• 1936 Parade of Progress Part 1

      Boss Ket wanted all America even the most remote communities to share in GMs latest technology. So, from 1936 through mid-1956, the Parade toured and delighted many millions of citizens.

      When GMs Parade of Progress rolled into Muskogee or Ashtabula, Yuma or Fr. Pierce, everybody turned out. Its appeal was so compelling that no one could endure staying home. In Frederieksburg, VA, for instance, enthusiasm ran so high that two-and-one-quarter times the towns population attended.

      The first Parade of Progress hit the road on Feb. 11, 1936, opening in Lakeland, FL. By Pearl Harbor, the Parade had covered well over a million miles, had visited 251 towns and small cities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Cuba, and had played to some 12.5 million people. There would eventually be three GM
      Parades of Progress, the last one taking its final curtain in mid-1956. But in abbreviated form, the Parade still lives even today (note: article was written in 1977). Called Previews of Progress, it now consists of a dozen GM station-wagon shows that travel to high schools across the country.

      The man who sparked General Motors original 1936 Parade of Progress was none other than Charles F. Kettering. Boss Ket was GMs resident genius and research vice president the man behind such inventions as the first commercial electric self-starter, Ethyl gasoline, the diesel-electric locomotive, and much more.
      Kettering hit on the Parade idea one day as he strolled through GMs science and technology exhibit at the 1933 Chicago worlds Fair. The thought suddenly struck him: Why not take all this out to the people let those who cant see it here, see GMs exhibit in their own hometowns?

      Ket talked with GM board chairman Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. and public relations vice president Paul Garrett. Both liked the idea. Together with GMs public relations committee, they decided that the Parade and its timing were right. Depression-weary Americans flocked to movies, shows, fairs, and any sort of entertainment that took their minds off the countrys plight.

      GM reasoned that a well done, non-commercial, entertaining, educational, free road show would do wonders to help put General Motorss message across. It would bring GM, in person, to every small city and rural community in the nation.
      And so the Parade got is appropriation. The caravan itself vehicles, personnel, exhibits, props, tents, etc. took most of 1934 and 1935 to prepare and assemble.
      Focal point of the Parade was the fleet of eight huge, red-and-white, streamlined vans. These were custom built in Fisher bodys Fleetwood plant in Detroit. All eight spanned the 223-inch truck chassis and were powered by GMC gasoline engines. Six of the streamliners formed walk-through exhibits when joined together, three by three, with canvas awnings. Another van opened up to form a stage, and the eighth carried equipment.
      In addition to the eight streamliners, the original 1936 Parade included nine GMC and Chevrolet tractor-trailers. These hauled gear, tents, power generators, lamps, booths, and additional exhibits. Too, the caravan used a stretched, air-conditioned 1936 Chevy "command car" on an 185-inch wheelbase. The command car served as a mobile office and general field headquarters. Finally, the caravan brought along representative models of all six GM lines Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, LaSalle, and Cadillac. These cars were traded in every 2,000 miles at local dealerships along the way.

      "The shows staff consisted of 40-50 young men, all college graduates and taken from a cross section of the country," remembers Edward A. Bracken, Jr., one of the early Parade participants and now manager of GMs corporate projects. "There must have been at least 30 universities represented by these young men everyone the same age bracket and, I might add, all bachelors. It was out job to drive the trucks and, on arrival at the site, change into coveralls and put up the show. We then dressed and became lecturers on the exhibits. At the conclusion of each 2-4-day visit, wed pack up and drive to the next town."
      Raymond E. Hayes, another native son of the 1936 Parade and now GMs director of public relations field operations, adds, "The three guys I broke in with were from Harvard, Columbia, and Brown all Eastern guys. We were all hired as lecturers, but there was an apprenticeship period. While you were apprenticing, they put you on the utility crew we called it the futility crew and that meant you didnt lecture until you learned every other job and also until one of the regular lecturers dropped out. What you did you reported from the hotel to the show at about six oclock in the morning in coveralls, and you waxed floors, took a stick with a nail on the end of it, picked up papers that sort of thing."

