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Too Big For Your Britches
The Village Halloween Parade is now endangered. It is considered too large to police and therefore a magnet for street crimes including gay-bashing. Oh, that it had only remained as it started out in 1974--a work of theater! The parade originated as a production of Theater For The New City in collaboration with block associations of the West Village. The producer of the original Village Halloween Parade, Crystal Field, talks about its theatrical, idealistic beginnings and sheds light on why it has gotten out of hand today.
This is the original Theater for the New City poster for its Village Halloween Parade in 1974. In its acknowledgements (small print at bottom), it thanks "Bob Read and the many block associations who contributed." As sponsors, it lists the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, Abraham Beame, Mayor, Edwin Weisl Jr., Adm. PRCA, Irving Goldman, Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, Stephanie Sills, Director of Programs DCA.
Thanks were dedicated to Harry Koutoukas, John Guare, Joel Oppenheimer and Barbara Garson.
Featured billing went to: TNC Company, Active Trading Company, Open Eye Musicians, Margot Gilbert Dance Company and Renaissance Street Singers. Music by John Herbert McDowell, words by Nancy Fales, masks and monsters by Ralph Lee & YOU. Creatures appearing courtesy of Phoenix Theatre, American Place Theatre, Don Rodlick Dance Co.
The map under large pumpkin illustrates the route. Beneath the map is a banner saying, "Halloween children join us on this route."
Let us speak about the VILLAGE HALLOWEEN PARADE that is now under attack from some Village Residents. It is perhaps time to tell the story of this amazing event, which now heads up Sixth Avenue and draws as many as 2 million people.
Ralph Lee, the original Designer of the HALLOWEEN PARADE worked for me, as Chief Designer for the Street Theater for two years. TNC still owns costumes he made for “Undercover Cop,” and a beautiful backdrop he designed and built for The Street Theater. Before each performance, the TNC Street Theater Ensemble would parade through the neighborhood, to draw a crowd for the performance. We banged on tin cans, pots and pans, and a big bass drum. Sometimes, someone would play a trumpet or a violin, and often we would fashion homemade instruments from bottle caps, trash can lids, etc. We always carried at least one large puppet from the show and wore pieces of our costumes from the play. Some of us went on bicycles, some on skateboards, some on stilts, but most of us marched on foot and sang “When the Saints Go Marching In.” We still do this parade, but in a very truncated fashion and only in the relatively new areas we play, since we no longer need to draw an audience that now waits with Baited Breath for our Annual arrival on their neighborhood doorstep (we play all 5 boroughs now) with a new opera for the street, a company of 50, with themes that mirror their most vital concerns.
One day in 1974, as I was sitting out on the front porch of our Jane Street Theater. (TNC has had 4 locations in its 25-year history) writing an article, as I am doing now, Ralph came over to look over my shoulder (he lived in Westbeth, a block away) and very casually said, "You know, the parade we do for every street theater, well why don’t we do a Halloween Parade? I’ve got all these puppets, and they’re clogging up my apartment and this would be something we could do with them." I jumped up - "Great Idea! -- Let’s Do It!" And that’s how the VILLAGE HALLOWEEN PARADE started. It was for the children of the West Village.
I set to work, with the staff of TNC and a cauldron full of TNC volunteers, doing everything from “press” to “money raising” to finding a number of groups to march in the Parade (We headed the march with a brass ensemble).
We decided on the Parade route. It was to start at TNC and go East one block and over to Bank Street to pick up Westbeth denizens. Go down Bank and over to Tenth Street and end up in Washington Square. We went to the head of the Bank/Bethune Block Association, as we had in the past, for networking with all the blocks we would go through. In this way, we alerted our neighbors to the march and developed key members of each block to be out on their street for security. We have always found that the tightest security and the only security we ever needed, is block-by-block participation of our neighbors. TNC has always made its audience work mentally and in this case, physically as well.
