Published September 24. 2013 7:05PM Updated September 24. 2013 7:12PM
Come September, a small town will be rising in the Roger Williams Zoo. That’s when the creative crews from Passion for Pumpkins — a multimedia production company with 25 years of experience — begin work on the annual Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. This year’s exhibit opens Oct. 3.
Of course, months of planning preceded the set-up.
Exhibit founder John Reckner explains with a chuckle, “After we’ve had a little recuperation (from the previous year), in January we sit down and try to come up with a new theme.”
And this year, that theme is “Pumpkinville USA,” a tribute to the 50 states. Each state will have at least one representative pumpkin, Reckner says. The show starts in the Heartland and unfolds by region, from the Pacific Coast to New England.
Visitors also can expect to see tributes to the founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and more contemporary national figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy Jr.
All told, 5,000 carved pumpkins — including varieties like Haldens, Big Macs and Atlantic Giants — make up the Spectacular, ranging in weight from 100 to 1,500 pounds.
A Bose surround sound system will set the musical mood accordingly throughout the quarter-mile trail. Fluorescent bulbs illuminate Reckner’s “pumpkin community,” although a select few still glow with candlelight.
It’s that combination of art, sound and sheer size that makes the Spectacular such a standout event, Reckner says.
“There’s the illuminated artwork, giant images in the middle of the woods that we highlight with the background lighting, and then there is the musical score, so those factors kind of play on your senses,” he notes.
Naturally, organic artwork requires some upkeep, and Reckner says he and his temporary staff of approximately 40 people will spend a lot of time on site, replacing and replenishing the display.
Pre-Spectacular, a “mad drawing session” leads up to the first round of pumpkin-carving in September. Despite the tough work, many of Reckner’s team are repeat employees. One artist, known for his ornate
replications of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s works, flies in from Hawaii every year.
“Once people come, they don’t leave” Reckner says.
“I think people appreciate the fact that it’s just a temporary art form and a lot of work goes into it.”
Reckner himself, who attended art school, has been staging the Spectacular since 1988. A display he saw in 1987 on a sweeping mountainside in Vermont inspired him to try his own jack-o-lantern exhibit. What he calls his “labor of love” evolved enough to earn national acclaim as a Library of Congress National Local Legacy in 1999. The event outgrew its initial home in Oxford, Mass., in 2000 and opened the next year in Providence.
Proceeds from all Passion for Pumpkins’ shows go to charity. The group’s early projects supported the Oxford schools. Funds from the Spectacular go to the zoo. As for all those pumpkins, they go into a giant compost pile when the exhibit closes on Nov. 3.
Oh, and trick-or-treaters can skip the Reckner house on Oct. 31.
“My house is shut down on Halloween,” Reckner says, laughing.
He’ll be too busy lighting up the night in Providence.