Ralph Lee directed the first Village Halloween Parade in 1974 in conjunction with the Theater for the New City. This mile-long theatrical production of masked performers, giant puppets, musicians, and other flamboyant characters took on a life of its own. 45 years later, the parade has become an annual extravaganza with a reported 60,000 participants and 2 million spectators.
From the age of seven, Ralph Lee knew he wanted to work in the theater. At age eleven he created his own puppet company. At seventeen he became a set designer in summer stock, and at Amherst he acted in and directed plays.
In 1959 Ralph moved to NYC planning to be an actor, and was cast in a production of Camus’ Caligula. While it quickly closed, the show exposed him to professional theater costumes. Enthralled, he secured a job in the costume department. Working on a production of the Tempest, he was taught mask making by “a wonderful guy” named Ray Diffen. He continued to get some acting work, but not a lot. He found that he could be paid to make masks at night and seek acting work during the day.
Lee worked at Open Theatre with experimental theater director Joe Chaikin for about six years, where he began building and accumulating giant puppets. He felt they should do something unconventional, roaming and performing scenes in different locations while the audience followed them. He says, “The first time I saw my figures outdoors instead of inside, they seemed to take on a vibrant life and I got excited about that...They are a little more comfortable outdoors.” When asked about that initial moment of excitement, he says, “a lot has to do with them having enough space to breathe, not bound by walls, inside it seems like they are banging against the walls and they are creatures who are more likely to inhabit outdoors than indoors and then they make the people draw in together, these giant creatures.”
How did he and his creatures give birth to the now gargantuan Halloween Parade? In 1974 George Bartineff from Theatre for the New City (also a 2018 Village Awardee) kept “bugging him about getting his characters together for Halloween.” In its inception, the Halloween parade zigzagged through the Village and would, according to Ralph, “travel for awhile and then the characters would have a small performance in the courtyard or the steps of a building, and the parade would stop and witness this thing.”
Ralph Lee had a considerable arsenal of masks and giant puppets that he had originally created for theatrical productions. These included a 7’ tall lobster and a two-headed pig beast for plays of Sam Shepard, an oversized bag lady, a 10’ lizard, and a giant golden Egyptian lion, first created for a play at LaMama ETC. The first Village Halloween Parade incorporated over one hundred of Ralph’s masks and giant puppets.
The parade started in the courtyard of Westbeth Artist Housing, where Ralph still lives. It traveled through the narrow streets of Greenwich Village from West Street to Washington Square. It halted occasionally for a band of witches to perform a song and dance number, a giant floozy and dandy to engage in a waltz, or a battle between demons and angels on the steps of the Washington Square Methodist Church. This curious spectacle took local residents by surprise. Many more were drawn to this unheard-of liberation of the streets and joined in the festivities. Two policemen on motor scooters sheparded the 300 participants.
Ralph Lee and the Theatre for the New City decided to do the parade again in 1975. The parade began to soar, increasing in size each year as more people joined in. A ragtag Vaudeville show was added to create a coda for the event in Washington Square. A giant smoldering hellmouth was constructed on a small stage. Performers appeared out of the mouth, including a fat devil MC, tap dancing skeletons, jugglers, and pumpkin vines doing the soft shoe. Ralph Lee received a special Village Voice Obie Award; calling the parade “an event of startling theatrical imagination”. The award was given “to recognize its artistic achievement and to encourage it to become an annual tradition.”
The Halloween Parade obtained its own not-for-profit status and a production staff was formed following the 1975 parade. Ralph noted, “More and more people came up with their own creations. It was exciting to see. You have the feeling that somebody worked on this creation for a long time and this is an expression of their particular imagination and there they were out on the street!”
Ralph Lee is the proud father of many characters, as well as two daughters and a son who collaborated on his bacchanalian celebrations, choreographing dance, and organizing the festival. “Once it took on a life of its own, I let it go”. That was about eleven years after its initial birth. While the current parade still includes its signature large puppets, it now includes more than 50 bands and commercial floats.