Walking home from class on Monday night, I felt oddly out of place in “normal” clothes compared to the hordes of people wearing outlandish and imaginative costumes. After living in Los Angeles for the past four years and attending the annual West Hollywood Carnaval, I had high expectations for Halloween in Greenwich Village, and I was not disappointed. This year’s Village Halloween Parade was attended by an estimated two million marchers and spectators. The combination of the enormous puppets, musicians, stilt walkers, and of course, the general participants in their wildly creative costumes, all made for a very memorable night.
Established in 1974, the Village Halloween Parade has evolved over time from a relatively small event into one of New York City’s main cultural attractions. In its infancy, the parade was put on by the Theater for the New City, a theater company infamous for their politically-charged plays, but the actual concept for the parade was the brainchild of Ralph Lee. Lee, an Amherst graduate who studied dance and theater in Europe as a Fulbright scholar, began experimenting with producing large masks, puppets, and props during his post-graduate stint as an actor in Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. In collaboration with the Theater for the New City’s founders, George Bartenieff and Crystal Field, Lee decided to host a parade on Halloween night, mostly targeted at the children of the West Village, as a way to showcase some of Lee’s masks and puppets. Though the neighborhood cooperated with the Theater for the New City, the parade’s inaugural year was fairly modest. The following year, however, participation rose to about 1,500 marchers, with the event ending again, as it had in its first year, in Washington Square Park. The 1975 parade earned an OBIE, an award given by The Village Voice to Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theater groups for their productions.
For the 1976 parade, a formal production team and a not-for-profit organization called Village Halloween Parade, Inc. were created. The organization hired musical groups to perform in the parade and worked with local schools to provide opportunities for children to help artists create puppets for the event. The parade route was adjusted in 1977, with participants now walking along 10th Street from Greenwich Avenue to 5th Avenue and then entering Washington Square Park through the arch. However, when the parade reached over 250,000 participants in 1985, the route was once again changed, this time moving to its current location along the broader Sixth Avenue to accommodate the crowd.
Lee eventually grew disconnected from the event he created, bemoaning particularly the loss of the “spontaneity” of the parade, and ceased organizing the event after 1985. He told The New York Times that as, “the number of onlookers began to overwhelm the participants… that’s what killed it for me.” Lee’s assistant, Jeanne Fleming, became the director of the parade in 1986. Fleming, who describes herself as a “celebration artist,” strives to use the design of public events to promote community building, and to that end she has put emphasis on allowing the public to contribute their own puppets to the parade.
The Village Halloween Parade often serves as a venue for political demonstrations. As Fleming noted, the parade, “is really a reflection, a microcosm, of what’s going on in the world or in the city.” At this year’s event, members of the Occupy Wall Street movement marched in the parade, many holding signs with Halloween-themed messages like “Stop the vampire economy” and “Chains you can believe in” (see image at right). The parade has also been an important symbol of hope and healing for the city and the country as a whole in the wake of tragedy. After the September 11th attacks, most people assumed that the parade would not take place that year. Rather than cancel the event, parade organizers changed the theme of the parade to Phoenix Rising, with the nation’s revival from the ashes of 9/11 symbolized by a large puppet of the mythological bird made by artist Sophia Michahelles.
The Village Halloween Parade is far from universally beloved. Although it was originally intended to be a family-friendly event (and continues to be advertised that way on its website), some groups have criticized the parade for encouraging vulgarity because of the risqué costumes many participants wear. Others have proposed moving the location of the parade to a less residential area, and some say the event is unsafe because the rowdiness of many of the participants inspires violence. By and large, however, most New Yorkers seem to appreciate the artistry, the sense of community, and the pure fun that the parade promotes. In Fleming’s words, the parade is, “the place where… the world come[s] to let down their hair and be themselves.”
Deepti Hajela. “NYC Parade brings spookiness to the streets, with skeletons, floating eyeballs.” The Associated Press, October 31, 2011. Accessed November 1, 2011. http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gxHNGTnre3x6YGF7GAu39Te3r8gw?docId=93075755a5de41a781b7cc2cf74e7d96.
Andrew Jacobs. “Neighborhood Report: Greenwich Village; The Parade: Too, too? Or Too Much?” The New York Times, October 29, 1995. Accessed November 2, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/10/29/nyregion/neighborhood-report-greenwich-village-the-parade-too-too-or-too-much.html.
Jack Kugelmass. “Imaging Culture: New York City’s Village Halloween Parade.” In Feasts and Celebrations in North American Ethnic Communities, edited by Ramon Gutierrez and Genevieve Fabre. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Kay Laureen Wylie-Jacob. “The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, 1974-1993.” PhD Dissertation, New York University, 1995.