Make no bones about it, Portsmouth is a community that takes its Halloween seriously. On the last night in October, under rain or clear skies, creativity is on full display in the annual Portsmouth Halloween Parade. Streets downtown are closed to vehicle traffic and sidewalks are packed with spectators, with some spots dozens deep. In dwellings above the city streets, costumed residents host gatherings to celebrate the holiday, waving out their windows and cheering as the masses march by.
Not far from the heart of downtown Portsmouth, marchers begin gathering at around 6 p.m. at the South Mill Pond. The muster itself is a raucous occasion — musicians tuning and warming up instruments, wigs are adjusted, makeup is applied and finishing touches are made to costumes. As skies darken overhead, more marchers appear, and the line snakes further around the pond. Finally, it's 7 o'clock and the parade begins to move, led by the Grand Marshal, selected annually by the Portsmouth Halloween Parade (PHP) committee.
The costumes on display during the procession are proof positive of the creativity of the community. Here there be puppets and costumes and floats, and not to put too much P.T. Barnum-style hyperbole on the occasion, you are sure to see sights you've never seen before. Very few in the promenade pull their costumes off the rack of a big box store, and those who do usually personalize them. The Portsmouth Halloween Parade is truly a moveable feast of handcrafted original artistry.It's hard to predict what you'll see. Past years have offered a bloody bearded lady lurching towards the crowd. Or a monstrous man biting a twitching mouse as he pantomimes falling in love with a lonely zombie girl. Diaphanous-winged bats have been known to swoop and weave through the procession. Tin men and robots, linked by their mutual need for foil and duct-tape, have ambled through the streets side by side.
There's always a mixture of the old and new — most revelers debut new costumes each year, while some choose to provide variations on a theme. Teens in the New Heights after-school program may always appear on stilts, but their costumes are sure to change annually. Last year, dressed as 1950s waiters and waitresses, they stalked through the city surrounding a larger-than-life pie. Portsmouth Community Radio's annual marchers sport a human-sized boom box and matching set of radio towers.Past Grand Marshal Bruce Pingree has walked as Baron Samedi, a top-hatted skeletal keeper of the graveyard gates (see him on page 39), wearing some variation of this costume since 2002. Each year he carries his signature spider web umbrella. When originally asked to lead the throng, the part-time New Orleanian remarked, “If you're going to lead a parade, you're going to need an umbrella.”
Other annual appearances usually include some kind of large puppet or mobile sculpture. Giant spiders have been seen crawling through the street, each leg maneuvered by separate handlers. Last year, in a display that would have made Momenchance puppeteers proud, a great white Mother Earth floated peacefully above the parade. Committee member Trevor Bartlett recalls the year participants had constructed an enormous pyramid on wheels. In the true spirit of community, when the wheels snapped off partway through the procession, other paradegoers stepped in and helped to carry the pyramid to the finish.Big and small, young and old, all are welcome, and all do participate in the parade. Somewhere between the decadence of Mardi Gras and a grade school costume party, the Portsmouth Halloween Parade seeks to encourage wonder, magic, merriment and experimentation. Halloween isn't just for kids, and Bartlett asserts that the parade is a chance for “anyone who's still inspired to step out of themselves, or into a self they may not feel permitted to the rest of the year.”
The scope of the parade and size of the spectacle have increased in the 15 years since the first few Halloween revelers made their way through Portsmouth. What began as a ragtag group of 50 or so masked merrymakers and feathered friends has grown into a procession estimated at 2,500 costumed carousers. It's impossible to get a true count of the participants, and this figure doesn't include the thousands more who line Portsmouth's streets to watch the parade pass by.
Both spectator and participant share the same love and respect for the creativity this community has to offer. The parade, Bartlett believes, is an opportunity to “return to the sense of mystery, wonder and inventiveness that Halloween used to have back before the plastic overtook the fantastic, and back to a time when the disguises had to be handmade.”And handmade they most certainly are. Papier-mâché dinosaurs roar through the streets, and wagons transformed into spaceships shuttle little ones along. Last year a tiny jellyfish fashioned from a plastic-wrapped umbrella shook its glow-stick tentacles as it scuttled along the route. And as with any celebration, there's music. Past parades have featured accompaniment by the Leftist Marching Band and Jumbo Circus Peanuts. And yes, this is New Hampshire, so the lampooning of political leaders is often a part of the parade.
2008 Grand Marshal Tom Colletta says, “People come out of their houses and restaurants and cheer the parade on. It's a great exercise in participatory artistic democracy. Anyone can take part and it's a ton of fun.” Last year Colletta dressed as Devil Elvis and sang the King's greatest hits, backed by local surf-rock favorites, The Serfs. He is still in awe of how the whole thing came together.
“I've been a musician for many years, and there was a moment before the parade kicked off where there's a sense of panic. It's like we're about to go on stage and ‘Where's the guitar player?' You wonder, ‘How is this all going to work?'”Bartlett attributes the success of the event first to the energy of Portsmouth's community and then to the dedication of the small group of volunteers who work together to ensure that the parade runs smoothly. At various intervals along the route, marshals with flags bearing the PHP logo guide the masses, walking alongside the revelers and managing the pacing of the parade. These marshals are in constant communication with one another and with the hired police detail.
In addition to the police detail, permits and insurance must also be paid for, solely through donations collected during fundraising events held in the months before Halloween. Planning work starts early in the year, well before sweaters are taken out of storage or visions of sugar pumpkins dance in anyone's head. Bartlett sees these events as “the parade that leads us to the parade.” It is only through the efforts of volunteers, generosity of the community and support from local businesses that the parade is able to exist year after year.
