By Stanley Wlodyka
Entering Ralph Lee’s apartment, you may be welcomed by the smiling faces of his wife, daughter, and year-old granddaughter, who lays on the floor perfectly content with the world and her place in it. You’ll also be greeted by a monstrous, two-headed pig, an engorged and rotting individual dubbed ‘The Fat Man,’ and a gigantic rooster.
Lee, a mask maker and life-size puppeteer, created the Village Halloween Parade back in 1974. He lives with his wife at Westbeth Artists Housing, the largest artist residency in the world, developed in part with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts. Otherwise, it may be more difficult for a person like him to call 10014 home. (It’s the ninth-most expensive zip code in the country with rents topping $3,400 for a one-bedroom apartment.)
The shift from living in a middle-class neighborhood to occupying one of the hottest pieces of real estate around, and the evolution of his grassroots Halloween celebration into the spectacle it is today, would leave most with their heads spinning. Not Ralph Lee, who is well adapted to change and the whims of fate. “I was going to be an actor, and it was just one line, but I was in a Broadway play.” The play was Albert Camus’ Caligula. His one line? “I summon thee o’ Death.”
Death did appear and caused the untimely demise of his hopes of becoming a thespian, but Ralph soon fell in with the costume department. Tinkering with a simple, though ancient, method of mask making during his adolescence turned into a commission to create masks for a Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest. “I was really incredibly lucky that I fell into this.” Lucky he says, but when pressed, Ralph admits that he subscribes to the belief that some things are meant to be.
“In a lot of cultures, you become the deity when you’re wearing the mask. It allows you to behave in a lot of different ways, to use your body in a different way. You become an exaggerated character. Without a mask you can’t do it so fully. It’s what enables you.”
In order to create the first Village Halloween Parade, Ralph donned the mask of “a general in the army, maneuvering all these troops around.” The troops were comprised of actors from the Theater for the New City, and were stationed along the parade route performing skits, singing songs, and causing good-natured mayhem. One of these stops was at the home of Westview publisher, George Capsis, who remembers witches in his windows, hurling insults at each other as well as at the parade-goers.
Although there weren’t any expectations of continuing the celebration beyond that fall day in 1974, the success of the event led Ralph and the New City to an encore performance the following year. Two years turned into three, and the parade-goers increased exponentially. “The first parade we had one policeman [at] the front of the parade on a motor scooter and another policeman at the back of it on a motor scooter.” This year, with an expected 60,000 participants and an additional two million onlookers, everything must be highly regulated. If you want to march in the parade, you must start at the designated location, 6th Avenue and Canal Street, and then, as strongly suggested by rows of barricades, continue until the end of the parade route.
Ralph regrets that the parade has become so big, that it’s lost something of that original intent to liberate the streets. He recalls wistfully, “I made nine old crones, old women. They were on stilts, they had big brooms and they would sweep the streets at the beginning of the parade. Cleaning the streets of the bad vibes. Making them ready for the people.”
Now in his 81st year, Ralph finds consolation in the costumes made and worn by the parade-goers. In those early years, he realized that the parade had taken on a life of its own, once he saw a group of men come dressed as designer shoes. This year, he plans on skipping the parade, afraid of what he’ll see. “Can you imagine how many Trumps [there’ll]…be out there? I mean, he’s so grotesque already.”
If you can stomach his politics, you can catch Ralph Lee with the Mettawee River Theater Company, which he founded with his wife, Casey. They’ll be hosting the annual Halloween Extravaganza at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine the Friday before Halloween. (There are two performances on October 27th: one beginning at 7:00 p.m. and another at 10:00 p.m.). Expect to see actors bringing to life the twisted imaginings of Ralph’s mind. The church organist is also scheduled to play an accompaniment to the silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera. The next day, he’ll take some of his more kid-friendly creations to the fall festival Ghouls and Gourds at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Check out the Events section in this issue to learn how you can get tickets before they disappear. You can do both and still be at the parade. In the meantime, get in the mood with a spooky tale told in Mr. Ralph Lee’s own words:
“The Mayans had their own ball game. It’s not like any particular game that we play now. It involved getting a ball through a small hoop. Oftentimes, if somebody lost the game, they might be sacrificed to the gods. I imagine it was a pretty difficult game to play.
In this story, there is a pair of twins, who were just young, teenage kids. And they happen to be very good ball-players. The Lords of Death are jealous of them because they hear them having all this fun playing the game. And so they trick the kids [into going] down into the underworld to play with them.
The Lords of Death kill these kids at the end of the game. But what they do is they sort of throw their heads up into a tree. They are the fruit of the tree, but they’re also faces.
One of the daughters of the Lords of Death, she’s not happy with being there at all. And she goes to where these heads are hanging. She starts speaking with them and they speak back to her. They spit into her hands and she becomes pregnant. But she doesn’t want to hang out in the underworld, so they tell her how to escape.
And so she escapes from the underworld. She gives birth to the same boys again. They are the same twins. They have that history about them still. They go back into the underworld and they are wiser now.
And so they trick the Lords of Death and they win the game. The Lords of Death lose their power.”