- Jeanne Fleming
- 60 years old
- Grew-up in Philadelphia; Now lives in Upstate New York
- Celebration Artist; Artistic & Producing Director New York's Village Halloween Parade
First of all, what is a "Celebration Artist"?
I've always thought about how to create meaningful celebrations for our time in this diverse culture. Like trying to figure out ways that you can create a celebration that really allows people to engage in it in a deep way, connecting to all their senses and bringing in their minds and hearts. In our culture -- and I see Halloween as a uniquely American holiday – there are so many ways in which we can divide: divide into our churches, our communities, our socioeconomic groups, our ethnicities, our races, our sexuality, whatever. What's wonderful about Halloween is that everyone can come and absolutely shine being exactly who they are. They don't have to fit in to anything, and they don't have to match the person standing right next to them. They get to really be with each other in a pretty honest way because when you're performing in that way you're behind the mask, but you're not exactly hiding. It's not like the mask of every day.
I remember this little boy who was about five years old, and he was wearing a store-bought Godzilla mask. It took over his whole head, kind of came down over his shoulders. And his father walked ahead of him all along the parade route and put Dixie cups along the route, and he stomped them the whole way. That's the mask of imagination coming out.
How do you choose the parade's annual themes?
We never actually used to have themes for the parade because basically anyone can come however they want. But many years ago, the press kept asking, "What's the theme?" and we'd explain why we didn't have a theme. But one of our advisors on our board said, "When you have a theme it gives people something to hold on to."
Meanwhile, every year we had to make a decision about what kind of puppets we were going to build because we build these giant puppets. We began to realize that in a way our decision about what we're going to make was creating a theme. So the first year that we did it, we built these puppets from the rain forest because we were looking at endangered species. (One of the people working here at the time was dating a guy from Greenpeace.) We built these giant puppets of creatures in the rain forest who were almost extinct. They were skeletons so they'd have the Halloween-skeleton-feel, but one part of them was still alive. Like on the spider monkey, it was the tail; on the toucan it was its colorful beak. So when we did that, and we put it out that this is what we were building, we found out that people really responded to it.
You changed this year's theme because of Hurricane Katrina? What was the original theme going to be?
We decided we wanted to explore the Jack-o’-lantern. We started thinking about the community fires that happened at this time of year in Celtic times, and we wanted to call [the theme] the "Village Fire" because our idea was that people come to the parade, and the parade is like the fire. From the fire they draw memories that every step they take, every encounter, whatever happens to them that night became the ember or coal that they then carry back in their minds, which was like the Jack-o’-lantern squash bringing back the coal. That is how the Jack-o’-lanterns started; that was how they brought back into their own hearths during the winter the memories of that last night of autumn and the beginning of winter. That's what we were working on when Katrina hit.
For the parade [immediately after 9/11], we decided instead we would make a Phoenix rising out of the ashes because you could still see the fires burning at the end of the street. So we built this beautiful young phoenix puppet, and that puppet became a symbol for New York rising again. It was really beautiful, and it was very meaningful for everyone who carried and saw it.
I kept thinking about Katrina and different things kept coming to mind about what we could do as far as help the artists of New Orleans. We thought "Phoenix Re-rising." We'll bring the Phoenix out again, but we'll let the people of New Orleans carry it. That's how the idea started to germinate.
The centerpiece is the Phoenix puppet. Are there still other new puppets that will be in the parade?
Other artists are making things that they're bringing, but the only thing we've made this year are these lanterns that are of the city of New Orleans. They're beautiful. They're everything from the famous Preservation Hall-type building to the projects. It isn't just about the touristic New Orleans.
How long before the parade do you start planning it?
There are two levels of planning: the planning for the puppets – what we're going to build and commission from artists -- and then organizing the parade itself, and everything else that goes into it. That I work on year-round.
What elements of the process take a full year?
There's always something. I don't think a day goes by that there isn't something I have to do for it. The most intense part starts in July when we open our workshop and begin to build. Sometimes we start earlier, like in 2000 we built this huge piece so we started in June.
So what's going on earlier in the year before you start with the creative building?
