New York — It’s time for Greenwich Village’s annual Halloween parade, which has been a city tradition for 43 years. Each year it becomes more ambitious, at times even grandiose. A Village mask maker and puppeteer Ralph Lee started it in 1974, and it began simply as a walk from house to house in his neighborhood for his children and their friends. I remember it as local and small scale and filled with children taking pleasure in their imaginative costumes, and their experiencing the frisson of taking part in a scary celebration —witches, goblins, monsters — that remained totally under control.
But like many successful things that start with the best intentions, it began to be transformed. After the second year of this local walk, the Theater for the New City stepped in and produced the event on a larger scale as part of their City in the Streets program. That year the Parade went through many more streets in the Village and attracted many more people. Forty years later the Parade is the largest celebration of its kind in the world and has been picked by Festivals International as “The Best Event in the World” for October 31. It draws more than 60,000 costumed participants and spectators estimated at one million — people from all over the country and the world.
There is also a mini children’s parade, which goes around Washington Square Park and is sponsored by NYU and the local Community Board. It’s aimed directly at children and toddlers, who were the prime participants in the first Halloween parade so many years ago. The mini-parade also involves sidewalk entertainers, rides (a carousel) free trick-or-treat bags, and games. Walking by I see neighborhood parents and children exhibiting genuine pleasure in the innocence and simplicity of the procession and the games.
However, the main Parade hits the streets around 7 p.m., going up Sixth Avenue with puppets, 53 bands of different kinds of music, and a large police presence that includes dogs, vans and uniform and plainclothes officers. (The Parade seems much less chaotic than it was in the past.) It is probably the only Parade in the country that has at its heart an artistic base. It allows people to use their imaginations and perform in public in a variety of costumes. The organizers posted a statement on their web site, stating: “One thinks of Halloween as a chance to fantasize, but more than anything Halloween lets us realize, allowing us to play ourselves, leaving the remainder of the year to sleepwalk.”
There were zombies, sexy beasts, fairies in white gowns and Batman driving a replica of the Bat Mobile from the TV program of the ‘60s, and thousands of other New Yorkers in costumes of their own creation. There were cartoon characters, skeletons, people flying giant puppets, or dancing on stilts, and a float sponsored by a beer company. Besides the predictable multiple Trumps, the upcoming election proved to be fruitful ground for a wide range of costume ideas, from Trump walls to Hillary emails, a troupe of suffragettes and zombie U.S. legislatures eating NRA money.
I have been to the parade a number of times, and as the years have passed I have become slightly jaded in my responses to all the performance art on display. Or does the coming election obsess and frighten me so much that I can’t truly respond to anything else? Still, the participants put a lot of work and ingenuity into their often-inspired costumes, and they seem exhilarated by the night’s activities.
I think back to the Halloweens of my childhood in the late ‘40s, and how rudimentary they were: running around the streets hitting people with socks filled with chalk; carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns; and nervously ringing people’s doorbells asking for treats. There was little organization or creativity involved. But the memories remain.