Memorializing America’s holiday of wit and artistry

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Friday, October 29, 2021. Cooler, sometimes sunny, but almost cold yesterday in New York.  With very heavy traffic. And temps dropping to the high 40s last night. Two days before Halloween.

Halloween was a big one when I was a kid. It was called Trick-or-Treating and it meant going door-to-door in the neighborhood, ringing the bell and collecting as much candy (particularly chocolate) as possible. If you lived in a neighborhood where there were a lot of children — which I did — they/we were all out in some kind of costume get-up although nothing was as clever and interesting as how much you could accumulate in your bag of goodies. That also included apples and oranges (not a thrilling take). Lots of chocolate bars, Mars, Hersheys, chocolate kisses, jelly beans, all that high sugar-content stuff, was treasure.

I wasn’t clever about costumes but more interested in accumulating the stuff. In those days, candy was never something hanging around the house or ever even present, so the whole emphasis was on the “how much” you could gather.

I’m not sure what it’s like for kids these days in New York. Or if they’re even interested. Because in New York it’s about the parade that is staged downtown, especially Greenwich Village and nearby environs.

Our friend Jill Lynne, a lifelong resident of Greenwich Village, was actively presence in the early days of the Village Halloween Parade.

Here’s Jill’s description of the Village in the late ‘60s early ‘70s:

The entrance to Westbeth Artists Housing, today.

One awakened to the sound of sopranos practicing scales, the scent of  incense, and as now, birds chirping “good morning.” At the western end of Bank Street was Westbeth, the former home of Bell Labs, which had just been revolutionized into the largest subsidized home for Artists in the world. All seemed rather idyllic and filled with dynamic possibility.

It was within this marvelous milieu that I was introduced to renowned mask maker and theatrical set designer, artist Ralph Lee.

Ralph whispered his ideas to me about creating a true Halloween Parade. The West Village of 1974 was a very different place than it is now — it was a tight-knit creative community of visual artists, musicians and literary figures.

In October 1974, accompanied by my young daughter CoriAnne, I found myself in Lee’s Westbeth loft assisting in the development of myriad magical creatures he created for that Parade.

On the days leading up to Halloween, a large word-of-mouth crowd formed in the Westbeth Courtyard. A hush fell over all, as a wondrous long snake on stilts, appeared over us.

A rare peek at the Westbeth Courtyard, 1974.

In the beginning it was like a medieval pageant — carrying tall candles and reeds, as we filed silently through our streets.

This was the beginning of a Village tradition and celebration. And as a young photographer/artist living on the eastern end of Bank Street, I was graced to be part of it.

Here are some of Jill’s many photographs of the annual parade along with some scenes from her neighborhood spanning four decades …

Ralph Lee skeleton puppet, operated by volunteers, hangs over the parade at the premiere of the first Halloween Parade in 1974.
“Greed,” another fantastic creature by Ralph Lee at the first parade, 1974.
A fantasy camel, made by Ralph Lee, rides high above the crowd, 1974.
Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, a creation of puppeteer Ralph Lee, floats over the first Parade, 1974.
One of the features of the original Halloween Parade were live vignettes set up at strategic landmarks. Here, a witch entertains at the Jefferson Market Library, 1975. The Library  continues the tradition to this day …
Along the parade route, it was customary for costumed celebrants to gather for viewing parties on fire escapes, balconies, and roofs. Pictured here are a group of masked marauders on Bleecker Street party in 1975.
Drag rock group Hibiscus prepping for the parade on Christopher Street, 1975.
A masked participant (mask by Ralph Lee) interacts with a real horse, 1970s.
“The Owl Around Me,” 1970s.
Hooded Skeletons, 1976.
“Man in White,” 1980s.
Shower Stall, 1980s. Topless women, or translucent costumes almost concealing full nudity, were, believe it or not, a rare sight in the Halloween parades of the 1970s and 1980s.
A costumed woman plays with a skeleton, 1980s.
“Star Man,” 1980.
Masked demons, 1980s.
Whimsical costumes — and humor —  have always been a signature of the parade. “People Feed,” early 1980s.
The earlier parades also included cars driven with fabulous costumed riders, 1980.
Here, a faux duck carries a feathered woman, 1980s.

In Greenwich Village the many wonderful parks join in the celebration. Pictured here is Abingdon Square Park, where the Conservancy invites all to pick up a pumpkin, carve, decorate & then return the pumpkins for a display & party on Halloween Eve, 1999.
Coordinated Groups were always a fixture at the parade & in the streets, 2000.
Alex in front of his restaurant, The Place, 2011 — now closed. Even during Sandy, with no power, he persisted in trying to comfort neighbors with whatever he could.
11th street creation, 2013.
House of famed actress, 2014.
Neighbors offering up candy & good scares … stirring up a cauldron in front of their townhouse. Elaborate stoop-side tableaus are very popular in the WV, 2015.
In front of our Bank Street stoop a new Halloween tradition has arisen — a spontaneous post school neighborhood mini-parade of costumed children and families winds through our West Village streets, where candy & goodies are generously offered to all, 2016.
Our WV Neighbors love to costume themselves, their dogs, and their stoops, 2018.
Tradition with health precautions. COVID-distanced & masked performance in front of their brownstone, 2020.
This fab Bank Street duo decorates their house with professionally created two-dimensional flats. Here the annual witches with a select few polka-dotted cats cavorting amidst white gourds, 2021.
Stalks, cob webs, pumpkins, and mini ghosts decorate a Bank Street townhouse on my block, 2021.

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