By Anthony Paradiso
During any other year Villagers would be preparing to line up to take part in the Village Halloween Parade. But this year, that long-standing tradition of marching through the Village will not take place due to the pandemic. Many may know that the Halloween Parade is woven deep into the fabric of the West Village neighborhood, but may not be familiar with how it started.
That is where Ralph Lee comes in. He has lived at Westbeth Artists Housing since 1970. He founded the Village Halloween Parade in 1974, having first conceived the format that the parade would use as a teacher at Bennington College in Vermont. During the spring of 1974 Lee presented an outdoor play on the Bennington college campus that left a deep impression on him.
“I got this idea—we’re going to have scenes that take place in all of these different places and the audience can go from one place to another and witness these scenes. So, we did it and we had a big turnout of students and faculty. It really was an incredible success. It was the first time I had seen my giant puppets outdoors and that was really illuminating to me. They took on a life outdoors that they just never had when they were in a theater and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really amazing’ and I want to do more events outdoors.” This was the genesis of the Village Halloween Parade.
Lee says that before the Village Halloween Parade began he had worked on productions in New York City that used his “larger-than-life puppets,” including with the famous playwright and actor Sam Shepard.
The idea for the parade took off when the Theater for the New City on Jane Street asked Lee to help them conduct a Halloween event. Lee told them, “I’ll do it, but we’re going to do it outdoors,” showing how eager he was to find out if the same format he had used at Bennington College could work on the streets of New York. It did.
The original route, Ralph recalled, started at the Theater for the New City. The parade’s next stop was his home at Westbeth. It then marched to Bleecker Street, proceeding for a while until it made a left turn and concluded at Washington Square Park.
The parade’s founder described what took place along the way: “We staged events in various places along the route—on the doorsteps of brownstones, in little parks, and in playgrounds all along the route,” Lee said, “We all took off as a group and moved to these various locations where our wacky little scenes would take place.”
This newspaper’s publisher, George Capsis, remembers that the first parade marched down Bleecker Street, and then came down Charles Street passing by his home. George allowed people and puppets to stand on his front steps and inside his house as the parade marched by. Ralph Lee added more detail: “Yes, we would set up some of our figures in the windows and the doorsteps of his place. His whole family was involved with the event,” Lee said, “One of our daughters happened to be a friend of George’s daughter, so I think that’s how that connection all happened, and we continued to use the front of his place as a place for the characters to congregate along the route.”
Lee said that “maybe about 200 people” marched in the first parade. However, as each year passed the parade’s turnout would increase until the NYPD “begged” him to make the route simpler, which he did. However, that was not without a cost, which, Lee said, “shifted the character of the parade. We were no longer on the wonderfully picturesque streets of the Village, but had to establish ourselves on larger streets, and have less zig-zagging along the route in order to make it happen.”
Lee mentioned that the NYPD “were incredibly sympathetic toward the parade” for as long as he was involved. He also thanked his wife, Casey, who “was involved with the parade from the start, answering innumerable telephone calls” and contributed as a “wonderful costume-maker.”
When I asked Lee how the parade involved kids, he said, “We ran workshops for kids in the [Jefferson Market] library where they would make silhouettes that would be put up in the windows of the library, and there were school groups that made big critters that could be put in the parade.”
Lee directed the Halloween Parade for twelve years. When I asked why he stopped he explained, “I really became a little concerned about being able to control what was happening in my apartment on the days right before the parade. My wife and I had a daughter and having this young toddler among all this stuff—it began to feel like my space was being invaded and it was time for a change.”
In light of this year’s presidential election, Lee decided to make a political statement with an art installation of his puppets, viewable in a window display inside the courtyard of Westbeth at 55 Bethune Street. Please go check it out and remember that you are getting a chance to see giant puppets created by a Village legend and the founder of the Village Halloween Parade, Ralph Lee.
Anthony Paradiso covers local sports for WestView News. He draws on the three years of experience he had as the Assistant Sports Editor of Montclair State University’s student newspaper. Currently, Anthony writes for “In The Zone,” a sports media outlet that focuses on sports lifestyle and culture.