NYCITY NewsService Village of Volunteers Support NYC Halloween Parade © OCTOBER 31, 2023 ° TRUTH HEADLAM
MANHATTAN – This year, the Village Halloween Parade is turning 50-and it’s taken more than a village to keep it thriving.
A group of dedicated volunteers and organizers work throughout the year to raise funds, construct floats, prepare
puppets and all the other behind-the-scenes items necessary to keep things running smoothly.
“Because so many people are going to help us build it, we can pull it off,” said Jeanne Fleming, who has directed the not-for-profit Village Halloween Parade Inc., which puts the parade on, for the last 40 years.
She took over the role in 1980 from Ralph Lee, the late mask-maker and puppeteer who started the parade as a house-to-house activity for neighborhood children in 1973. The parade has grown exponentially since then, and attracts tens of thousands of participants and approximately 2 million viewers on any given year, organizers said.
“It’s largely volunteer,” Fleming said about the construction of the giant puppets for which the parade is famous, as well as the approximately 15 floats, and coordination of performances. The preparation for those parts of the parade starts in August and continues over a couple of months.
“Then it will take like 60, maybe about 74 people to run that [the puppets] in the parade. So, we have to get 74 volunteers who are willing to do that,” she said.
Fleming estimates that the parade gets an average of 800 volunteers a year, including theater groups, university classrooms, acting studios, individual Halloween enthusiasts and performers. Quite a few of those volunteers are returning from previous years, she added.
Artist Barnaby Ruhe, who’s participated in the parade for 17 years, dresses up as a different prominent painter each year and recreates their work from atop a float. This year, he said, he’ll be dressed in the style of Pablo Picasso, wearing a blue striped matelot-or striped sailor’s shirt-along with a basque beret and khaki shorts.
Ruhe said he will be working on 7-foot-tall paintings that are an homage to Picasso’s “Guernica,” to protest the horrors of war. The paintings will will be attached to a small cart on rollers, and he’ll complete the paintings along the route by adding abstract expressionist touches, as he believes Picasso would have done.
“When I get going with 2 million people watching it, I turn into a monster,” Ruhe said. “The audience is actually really important for me.”
He explained that even though many people don’t get to see his finished artwork, the process is enough.
“They just watch a couple of strokes go by. But you can see the excitement,” he said.
Other parts of preparation, such as fundraising, can begin up to a year in advance. Part of the funding throughout the vears has come from the National Endowment for the Arts and State Arts Council, the city Department of Cultural Affairs and other agencies and cultural institutions.
However, the parade also relies on private donations. Fleming recounted a time when a generous donor made putting on an entire parade possible.
In 2021 Fleming had a shorter timeline as a result of delayed permission related to the event.
“I had three weeks to the event, and I had no money,” she said. That year the parade was saved by Jason Feldman, who donated $150,000 to the organizers.
“He heard me talking on ‘1010 WINS, saying ‘we want to do the parade, but we don’t have any money, and he gave me all the money to do it,” Fleming said. “He called me up, and he said, ‘how much do you need? He had been to it his whole life. He couldn’t let it die.”
Fleming said she also raises money from corporate sponsors, but noted that over the years many of them have relocated their funds to other NYC parades.
Other stakeholders involved in the prep work for the parade include the New York City Police Department, Community Board 2 and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, she said.
The Big Night
The parade route-which starts on the corner of Spring street and Sixth avenue and ends at 18th street and Sixth avenue-transforms the streets for the night, Fleming said.
“To me it’s sort of like-I don’t know-like this utopian society,” Fleming said. “One night when everybody gets along and people respect one another,” and prepare to watch a performance.
The parade opens the way it always has since Fleming took over approximately 40 years ago, with a “blessing angel.” For the last decade, that “blessing angel” has been Joseph Alexander, director of the Edward Morgan Ballet
– a professional dance studio in Manhattan. Alexander dresses in all white, puts on roller skates, and greets the crowd.
“Jeanne always has something before the parade that leads off the parade before it starts, to clear the energy and to bring New York together,” Alexander said. “Our mission on this planet has always been to heal the world through the arts. No matter if we’re dancing in an opera house, in a nightclub, or in a parade, we want to touch people.”
Alexander, along with his husband and cofounder of the ballet company, Edward Morgan, volunteer their service for the festive night. They are often joined by students who are aspiring professional dancers, as well as students’ family members, he said.
Another decades-long participant, Serra Hirsch, calls the parade “a performance for the longest audience I’ve ever performed for. I try and sort of zigzag my way to each side so that, you know, I’m not just favoring one side.”
Hirsch says her experience is different each year. “I don’t know how my costume is going to be [received] until I show up there and then and I get a reaction.”
She compared her experience to that of a celebrity, “like The Beatles and then the next day, I’m back to being anonymous. And it’s fun because I get to experience this that I would never want to experience in real life.”
Other volunteer-led performances include a performance featuring costumes and props in the form of an animated shattered mirror that will break apart and configure itself back together every few blocks.
Organizers said they chose the mirror performance to accompany this year’s theme, “Upside/Down, Inside/Out,” which is a response to the changes society has faced over the past few years-including the COVID-19 pandemic, threat of a recession, ongoing layoffs, and many other challenges.
Performances continue through the night with a varying order year-to-year based on what would be more appealing to show on television. In past years, the performances ended with a ‘Thriller” dance and a steel pan band closing out the night.
The public can join the parade lineup at the corner of Canal street and 6th avenue if they are in costume.
Participation of attendees grows after the start of the parade as people migrate from behind the barricades and begin walking in the parade, Fleming said.