By Peter Skiera
I try to post a Halloween-themed article every year around this time. This year I wanted it to be at least somewhat music-related. I was unsure how I would accomplish this until I saw a TV commercial for the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island.
The Roger Williams Park. Zoo is the 3rd oldest Zoo in the country, having opened to the public in 1872. They have held this event for the last ten years or so. Last year it was reduced to drive-through only because of the pandemic. This year it was open to the walking public again and the theme was music. Perfect. I am so there!
Let me set the table for you. The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular features 5,000 professionally-carved pumpkins lit from the inside with LED lights. The carvings are done by a company called Passion for Pumpkins who have been perfecting their unique craft for 25 years. Over a million people have seen their work at shows throughout New England. The Library of Congress proclaimed their events a “local legacy”.
How does Passion create such detailed carvings? Their carvers are not just carvers, they are full-fledged artists. The process starts off as a thin sketch drawn on a pumpkin. The carving is done by hand with different instruments cutting at different depths. Certain areas are filled in with a black Sharpie which ends up creating an almost a 3-D effect when the pumpkin is back lighted. To my eyes it looks like the pumpkins got tattoos. Although this is a Halloween event, the designs are not intended to scare the bejesus out of you. Rather, Passion puts on family-friendly events they consider to be on the same level as outdoor art exhibits.
I got in touch with Mike Finizza, owner of Passion for Pumpkins, via email to find out more about this fascinating fruit art.
PS: Did you pick the event’s music theme or did the Zoo do that?
MF: The name of our company is Passion for Pumpkins Inc. and we have 3 events located in Providence, RI, Louisville, KY, and Minneapolis, MN. We design and produces pretty much everything that goes into the show from a performance perspective….Themes, Pumpkin designs and music.
PS: I noticed more than a few pumpkins had some kind of plastic or fabric inside placed over the carved openings. What was that for?
MF: That is a fiber paper we use to make the pumpkins glow a little better. Many years ago, we used candles for all the pumpkins, but that became a fire hazard so we went to Christmas lights and they can get too bright so the paper makes the light filtered and glows better.
PS: I know each design is different, but how long does it take to create a design on a pumpkin? For example, Prince and John Lennon.
MF: Those typically take artists 4 to 6 hours each depending on size and amount of carving.
PS: I’m curious why a purple light was not used inside the Prince pumpkin. Do colored lights not work as well?
MF: Yes, they don’t work well in the artwork pumpkins.
PS: Was there a reason why some of the “standard” pumpkins did not have a flickering light inside to simulate a candle?
MF: We have used flickering led lights in the past, but durability seems to be an issue with them.
PS: Roughly how long does a carved pumpkin last until you have to touch it up or replace it?
MF: Typically, they last 7 days depending on weather factors. Sometimes a little less or a little more. So, we replace them 4 to 5 times per year.
PS: Are all 5,000 pumpkins real? I heard one spectator comment that some could not be real because the tree branches could not support that kind of weight.
MF: Years ago, we used organic pumpkins in the tree[s], but branches fell with heavy winds and it became too dangerous.
PS: Any other comments to share?
MF: We have been doing the event for over 30 years dating back to the original show in Oxford, Massachusetts.
This event is called the “Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular”, which made me curious where the term Jack-O-Lantern originated from. It turns out it dates back to an old Irish folk tale. There are different versions of the tale, but the gist of it is, a guy nicknamed “Stingy Jack” invited the Devil to drink with him. Sounds like something an Irishman would do. Since Jack was stingy, he managed to trick the Devil into paying the bar tab. Needless to say, the Devil was none too pleased. Many years later when Jack died, the Devil exacted his revenge by preventing Jack from transitioning to the afterlife. Jack was doomed to forever walk the earth at night with a single burning piece of coal to light his way. He hollowed out a white turnip to put the coal in to use as a lantern. From then on, his new nickname was “Jack of the Lantern”, which became Jack-O-Lantern. People began carving turnips and eventually pumpkins and placing candles in them to ward off Jack’s and other ghostly spirits.
The Eyes Have It
Now that I have dispensed with the educational part of the program, let me return to the main event. Although I lived the first half of my life in R.I., I had never been to the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular before. The prospect of a long night drive was concerning to me. I had surgery on both of my eyes three decades ago that left me sensitive to bright light, so driving in the dark is not exactly my favorite activity. Street lights, headlights, and brake lights look like starbursts and sometimes feel like daggers…What would be an ordinary evening drive for you is sensory overload for me. Nevertheless, I hopped in my car and drove 75 minutes from my MA home down to the Zoo hoping it would be worth it.
