Ket wanted all America – even the most remote communities – to
share in GM’s latest technology. So, from 1936 through mid-1956, the
Parade toured and delighted many millions of citizens.
When GM’s 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
town’s 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 Motor’s original 1936 Parade of
Progress was none other than Charles F. Kettering. Boss Ket was GM’s
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 GM’s
science and technology exhibit at the 1933 Chicago world’s Fair. The
thought suddenly struck him: Why not take all this out to the people
– let those who can’t see it here, see GM’s exhibit in their own
Ket talked with GM board chairman Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. and public
relations vice president Paul Garrett. Both liked the idea. Together
with GM’s 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 country’s plight.
GM reasoned that a well done, non-commercial, entertaining,
educational, free road show would do wonders to help put General
Motors’s 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
body’s 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 show’s 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 GM’s 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, we’d pack up
and drive to the next town."
Raymond E. Hayes, another native son of the 1936 Parade and now GM’s
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 didn’t 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 o’clock 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 who’d 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 couldn’t 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 GM’s best face forward. Jerpe’s
personality made him part father, part friend and part boss to his
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. We’d 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
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
World’s 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 Year’s 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 World’s
In 1940, the caravan was revamped and its original eight
streamlined vans were replaced with a new set of 12, called
Futurliners. The Parade’s 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 wasn’t 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 Huddle’s 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
who’d 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