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  • Hannah Hightman

The Village Halloween Parade


Created in the 1970s by famous puppeteer and theater artist Ralph Lee, the Village Halloween Parade has become a New York tradition, attracting locals and tourists alike to join the procession of ghosts, witches, ghouls, goblins, and puppets of all sorts. The parade may have had humble beginnings, now tens of thousands of people dressed in costume march down 6th Avenue, and even more stand and watch the spectacle from the streets. Each year has a theme, and for the 50th anniversary of the parade, 2023’s theme was about taking a look back into the past as well as working together to craft a new reality: Inside Out and Upside Down.


Although crowds flock to the parade itself, few of them will see the months of work leading up to the parade. I was curious about how a parade of this scale comes together, and I was invited to observe one of the puppet making workshops that happen during the month leading up to the parade. Anyone can volunteer and participate, as long as they can make it to the barn in Rhinebeck where the workshops are held. Puppets of Halloweens past are stored in a neighboring barn. A barn full of puppets may sound like a creepy sight, and although I definitely felt a strong energetic presence there, it wasn’t unnerving at all, it felt quite warm, like revisiting childhood toys you forgot about when you stuffed them in the back of a closet. The volunteers were welcoming and helpful, and everyone shared a homemade meal for lunch. I was hesitant to help myself to a plate as I had done no actual work to earn this food, but the others were insistent and who am I to turn down homemade mac n cheese? I was feeling a bit sad being away from my own family as fall and the holiday season neared, so it felt good to be around such a close knit group. By the end of the day, I felt like I too was part of this family.


The core team putting the parade together is small but mighty. After Ralph Lee stepped down in the 80s, Jeanne Fleming took over as Artistic Director. Fleming gave me a tour of her house, where preparations for the parade used to take place (now they have outgrown the space, hence the barn) as well as the puppet storage barn. The whole area is quite idyllic and fairy tale-like, and Fleming herself seems a bit pixie-like, flitting here and there with an ethereal but forceful presence ensuring everything is running on schedule. “Ralph was going to quit the parade,” said Fleming. “And I was like, ‘No way!’ It was very tiny then, but I came every year. I would do an event here in Rokeby called The Harvest Pageant and I would go to the Halloween Parade as a reward for myself.” Fleming did everything from helping build the puppets to securing the funding for the festivities. “I asked Ralph to make these guys, they’re called the money grubbers. There would be a crew of twelve people, and the crowd would throw money in their mouths, and then we’d empty it into barrels. That’s how we would raise money for the parade in the old days,” said Fleming. But, alas, all good things must come to an end and the money grubbers were phased out. “I stopped doing that when phones came in. Once the phones came in, nobody had two hands anymore, and nobody would throw money in, so we had to start thinking of other ways.”


Though the money grubbers have fallen to the wayside, many of the older puppets are still used in the parade. “Part of the idea is to keep everything going. It’s about inviting back the spirits, and to me it’s important that everything from the beginning is there,” she said. “It keeps it local. It keeps it from becoming computerized I guess.” Old favorites make reappearances, but each year offers a new take on the Halloween season. There’s been so many themes that Fleming can’t even remember them all. There’s always a short performance to go with the theme that the puppeteers replicate each block of the parade. “One year, I forget the theme, but we did a sort of seance, and there was a table with teacups and objects from everyday life on it. At one moment, they all fly odd and go into a whole crazy thing, and then they come back,” said Fleming. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot this year, with Upside Down and Inside Out, that’s what happened with the objects, it was about things coming apart and coming back together again.” Other themes include Where The Wild Things Are (which included Maurice Sendak-inspired puppets), Endangered Ocean (which featured squid puppets), Tick Tock (which was Alice in Wonderland inspired), and Terra Incognita. “One year, we were going to be doing Devil May Care, and I decided we shouldn’t bring in the devil because it had been a scary year, so I decided we should bring in the light. We made these beautiful chandeliers and lampshades.”