Driving into the Zoo’s entrance was the complete opposite of my highway experience. There was zero signage directing people to the event and the roads were poorly lit, with some stretches having no lighting at all. At one point, traveling at about 20 MPH, I hit a massive speed bump I never saw coming. I thought it was going to rip apart my nine year old car.
Having survived the speed bump from hell, I was then presented with colorful Halloween lights on the water designed for the Zoo’s popular swan boats. However, I was anxious to embark on my pumpkin extravaganza, so I bypassed the illuminated swans and headed straight for the Zoo’s parking lot, all the while on the lookout for more industrial speed bumps.
With a clear sky and a cool temperature, the conditions were perfect for pumpkin gazing. Before I started down the long and winding dark path, I pulled out my smartphone to prepare to get some snaps. A friendly Spectacular staff member advised me I would get better results if I turned the flash off. My camera does not usually perform well without the flash but I did as he suggested and, for the most part, his advice proved sound.
Getting pictures was not a problem, nor was navigating the path. There were a lot of people but everyone was spaced out so it did not feel congested. Spectators included children, teens, adults, and seniors.
The music theme began with ragtime and a pumpkin with the likeness of Scott Joplin carved into it. Ragtime music blared through a nearby loudspeaker. Walking at a leisurely pace, it took me nearly an hour to complete the tour. Some of the other musical time periods I would pass through included World War II, Christmas (complete with imitation falling snow), the 60’s, the 80’s, and the 90’s, all with appropriately carved pumpkins and music.
While in the 1990’s section I discovered a new song I liked playing over the loudspeaker. I launched the Shazam app on my smartphone and found out it was Don’t Laugh by Winx. The song was a rave anthem from the 90s and the creepy laughing fit right in amongst the grinning pumpkins. I just wished I was in on their joke.
Everywhere I turned I was surrounded by pumpkins…big ones, little ones, pumpkins to the left of me, pumpkins to the right, even pumpkins hanging from the trees! I had never seen so many illuminated carved pumpkins before. It was stunning, and unlike my nighttime driving experience, my eyes happily soaked it up.
On a personal note, I love fog machines and I wish Passion for Pumpkins had strategically deployed a few of them. It would have added a spooky touch, but besides that, they are just cool, and this is the only time of year to see them in action.
The Fab Four Pumpkins
Being the big Beatles fan I am, I especially appreciated the individual John, Paul, George, and Ringo-carved pumpkins, although Ringo’s face was represented as a cartoon character which was not very flattering. There was even a pumpkin carved with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s likeness. John Lennon referred to him as “the giggling guru.”
There were occasional fun deviations from the music theme, like sci-fi. And just to remind everyone they were at a Zoo, at one point I spied an elephant enjoying a bale of hay suspended from a rope (the hay, not the elephant), and a humongous turtle in its pen keeping warm under a heat lamp.
Back To The 60’s
My favorite pumpkin time period was the 1960’s. Gerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan’s faces were all expertly pumpkin-fied.
“Everywhere I turned I was surrounded by pumpkins…big ones, little ones, pumpkins to the left of me, pumpkins to the right, even pumpkins hanging from the trees!”
Making my way further down the path, there was a tastefully carved Prince pumpkin. I took a picture of it but it was one of several that inexplicably turned into a solid green block. So much for state-of-the-art smartphone camera technology. I was surprised Passion for Pumpkins did not use a purple-colored Sharpie instead of black for this carving, but as with a purple light, perhaps colored Sharpies do not translate well on lighted pumpkins.
Not every pumpkin was stuck in the past. As I neared the end of the trail, there were a gaggle of pumpkins featuring Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and others, though no Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, or Justin Bieber. I would have found a Miley Cyrus pumpkin very interesting. They would have to expose a lot of flesh for that one. Pumpkin flesh.
The biggest omission in my opinion…Elvis was not in the building…no Elvis pumpkin anywhere I could see, unless it was in the back enjoying a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. I realize every music legend could not be represented, and I am not a big Elvis fan, but a music theme is just not complete without The King. Sorry, Mama.
I must say, I thought the final pumpkin on display was a curious choice…an Apple on a pumpkin. Steve Jobs was not a music legend, but I guess since he pioneered digital music downloads and developed the most popular portable music player in the world, it was appropriate.
Was it worth taking my life into my own hands to make the round trip night time drive? You betcha! It was wicked good as we say here in MA. It was amazing to see so many illuminated pumpkins and such intricate carvings. I have a hard enough time just cutting two eyes, a nose, and a mouth on my pumpkin. If you are in the area, the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular is a must-see. Just watch out for those pesky speed bumps.
