There’s something about weeks leading up to Halloween that brings out a childlike joy in people that just can’t be described, and not even the holidays of the winter months to come can truly compare.
Nobody understands or has helped cultivate that feeling of wonder like John Reckner, the maestro and magician of Passion for Pumpkins, the group responsible for creating the annual Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular, which is in its 16th year spooking up the nighttime at Roger Williams Park Zoo with thousands of carved pumpkins of every different artistic depictions imaginable.
Reckner got the idea to create an event centered around setting up a huge display of ghoulish gourds after going on a trip to Vermont with his kids to see a similar type of display set up on a mountainside.
“I’m back home in Oxford, Mass., taking my dogs for a walk through the woods one evening and it’s like a light goes off,” he recalled. “Giant pumpkins with detailed images, background music in a nice woodland setting. Three elements come together and create it all.”
Each year the Spectacular has a theme. In 2017, it’s all about time travel. Guests are treated to a video display of iconic footage throughout history prior to getting to the pumpkin-filled pathway, setting the scene. One of the first large pumpkins visible is adorned with Michael J. Fox next to the infamous clock tower from “Back to the Future,” alongside a variety of detailed dinosaurs, driving home the theme to be seen ahead.
As guests travel through the quarter mile of trails, either side is literally covered with jack-o-lanterns. Big, small, huge and everything in between. There are spooky faces, silly faces, ghosts and witches and spiders. They float on platforms in the water, they hang from trees staring down at you. All in all, as the smaller pumpkins are replaced each week throughout the show’s month-long stretch, about 25,000 pumpkins are used.
The smaller pumpkins and the various staging areas – such as a Chinese-inspired section complete with a hand-built take on a tea house, and a Hobbit-inspired section with a barrel door straight out of “Lord of the Rings” – set a grand scene for the breathtaking, show-stealing pumpkins. Reckner reports the type is called “Big Macs,” ideal for carving because of their soft, workable skin.
Reckner shows off the tools of the trade that create the jaw-dropping jack-o-lanterns – a one-dollar pairing knife and a couple sizes of fine-detailing clay sculpting tools. “And a lot of patience,” he added with a laugh.
The pumpkins are gutted and air dried under industrial fans to sap them of moisture, which prevents the pumpkins from molding and rotting as quickly as they would otherwise. A rough sketch of the ultimate design is drawn out in ball-point pen and then gone over in permanent marker. Then the team of about 18 artists go to work, finely trimming with the tools, painting areas that they want to remain darkened and scuffing with sandpaper to create three-dimensional effects.
“It’s been amazing how, over the 29 years I’ve been doing this it’s been like a magnet. Landscape architects, illustrators, portrait painters,” Reckner said of the artists, one of which includes his own daughter. “These people work seven days a week. They’re in there from early morning to midnight. I think the word might be a labor of love. That’s what it is.”
These pumpkins, too, are replaced and cycled throughout the month of the show. Each artist does about a dozen of them, four times. Labor of love indeed.
Adorning the path at points are gigantic pumpkins which may look like props, but they’re the real deal. These Atlantic Giants were sprouted from seeds that a man in Foster used a few years ago to grow what was then the largest pumpkin ever grown. Reckner recalled using one of these giants last year, which involved crawling inside and gutting it with a shovel. It later broke the table it was placed upon.
“In early July it’s like a baseball,” Reckner said of the giant breed of pumpkin. “Two and a half months later it’s 2,000 pounds. A pregnant elephant doesn’t grow that fast. It’s mindboggling.”
The passionate purveyors of the Spectacular spend about $60,000 a year just on pumpkins, but the relationship at Roger Williams Park Zoo has them coming back each year, as hundreds of thousands of customers are attracted each year. Diane Nahabedian, director of marketing and public relations at the zoo, called the partnership a “perfect fit” for the zoo.
“I think the zoo and the path really lends itself to the display,” she said.
“It works out great because the city owns the zoo and they do a remarkable job marketing the show,” Reckner agreed. “They bring the people in, we build it and they shall come, I guess.”
Recker said he hopes to be able to continue putting on the show for “as long as Mother Nature will allow him.” He has already spread his passion for pumpkins to the next generation, as his son runs a similar display down in Louisville, Ky.
At the end of the path, after taking people through prehistory, ancient Egypt and Greece, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the American Revolution, the Great Depression, both World Wars, the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, just to name a few, you are brought to a view of the future. Reckner took this opportunity to implant an optimistic message into patrons of the path.
“I thought halfway through it we do the essence of life – simplicity, meditation, kindness – so we actually end the show with a quotation: ‘Insults breed hate, kindness births love.’"
Reckner said that, in a world that is all too often a negative and scary place, surrounding yourself in an artistic spectacle and warping to a place of magic and peace is something people of all ages can relish.
“We’re going through some tough times right now,” he said. “Here, you can just come and relax.”