Well after the parade, I'm usually pretty exhausted, but then I have to thank everybody. That takes a while because there are so many people to thank. And then I begin organizing all the mailing lists and how to stay in touch with everybody. Then there are always people who are interested in the next year and want to meet early, so we do that. And we have to plan television, and it just sort of wends along like that. The only time I would say that it gets a little bit nothing is January.
The only requirement to march in the parade is that one has to be in costume. Have you ever had to turn anybody away for something inappropriate or is everything OK?
We've never turned anybody away, partly because everything is OK, but I've also found this extraordinary thing about New Yorkers: They don't really do the "bad" thing. For example, the year of the OJ Simpson trial, that had the potential to really turn up some nasty stuff. In the Boston area, they put curfews on Halloween and they basically said that if anybody came in an OJ killing costume, they'd be thrown in jail. So I watched to see what would happen here, and it was really interesting: no one did it. They did the car chase, but they didn't do OJ.
The year that Princess Diana died, that was an interesting one. I thought we'd see a bunch of Dianas, but instead, no Dianas except for one. It was a guy, and he was dressed impeccably in an outfit that she was very well-known for -- this light blue outfit she wore. What he did was so amazing. Instead of going along the sidelines [playing it up], he tried to fit in. He kept going into the crowd and just being one of the people. It was such a tribute. I mean, everybody who noticed him, I think, really was moved by what he was doing because he tried to just fit in, just be one of the people. But he looked just like her and was carrying a bouquet. It was really beautiful. That's the kind of thing I'm used to from New Yorkers. You rarely see them doing something that would really offend. I mean there have been things that are edgy -- real edgy -- but I can't imagine, unless someone was threatening to hurt someone, that anybody would be asked to leave.
That of course plays against the ages-old stereotype of New Yorkers being crude and rude.
Not in the Halloween Parade. It's really interesting because, you see, the Halloween Parade on some level really inspires people to creativity. When you begin to become creative and you become absorbed in that head, I think there's a way in which it takes away that violence or crudeness, because you start to get into yourself. Because what costume is really about is exploring a part of yourself. So you can find some pretty difficult parts of yourself, but it's still yourself.
Do you have any other all-time favorite costumes or moments?
This is always a hard question; I always get asked this question when I'm most in it. I always go back to the same things partly because it's easy for me to always think of the same things. There are just so many amazing moments.
Last year was so funny. At the end of the parade, everything was pretty much over, the TV camera lights were off and things were starting to wind down. This TV crew came up to me and they had lights and cameras and they did this whole interview with me. As I was talking to them I noticed that the two girls who were talking to me both had the exact same kind of hair, and I thought that was kind of funny. I must have just looked at them enough to notice that, and they noticed I noticed it and they burst out laughing because they weren't a real television crew. That was they're costume. They had been interviewing people all night.
Do you get to enjoy the parade? Do you walk in it yourself like everybody else or are you monitoring things from somewhere?
I lead the parade, and I take it to a certain point. I have responsibilities dealing with television and sponsors or special people who are in the parade. I tend to watch it now, though. I used to run it; I used to be very involved with ending it. But I realized a number of years ago that after all the hard work that I do, I really have to enjoy the parade. I can't feel like I missed it because if I don't get the parade, it's hardly worth it. So I lead it for a while and then I step out and watch it.
It seems like after a lot of planning, a lot of people wait south of Spring St. and then it starts to roll on its own and just happen.
Yeah, that's when it starts to roll. I mean, there's this perception that the Halloween Parade just happens, and that isn't accurate at all. You don't have a couple million people show-up in New York City and nobody organized it. It's not like that. But at the same time, the thing I love about the parade is that I kind of midwife it into being, but what I love is that everybody there is making their own parade.
If you're seeing the parade from behind your devil mask or your angel costume -- whatever it is you are -- you're having your own totally unique experience of the event. And me? I'm invisible. I always feel that it starts in my hands, but by the night of the parade, I've completely given it away. It's no longer mine. We make the best plans possible, but at 7 PM on Halloween night, it happens. It has a life of its own.
For those people who don't want to get all dressed up or don't want to march for some reason, do you think there's an ideal place to watch from along Sixth Avenue?
Well first, I would never just watch it; I'd be in it. I mean, that's the best place to see it because you're out of the crowd. But if I was going to watch it, I would try to get near the television spots because I know I would get to see performances there, and it's brightly lit.
