Traditions




Halloween Mania

A Haunting We Must Go



    At noon, the summer sun is already beating down. It’s going to be a fine, hot Fourth of July. The streets of Oakland are nearly deserted; those who haven’t gotten out of town already are putting together their potato salad. For most people, the Fourth means barbecue and fireworks. But for members of the “haunting community,” it means the Halloween season has officially begun.
    If you want to create a mind-boggling, awe-inspiring Halloween display, the kind that sends shivers of delight through toddlers and grownups alike, it’s time to get busy.
    That’s why Larry Schmidt is out in the driveway of his Glenview home, constructing a stage for a marionette theater, this year’s major addition to his Halloween haunt.
For the past five years, Schmidt, a landscaper, has transformed the house he shares with Carl Linkhart into a spooky terrain that extends from the foot of his yard, up the steps to a terrace and then onto the roof. Today, he and two assistants, Dawn Chung and Mayo, are working on “Driveway Follies,” the teensy playhouse that will present an original puppet review.
    Schmidt’s attic, basement and two of the three garages in the triplex are already crammed with Halloween decor, so the theater will allow Schmidt’s creativity to run free in a less constrained way. After all, there are only so many life-sized witches, giant spiders and fantastic trees you can fit into the average Oakland crawl space. The indefatigable Schmidt and his crew will also add two new animatronics this year.
    Schmidt aims to depict “the poetry and mystery of Halloween,” he says. While there’s no gore and only mild scares planned, the puppet theater will be nice for the littlest kids, the ones who don’t quite dare ascend the stairs.
    In Schmidt’s world, any material can be transformed into magic. Sprayable insulation foam forms the fissured bark of gnarly trees; scraps of inexpensive material become a patchwork curtain for the theater. It helps to be handy. Schmidt picked up sculpture and materials skills in art school; he learned sewing from a neighbor.
Despite his degree in painting from the California College of the Arts, Schmidt has always gravitated toward the applied arts—bonsai, theatrical sets and puppetry.
    “I don’t feel like I’m using Halloween to express my individuality; I feel like Halloween uses me to express itself,” Schmidt says. He sees his creations as part of the American folk art tradition.

Scrap Magic

    Nearby, in the Dimond District, Mark Black is rummaging through his supply of scavenged materials in search of inspiration. He and Jeannie Kennedy have produced their own creep show for the past four years.
    Kennedy is a true horror freak—Stephen King is her favorite author. But the couple tones it down for the young’uns. “It’s all in fun, and the kids get such a kick out of it,” Kennedy says. The couple’s faces light up as they describe the awe their displays inspire.
    While a pair of ducks loiter around their feet, Black goes to work. A plastic hobby horse spray-painted black, a body made from a plastic garbage bag, a piece of fabric and a scavenged solar-powered lantern suddenly coalesce into a headless horseman to ride the roof. A piece of plywood with a ragged edge becomes part of the gravestone collection.
    Black is a handyman and a champion scrounger. “It’s all made out of stuff I find,” he says. “When I see something on the street, I stop and look at it and think, ‘Can I use it for Halloween?’  ” The holiday has become a year-round preoccupation, and each year has a new theme—which Kennedy refuses to reveal in advance.

Haunted Mardi Gras

    Meanwhile, the Elmwood District is abuzz with preparations for what has become one of the largest multifamily haunts in the Bay Area. What started with a single, fabulous display in the early 1990s has become a neighborhood tradition.
    Owners of the large and elegant houses pull out all the stops, and word gets passed from parent to parent, from teen to teen; since 1993, Russell Street, east of College Avenue, has been closed to traffic to accommodate hoards of all ages. Prospective homebuyers must be warned about the annual scene.
    In fact, the neighbors invite you to please stay away. Evidently, the 2,000 trick-or-treaters who showed up last year were plenty.
    Word is spreading about alternatives to this mob scene. Last year, a bus pulled up in front of the Black/Kennedy abode, disgorging a throng of peripatetic revelers. The Schmidt/Linkhart residence saw around 300 trick-or-treaters. This year, they’ll be waiting with buckets of candy. Buckets and buckets and buckets of candy.

Take Back This Night

    Halloween is a holiday that’s down on its luck. Its ancient roots as a Celtic harvest festival grew into a commemoration of All Souls Day, when the poor in England would receive cakes in return for their prayers for the dead. Trick-or-treating became popular in the early 20th century, and its heyday was in the placid Eisenhower era.
Today, the holiday seems to embody the worst fears of urban living: our dread of strangers, the terror of the streets. Whole neighborhoods go dark on this night, residents cowering behind their doors lest a stranger knocks.
    So, taking back this night for the ghosts and goblins is as much about community as it is about creativity and candy.
    Schmidt would love to see all his neighbors open their doors on Halloween, and he thinks every district should have at least one serious haunt, so that no locale gets as overwhelmed as the Elmwood District.
    He hopes his jack-o’-lanterns will shine a ray of hope into our closed hearts. His work, he says, is in part a reaction to the climate of fear. “If there’s a need for something,” he says, “I like to fill it. Maybe someone’s afraid, so I want to say, ‘Don’t be afraid. Open your door.’  ”

MAKING THE SPOOK SCENE

Home of Larry Schmidt and Carl Linkhart
3854 Greenwood Ave., Oakland (north of Interstate 580, Park Boulevard exit)
Unaccompanied grownups are encouraged to arrive after 9 p.m.

Home of Mark Black and Jeannie Kennedy
3914 Coolidge Ave., Oakland
(north of I-580, Fruitvale exit)


—By Susan Kuchinskas
—Photography by Jan Stürmann

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