Since it started 11 years ago, the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze has become a beloved Halloween tradition in Westchester. This year, the event, which is put together by Historic Hudson Valley, is bigger than ever—there are more than 7,000 jack-o’-lanterns and 30 nights to attend between October 2 and November 15.
The creative vision behind the Blaze comes from the event’s creative director, Michael Natiello, who has been working on the Blaze since its start. We caught up with Natiello and Rob Schweitzer, Historic Hudson Valley’s director of marketing and public relations, to discuss how the event comes together each year and to find out what’s new for 2015.
WM: I’m curious about your background, Michael. How do you become creative director of such an event? It’s not exactly a typical job.
Michael Natiello: Nowadays it’s a little more commonplace to have larger Halloween events that require someone overseeing the creative process. No, I didn’t go to school for pumpkin carving or even event planning, for that matter. I went to school for illustration and painting. Out of school, I wanted to be a historical illustrator. I wanted to do National Geographic pictures and things for books and what not. So I took a job with Historic Hudson Valley as a tour guide or craft demonstrator in the hopes of learning more about costuming. About 12 years ago, we decided to explore the idea of doing a special event based around the idea of Halloween and the jack-o’-lantern. Knowing that I had an art background, the organization asked me to throw out some ideas for an installation that involved over 3000 jack-o’-lanterns at the time. I think that was our goal. And now were up to over 7,000 jack-o’-lanterns.
WM: Wow, that’s a lot! So, what specifically do you do as creative director?
Natiello: Basically, you could say I oversee the whole creative process. That entails designing the installations, creating patterns for the carvings.
Schweitzer: Michael provides the vision. That’s how I would characterize it.
Natiello: We’re lucky in that we’re not dealing with too many colors. Orange is kind of the unifying hue. If you’re looking at it like a painting, it’s kind of a monochromatic painting. But part of my job is working with the lighting designer, and part of my job is working with the sound guy. It’s kind of multifaceted.
WM: I’m interested in the timeline of preparation. Do you think you could kind of take me through all the steps?
Natiello: It’s a yearlong process for sure. We’re thinking about the event after the event. We’re placing the order with the farmer for the pumpkins—that usually happens late winter/early spring. So you could say planning starts in spring. We explore new ideas. We order the Funkins [foam pumpkins], the real pumpkins, create designs. And then things really pick up June/July in terms of setting up the infrastructure, carving. You know we use the foam pumpkins. So we’re doing really intricate carvings on those in anticipation of setup.
Schweitzer: Yeah, there’s a lot of logistics and operational stuff that gets done in addition to the creative work that Michael oversees. So it’s things like our visitor tent, our ticketing office, and food and retail, and all the other aspects of the event.
Natiello: Some of the work is tedious up front: unpacking the storage containers, getting things onto the site, setting up the spider web, which is ginormous.
WM: How many of the jack-o’-lanterns are real pumpkins, and how many are foam? Are there any other materials?
Natiello: That’s pretty much it. At the end of the day, a jack-o’-lantern is a gourd—a shape with a light inside it. Each week we carve 1,000 new ones to replenish ones that have rotted previously.
Schweitzer: There’s probably on average about 1,500 fresh, organic pumpkins that are on-site at any time. But it’s a little bit weather-dependent. If we have warmer temperatures, they don’t last as long. But we’ve been doing this so long, so there’s never an experience where it’s like, ‘Oh, well, they didn’t replace 500 pumpkins at this time because they rotted too early.’ We have it down to a science.
WM: So what are some of the other technical challenges, either in preparation or during the run of the event?
Natiello: For me, it’s always weather. It’s either too hot or too cold. It’s hardly ever nice in terms of setting up and take down. When we’re setting up, it’s 90 degrees, and when we’re taking down, it’s all but snowing out.
Schweitzer: We also have the challenge of keeping all the pumpkins lit. We light votives in the pumpkins every night. We actually use teams of volunteers that help us do that, and it takes several hours before we open each night for that process to play out.
Natiello: When the wind blows them out, you’ll see us scurrying around trying to relight them.
WM: After 11 years of doing this event, what have you learned?
Natiello: We do have a system, but you can’t rely too much on thinking that it’s going to fall into place. You can’t let your guard down. Personally, I’ve learned a lot about carving and sculpting, and I’ve learned a lot about the pumpkin. I’ve certainly learned that something as mundane as a jack-o’-lantern could turn on, excuse the pun, tons of people. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, are turned on and off by this creation we’ve set up. So that’s the power of art to me. That’s kind of something I’ve known, but it’s reinforced by these giant-scale installations, which is necessary not only for us as an institution, but for society.
Schweitzer: And for, if I may speak for Historic Hudson Valley more broadly, we’re a nonprofit educational organization, and we’re really in the business of providing educational and entertaining experiences. At the scale we’ve grown Blaze to—last year over 120,000 visitors from humble beginnings of 18,000 in our first year—you have to provide a safe and comfortable and operationally stress-free environment for your visitor. From an institutional standpoint, those have been really good lessons for us.
WM: Did you ever expect the Blaze to grow into what it is? It’s so wildly popular now.
Schweitzer: When we started, we really didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know if anybody would come. We had high hopes, certainly, but, even in the first year, 18,000 for a brand-new event was pretty spectacular.
WM: What’s new at the Blaze this year?
Natiello: We’re always introducing new technologies in terms of lighting and illuminations. But this year we’re going to experiment with some video technology within pumpkins, so that’s going to be very exciting. It’s something that we were experimenting with at our spring event, called Lightscapes, that we realized we can translate into pumpkins. There’s a pumpkin planetarium that will also utilize the video technology. One of the new installations this year is a circus ghost train. The engine is made out of pumpkins. We’re also retooling the bonfire from past years to give it a new appearance.