Where are the television set-ups?
Tenth Street and Sixth Ave. And there's also another broadcast which is actually a more beautiful location and better lighting on 19th and Sixth [for an HD pay-per-view broadcast]. We just had it last year, and that's a great place to watch because there's much more room, it's less crowded and the lights are beautiful.
You're doing a special benefit after-party – separate from the "Official Night Club After-Party" at Webster Hall – to help raise money for the Musicians and Mardi Gras Artists of New Orleans, taking place at Satalla. Can you talk a bit about this?
The benefit is featuring The Re-birth Brass Band, which is the most famous band out of New Orleans, and they're incredible. They'll cap off the night. Before it will be The Hungry March Band, which is my favorite band in New York these days. They do a lot of street performances, and they're a big band much in the style of the old Bread & Puppet band. And then The Sugar Tone [Brass Band] will be there, and they're a good Dixieland band from New York. They'll open. And then in between there are going to be some burlesque performers, kind of French Quartery feel including the Pontani Sisters who have a big New York following. I think there will still be some tickets available that night.
Can there be better recognition for the parade than being included in the book "100 Things to Do Before You Die"?
Is there anything better than that? I think everybody at one point or another whether it's the Halloween Parade or anywhere else, should have the chance to perform in a transformative march of some kind, outside – to march for a while to the point where you really change who you are. Where you're something different than you are everyday because I think it expands the mind and the soul and the heart, so I think that's a good thing to do. In New York City, this is one way to do it, and that's a really great thing. But I don't think, "Oh aren't we cool." I don't think like that.
I just feel blessed that I've been able, as a Celebration Artist, to do this work for the city that I love. There's a way that we knit together this huge variety of people, not by making them all be the same or behave in any particular way, but able to let them reach deeply into whatever imaginative core they have, and to provide a safe place for people to come out to do that, whatever that is. In other words for the whole city to come out and do it together.
A few things to know about Jeanne:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
We've always made the Halloween Parade out of recycled and found material. So we've gotten lots of stuff off the street. My friend Basil Twist who built this huge giant spider on the Jefferson Market Library that everybody knows -- it's an icon of the parade. It was the first year he ever worked with the parade – I think that's going back more than ten years now -- and Basil wanted to do something in the community, so I told him to do this project building this giant puppet with a school down in the Village. He went to the school and told them they weren't going to spend any money on this puppet -- they'd find everything on the street. So they went out on the street, and they walked, and they walked, and they walked, and they didn't find anything. He was starting to panic, [but on their way back] they came up from the left of the school, and just about 25 feet from the entrance, they found this huge pile of Styrofoam that somebody had thrown away. That spider is made of Styrofoam and saran wrap that he found on the street in the city, about 25 feet from thinking he was going to have to kill himself.
Personality problem solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive? Has New York become a part of you?
Probably a little of both. I think it's hysterical that I've been so obsessive about this event for so many years. New York has allowed me extraordinary freedom to do my work and to be creative. I'm glad I live here rather than anywhere else.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
Something that always stays in my mind has been – just thinking about it in terms of the parade – that moment when I get halfway down the route, and I look back for the first time. What I always looked back and saw was the World Trade Center at the end of the street with this ancient image of Halloween, the ancient hags who lead the parade and clear the energies of the street so that the people of New York can pass freely and safely in whatever way they want to. They sweep away the car energies and all the negative energies of the place and clear it. That moment of turning around and seeing this really ancient rite happening in this ultra-modern environment. And then to have that taken away. To not be able to see that, but to see that the parade, which started the same year the World Trade Center was built, endures.
If you'd like to march in tonight's 32nd Annual New York's Village Halloween Parade, all you need is a costume. Then just show-up at the staging area on 6th Ave. south of Spring St. (walk up from Canal) between 6:30 PM and 8 PM. The parade starts promptly at 7 PM and ends at approximately 10:30 PM. The route goes straight up 6th Ave., finishing at 21st Street. You can watch from anywhere along the route or on NY1 which will televise the parade live from 8-9:30 PM. For more information about the parade or the special benefit party at Satalla, visit the web site at www.halloween-nyc.com.
-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei