New York's Village Halloween Parade is an annual holiday parade and street pageant presented the night of every Halloween (October 31) in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Stretching more than a mile, this cultural event draws two million spectators, fifty thousand costumed participants, dancers, artists and circus performers, dozens of floats bearing live bands and other musical and performing acts, and a world-wide television audience of one hundred million.
Among the parade's signature features are its pageant sized puppets — giant rod puppets "articulated" by teams of puppeteers — and its open participation to anyone in a costume who wishes to march. It is the largest public Halloween event in the United States, and the country's only major night parade. It has been called "New York's Carnival." Although the parade is currently not as informal and wild as it was in its earliest years, it is in effect still an alternative festival.
The parade has been featured in many national magazines and travel guides, and has been a subject of study by leading cultural anthropologists. According to The New York Times, "the Halloween Parade is the best entertainment the people of this City ever give the people of this City." "Absolutely anything goes," says USA Today. "Be prepared to drop your jaw."
In 1973, mask maker and puppeteer Ralph Lee staged a wandering neighborhood puppet show to entertain the children of his friends, family and neighbors in the Village. He was motivated in part by a decrease in the celebration of the holiday, especially by children. This drop was attributed to the city's high crime rate, and urban legends spreading about tampered candy. Lee believed a puppet parade would create a sense of safety and attract neighborhood children back into New York's streets on Halloween.
After the second year, an organization called Theater for the New City stepped forward to present the puppet show on a larger scale, as a formal march, part of its "City in the Streets" program. By the eighth year, the audience had grown to 100,000.
When an impending cancellation threatened the parade, Celebration Artist Jeanne Fleming, a participant in the parade for years, took responsibility for continuing it from that point forward. In addition to making puppets each year at her workshop in upstate New York, she is credited for building the parade to its current state. Its Artistic and Producing Director since 1979, Fleming planned for its future growth by working with her five Manhattan neighborhood's community boards, local police, residents, sponsors, schools, and community organizations.
Another distinct feature of the Village Halloween Parade is its costumes, which are limitless in their variety, "bizarre but brilliant" (Fodor's), well-crafted, and highly entertaining. New York is a world center of the visual and performing arts; fashion and costume design; pop-culture; publicity and marketing; communications, education, literature and publishing; and film, theatre and television. Its population is a rich source of pageant devotees who possess the many talents necessary to create the costumes, puppets, performances, and other artistic presentations. Greenwich Village in particular is home to its own brand of bohemian, pagan, counterculture, exotic and erotic costumes, designed by attention-seekers who have gone to great lengths to outdo each other, and pleasure-seekers determined to have fun.
Straightforward, everyday Halloween costume fare — monsters, witches, aliens, pirates, cartoon and storybook characters, animals, royalty and celebrities — are easily upstaged by the unpredictable variety of creations that sometimes defy description. The key to the competition seems to be to come up with a one-of-a-kind, entertaining idea, execute it cleverly, and address the costume's technical and artistic challenges. Simple but clever also works, as well as the absurd juxtaposing of unrelated ideas. There is also strength in numbers in this parade; one may be overlooked dressing like Richard Simmons, but twenty Simmons look-alikes, in wigs and hot pink shorts, cannot fail to attract attention.
The audience is likely to see old women in a Kazoo band, a puppet ship with a full set of sails, a Statue of Liberty stabbed in the chest, a group of bulldogs on leashes all dressed as Batman, skeletons playing the tuba, skeletons dressed as Krispy Kreme employees, brides and grooms, brides and brides, grooms and grooms, politicians, and madrigal drum corps. Onlookers have been entertained by walking Scrabble tiles that rearrange themselves to spell various words; decks of playing cards shuffling up the avenue; and armies of chess pieces marching in regiments of black and white, with small children as pawns.
"Walls are down tonight for the marchers, revealing an indescribably beautiful, powerful, scary realm of diversity," reflects cultural anthropologist Greg Steinbrenner. He recalls once watching a "...group of giddy yuppies dressed as the hundred and one dalmations [sic] join forces with 101 other Dalmatians fleeing a Cruella De Vil [sic] of questionable gender."
Although the parade is billed as family friendly, costumes depicting sexual organs, paraphernalia, and related themes are common. Walking penises, condoms, faux- bare-chested and bare-bottomed women, and flashers exposing prop privates do not faze the New York audience, and it is rare that anything is banned. (An independent, alternative parade exclusively for small children and their parents takes place in nearby Washington Square Park.) On one occasion, the NYPD prevented The Village Voice's float from entering the parade, on the grounds that its tires were flat, and its float was overloaded with people, some of them throwing things at other marchers. The float featured performer and DJ Lola Rock 'N' Rolla dressed as a vagina Jen Gapay, promotions director for the Voice, suggested a different reason for the crackdown: "I think it had something to do with the pussy." Lola Rock 'N' Rolla agreed: "If I was a big dick, this never would have happened." Lola finished the parade on foot.
