he says, “But then on Thanksgiving Day you get out there on the street and you see all those people and Santa arrives in Herald Square right on time, and it’s a magical moment, and you say, ÎI could do this another year, or two or three.’”

- Budd Mishkin

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