The Halloween Parade in New York City has been called by Festivals International, the best October 31st event in the world. It was started in Greenwich Village in 1974 by mask maker and puppeteer Ralph Lee. The parade began as a house-to-house walk in his neighborhood for his children and their friends.
Today the parade attracts 60,000 costumed marchers and about 2 million spectators.
I became aware of the parade beginning in the early ’80s, which by then was getting covered by the local New York television stations. During those years I’d watched the parade from my living room, probably with one or more of my children in my lap. The idea of dragging everyone into the City to see it seemed daunting, but I added it to my to-do list.
As the years progressed and those kids grew up, each year the thought of going flitted in and out of consideration. It couldn’t have been too high a priority because when the holiday arrived, I would again find myself seeing it on T.V.
I’d resolve to go “next year,” which brought back memories of my father telling me that Tomorrow Never Comes, which I now know is true and that Next Year arrives on exactly the same schedule, i.e. never.
But This Year does, and so it was in 2016 that on Halloween afternoon I drove to New York, parked at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and took the Subway down to the Village. Here are some of the sights and sounds I recorded—but make sure to come back and read about a mask my little brother Matty wore on Halloween a rather long time ago:
This parade is an amazing work of art—exactly as its organizers intend it.
Everything Reminds Me of Something Else
Hardly a Halloween passes anymore without my brother Matt regaling our family and his friends with the story of a hilariously absurd and stupendously incongruous Halloween costume donned long ago.
It happened when Matt was ten, which puts the year at 1965. We had moved to the Town of Islip, N.Y., which is on Long Island. Throughout the ’60s, Long Island and lots of other places underwent enormous development to accommodate the growing families of G.I.’s piecing their lives together after WWII.
This boom consisted of hundreds of single family housing developments, which were carved out of the Oak and Pine forests that covered much of the island. Ours was called Northwood Village, and was originally comprised of eight parallel streets that ended in cul-de-sacs. On each street were between 20 and 40 houses, with a choice of three floor plans built on lots of a little less than a fifth acre.
There were plenty of woods nearby to explore. There was a brook at the end of the street that had fish in it! Behind us was a swampy area that was habitat for frogs, turtles and other wildlife. You could ride your bike to the beach and swim in the Great South Bay. For kids from the five boroughs of New York—which most of us were—we felt like we were living in a gigantic wilderness playground .
One of the best things about being a kid back then was the presence of so many other kids. It was the height of the Baby Boom years and when we went out to play there were always other children around, usually enough to organize a game or join in some kind of adventure.
On Halloween all of us kids rushed home after school to put on our costumes and get to work collecting as much candy as possible. Kids back then did not go out Trick or Treating with their parents—they went with their friends! (If you were a baby you did not go Trick or Treating. You were a baby for Christ’s sake? What did you know from Trick or Treating?)
For the most part this unsupervised communion was great, but the downside was that far too many of those kids were judgmental little pugs who were always looking to find fault with someone and, once found, use it to ridicule them as viciously and unremittingly as they could.
Which brings us to Matt’s costume.
While Halloween was a huge holiday for kids back then, it was not one where great sums of money were spent. It was a holiday for kids to wear cheap costumes and eat cheap candy. This owed as much to the limited means of us our parents and neighbors as it did to the more constrained mores of the era.
In those days Halloween costumes were sold primarily at Five and Ten’s, like Kresgee’s and Woolworth’s. They consisted of a rigid plastic mask of some character or another, along with a matching “suit” that was made of something like rayon, which was probably highly flammable and could be counted on to came apart at the seams after a single wearing—if you were lucky!
If me or my siblings made it known in advance to our parents that we really wanted to be some character for Halloween, we could count on them—usually Mom—to help us get something together. However, if a special request wasn’t made, you were going to find yourself at the mercy of what Mom could find around the house.
Around the house primarily meant what could be found in a single cardboard box that was kept in the storage room and filled with Halloween stuff left over from prior years (unless you were going to be a hobo, see below). As the contents of the box had not seen daylight for about a year, nobody except my mother had any notion of what might be inside, but it was known that much of it would prove worthless and unusable.
On Halloween ’65, Matt admits to not giving much pre-thought to what he wanted to be for that year, so it was left to Mom to make something happen, which she did. Unfortunately, in the box, Mom was able to piece together but a single costume whose wearing would give Matt an early traumatic experience and the basis for what has become a funny memory and matching story.
The costume started with a black jumpsuit-like garment that you stepped into and tied at the back of your neck so that its front presented a single canvas onto which was printed the decoration, in this case the bones of a human skeleton. So far, so good. Matt was going to be a skeleton, but then…where the heck was the mask? After some digging and double checking in the box, it was determined that it was not there.
I have a vague memory of a search of the house being called, which included looking “everywhere,” but I knew—everyone knew—that if it wasn’t in the box, it wasn’t going to be found. It was gone. What could be done?
Well, there was a mask in the box, it just wasn’t a skeleton mask. What was it? A monster of some kind, or a ghoul? Either of those might have been passably okay, something for which a defense could be mounted should the pairing be challenged by one of those little wiseasses. But it was not a monster. It was this:
Yogi Bear! That mischievous denizen of Jellystone Park, who with his sidekick Boo-Boo poached picnic baskets and antagonized Ranger Smith. (He was smarter than the average bear.)
Matt was terrified at the thought of putting on such a laughably illogical outfit, but he had to get going. He had friends to meet and Trick or Treating to do. A serious negotiation commenced. It was too late to get a new costume. He could opt for the old “bum” or “hobo” standby, which was executed by marking your face with burnt cork to make you look unshaven, and putting on one of Dad’s old suit jackets.
For her part, Mom didn’t think the combination was nearly as heinous as Matt did. After all, with a mask on nobody would know who he was—and even if they did, why would they care?
As time ran out, Matt reluctantly gave way to Mom’s reasoning and donned the Yogi/Skeleton costume. I spoke to him today about what happened when he connected with his posse, and he reaffirmed prior accounts of the total and merciless attack and humiliation. Their reaction to the mismatch was immediate and brutal.
Everyone noticed it, he said. All his friends began laughing at him and making sure everyone around knew it was Matt Nolan in the ridiculous costume. Little kids were pointing and laughing at him, and he soon felt overwhelmed with panic. He said he knew he had “to get off the street,” and decided to make a run for it.
When he arrived home my mother saw that he was shaken and very upset. She set about burning a cork and blackening his face, and replacing the jumpsuit with one of Dad’s old suit jackets and sent him on his way.
As I was talking today about this story today with Matt I mentioned the Village Halloween Parade and how wonderful it is. After some discussion here’s what’s going to happen next year: We’re going to go and march in the parade. I’m not sure what I’ll be, maybe a Hobo, but guess what Matt will be wearing? You got it.
Until next time.