CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The entrance of Santa Claus at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ushers in the holiday season. And this year, the Marching Illini will be ushering in Santa Claus.
The Marching Illini were chosen as the final marching band in the parade, and their Herald Square routine at the end of the parade will set the stage for Santa’s entrance. Leading off the parade and bringing in Santa Claus are the most coveted spots in the parade lineup.
The band will play both Christmas and Illinois music during their march along the 2 1/2-mile parade route. They will end the parade with a routine in Herald Square, televised to an audience of 50 million people. The parade will be televised on NBC, and the Marching Illini expect to perform the 1 minute, 15 seconds routine at 11:54 a.m. CST.
Barry Houser, director of the Marching Illini, has rewritten the routine numerous times over the past few months. His challenge: fitting 375 band members in a space that’s 194 feet long and less than 43 feet wide, and creating a routine with some movement in that small space and smooth transitions between the different parts of the band to be featured.
“It’s been challenging but the students have done great with it,” Houser said.
The band will be playing a custom arrangement of music called “Blues for Santa,” a medley that includes portions of “Up on the House Top” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
The routine features six trumpet players, with arms on each other’s shoulders and legs crossed in front of them while performing a portion of “Up on the House Top.” Then the Illinettes move to center stage for a dance number. The twirlers, drum majors, color guard and drumline also share the center spot in Herald Square.
The other band members will be moving their horns in time with the music and pointing skyward – “Here comes Santa Claus, ho ho ho!” – to create exciting visuals for the cameras.
“There are cameras all over the place and everybody is going to be seen,” Houser told the band during rehearsal the week before the parade.
The Illinettes will be in red-and-white outfits, and the color guard’s flags will be red-and-white with a contemporary snowflake design. But the band will wear their regular orange-and-blue uniforms to maintain the Illinois identity, Houser said, marching out of Herald Square to the Illinois fight song.
Mariah Carey will perform immediately after the band, then Santa Claus will make his entrance.
The Marching Illini have had to split practice time this fall between Macy’s rehearsal and preparation for football games. But in the week before the parade, it’s been all Macy’s preparation. That has ramped up the excitement for the students, Houser said.
“That’s what this thing is really about,” he said. “It’s not about the TV coverage or the hype. It’s about our students having a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”