Volume 17 • Issue 23 | Oct. 29 - Nov. 4, 2004

Ralph Lee and his new Dragon creation for “Halloween on Haunted Walk” at The New York Botanical Garden.

Halloween Parade founder still devilish 30 years later

By Roslyn Kramer

Witches and warlocks will prance up Sixth Ave. Oct 31 in the Greenwich Village Holloween Parade, but as entertaining as the annual event is, one critical element has been missing since 1985: its creator, Ralph Lee.

Lee will be elsewhere. As he’s done for years, he will be tending to ghouls and other unsavory creatures of darkness that will rampage through the august spaces of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. He will also be back at the New York Botanic Garden in the Bronx, this time in a brand new area of evergreens, where he will create an inaugural Halloweenscape. Some not-to-be-missed features: a ghost of a bride clamoring among rocks; a Lord of Death inhabiting trees; the four seasons accompanied by Jupiter; and for a finishing touch, “creatures that might be familiar to people from Halloweens of long ago,” says Lee. “There’s some overlap in the cast of characters, but generally the figures in the garden are more cheerful than the ones in the cathedral.”

Lee loves crowds, but in moderation. He wanted people to interact with his swaying, white-sheeted ghosts and be surprised by the grotesque fat figure standing in an open Village doorway. The parade, alas, was just too much of a good thing, attracting so many people that it crowded out Lee’s unique, big-hearted environmental art that was Greenwich Village for one joyous night.

The parade took off in 1974 when Lee filled a wagon with hay and children and invited neighbors to walk through the irregular streets of the West Village to Washington Sq. The winding route avoided major avenues, instead moving through narrow side streets lined with brownstones for the Old World feeling Lee wanted. Cars and trucks were forbidden. The cart full of children was pulled by a horse; later, as the parade evolved, the lead figures were old crones on stilts with brooms to “prepare for a festive occasion by sweeping the streets of bad vibes and automotive fumes so pedestrians could take over the streets,” says Lee. The area was more vivid than ever with Lee-designed creatures and objects on rooftops, fire escapes, in peoples’ windows. Residents watched from their stoops, grinning from ear to ear, as the parade rambled by.

A resident of the Westbeth artists’ complex at West and Bethune Sts., Lee says his figures are made of “glorified papier mache.” One of his most memorable creations came early in the parade: an image of the Emperor Hadrian seated in a Hellmouth (who knew?). The specific Hadrian reference might be all but impossible to pin down, but the papier-mache figure was unmistakably, deliciously evil. But Lee isn’t being negative. Far from it. He even sought out people with a positive outlook to work his giant sculptures.

Furthermore, “The parade helps people make connections just by the fact that it charges people up,” he once said. “It warms their insides.”

In fact, his environmental theater can be downright curative. “I really like seasonal festivals and festivals that reconnect people with the forces of nature; I feel it gives them a more solid footing to face the world with,” he explains. 

Lee’s wife, Casey Compton, is also an artist and costume-maker for their events. He also has his own production company, The Mettawee River Theatre Company, based in Glen Falls, N.Y.

Lee’s work has attracted awards, from Guggenheim Fellowships to American Theatre Wing Design Awards (not to mention a Dance Theatre Workshop Bessie Award for “sustained achievement as a mask maker and theatre designer without equal) but he’s probably best known for a one-man show of his work at Lincoln Center in 1998. He’s also done work for “Saturday Night Live,” the New York Shakespeare Festival, La MaMa and The Bowery Poetry Club.

Lee remembers making masks and puppets “as a kid” and his work “certainly had its roots in the ’60s.” He started making masks professionally soon after coming to New York City in 1959, working with quintessential ’60s theater companies: the Living Theater and the Open Theatre. Lee’s work preserves the open-minded, experimental artistic edge of the time, combined with a timeliness in the subject matter of his work.

His first outdoor production starring giant puppets took place all over the campus of Bennington College where he was teaching in 1974, somewhat of a breakout year for him, considering that it was also the year the Village parade started.

“Anyone who’s doing papier-mache performance puppetry probably worked with Ralph Lee at one time or another, or was at least influenced by him,” notes actor-producer Daniel Neiden.

Lee’s Village parade days may be over, but he recycles his work: the 20-foot-long, three-masted ship complete with rats may show up for another outing; the giant spider will, as usual, be climbing the Jefferson Market Library clock tower; new and old will blend at the botanic garden.

But Lee also inspires. Creativity in the Village parade was not only Lee’s — nor did he want it that way. Anyone could walk in the parade in those early days, and anyone could dress for it. And they did: as Rolls Royces, card decks, even a Bloody Mary with the face of Dante peering through celery leaves. Costumes were witty and profane, two qualities that merged in the gay marching band. What started out as a children’s Halloween parade grew into street theater on an immense scale, with performers in the park and along the route as well as in the windows and on top of the Village’s distinctive buildings. “The mask in that situation gives people permission to play with each other and to assume roles that give vent to things,” Lee says.

Lee has been praised and celebrated, but perhaps his most memorable compliment came from the man passing by a show he was setting up. “Man,” the stranger said, “you got voodoo in you.”

The New York Botanical Garden Ralph Lee event, “Halloween on Haunted Walk,” takes place Sun., Oct 31, 2-4 p.m. at the Benenson Ornamental Connifers.

The parade Lee created, the 31st Annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade will be on Oct. 31, from 8 p.m.-10 p.m. Lineup for participants starts at 6:30 p.m. on Sixth Ave. south of Spring St. The parade route is on Sixth Ave. from Spring St. to 21st St.

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