I remember the night of our Second Year’s Parade. There was a full moon rising as we raced along the streets in the early dusk. The head of the Bank/Bethune Block Association pointed to it breathlessly. This was not like a parade that actually "marched"--it was more like a mysterious apparition. It comprised maybe 100 performers, all with fabulous handmade costumes and neighborhood groups who contributed their services for the early evening. The Parade ended in Washington Square with ensemble performances in the circular fountain in the center of the park, and on the way wonderful “surprises” were staged -- all using puppets and masks (not just Ralph’s, but many others as well). This was a neighborhood event! It made the front page of the major newspapers and a few thousand people attended. And under TNC’s producership, it won an OBIE.
Following the second year's Parade and its OBIE, I decided to ask the NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS for a grant of $1,000 for Ralph Lee. I went to him to tell him this good news. A week later, he asked me if I had applied to NEA yet. I said I was “in the process.” He then told me that he had gone to the NEA for $8,000, and he had gone with a Consortium of local civic organizations. He invited me to a meeting at the home of the Chairperson of the Bank/Bethune Block Association. I attended this meeting and was told that the Parade would now be produced by a consortium of groups, none of whom had previously done anything design-wise for this parade. I responded that this was fine by me but TNC, the artistic force behind the event, should have Artistic Control. When Ralph abruptly informed me that we would not, we withdrew from the parade.
TNC has a reputation as a kind of a funky place, compared with more mainstream Off-Off Broadway Theaters and those pseudo cutting edge theaters that evaporate after one show or charge for participation. (How can a Festival charge for participation! It’s outrageous.) People think that because we do not censor in any way, and because we believe in giving an artist full freedom to create, and because we demand hands-on participation by the playwright in every aspect of production, that therefore we just leave artists to run amuck on their own petard. Those that think this are those that do not think deeply. TNC has an exceptionally strong artistic thrust. It is deeply human and its very lack of censorship demands it have complete artistic control over an enterprise. It's a little like a loving Mother Goose that must protect its flock so that the flock can grow and develop on its own.
Poster for the second parade in 1975 reveals the parade's original emphasis on children. It says, "conceived and directed by Ralph Lee with children of 26 local schools." The center balloon says "Halloween children join us! Special events along the way."
If the HALLOWEEN PARADE were still under TNC's direction today, it would still draw only thousands (not millions) to its ranks. It would wind through the Village Streets and byways and photographs would be discouraged. It would retain its magic and it would center its efforts on children and adults as it did in its first two years. It would continue to express “where the wild things are” and make use of a number of artists’ and sculptors’ works with many “surprises” along the way. It would manifest the sweet, dark side of our earthbound nature--the part that rises as a spring from the depths of our being. It would still be a “neighborhood” event, although tourists from around the world would attend (but not that many tourists). We would have kept our event big enough to be exciting, but small enough to continue to be exciting. And children would be the focus of the VILLAGE HALLOWEEN PARADE, as they were in its first two years.
The year we lost the parade (and we will always think of it that way - it was taken from us) we had planned to have a later night Ball for adults (Gretel Cummings' idea, as I recall) -- a VILLAGE HALLOWEEN COSTUME BALL -- so that when the little ones slept, the adults could go dancing and partying in an indoor, more sophisticated set up. The ball has endured. We now serve a thousand to two thousand people with our four-theater VILLAGE HALLOWEEN COSTUME BALL. Outside is free to the public. Inside it is $15 for two cabarets with new playlets, vaudeville all evening, dancing to a 16-piece Swing Band, hot food, a Tarot Reader, an Aura Reader, an I-Ching Thrower, a Scary Room, installations by 17 painters and sculptors, and more, more, more. If you volunteer for an hour or two you get in free for the rest of the evening. It's a Never to Be Forgotten Night.
We have continued this tradition over the years and have never again tried to do a parade in The East Village, to where we later moved, since we did not wish to interfere or compete with attendance at the VILLAGE HALLOWEEN PARADE, although many have suggested we do so. However, if the times comes when there is no more VILLAGE HALLOWEEN PARADE, we would be willing to start one on the Lower East Side. And who knows, maybe Ralph Lee will come out of retirement to help us. [Crystal Field]
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