CROTON-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. ‒ The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze begins Saturday, lighting up the evening at Croton's Van Cortlandt Manor. Boasting 5,000 hand-carved Jack O'Lanterns, the event drew more than 80,000 visitors last year, and organizers are hoping to break 100,000 this year.
Nine of the Blaze's 22 nights were already sold out as of Friday afternoon.
Michael Natiello is the show's creative director and unlikely brain trust. Neither a horror movie buff or Halloween aficionado, Natiello began working at Van Cortlandt Manor to further an anticipated career as a historical illustrator.
"I thought I was going to be doing drawings from the past for textbooks or magazines," said Natiello, who took the job to learn more about costuming. But as The Blaze was being conceived ‒ this is its eighth year ‒ Natiello did the conceptual drawings and eventually organized the program for Historic Hudson Valley, which operates Van Cortlandt Manor and several other sites in Westchester.
In addition to 2,000 genuine gourds dotting the landscape of the Van Corlandt estate, 3,000 artificial pumpkins will be present too. Setup for the event began in June. Perennial favorites like bees, butterflies, mushrooms, a cemetery and six-foot long dinosaurs will be lit up with a cast of new Jack O'Lanterns.
Natiello has tried to incorporate movement into this year's festivities. Playing on the Mayan prophecies of 2012, he created a pumpkin-covered grandfather clock that stands more than 12 feet tall. There will also be Jacks-in-the-box and performers in skeleton costumes, which Natiello assures are "subtle, not terrifying."
A gorilla, giraffe, bear, lion and tiger are all hinged together, made of multiple pumpkins. The zoo will light up against the dark northern Westchester nights. Bats look down at visitors from trees, and a pyre is arranged near the main house.
The event's soundtrack had an overhaul with help from "The Howard Stern Show's" Richard Christy, whom Natiello describes as a "Halloween fanatic."
Three-dimensional carving demonstrations will be given by Natiello in the main tent as visitors enter the event.
Tickets range from $12 to $20, and children under 3 and members are free. Advance tickets are required and can be purchased through the event's website.