The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I. runs through 10/31 rain or (moon) shine. Similar events are being held at Iroquois Park in Kentucky and the Minnesota Zoo.
Trivia: According to syfy.com, dressing up in Halloween costumes dates back 2,000 years.“Marking the start of winter, the traditional British and Irish Celtic calendar began on November 1, so the pagan festival of Samhain was celebrated on October 31, marking the time in which the barrier between living and dead is at its weakest. The souls of the dead, spirits, and fairies can walk among the living causing all kinds of mischief and danger. Costumes were worn to disguise and protect from those spirits wishing to do harm. A custom of dressing up (known as ‘guising) and going from house to house performing short scenes in exchange for food or drink was part of the festivities. This harvest collection was seen as an offering to the souls wandering the land, which would then translate into good fortune. If a person could impersonate a supernatural being, it would ensure they could not be seen by the spirits…”
You can see more of my pumpkin pictures on my newly minted Recommended Stations Instagram page.
Halloween Internet Radio
My annual Halloween post would not be complete without a few select Halloween Internet radio station and album suggestions to get you in the “spirit” of the season.
- HHRN (HorrowAndHalloweenRadio), USA (128 kbps/MP3)
This station plays Halloween music, scary old time radio dramas, and non-Halloween songs with Halloween-related titles. They also slip in fun, vintage B movie trailer clips now and again. Their logo looks suspiciously like the pumpkin mask in the horror film Halloween III.
2. Witches Radio, France (320 kbps/MP3)
Playing New Age and meditative music and ambient sounds, this station is only for good witches. As the station’s description says, “Let yourself be enchanted by the world of Witch Music- Music for Witches. Witches Radio is a digital radio station that invites you to open the doors to a unique musical experience indeed.” Personally, I love the station IDs spoken by a woman in French. She sounds like a Witch I would like to meet.
3. Sorcerer Radio – Seasons, FL (USA only), (128 kbps/MP3)
This station’s format changes based on the current holiday. Interesting. But that is not the half of it. It plays only Disney Halloween music. I did not know there was such a thing but apparently there is. Examples? Out There from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Witch Doctor by The Chipmunks, Grim Grinning Ghosts by Barenaked Ladies, the theme from the film Halloween (not sure what that has to do with Disney), The Nightmare Before Christmas (Main Title), and the 23 minute commentary and scary sound effects from Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride. Since it is Disney, it makes sense that Sorcerer Radio streams out of Orlando, Florida.
4. SomaFM Doomed (Special), CA (128 kbps/MP3)
This is another Internet station that morphs to fit the holiday at hand. “Doomed” has been away for a year, but now it is back again for Halloween. It is currently streaming “Dark industrial/ambient music for tortured souls”, according to SomaFM’s website. I did not understand a single thing I heard when I tuned in. In mid-November the station changes to “Department Store Christmas”, which sounds even more horrific.
Before I leave you, here are five Halloween album suggestions:
- Real Gone Music
My good friends Gordon and Gabby over at Real Gone have rolled out numerous Halloween soundtracks on fun colored vinyl just in time for Halloween. Some of these include Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Mad Doctor of Blood Island, Demon Knight, Groovie Goolies, and The Munsters (which actually is not The Munsters singing). I’m including links at the end of this article for the titles in my list.
Trivia: The Wrecking Crew, a group of Los Angeles session musicians, performed the songs on The Munsters LP in 1964. The largely unknown group had been used by Producer Phil Spector and they backed artists like Sonny & Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, and Frank Sinatra. They also played the instruments on the first two Monkees records.
2. Munster, Go Home Soundtrack, La-La Land Records, LLLC1539
You have heard of Rom-Coms. I would call The Munsters TV show a Monster-Com. I used to watch the show when I was a kid and sometimes still tune in on cable channel Cozi TV. I had hoped there would have been a special reunion episode with the original cast and Fred Gwynne before he died, but that was not to be. Gwynne played the loveable Herman Munster on the black and white TV series.
The Creators of Leave It to Beaver came up with the idea of an all-American monster family. After airing for two years on CBS, the series was cancelled due to falling ratings (likely due to ABC TV’s Batman). The studio was keen on milking the characters and cultivating a new overseas audience, so Munster, Go Home was developed. It featured the original TV cast sans Pat Priest (“Marilyn”) who was replaced by Debbie Watson. The film presented the cast in glorious Technicolor for the first time and with no laugh track.
Perhaps the most memorable scenes in the film involved a drag race with Herman Munster driving the DRAGULA, a custom dragster built with a real coffin, Ford Mustang V-8 motor, and two four-barrel carburetors.
