Olive Oyl, 75 feet tall with a pickle of a nose and a silo-shaped body, lurched onto Central Park West at the corner of 77th Street shortly before 10 a.m. today, ending 55 years of sexual discrimination.

As the first "female" to join the lineup of gargantuan helium-filled balloons that star in Macy's annual Thanksgiving parade, Popeye's bride didn't exactly crash a men's club. She sailed along in the company of a moose, a mouse, a frog, a bird, a lion, two dogs and a not-so-invincible Superman to the cheers of more than a million spectators lining the 2 1/2-mile parade route through the heart of Manhattan.

The New York department store has been staging this extravaganza of balloons, floats and blaring bands since 1927, intending it as a "gift to the city."

Even the most hard-hearted New Yorker has a hard time resisting the spectacle of Bullwinkle in his red-striped bathing suit blazing the way down Broadway, antlers bobbing and all 65 feet of him yawing and pitching at the windy intersections as 36 "handlers" struggle with long ropes to keep him on course.

"So much happens in your life," mused Tommy Nathan, a computer salesman who returned to his favorite viewing spot -- a ledge on 75th Street -- to watch this year's parade. "There's so much instability in your psyche. Then you look up and here comes Bullwinkle."

Perched nearby on a stepladder were Nat Ruskin and his 9 1/2-year-old daughter, Joan. "This parade has a feeling," he said. "My wife and I talk about the possibility that Joanie will probably take her kids to see it when she grows up. The parade is something that is passed on."

Gift it may be -- a cardinal rule is that the cost of the parade is never publicized -- but it doesn't lack commercial value for Macy's. The store's name is splashed in front of a TV audience estimated at 80 million; the kit of press releases is almost as large as Bullwinkle. Santa Claus brings up the rear, proclaiming the Christmas shopping season, and a large throng tails him all the way to the store at Herald Square as if in the thrall of a Pied Piper.

The parade really began Wednesday night with the inflating of the "inflatables" by yellow-suited men known as the "inflation team." This happens every year on West 77th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. The street is blocked off, covered with canvas, and Olive Oyl and company are rolled out of vans in sorry rumpled condition. Helium trucks' hoses are attached to the balloons and slowly, in the glare of floodlights, the characters swell into their familiar shapes. They are kept from rising into the flight paths of incoming jets by sandbag-weighted nets, and lie on the street looking like Gullivers in the land of the Lilliputians.

Meanwhile cocktail parties simmer in the fashionable apartments overlooking the street, and traffic backs up on Columbus Avenue as drivers crane for a view. It's a festive time. Even the doormen crack smiles. An attack party of six 14-year-olds from Fieldston School passes the better part of three hours splitting a single imported beer among them, and trying to woo a bashful Juliet peeking down from her second-floor balcony.

This morning Dan Pisark, a "balloon captain," gave last-minute instructions to the crew of about 40 Macy's employes holding the ropes on Superman.

"Okay. Remember to work together," Pisark barked as the nets slid off the 110-foot balloon. "Watch out for the wind, the trees and the traffic light at 59th Street. Don't stop for autographs. Has everybody been to the bathroom?"

The parade started at 9. The sidewalks were jammed. People warmed themselves with hot pretzels, brandy or the steam from manhole covers. The shadows of the big balloons glided over the crowd, kids sat on the shoulders of grownups, whole families clung to stepladders.

The last big balloon was Woody Woodpecker, and as it passed one second-story window a bold little boy addressed the bird familiarily: "Hey Woody, I just watched you on TV this morning. You grew in half an hour. Woody, stop growing."

As Woody passed 73rd Street, Norma Lytton watched the other parade, the people in the crowd, and sketched faces--the pale octogenarian blinking in the bright light, the cool mannequin in the black leather pants and white silk tie. "You begin to wonder about the people you draw," Lytton said. "Who is that guy with the French hat and his hands in his pocket? All you know about any of them is that they are people watching a parade."