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New London becomes Halloween Town

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published October 24. 2013 4:00AM

There are many communities with legitimate claims to a civic nickname like "Halloween Town." Salem, Mass., of course, and Sleepy Hollow. And while Haddonfield, Illinois, is fictitious, its status as the birthplace and preferred slaughter-grounds for Michael Myers of "Halloween" film series notoriety, certainly makes the town iconic.

Then there's New London.

Yes, we might not have the history or hype of those other locales, but the fourth annual city-wide "Halloween Town" festivities, taking place Friday evening throughout the city's downtown area and Waterfront Park, is certainly a triumph of orange-and-black pageantry. A family-happy series of coordinated events - ranging from hay rides and a jack-o'-lantern garden to a costume contest and dance party, a creepy animal sanctuary, and a 150-foot haunted maze - Halloween Town is becoming an anticipated event that might someday rival Sailfest and the midwinter Hygienic Arts weekend.

The concept for Halloween Town originated with former Q-105 disc jockey Jackie Steele (now working in Los Angeles) and Spirit Gallery owner Larry Mostro.

"Jackie and Larry came up with the idea of a Halloween event in downtown New London based on how much they liked the Pumpkin Festival in Keene, New Hampshire," says Barbara Neff, whose Neff Productions was asked to come onboard for the second year of Halloween Town. Neff Productions is the outfit behind Sailfest and several other yearly festivals and events.

"Halloween has changed a lot over recent years," Neff says. "Parents used to be able just to drop their kids off in a neighborhood and let them roam around. Obviously, not anymore.

"Jackie and Larry wanted to have something safe and fun that kids and families could attend. They started with spooky walking tours and the response was fantastic."

With the help of and donations from several civic organizations, schools and local businesses, Halloween Town has expanded each year. Last year, after Hurricane Sandy derailed many trick-or-treat activities, Halloween Town organizers and volunteers stepped up and did a fine job of providing holiday activities - and, of course, candy.

"You never want something like (the storm) to happen, but that we were able to provide Halloween Town activities definitely drew some attention to the event," Neff says. "The idea is to grow on that."

Grow, indeed.

Last year's haunted maze was, according to Neff, "small but creepy." This year? Members of Local 24 of the New England Regional Carpenters Union donated their time and constructed a substantially larger, 120-foot maze.

And candy-hungry kiddos will be able to walk the "Trick or Trunk" - a gauntlet of spooky vehicles parked on Waterfront Park from which ghoulish folk will hand out treats provided by all manners of confectionary benefactors.

"This is absolutely an event and production put on by the whole community," Neff says. "And the whole focus is for children to have free Halloween fun."

Mom and Dad will enjoy Halloween Town, as well. Plenty of restaurants and vendors offer food for sale, and there are live musicians, fire-eaters and street performers whose work will appeal to all ages. Who knows? The parents might even get a healthy fright, too.

"I don't like to be scared, so Halloween was never my favorite holiday, but I love seeing the kids get thrilled," Neff says. "They experience that anticipated moment of fright - they look forward to it, but they're nervous at the same time. And then the 'scare' happens - and, having survivied, they love it. But it isn't just the kids. A lot of the time, it's their parents, too."

New London Halloween Town, 6-9 p.m. Friday, New London downtown and Waterfront Park; free; (860) 443-3786, facebook.com/NewLondonHalloweenTown.

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