As the Artistic Producing Director of the Village Halloween Parade, Jeanne Fleming is at the heart of planning ”New York’s Carnival.” From planning the budget, to working with sponsors, to negotiating with the NYPD, Fleming wears many hats. The Parade has been a New York tradition since its start in 1974, and has grown exponentially in size ever since. It was recently named “The Best Event in the World” for October 31 by Festivals International. The Eye spoke to Fleming about inclusiveness, the various New York characters, and the parade after 9/11. (This year’s parade was canceled on Oct. 30 due to Hurricane Sandy.)
In 1989 you told The New Yorker: “Television people say they’ll make us a national broadcast if we’ll just cut out the weirdos and transvestites. But this event will never sell out so long as I’m alive.”
Yup, that’s true! The Halloween Parade started as an arts event. It didn’t start as these events and festivals that really have to do with promotion and selling products, or something like that. It started in this very quirky way, at a time when people were doing Happenings and street theater. So, it was never thought of as a commercial event. It was always thought of a creative, imaginative event, that people could be a part of. And it continues to be that way.
But in order to exist in the world that we live in today, you have to have money. You have to pay for things that you didn’t have to pay for in the past. But the spirit of the event is still the same. It’s really about reaching out to the city and saying, “We love all of you, not just some of you.” We love everybody. And we say, come together, but don’t come together as you are every single day of your life. Come together as you imagine yourself to be, come together as you would like to be. They dance. They costume themselves. It’s all creativity. It’s not about money.
The Halloween Parade has been called “New York’s Carnival.” Would you agree with that?
I really would. But one of the things that is different from the Carnival, as we know Carnival in Trinidad or Europe, is that the Parade is uniquely American. Every year, the people who win Carnival in Brazil come to New York, and one of the things that they get to do is talk to me. What I find so interesting is that in their culture, Carnival is about a mass dance. You join with a group and dance with a crowd of 2,000 people. But everybody is wearing the same costume. It’s about the individual coming in to the mass. So you create this beautiful, masked picture of color and movement.
The Halloween Parade is so American because it is all about the individual. That’s what blows their minds. You could be watching the Carnival in Trinidad or Brazil and for fifteen minutes, you’d see the same colors and costumes passing by, with lots of people dancing. In New York, the image changes every ten seconds. First you see a banana, then you see a guy covered in balloons, you see a guy dressed as Batman, and then you see a guy who is dressed in an elaborate costume as the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s so American; the sense of the individual’s imagination, instead of the group’s. Both of them are a kind of trance-dance.
After 9/11, the Parade took on more of a social awareness aspect. Could you explain that?
After 9/11, we weren’t even sure if we could do the parade, because it was only seven weeks later. It was pretty scary in the city. Everybody was really freaked out. We didn’t know if they would let us do the parade. We had no money. When those buildings went down, the phones stopped ringing. We wondered what we could do to help out; we realized that part of our role was taking care of the soul of the city. We realized we had to do the soul work. And Giuliani said it, doing the parade will show the world that U.S. isn’t dying, that we’re still full of life. It was the perfect message. We knew we had to do the parade, and we did it. It was fantastic. When we started, you could literally hear a pin drop. And then the bands started to play “New York, New York.” And we started to walk like a funeral, really slowly. And as we walked along, it picked up and started to play faster and faster. It was just incredible. It was like everyone had been holding their breath and they suddenly let it out. It was amazing. You could hear it. You could feel it.