Donating space, advertising, proceeds and merchandise for raffles, these businesses are integral in supporting the efforts of the Parade. There's a poetry reading at the Press Room, a community night hosted by Portsmouth Flatbread Company and Pumpkin Smashes at the Saturday morning Portsmouth Farmers Market. The committee adds new events each year and has been known to tweak old favorites. This year, the Press Room will host an October-long exhibit of past parade masks.“We're always scheming. We're working with a couple of new partners this year, so we very well may have a few new tricks up our sleeves,” Bartlett says.
One event always on the calendar is a rock show at the Coat of Arms pub. Local musicians donate their time and talents in support of the Portsmouth Halloween Parade. This event, held on the first Monday in October, is also where the year's poster, T-shirt and Grand Marshal are revealed.
Bartlett acknowledges that identifying a Grand Marshal to represent the breadth of creativity in the community is next to impossible. Instead, the position is a celebration of an individual who represents the very spirit of Portsmouth. He or she is someone whom the entire community, literally and figuratively, can all get behind.
“It is always someone who's been active and visible in the Portsmouth creative scene in some way, with a distinct or individual attitude.”When pressed for detail on the identity of this year's Grand Marshal, Bartlett stopped short of naming names. He would only share that this year's selection is “a famous introvert in person, and a great guy who's never once shied away from speaking his mind. He's an absolute force and Portsmouth icon in every way. It took us a couple of years to convince him to do it, and we're crazy happy he's finally agreed to lead us.”
The Grand Marshal, and to a greater scale the parade itself, is a celebration of free expression. It bears striking similarity to one of Portsmouth's earliest parades honoring New Hampshire's ratification of the Constitution. That parade in 1788 featured musicians, the hauling of a fully-rigged ship through city streets, and even the rolling of an operational printing press, which churned out leaflets heralding free speech. Creativity, ingenuity and the celebration of freedom have long been woven into the fabric of celebrations on the Seacoast.
Part of promoting free expression is fostering a spirit of open inclusivity, and this environment is one that the Portsmouth Halloween Parade works hard to maintain. When city councilor Ken Smith faced criticism in 2006 after questioning the content and appropriateness of the parade, he opted not to oppose the event from the outside. Instead, he joined with the revelers, even auctioning off the opportunity to costume him as a fundraiser for the parade.
A question sure never to be settled is whether it's better to stand on the sidelines and cheer the masses along, or to experience the parade from inside the procession. After leading last year, Colletta hinted that he may just watch from the sidelines. Official Portsmouth Halloween Parade photographer Jeremy Heflin has been involved with the parade from the very beginning and has participated from both sides of the curb.
“You see all kinds of things,” Heflin says. “Huge black spiders, a freakishly dark howler monkey, the undead skateboarding under an alien balloon dragon, horned and unhorned beings, musical monsters, Elvis and Nosferatu. Oh yeah, and the belching flame organ!”
Bartlett adds, “The ‘Pyrophone' ain't coming back. But there will be lots of other surprises.”
Though content may vary, you'll be sure to hear the cadence of drums well before the first sprite rounds the corner to State Street or cowboy moseys across Congress. And you'll probably see zombies. Lots of zombies (the carefully choreographed Michael Jackson ‘Thriller” tribute alone will feature dozens). Truth be told, there's no guarantee what you'll see. Each year the parade is bigger and better, and this year promises not to disappoint. Spectators are urged to secure a spot early, because if past Halloween parades are any indication, expect what you see to defy all expectation. NHAfraid to ask directions?This map shows where to be, or not to be.
The Portsmouth Halloween Parade Route
A pumpkin icon denotes a parade “catch-up” point where the front of the parade rests to allow the back to catch up.
Costumed spooks of all ages are invited to gather for staging at South Mill Pond Playground on Junkins Avenue by 6 p.m.
More Scary Things to do in Portsmouth ...Lots of chilling choices for those tripping the fright fantastic.
Harbor Cruise of Portsmouth's Ghostly Shores
See the haunted islands, “spirited” lighthouse dwellers and the Isles of Shoals where the famous Smuttynose murders took place. Cruises run through the end of October.
Isles of Shoals Steamship Company
Walking Tours of Haunted Portsmouth
From haunted pubs and lighthouses to talks featuring ghostly legends of Portsmouth, New England Curiosities provides several different scheduled and private tours to satisfy your creepy curiosities.
New England Curiosities
Lamplight Dialogues: The Ghosts of Puddle Dock Come to Life
Rich with historic homes and alleged apparitions, Strawbery Banke will this year be featuring a production, part theatre/part walking tour, as six properties set the stage for the haunted historic original play.
Thursday–Sunday, Oct. 8–25
Scarecrows in Portsmouth
Local residents and businesses will showcase their creativity in the second annual Scarecrows of the Port event in downtown Portsmouth. Showings run Oct. 17-Nov. 1.
MASK-arade Art Show
If you want to get an early jump on Halloween, come and see the Press Room's month-long Portsmouth Halloween Parade Mask Art Exhibit.
The Press Room
55 Daniel Street
Coat of Arms Rock Show Benefit
Support the parade and rock out with some of Portsmouth's finest local talent: Tim McCoy, Tim Fife, and outgoing Grand Marshal, Tom Colletta. This is also your first opportunity to see and purchase a 2009 PHP T-shirt.
Monday, Oct. 5, 8 p.m.
Coat of Arms
174 Fleet St.
Undead Beat Night
In October the Press Room adds an extra Beat Night for the zombies. Hear creepy curses, vampiric verses and readings from the macabre.
Thursday Oct. 22, 7 p.m.
The Press Room
55 Daniel Street
Portsmouth Halloween Parade Benefits
Don't dream it, be(nefit) it!
This article appears in the July 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine