A merry, scary Halloween

RHONDA MARKBY
Last updated 12:40 11/11/2012
West Hollywood Halloween Festival 2012
SUPPLIED/ Rhonda Markby
West Hollywood Halloween Festival 2012
West Hollywood Halloween Festival 2012
SUPPLIED/ Rhonda Markby
West Hollywood Halloween Festival 2012
West Hollywood Halloween Festival 2012
SUPPLIED/ Rhonda Markby
West Hollywood Halloween Festival 2012
West Hollywood Halloween Festival 2012
SUPPLIED/ Rhonda Markby
West Hollywood Halloween Festival 2012

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It has to be the ultimate people-watching experience. More than 400,000 people in costumes, ranging from clever and quirky to just "out there", and everyone is watching everyone else.

Welcome to the West Hollywood Halloween Festival.

There's no doubting Halloween is big in the United States, and when it comes to events to celebrate the age-old festival, no-one does it like West Hollywood - and the costumed individuals who congregate on a two-kilometre stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard to do nothing more than watch and be watched.

What started as a Halloween dress-up party for about 200 members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transgender (LGBT) community at the local bars in the 80s, became a formalised festival in 1987.

It's now in its 25th year, Andy Keown, West Hollywood Marketing and Visitor Bureau's communications director explains over lunch at The Abbey Cafe & Bar.

The Abbey is "ground zero" for the festival crowd, Andy explains, and in spite of all the extra bars being set up, he predicts it will be wall to wall people come dark.

The Abbey started life as a cake and coffee shop and grew. It is one of those places in the openly LGBT town where he happily takes straight people.

The festival is a huge event for the city, although it actually costs it money to run, because of the road closures, security, cleanup and all the other costs associated with it. Businesses in the area close for the day because it is too hard for customers to get to them once the festival zone roads close at noon. Chances are the staff will be getting into festival mode anyway.

Ironically, while it is called a festival, it is not an overly organised event. There are no floats and the city's involvement runs only to setting up the stages where bands will perform and ensuring that police and other emergency personnel are on hand.

The whole event is very much reliant on who turns up, and they do. The town, which usually has a population of 35,000, becomes California's seventh-largest city for the night.

It's pretty obvious Halloween is a big deal in the town. All day long you're wished "Happy Halloween" just as we would greet friends and strangers with "Merry Christmas" or "Happy New Year".

Everywhere you look, shops, houses and hotels adopt the orange and black hues of the festival.

We've been forewarned the staff at The Standard where we are staying will be in costume from early morning. The hotel is renowned for its Halloween parties. By Halloween night, black spider-web-patterned beachballs float in the pool. Crows, spiders and cobwebs adorn the poolside bar.

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By late afternoon, those in costume start to outnumber those in regular clothing. Pirates, a Roman or two and other colourful characters are at the adjoining table when we stop for an early dinner at the Rainbow Bar and Grill - a haunt of John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Alice Cooper, Janis Joplin and many other rockers during its 40-year history.

As it gets dark, all roads lead to Santa Monica Boulevard.

There are warnings from our hosts to buddy up, not for safety, but to ensure your partner doesn't get lost.

Such sage advice lasts all of 10 seconds - until you stop to take your first photo.

Panic. I'm alone in a crowd of more than 400,000. Phoning or texting is no option - no-one will hear their phone ring in this crowd.

Scan the crowd, scan again. Moments later, I'm standing next to our hosts. Panic recedes.

The lost and found scenario repeats itself every few minutes. It's no longer scary. The crowd is friendly.

The more outrageous the costume, the happier the wearer is to pose for a photo. Some costumes are so good that queues form as people wait to take a photo.

Costumes range from the simple and clever - a quintet of Scrabble letters spelling out "DRINK" - to the political (Romneyisms from the election campaign), and the sequins and glamour of the drag queens in their shimmery best.

In spite of it effectively being an LGBT event now embraced by straights, there is nowhere near as much flesh on display as I had expected.

The exception is the feathery, almost butterfly-winged man wearing little more than silver jewel-encrusted briefs and a matching chest decoration.

It is not an adults-only night. There are children, both human and canine, present. All in miniature costumes of course.

The nearby bars are packed, but only a handful of people on the street have obviously been drinking.

Perhaps it is that sweet smell in the air which is responsible for the laid-back mood of the crowd.

It's close to midnight. Latecomers are still heading to the festival. The crowd is still good-natured. The main task for the many police on the street appears to be acting as traffic control to allow pedestrians to safely cross the street.

Halloween might almost be over, but the party is not.

Rhonda Markby travelled to West Hollywood as the guest of West Hollywood Marketing and Visitors Bureau and Air New Zealand.

Information: visitwesthollywood.com.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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