      Everyone I talked to whod been with the Parade of Progress during its 20-year life-span (I interviewed 17 people in all) told me that those days were the best of their lives. They couldnt remember enjoying a job more. Inspired and led by J. M. (Jack) Jerpe, they formed a close-knit, congenial group that worked hard, enjoyed the travel and adventure, liked to meet people, and felt they had a genuine mission to put GMs best face forward. Jerpes personality made him part father, part friend and part boss to his boys.
      The idea behind the Parade was to play not the great metropolitan U.S. cities but to keep to the smaller ones. There was absolutely no "sell" involved in any of the shows or exhibits. GM cars and appliances were placed strategically, and young men were prepared to answer questions about them in fact Jerpe held regular quizzes on such items as car specifications, listings of auto accessories, capacities of Frigidaire refrigerators, etc., with prizes going to the "students" with the highest scores.

      The Parade moved with the seasons south in winter and north in the spring. The route was chosen a year in advance. A town would receive its first notification of a visit from Paul Garrett in New York. Garrett would send a letter to the local chamber of commerce, and a few days later, one of the three Parade advance men would drive into town. Bob Emerick, recently retired as public relations director for Pontiac, remembers those days.
      "There were three of us advance men alternating towns hopscotching along the route. Wed work with the chamber of commerce and city officials find an empty lot to pitch the tents, make hotel reservations, the work with the newspapers and radio stations; also the schools, civic clubs, and local GM dealers. We had a short movie that we brought along to give these groups a teaser of the actual shows."
      The Parade of Progress presentations themselves were totally live and used no help from movies. One full show in the main tent lasted about 45 minutes. The first conventional tents, which used an opened-out streamliner as the stage, were replaced in 1940 by an external-girder type developed at GM by Fred Huddle. The early tents seated 1,200, the later ones up to 1,500.

      In January 1938, the Parade went into Mexico. Ed Bracken remembers training Mexican lecturers in Texas before heading south. "We became official guest of the Mexican government," says Bracken, "and, in fact, we opened the Pan American Highway from Laredo to Mexico City. We stayed in Mexico City for two weeks, played to huge crowds, and had a marvelous time. After that we went back north, toured the Midwest, and ended up in New York a year before the 1939-40 Worlds Fair opened there. We had Christmas vacation in Miami and Key West I remember we spent the enormous sum of $10 a day for a 3-bedroom cottage on the ocean. I spent New Years eve in a Key West saloon discussing baseball with Ernest Hemingway. In January 1939 we took the Parade to Havana, and this, too, was very enjoyable. It was then transferred to New York to work on the GM exhibit at the Worlds Fair."

      In 1940, the caravan was revamped and its original eight streamlined vans were replaced with a new set of 12, called Futurliners. The Parades exhibits were also updated, and the operation became bigger.

      World War II broke out while the Parade was again in Texas. Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, during its visit to San Antonio, the Parade disbanded and most of the staff traded its GM uniforms for khaki or blue. The caravan vehicles were driven to Ohio, where they were warehoused for the war.

      The Parade wasnt reactivated until April 1953, when the third caravan took to the road. It remained essentially the same as the 1940 version, numbering 44 vehicles and 57 men. Fred Huddles Aer-O-Dome tent, with its external aluminum arches and silverized vinyl-impregnated canvas skin, was made bigger. New exhibits included jet propulsion, the atmosphere, the atom, stereo, and metal-powder forming. Many of the older exhibits were held over, of course.

      The postwar Parade, though, never drew the crowds of its prewar ancestors, mostly because Americans now had nightly free shows right in their own homes. Television caused the demise of the Parade, and in 1956 GM decided to disband the caravan for good. Many of the young men whod begun their GM careers with the Parade are still with the corporation, and several had even retired by now.

      Acknowledgements: Thanks to Joseph H. Karshner, Alfred G. Nelson, Edward A. Bracken, Jr., Raymond E. Hayes, David R. Holls, and tom Christiansen, all of General Motors, Etroit; Bill Nos, Sacramento, CA; Jarvis C. McElhany, Corpus Christi, TX; Kark W. Schulz, Farmington, MI; John Reedy, Bloomfield Hills, MI; Carl F. Huddle, Pleasant Ridge, MI; Bob Emerick, Vero Beach, FL; Allen Orth, Charlottesville, VA; Kenneth Youel, Palm Beach, FL; Julius Soule, Freeport, ME; J. T. Hanna, Detroit; and Vic Hyde, Niles, MI.

      This article was taken from "Special-Interest Autos", Mar-Apr. 1977. It was written by Bill Williams, Associate Editor. Please note that references to people and time-frames are only relative to 1977.

      Article permission provided by:
      Don Mayton
      A Project of the National Automotive and Truck Museum of the United States.