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Decades of Spooky Splendor: Celebrating the Village Halloween Parade

Since 1973, New York City has hosted one of the most extravagant and enchanting Halloween celebrations in the world: the Village Halloween Parade. Its beginnings in the early 1970s were quite humble compared to todays internationally renowned affair, starting as an informal gathering of friends and family brought together by Westbeth Artists Community resident and puppeteer Ralph Lee (learn more details about that in Ralph’s amazing oral history with Village Preservation).  With paper-mâché puppets, the group of Lee’s children and their friends paraded through the streets. The event grew each year, and by 1976 it had become its own non-profit dedicated to producing a formal parade.

Ralph Lee with puppets for the parade in 1979

Today the parade is one of the largest Halloween parades in the world, with over 50,000 participants marching and 2 million people lining the streets to watch. Westbeth remained the starting point for the parade, which ended in Washington Square Park, until the 1980s, by which time the crowds had grown too large and the winding side streets of the West Village could no longer contain them. The official route now takes the parade up Sixth Avenue from Spring Street to 16th Street.

Village Halloween Parade in the 1980s

Hand-made paper-mâché puppets have evolved into giant puppets operated by hundreds of volunteers, dozens of floats, and 50 marching bands. The famous Jefferson Market Library Tower spider joined the parade in 1977. The current iteration of the spider, designed and animated by Basil Twist, made its debut in 1999.

Village Halloween Parade in the 1980s

In its lifetime the parade has won an Obie Award and been recognized as a cultural treasure by the several mayors of New York, the Municipal Art Society, and Citylore. Since 1985, Jeanne Fleming has been the Artistic and Producing Director for the parade, helping it achieve its iconic status. In addition to the parade, Fleming worked with the mayor’s office to declare in 1994 the week of October 24-31 to be Halloweek, with other Halloween-themed events across the city, and instituting safe trick-or-treating zones for children. The parade has now become such an integral part of the city’s fabric and a cultural force in its own right, it has even become the subject of numerous scholarly studies, from examining the parade in relation to its urban environment, to its continued importance to the city’s queer community.

The famous Jefferson Market Library Tower spider during the parade

Over the years, the parade has weathered various challenges, from financial struggles to the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Hurricane Sandy, and COVID-19. But its spirit has remained unbroken. Its longevity is a testament to the dedication of the volunteers, artists, and supporters who have kept this cherished tradition alive.

The Halloween spider puppet as seen during a Village Preservation members’ tour of Jefferson Market Library Tower

At its heart, the Village Halloween Parade is all about community. The event provides a platform for individuals and groups to express themselves, share their artistic talents, and connect with their neighbors. It is the Greenwich Village roots of the parade that has allowed it to retain its community focus even as the parade has transformed from a humble local event into an iconic New York City tradition.

The Village Halloween Parade in 2019

Looking ahead, the Village Halloween Parade shows no signs of slowing down. The event continues to be a dynamic and evolving celebration of art, culture, and community. With each passing year, it attracts new participants and spectators, ensuring that it remains a vital part of New York City’s Halloween traditions.

Want more Village Halloween parade history? Check out Village Halloween Parade founder Ralph Lee’s first-person accounting of the event’s beginnings in his Village Preservation oral history, video of our program with Ralph Lee and other Westbeth leaders discussing the arts complex’s early days and the parade, Ralph Lee receiving a Village Award from Village Preservation in 2018, our tour of Ralph’s puppet-making studio, and our tribute to Ralph when he passed earlier this year.

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