After decades dominating the national stage, the Anaheim Halloween Parade nearly died a few years ago. But it’s back, and you’ll never guess who rescued it. Hint: There was a mouse underfoot. It’s important first to understand what this parade was. In its heyday, around the middle of last century, it was televised across the country, led by movie stars and sports heroes—Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson in 1924 were the first grand marshals, and an 8-year-old Jodie Foster also took a turn. It attracted some 100,000 visitors who lined its route.
Walt Disney got involved in 1953, sending six float designs as a bouquet to the farm town that, only months before, he had chosen as the place to build Disneyland.
“I remember how impressed Walt was that we had the biggest Halloween parade in America,” says Jo An Burdick Gottlieb, 82, a 6-foot baton twirler known for tossing a baton higher than many people could see. Burdick Gottlieb saw her first baton twirler in the Anaheim Halloween Parade when she was 4, and she was smitten. She spent the rest of her career twirling and teaching others at her studio. She has been in the parade since she was 5, occasionally putting down the baton to dress as a witch and ride on a float celebrating a bygone department store from downtown Anaheim.
“We were nothing but walnut trees and packing houses here. And people came from all over. Thousands. People were hanging off the roofs,” she says. “It was the deal. Walt looked at our parade, and he could already see his vision for Disneyland.”
Disney eventually shifted his attention to his own Main Street parade. And as the main street in Anaheim began to deteriorate after the 1970s, as did many downtowns across the country, there was less support for the Anaheim Halloween Parade.
“The old guard died, and they tore down the town. Center Street downtown where we held the parade became Lincoln. They took the heart out of Anaheim, the heart out of the parade,” says Burdick Gottlieb, who could be called old guard herself—her parents drove over dirt roads in 1922 to get to Anaheim from Wyoming.
By the first part of this century, the parade had become “just a bunch of people marching,” says Art Beas, president of the Fall Festival Halloween Parade and a director of sales at an electronics firm. Many local bands kept the parade barely alive.
The parade turns 92 this month, and it hobbles no more. It’s back, thanks to Beas’ ability to inspire residents in the revitalized downtown neighborhood and because of the design talents of Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily. This power couple has a consulting firm, The Kevin & Jody Show, and The Disney Company is a client. As luck would have it, they specialize in parades; they’ve designed them for Disneyland Tokyo and Paris. Oh, yeah, and they helped design Fantasmic! If I’m drooling over these two guys, it’s because I like this show more than anything at Disneyland—I used to go to the park at night just to see it .
But Anaheim’s Halloween procession has not become a “Disney parade,” I was happy to hear. Kidney and Daily are committed to maintaining the look of the parade from the last century—including recreating the original homemade floats. The men moved from Los Angeles to Anaheim seven years ago. Their restraint has led to charming effects.
Kidney, Daily, and Beas tell me—as have others—that the revitalization of the downtown has created an incredible bond among the neighbors. From this new “old” community, the committee was able to draw hundreds of volunteers also interested in bringing back the parade.
I meet them in a warehouse not far from the Packing House. The floats are pushed against a corner wall, waiting to be brought to life. They are literally cobbled together with “found objects,” Kidney says, including hula hoops, bicycles, cardboard, and plywood.
There is a large German beer drinker whose stein is said to burp bubbles. There’s a papier-mâché spaceship pulled on a wagon with a spot in the center for a human dressed as a Martian, an intricately drawn skeleton, a white pumpkin head on something that looks like a tiered wedding cake, scary trees that I swear I saw in an elementary school classroom. Everything is painted and constructed by volunteers—Beas and his wife, Kandee, had a group of girls in and out of the backyard of their lovingly restored craftsman for a month working on a float. Even decapitated and disassembled, the floats emanate a kind of life. I can’t completely explain it, but they seem to possess a spirit.
“It’s a homemade parade that feels sincere,” Kidney says. “It feels like you’ve stepped back in time.”
Some of the floats look like they’ve been here since the early 1920s. The parade started as a way to divert farm kids who had gone overboard with Halloween pranks, knocking down fences and soaping windows. Burdick Gottlieb’s uncle traveled around town at 4:30 a.m. playing a calliope to awaken everyone for the big day. Back in the 1950s, local residents sewed the Disney characters’ costumes.
I love it when I stumble on traditions in Orange County that are pushing a century, because it’s one more piece of evidence countering what I call our national nouveau image. Indeed, we are old enough here for our downtowns to have crumbled and to have started their comebacks. It’s thrilling to see the “centers” returning—and with them, the old traditions, like that grand old dame, the Anaheim Halloween Parade.