By Kambiz Shekdar
The Village Halloween Parade is a symbol of New York City. In 2018 the parade’s theme was “I am Robot.” In 2019 it was “Wild Things.” This year’s theme was to be: “BIG LOVE! BIG EMBRACE!” Alas, 2020 is not the year of the Big Embrace; the parade is canceled, but it is still dedicated to one of its strongest volunteers, Oscar Williams of Port of Spain Steel Drum Band, who died of COVID-19.
George Capsis, publisher of this newspaper, recalls the beginnings of the parade when Ralph Lee, one of the original residents of the West Village artist community Westbeth, began organizing a parade of puppets for children on Halloween. The two men’s daughters were friends, and before George knew it, people and puppets of all sorts were dangling from the windows of his 69 Charles Street home.
Forty-seven years later, Mayor Bill de Blasio has this to say, “It’s no secret that Chirlane and I love Halloween, and I applaud the Village Halloween Parade for the creative spirit it brings to our streets each year. I’m confident that the 47th annual celebration, while different from previous years, will be both safe and full of the same ingenuity.”
The Village Halloween Parade teamed up with my organization in 2018 for RFTCA’s parade afterparty, THE MASCUREAIDS BALL. I had a chance to catch up for a quick Q&A with Jeanne Fleming, director of the parade, at her home in Rhinebeck over Labor Day weekend, as well as master parade puppeteer, Basil Twist. Maybe coronavirus will have its way with us this year, but just you watch out, Oh Mr. Corona, we have a rare blue moon coming our way this Halloween, and come next year—just you wait—perhaps we may march to the theme of “Biology: Virus…and its CURE!”
Q&A with Jeanne Fleming, head of the Village Halloween Parade
Kambiz: Was the parade ever canceled before?
Jeanne: Yes, the parade was cancelled once before. Hurricane Sandy was the reason. There were no lights in Greenwich Village. If you remember, pretty much everything south of 23rd Street was dark and areas were flooded; and so that year the parade was canceled. The parade was not cancelled—we were the first major event—after 9/11.
Kambiz: So, after the 9/11 attacks the parade was not canceled, you went ahead that year?
Jeanne: We were the first large-scale event that happened after 9/11, just six weeks later. Mayor Giuliani, at the time, wanted to show the world that New York City was not going to curl up and die, that we were going to survive, we were going to keep on going. Much like there was a terrorist attack right before the Halloween Parade two years ago—like three hours before—and the same thing happened, both Cuomo and de Blasio came to the parade. I walked with them at the head of the parade, again to show that Halloween wasn’t going to stop, New York City wasn’t going to stop, because of something terrible that happened. But, in this case, there’s really no choice for the safety of New Yorkers, we really have to cancel.
Kambiz: Can you give us any hints about what to expect this year?
Jeanne: Well, the reason I can’t give you any hints is because we can’t cause a gathering. We can’t cause a group of people to gather. It’s a promise to the governor, it’s a promise to the city, that we will not do anything that will cause a crowd to gather. However, what we are planning to do will be something that lots and lots of people will be able to see. So if people are out, not caused by us calling them out, but if they’re out (which we fully expect, that there will be a lot of people out in the Village and the city on Halloween night), they will get to experience what it is that we are doing. And it’s really for New Yorkers, it’s about New Yorkers. It’s something that people will be able to see, large numbers of people will be able to see. But I can’t talk about it because if I do, that will cause a crowd to gather at various locations, because it’s going to happen in more than one place.
Kambiz: How is your team taking it this year? How are you guys handling the cancelation of the parade?
Jeanne: I think everyone is just extremely sad. People who make puppets for the parade normally work at costume houses or they work at places that put on special events. They build props and sets. Some of them are Broadway scenic painters and designers. It’s their primary way of making a living. And no one has any work. So it’s just extremely sad—the situation that so many people are in. I do have a plan to gather a lot of those folks together on Halloween night and take them out to dinner, and make sure that my team is together and that we do get to see one another and celebrate a little bit with one another so that we don’t go another year without that kind of connection. Some of the people who work with me have been doing so for over 25 years.
Kambiz: What will your costume be this year?
Jeanne: Well, that’s a funny question. Normally, you see, I can’t be in a costume because I have to be identifiable to the police. If anything goes wrong, I have to be the person who works with the police and actually gives them the permission to move in and take care of whatever it might be that’s going wrong. The organizer actually has to ask the police to do it. So normally I am dressed in a hot pink leather jacket which makes me very easy to spot. That’s the way I normally come to the parade. Everybody knows it’s me and everybody knows to turn to me if something goes wrong. All the cops know it, up and down the street. This year I guess I don’t necessarily have to wear that costume, though in a way I guess it’s the first time that it’s actually a costume—because if I were to wear it, it would be a costume not a uniform! I guess I won’t be in my official role. I think I will probably will wear it as a comfort piece. But also, the Halloween Parade isn’t about me, it not about me being in costume, it’s not about me showing off, it’s really about everybody else. So I’ve never felt like I needed to be costumed; this is my job. This is when everybody else can let loose; but I’m responsible that night.
Q&A with Basil Twist, puppeteer of Zohra the spider who will once again dangle up and down Jefferson Market clock tower:
Kambiz: How did the idea of having a Spider go up and down the Jefferson Market clock tower come about?
Basil: Well, actually when the parade was originally begun by Ralph Lee, who is a puppeteer who lives in Westbeth and founder of the parade, the parade was a smaller – a much smaller affair that went through the small streets of the Village. There were decorative elements all along the way like a witch that crossed the street. It ended in Washington Square where at the arch, there was a skeleton in the arch, and there was a spider on the tower. But that was stopped when Ralph had stopped doing the parade and the parade had gotten so big it moved to 6th Avenue. When I joined the parade and I knew about that and I really—I like spiders—I thought that was a cool thing that should be done again. So it was it’s an homage to the origins of the parade. Ralph Lee is the one who first had the idea. You’d have to ask him how did that idea come about.
Kambiz: So you like Spiders, you said?
Basil: I do.
Kambiz: Are you scared of any insects, or you’re a friend of all bugs?
Basil: Haha, No! I don’t like mosquitos or roaches. I like spiders though because I find them incredible creatures and I have a kind of a mystical connection to them. The way that they weave webs and what they build, I think they’re amazing.
Kambiz: How much does your Zohra weigh?
Basil: Oh gosh, she doesn’t weigh much, she’s made out of Styrofoam, so she’s probably 25 pounds or something?
Kambiz: And, has she ever fallen down onto someone’s head?
Basil: No!… What a horrible thought! No. 🙂
Kambiz: One last question I have, what do you think makes Halloween such a special time in New York City?
Basil: Well, there’s definitely something about the change in seasons at the end of October that we go when it gets colder and when its winter so there’s something about that sort of last hurrah before we go into the indoors. And in New York, there’s so many creative, fabulous people here, New Yorkers just turn it out for Halloween! It’s amazing.
Rockefeller University graduate Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D., is founder and president of Research Foundation to Cure AIDS. Follow RFTCA on Instagram @RFTcureaids.