There are some people who can make great changes, come up with unique and far-reaching ideas, or create institutions that attain legendary status, yet keep a low profile themselves. By now everyone associates Halloween in Greenwich Village with the annual Village Halloween Parade, an event that draws 2 million people to the 6th Avenue corridor from Canal Street to just above 14th Street and has an even bigger broadcast and online audience of about 100 million. It was longtime Greenwich Village resident Ralph Lee who directed the parade in its infancy, and who is generally acknowledged as its founder.
Ralph is a puppeteer and mask-maker who has created some extremely unusual theatrical pieces for such diverse venues as the Bronx Zoo, the Metropolitan Opera, and Saturday Night Live (Remember the Land Shark? “Candy-gram.”). He has been artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine since 1984. But back in the early 1970s, working with colleagues from Theater for the New City, Ralph used a collection of his masks and puppets – including the 40-foot tall “Ghost of Tom” – for a casual and impromptu march that began in the courtyard at Westbeth and followed an indirect route (is there any other way in the West Village?) to Abingdon Square, and finally Washington Square. Each year the parade grew both in the number of participants and the number of spectators, and Ralph was the driving force for the first 11 years.
Last fall, Ralph presented a slideshow and lecture for GVSHP about those early years of the parade. You can see video of the program here. It was great fun to hear the stories Ralph told and to see his own personal slide images. One year, the police forgot to show up, and Ralph had to call the precinct from a pay phone!
In April, Ralph joined us at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side for their series Selected Shorts. When emcee B.D. Wong introduced Ralph as the founder of the Village Halloween Parade, the audience erupted in a thunderous applause. Ralph read to the audience from our newly-released book, Greenwich Village Stories. His contribution to the book is a wonderful passage that recalls the early days of the parade, as only someone with his unique perspective could share. You can learn more about the book, and purchase a copy here. All proceeds benefit GVSHP, and it’s a great gift for yourself or anyone who knows and loves the Village. Greenwich Village – known for years as a place of diversity, tolerance, inclusion, creativity and festivity – where else could the biggest Halloween parade in the world be?
So if you’ll be at the parade this Friday night, have fun, and say thank you to Ralph Lee for inspiring 40 years of creative puppets and masks you won’t find in any other neighborhood in the world!
And here are some images from last year’s parade: