Although it may have seemed “a little bit early to be thinking about Halloween in some peoples’ minds,” as CCMA Producer Allison Gerlach explained, the organization sets the bar pretty high and wide.
The inaugural Gathering last year attracted roughly 200,000 people and included fire-breathing artists, humongous puppetry and a convoy of customized lowrider vehicles. Continuing that kind of success not only requires extensive preparation, but also forms a key component of the event’s mission.
“This is a curated procession of the Chicago cultural community,” explains Executive Director Sharene Shariatzadeh. “There really is nothing like it.”
Shariatzadeh and her staff are responsible for promoting the stretch of Michigan Avenue from the Chicago River to Roosevelt Road and east to Lake Michigan. She considers the area to be “the face of Chicago” with “some of the most celebrated cultural institutions in the world.”
“Our goal is that people will literally hop off a plane, get in a cab, and say, ‘take me to the Cultural Mile,’” she explains.
By combining the city’s rich ethnic communities and a legion of local artists and performers, the Halloween Gathering is an essential way to make this happen.
It begins with a kid-friendly workshop and ends with an everyone-friendly parade. Along the way, institutions like the Field Museum and the Trinity Dancers celebrate Chicago’s creative harvest with the people who helped bring it to life.
It also requires a lot of work. The meeting provided a forum for this year’s participants to describe their projects and find partners in creativity.
Artist Heather Killian, who creates “weird puppets and animals that are giant,” said she is “planning on doing more animals, something like the beast within.”
Professional fire-breather Bryan Small, who noted that “Chicago loosened up a bit on the regulations” over the past year, said he hopes to build a float topped with go-go dancers and “some very large flame effects.”
Lowrider artist Jorge Ortega, who is also director of Chicago’s Columbian Festival, reported that the video of his car club’s Columbian-themed Marimonda Movil de Chicago cruising through the 2015 parade has scored nearly a quarter million online views.
It has also generated substantial buzz by showcasing the event’s commitment to children. “We should get more participation because kids were involved,” he explains.
This is one of the celebration’s running themes. According to Artistic Director Mark Kelly, who is also Columbia College’s Vice President for Student Success, the morning agenda is “a giant maker session” where children discover that “creative paths are honorable paths.” The afternoon is an all-ages celebration of Halloween as an “Artist’s Holiday.”
“It’s that moment of masks and costumes, of taking on new personas,” he explains “Much like carnival, there is not a separation of audience and the contingents that are marching.”
Then he lifted a lamp stand that had been retrofitted, customized and modified into a glowing moon scepter. “I’ve never carried a staff in my life,” he mused. “This was created by George Berlin for last year’s Gathering.”
— Dan Patton, Staff Writer