This barn archive of inspiration to draw from is due to the efforts of Sophia Michahelles and Alex Kahn, co-directors of Processional Arts Workshop, who have been designing puppets for the parade for 25 years now. “Some of these puppets we made 40 years ago, and they’re still here,” said Fleming. “That’s one of the really wonderful things Alex and Sophia have done. They curate all of this stuff and take care of it and set it up beautifully.” But Michahelles and Kahn’s duties go far beyond just taking care of older puppets. They also lead the creation of new puppets. “Every year we bring out two sections” said Michahelles. “The leading section of puppets, which are puppets designed over the past 25 years by us and others that predate us. They establish continuity.” After the fan favorites have made their rounds, the newcomers make their debut. “Then our other job is that we design a performance that establishes the theme at the head of the parade for the other tens of thousands of people behind the puppets to follow or not. But it establishes artistic intent and gives us a different aspect of Halloween to think about. The two sections together keep the tradition of puppets being central to the Halloween parade,” she continued. Tradition is particularly important to this year’s theme, because in addition to commemorating the 50th anniversary of the parade (and the 25th anniversary of Processional Arts Workshop collaborating on the parade), the founder, Ralph Lee, passed away in early 2023. As usual, recent events also inform the parade’s theme, and the notion of returning to “normal” in the wake of Covid was foremost in Fleming’s mind when she announced the theme. “The theme is really marking this feeling of how our back to normal is not quite normal,” said Michahelles. “We were thinking about that and trying to interpret it in our own way, and the importance of reflecting on these last 50 years. We wanted to find a way to honor Ralph Lee, but in the light spirited way he would have wanted. But also, mirrors promise to show us reality, but it’s immediately flipped and we know that something’s wrong, and if you’ve read Through the Looking Glass, you know that everything isn’t what it seems there. So we were thinking of mirrors as a way to interpret this theme of Upside Down Inside Out.”





They eventually settled on the idea of making puppets that were shards of a broken mirror, 50 pieces in total. “We wanted these pieces to be spinning, dancing, creating infinity mirrors with each other, being held up to the audience and reflecting back,” said Michahelles. “We always try to do a performance that has an intimate experience with the audience as well as the grand spectacle in the middle.” Maintaining this close connection with the audience is another way in which Michahelles and Kahn honor the parade’s roots, and this year, they are literally holding a mirror up to onlookers. “We’re all kind of clinging to different aspects of our reality. Our normal is very different from what it used to be, we’ve seen things that we can’t unsee, but there are aspects of life that it’s still like ‘Ok, this is my piece of reality.’” Michahelles added. But they are also honoring Ralph Lee more directly, by reimagining some of the first puppets he made for the parade. “On the outskirts of our broken mirror, we’re going to have these other characters, which are the sweepers,” she said. “The original sweepers designed by Ralph Lee were these two figures on stilts that went ahead of the parade.” In addition to being reminiscent of witches, the street sweepers were harbingers of the magic to come. “They swept the street clean of the everyday energy and bad vibes,” explained Michahelles. This is another practice that is still part of the parade in the present day. “There’s a blessing band that leads the parade that performs that same role. But we also loved the image of these sweepers. We’re recreating them not as stilters, but as 50 foot tall puppets.”


For the central performance of the parade, the street sweepers and broken mirror shards will work together. “We will have all the shard people come to the center with the help of the sweepers, and the shards, which look somewhat random, have actually been perfectly designed so that they do all fit together,” said Michahelles. “All 50 shards will find their position and create this giant mirror. They’re obviously going to be facing slightly different ways and it won’t reflect the whole thing, and so we have new perspectives in this recreated reality we have.” The flaws in the mirror are very much intentional. “There are all the cracks we can’t unsee. We know the world is different but we can still pull our shards together and create a new vision,” she finished.


In addition to including the audience in the performance itself, the team is hoping the audience will bring their own interpretation of the theme to the table. “I am a believer in not over explicating anything,” said Alex Kahn. “You have to have open space for somebody to insert their own experience into it.” The image of a broken mirror is heavy with symbolism. “What does a shattered cloud of mirror fragments mean to somebody? Does that mean trauma? Does that mean celebration? Does that mean a little bit of both?” asked Kahn. “Those things are all part of the scaffolding that we built into how we saw it, but looking at a fragmented mirror, everyone is going to see a different reflection. My hope is that everyone feels like they have seen something that’s meaningful to them that is still within the philosophical purview of why we’re doing it, examining what it is to look in a mirror, and the promise of the real that is actually the surreal.”



Photos by Elizabeth Clayton

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