Making a Spectacle

Behind the state's most famous Halloween display

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An “intricate” Jack-O-Lantern doesn’t look like a carving – it looks like a painting. Take Queen Nefertiti, for example: Her gaze is regal, her smile sly. You can see her high cheekbones, the contours of her slender neck. Every detail of her headdress and earrings is meticulously rendered, as if by brush. There’s shading and foreshortening, depth and personality. As the LED light glows within the pumpkin, the golden hue of her skin seems to breathe with life.

Queen Nefertiti debuted at last year’s Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. Now multiply this one pumpkin by 200 intricates, then add nearly 5,000 regular Jack-O-Lanterns. Remember that each pumpkin starts to decay the moment it’s gutted. Every week, artists must re-carve every last gourd, from the simplest to the most photo-realistic. To sustain the Spectacular, organizers build and rebuild the exhibit, removing and replacing, lighting and relighting, for one exhaustive month.

By November, more than 100,000 people will have walked the Jack-O-Lantern path, gazing in wonder at those glowing images etched in squash. In 147 years, the Spectacular is the biggest event ever hosted by the Roger Williams Park Zoo. Visitors have traveled around the world to see it firsthand. Media outlets like CNN and USA Today have showered the event with praise. The Spectacular is one of the most revered Halloween events in the country.

But where did it come from? And how does such a massive event come together? Even regulars may not know the spectacular story behind our state’s favorite pumpkin patch.

Carve This Way

The Spectacular requires about 20 artists who carve relentlessly throughout the four-week festival. Most of them are professionals, who have a ready portfolio of their sculptural work. Many were originally found on Craigslist. Once they join the Passion for Pumpkins talent pool, they tend to stay.

“It’s pretty much the same people,” says John. “They come back every year.”

Nearly all of the pumpkins are grown on a single farm in Connecticut. As a rule, weather can have a massive impact on the event, including the autumn harvest. In emergencies, John has traveled to Pennsylvania to purchase replacement pumpkins from Amish farmers. At a bare minimum, the show requires more than 20,000 pumpkins, which have to be quickly gutted, carved, and arranged.

Originally, the pumpkins were lit up with candles. They hit a snag, however, after a visit from the fire marshall. While the tiny flames weren’t technically a fire code violation, the marshall didn’t like their proximity to combustible wood. That year, each pumpkin was perched on aluminum foil, to prevent a conflagration.

Since then, carvers have used LED lights, both for carving and the final presentation. This has radically improved the entire process; traditional light bulbs raise the temperature inside the pumpkin and weaken the skin, while LED bulbs give off no heat, so each carving lasts longer.

Putting It Together

The Spectacular is a year-round project, usually starting in January. John comes up with a theme, which can be almost anything. Last year’s theme was “Magic”; this year’s theme is “Four Seasons,” based on John’s recent affection for Vivaldi.

“We start touching base at certain times throughout the year,” says Ron Patalano, director of operations at the Zoo. Once they know the theme, the staff starts compiling props and scenery. To enrich the environment, they’ve added an erupting volcano, a gondola full of pumpkins, and the Honeydukes sweet shop from Harry Potter, among countless other tableaux. “If John is looking for some additional support from our facilities department – additional power or better sound – we make sure we budget the time to get that worked on,” Ron adds.

Originally, the Spectacular was displayed along the “Dino Trail.” This narrow walkway was generally used for paleontology exhibits, but John urged Zoo staff to move the Spectacular to the Wetlands Trail. “It’s wider,” he says. “Much longer. The other one was narrow and caused a lot of congestion.”

The Wetlands Trail affords other benefits, as well: The route meanders past the elephants, offering a rare glimpse of pachyderms at night. Fountains on the water can be illuminated with colored lights; Jack-O-Lanterns reflect in the glassy pond. The trees form a natural corridor along the path, lending a Sleepy Hollow-like atmosphere.

In all, the Zoo requires about 70 people to run the show, from ticket sellers to security personnel. Most of them fade into the nocturnal background. “If they don’t notice us, we’re doing our job,” says Ron.

The Founder

At 73 years old, John Reckner is a folksy man with an easy smile. Before he retired, John worked as a postal worker for nearly three decades. When he was young, John studied art at a college in Cincinnati, but he doubted his prospects. “I never foresaw myself as making a career out of art,” he says.

Pumpkin-carving was an incremental obsession. During a family getaway to Bristol Falls, Vermont, John noticed some unusually large pumpkins on a local porch, and the orange skin struck him as a ripe canvas. A year later, John was walking his dog and daydreamed about meticulously crafted Jack-O-Lanterns. In theory, he could conscript others into carving with him. Together, they could arrange the carvings into thematic “skits.” They could create an entire show – and in 1988, John did just that, in his hometown of Oxford, Massachusetts.

Nowadays, “intricate” Jack-O-Lanterns are fairly common, and you can buy professional kits. You can find YouTube tutorials and learn how to craft them yourself. But at the time, neither option existed. “We kind of figured it out as we went along,” says John. “We’d make our own tools – like a wood-carving tool, somewhat. They peel the skin off the pumpkin. We don’t go in too far, maybe a quarter of an inch. The deeper you carve, the brighter the light.”

In the 30 years since, John has turned a self-taught hobby into Passion for Pumpkins, Inc., a multimedia production company with offshoots in Kentucky and Minnesota. By 2000, the Spectacular had become a major attraction in Massachusetts, drawing visitors from across the region. One of those visitors was Jim Wood, then-President of the Greater Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau. Inspired, Jim proposed the idea of bringing the Spectacular to the Roger Williams Zoo.

In 2001, the Zoo hosted its first edition of the Spectacular. The timing was peculiar; the September 11 attacks had just transpired, and the world was in flux. The show featured many skits, but John decided to add memorial artwork to commemorate the tragedy. The Zoo projected about 30,000 visitors. By November, 78,000 people had shown up.

Totally Lit

It’s an understatement to describe the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular as “popular.” The maximum capacity for a single night is 10,000 visitors, and the Zoo has reached that number. To keep crowds under control – and prevent endless queues – the Zoo uses “timed admission,” so that attendees arrive in scheduled waves.

The Zoo also hosts sensory-friendly nights, which take place an hour before the regular show. This allows people with sensitivity issues to enjoy the skits without extra lights or sounds. Typically, “sensory-friendly” experiences are associated with autism spectrum disorder, but the special event has become popular among nursing homes and anyone aversive to crowds.

If a dark zoo sounds like a great place for teenagers to sneak away for same late-night shenanigans, the staff has found otherwise.

“It’s adults, most of the time that are the trouble-makers,” says Director of Visitor Services Cheryl Vieira. “We watch a lot of people. But we never have much of a problem.”

“We have a very good security team,” says Ron. “If you looked like you were going to cause trouble, we would spot you before you go through the gate.”

The goal is to create a universal experience – tinged with the suspense of Halloween, but also an homage to autumn and the luminous power of art.

“We have three elements that come into play,” says John, in a philosophical tone. “You’ve got the illuminated artwork. You have the background music for each skit. And you just have a nice landscape. If you had this in some sterile environment, it wouldn’t work. The environment is such a big part of the show.”

Something wicked this way comes. And it looks better than ever.