This previously unreleased CD soundtrack from 2020 includes the film score by Jack Marshall who also scored the music for the TV series. Marshall was a professional guitarist and former Capitol Records Producer. Unlike the TV show, for the big screen soundtrack, Marshall used an orchestra and recorded the music in two channel stereo. With 20 tracks plus 3 bonus tracks, the CD clocks in at nearly an hour, and the sound quality from this 1966 recording is excellent thanks to the high-resolution transfer. The CD comes with an extensive 23-page booklet, but a magnifying glass should have also been included to read the small type.
Surprisingly, Marshall did not perform the original TV theme music for the soundtrack. There are variations on the theme throughout all of the music, but the closest we get to the actual theme is the track Meet The Munsters, which is a slow version of the theme performed on a harpsicord.
This title is limited to 3,000 pressings so get yours before they disappear like a ghost on Halloween.
Trivia: Musician, Movie Director, and major Munster’s fan, Rob Zombie, is currently directing a Munsters movie in Budapest. No formal release date has been set.
3. Various artists: 18 Classic Blues Songs, Volume 6, Nightmare, Blues Images BIM-106
This CD is a collection of rare vintage blues songs mostly from the 1920s taken from their original 78 RPM records. Three songs have a Halloween theme…Nightmare, Graveyard Dream Blues, and Death May Be Your Christmas Present.
The real reason to get this collection is because it includes Alcohol and Jake Blues by Tommy Johnson which is so rare it is scary. John Tefteller bought the Paramount record on eBay for $37,100 in 2013. There are only two known copies in existence and Tefteller owns the other one. He started Blues Images and sells calendars that feature rare blues-related photographs that come with a different blues CD every year, but you can buy just the CDs if you do not need the calendar.
Trivia: According to his brother, Tommy Johnson claimed to have sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange for being able to master the guitar.
4. Buck Owens and The Buckaroos, It’s A Monster’s Holiday, Sundazed
Buck Owens was a country music singer and guitarist, but I will always remember him as the co-host of the long running Hee Haw TV show.
Owens never recorded a Halloween album, though he did record a Halloween song. It’s A Monster’s Holiday LP was released in 1974 and is the only track on the record with a Halloween theme. The novelty song became a country music hit and the entire album was recently reissued (the first-ever reissue of this title) by Sundazed on “ghastly green” vinyl. Monster Mash it is not, but the song is still fun: “Frankenstein was the first in line / And the Wolfman came up next / Dracula was a doing his stuff / Breathing down my neck / Jump back, make tracks, here comes the Hunchback / Better get out of his way / Fee fee fi fi fo fo fum / It was a Monster’s Holiday.” Great stuff.
Trivia: It’s A Monster’s Holiday LP made the top 10 country chart in 1974 and the single peaked at #6.
5. Young Frankenstein, Original London Cast Recording, Notefornote Entertainment
I have seen Young Frankenstein more times than I can count, and I also saw the Broadway production. It was not as enjoyable as the film, but it was still fun. The original London cast recording was released a few months ago and the film soundtrack can still be had as well.
Trivia: For the Young Frankenstein film, Director Mel Brooks tracked down the electrical equipment used in the original Frankenstein movie of 1931 and rented it for use in Young Frankenstein in 1974.
6. Halloween Kills Soundtrack, Sacred Bones Records
Just released in time for the season is the soundtrack to the new film Halloween Kills, a sequel to last year’s excellent Halloween. Sacred Bones’ limited edition versions on molten and flame flicker colored vinyl as well as their “art edition” quickly sold out. However, the orange and “charred pumpkin” colored vinyl pressings can still be had. They also offer the soundtrack on CD and digital download. Why you can even buy it on cassette tape, just like Michael Myers used to listen to on his boombox.
6. William Shatner: I Put A Spell On You, Cleopatra Records
I love Bill Shatner and I am happy for him that he now has the distinct honor of being the oldest person who has been in space thanks to Blue Origin. I was thrilled to meet him in person a few years ago at a R.I. ComicCon. He autographed a photo to me, signing it “Get a life.” No, I was not dressed in a Star Trek uniform.
Blues is Captain Kirk’s most recent recorded offering recorded in 2020. It is not a Halloween album, but Shatner does a hilarious version of I Put A Spell On You worthy of inclusion on Rhino Records’ Golden Throat series.
Trivia: Shatner’s first record album was The Transformed Man released in 1968 while he was still starring the Star Trek TV series. It has gone on to become a cult classic.
And on that note, have a safe and fun Halloween.
Buck Owens: It’s A Monster’s Holiday LP