Each year, a parade theme is selected by Fleming and VHP official puppet artists Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles as the basis for an anchoring performance at the head of the parade, and as a suggestion to inspire individual marchers throughout its course. Fleming makes a special study of the meanings underlying celebrations and rituals, for use in her productions. She is internationally renowned for the public celebrations she has designed and produced, such as the Statue of Liberty centennial in New York harbor (she invited the "great statues of the world to her birthday party," in the form of parade puppets).
In the Halloween parade, Fleming applies her research to illustrate the holiday's historic origins, and its psychic, spiritual, and mythical meanings, focusing on selected aspects from year to year. She also incorporates ideas behind seasonal traditions, such as Celtic and harvest festivals, into the parade. The notion of Halloween as a night of transformation is often reflected in the themes, as well as ideas of self-expression and community.
In 2001, the parade presented a work of puppetry that would become celebrated for its artistry, and remembered in the city's history. After terrorists struck Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, events citywide and nationwide were being cancelled. Organizers believed the parade would give the city a much-needed emotional release, reform the community, and help it to begin the healing process. They felt that this was the most positive way they, as artists, could serve the city at such a desperate time. "This is the meaning of the Dancing Skeletons that always lead the march: they know better than anyone what they have lost, and so they dance this one night of the year to celebrate life," Fleming told CNN in an interview.
By coincidence, the WTC's ribbon-cutting ceremony took place in April 1973, the same year Ralph Lee first presented his Halloween parade. Occurring only 1.5 miles from the march site, the tragedy caused by its destruction presented Fleming with a challenge as a "celebration designer": find an appropriate way for the parade to acknowledge the reality of the fiery collapse and the deaths it caused, one that would bring people hope and a reason to celebrate. Fleming had to communicate this through ideas associated with a physical object, one that could be realized as an animated puppet.
By September 15, Fleming had scrapped the old theme and chosen a new one. Although no one was certain the parade would take place, designer Sophia Michahelles conceived of a new theme, Phoenix Rising, to galvanize the spirit of New York in the wake of the tragedy. A giant puppet of a "The Phoenix", the mythical bird that rises up out of its own ashes, was created by Michahelles in the the workshop of Official Parade Puppeteers Superior Concept Monsters. The animated creation was mechanically configured to spread its wings and rise out of fiery ashes, represented by flickering lanterns lifted on poles, encircling the parading figure. On October 25 the parade received final authorization to go ahead. In light of the widely established community relationships which Fleming had cultivated, and the parade's long tradition, Mayor Rudy Giuliani insisted it go on.
At Spring Street and Sixth Avenue, heading south on Sixth to Broome Street, costumed marchers gather well before the official line-up scheduled for 6:00 p.m. In fact, beginning at Noon on parade day, areas on adjoining streets are designated for groups with puppets, floats, and other complicated presentations requiring more set-up and rehearsal. Parade marshalls and volunteers keep order and answer questions, assisted by the police. At 7:00 p.m., the first enormous puppet enters the parade route to lead the march straight up Sixth (officially known as The Avenue of the Americas). After the puppets safely pass, the waiting throngs of costumed participants join behind the puppets, and throughout the evening more puppets, floats, bands and other performers are introduced into the stream. It can take two to three hours to enter the parade, so the staging area becomes its own party. Masqueraders continue to show up for hours, stake out a position in the line-up, and gather around their favorite live bands.
Hours before the event, onlookers begin to fill the sidewalks, up to ten deep, behind police barricades and the historic district's wrought iron fences. Those wishing for a better view sometimes climb trees and stand on anything else available, including fences, garbage receptacles and telephone booths, but only until police take notice. Streets intersecting the route are closed at 6 p.m., and at these points the crowds swell. Those wishing to enter the parade there are not allowed, but are directed by police to Spring Street. Unlike Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, no viewing stands are provided.
The parade is unlit, and relies on whatever street light is normally available. During this time of year in New York, the sun sets hours before the parade, so the rare full moon is doubly welcome on Halloween. These night conditions are ideal for the puppets, as many are illuminated from within, glowing to spectacular effect. One portion of the parade is lit, however, to provide enough visibility for television cameras and professional photographers. This area requires a press pass from organizers. Print and broadcast media from many countries cover New York's Village Halloween Parade, and it is broadcast locally on NY1 television. In 2000, it was broadcast nationally by USA and the SciFi Channel with limited success; the true spirit of the parade can only be captured by seeing or being in it in person.
The distinction between participant and spectator is blurry. Many in the audience are themselves in costume — some show up to watch and end up joining — and attention-seeking revelers zigzag across the avenue to interact with the audience, receive applause and cheers, pose for snapshots, throw candy to the children, and mug for the hungry international media. Organizers specifically encourage the marchers to play to the crowd.
The parade crosses the intersections of legendary Houston Street, Bleecker Street, Christopher Street, and Greenwich Avenue, then ends at 21st Street. This is not the end of the evening, however; after participants are directed off the route to the east on 21st Street, they disperse to the many costume parties planned at area bars, nightclubs, and restaurants.
Note: Twin Towers in background on their last Halloween (in videos of the 2000 parade)