Halloween Parade puppet masters plan so it’s perfect


By Lawrence Lerner

To sit around the kitchen table at Jeanne Fleming’s Red Hook, N.Y., farmhouse this time of year is to witness a theater of the absurd.

“The traditional puppets come first, and the snakes come after them,” said Larry Nussbaum, Fleming’s longtime associate.

“Who’s got the skeletons? How about the spider monkeys? The zombies. Where are the zombies?” queried Natasha Brooks-Sperduti, an artist from nearby Kingston, N.Y.

“You know, we never heard back from that band Soy Dracula. They’re a rock ’n’ roll band that promotes tofu,” exclaimed Fleming with a deadpan look.

Theatrics aside, the talk of zombies, vampires and other things that go bump in the night is dead serious, a ritual that unfolds annually at Fleming’s rural retreat this time of year.

On Saturday, Fleming, the artistic director and producer of New York’s Village Halloween Parade, brought her team of planners, puppet-makers and volunteers together for one of the many workdays leading up to the famed event, proving once again, in the words of Brooks-Sperduti, the parade volunteer coordinator, that “the parade doesn’t just happen, as many people think. Months of work go into it.”

This year marks the celebrated parade’s 33rd year. Started by Ralph Lee, a Greenwich Village mask-maker and puppeteer, in 1973, what began as a walk from house to house in his neighborhood for his children and their friends has gradually morphed into the largest event of its kind in the country, running up Sixth Ave. from Spring St. to 23rd St. and drawing an estimated 40,000 participants, 2 million viewers, sponsors and full-blown media coverage.

Fleming took over the parade after its eighth year and has shepherded it through this remarkable growth.

“Sometimes I can’t believe just how large it’s gotten,” she said this past weekend. “It’s become bigger than I ever imagined.”

To make it a reality each year, a total of 100 to 200 volunteers descend upon Fleming’s farmhouse near Woodstock for a series of workdays before the event. Volunteers build the giant puppets that have become the hallmark of the parade, as well as plan logistics. On the final weekend before the parade, Fleming and her minions put the year’s new puppets through a dress-rehearsal procession. She has also built traditions into these long days, such as communal meals, bonfires and moonlit walks to the Hudson River, which lies within view of her farmhouse.

“We couldn’t have done this all these years without this land and the giant barns,” said Fleming. “It would cost an enormous sum to store all of these puppets and have this kind of workspace in Manhattan, well beyond what this nonprofit endeavor could afford.”

Saturday’s workday is dedicated to puppet-making and planning the pre-parade line-up, which forms on Sixth Ave. between Canal and Spring Sts. The talk of zombies and spider monkeys was part of this larger conversation about who falls where in the pre-parade assembly.

“Organizing the lineup of bands, puppets, floats, sponsors and novelty acts is crucial. It forms the skeleton of the parade that the public participants will jump on,” said Fleming. “Then there’s just this network of motion that occurs as people fall into place before the parade.”

The job of getting everyone lined up on parade night falls to Nussbaum, the parade’s “marshal in charge” for the last 18 years, and it is no small task.

“One of Jeanne’s friends got me involved in the parade back in 1989. She and her husband, the technical director, then left. I should have taken that as a warning,” he said wryly.

He and his two assistants nevertheless make it look easy. This year, they will marshal 30 bands, 12 giant puppets — and the 300 volunteers needed to animate them — 11 floats, 10 specialty acts, sponsors, assorted vehicles and thousands of public participants through the five-block stretch of Sixth Ave. — without the use of bullhorns.

“We stagger groups at the start, and usually all we have to say to them is, ‘Can you just wait a minute so those people ahead of you can be seen?’ That’s the M.O. every year,” he said. “It’s that kind of energy that helps make this parade unique.”

Nussbaum adds that the Halloween Parade is the only one in the city where anyone can march — at least anyone in costume.

“It’s a parade that is genuinely owned by the people,” said Nussbaum. “But we do discourage people not in costume from marching, so that those who do dress up have the greatest opportunity to be seen.”

This year’s parade theme pays tribute to that enduring, if overcommercialized, symbol of Halloween: the jack-o’-lantern. Fleming locates its origins in Celtic times, when folks celebrated the last night of Autumn by gathering around a communal fire, then carried home embers to rekindle each hearth in the village in hollowed gourds, which they adorned with decorations in homage to Brigid, the goddess of the hearth.

“The theme is very much about the many-from-one and one-from-many concept,” said Fleming. “It’s about drawing strength and creative energy and sending it out into the world or, in this case, the rest of the city.”

To depict the theme, puppeteers will carry a large black cauldron surrounded by nine jack-o’-lanterns, according to Alex Kahn, one of the parade’s senior puppet designers.

“Silk flames will emerge from the cauldron at certain moments during the parade, at which point the jack-o’-lanterns will light up, spiral around the cauldron, then break out into a jig,” Kahn said, adding that an enchanted forest will form a mobile barrier around the formation to maintain the integrity of the performance space.

“This is a flame of inspiration where people draw from the communal hearth to create their own individual path,” he said. “We wanted to reclaim a symbol of Halloween whose significance has been lost over the years.”

For Fleming, this year’s event is also about reclaiming the memory of a dearly departed friend. She has dedicated the parade to Arty Strickler, the former Community Board 2 district manager, who died in March.

“Arty worked with me closely for 27 years, helping ensure this parade happened. He was often the first one I went to when I had a problem,” said Fleming. “So, this one is for you, Arty.”

For those interested in marching in the parade in costume, join the lineup at the parade’s starting point at Sixth Ave. between Spring and Canal Sts., starting at 6 p.m. and until 8 p.m. The parade kicks off at 7 p.m. and lasts until about 10:30 p.m.