Muhammad Ali stands with his gloves at the ready while Tom Brady smirks from nearby. He’s parked between baseball legend Ted Williams and a snow leopard on the prowl. Not far away, a young Frank Sinatra smiles from beneath a fedora as an impish raccoon peeks out beside him.
All these famous faces and figures are waiting in the back of a box truck with two large fans running continuously to keep them cool.
Even with the fans, chances are they’ll only last about week or so before rotting and requiring someone to bring them back to life.
Brady, Sinatra and co. are among the intricate, decorative designs on some 5,000 carved pumpkins, making them all stars of the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular, an illuminated, nighttime event held annually at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence.
More than just a bunch of carved up gourds, the Spectacular is the Taj Mahal of displays, combining music with thousands of jack-o’-lanterns, including 130 artisan-crafted masterpieces, stretching for a quarter mile along the zoo’s wetlands trail.
From high atop the treetops to seemingly floating on the water, there are illuminated pumpkins everywhere you look, and the effect is both ethereal and unworldly.
“It’s a mystical, magical art exhibit on pumpkins” said Kimberly Reckner, art director and manager of Passion for Pumpkins, the company that runs the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular. “You cannot describe it until you’ve been, and even then, it’s an indescribable event.”
And she would know. Reckner has been involved with the Spectacular since she was 7 years old and her father, a former mail carrier, started it after a family trip to Vermont.
“I had read about a mountainside display in northern Vermont when my kids were young,” explained founder John Reckner. “So we went up there, it was a beautiful landscape and it made an impression on me, in addition to the 500 jack-o’-lanterns that were on the mountain.”
Months later Reckner was still talking about it and decided to create his own display in his home town of Oxford, Mass.
With the help of family and friends, he put on his first jack-o’-lantern display in 1988 at the local elementary school. It was so successful that after a couple of years the event was moved to a nearby park in order to accommodate the increasing crowds.
With each passing year its popularity grew until it eventually ended up at the zoo, where it’s been hosted, minus a five-year break from 2004-09, since 2001.
For Reckner, daughter Kimberly, and son Travis, who runs a Spectacular in Louisville, Ky., it’s become much more than just a jack-o’-lantern display, it’s their lives.
“It’s all year, every day, spent thinking about pumpkins,” said Kimberly Reckner. “It’s pumpkin fever.”
Drawing more than 125,000 visitors annually, the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular requires months of planning, often beginning before the current season ends. And because each show is centered around a specific theme, with multiple “skits,” or motifs, the pumpkins along with their accompanying music must be coordinated well in advance.
Past themes have focused on the alphabet, the 50 states, and “The People’s Choice.” This year’s is “American Treasures,” featuring commemorative stamp art, humanitarian heroes, endangered species and cultural icons.
Putting it all together is no small feat. The jack-o’-lanterns are all wired with LED lights, requiring nearly five miles of electrical cords to illuminate them all and a week’s worth of work to run.
The Laughing Tree, one of the show’s signature attractions, requires at least three days and a boom lift to help place the scores of pumpkins that trim the sprawling tree.
And while the event boasts more than 5,000 displayed pumpkins throughout the show’s five-week run, more than 20,000 will be used as the gourds last only about a week before beginning to decompose, requiring they be replaced with new pumpkins with freshly carved designs. Many of them are sourced from farms in Connecticut and are subsequently used for compost when the show is over.
A small army of people spends up to six weeks preparing and carving the pumpkins, including 20 artists who work out of a studio in Oxford, creating the specialized pumpkins that John Reckner refers to as “intricates.”
Working around the clock, they come and go at all hours of the day and night and spend hours, sometimes days, on a single pumpkin only to repeat the process three or more times for each design.
“It’s a full-time job,” said Simone Germain, a pumpkin artist who has been creating masterpieces for the Spectacular for the past seven years and who will likely complete at least 50 pumpkins for this years festival.
One of her current designs is a remarkably detailed rendering of a waterfall, replicated from a photograph, which has taken her nearly three days to finish. Though it probably won’t last more than a couple of weeks, Germain is keeping her fingers crossed.
“I’m hoping for the best,” she said. “I’m hoping it’ll go the distance, but we’ll see.”
Wowing The Crowds
Once completed, they are loaded onto a truck and driven to the zoo where they are given the finishing touches, illuminated and placed in their respective skits.
John and Kimberly Reckner also carve pumpkins for the show and, according to the younger Reckner, creating works of art on the surface of a pumpkin is just one of the challenges of the job.
“Lack of sleep; we don’t sleep much,” she laughed, and then said that coming up with innovative ideas each year is another.
“We are already thinking of themes for next year. We want to make each year better than the last and really ‘wow’ people each year.”
It seems to be working. Last year’s show drew a record number of visitors, snarling traffic for miles on several of the weekends.
This year, to combat the crowds and long wait times, the zoo is shifting to a timed entry system on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Visitors will be required to have tickets on those nights, which must be purchased online, in advance. The rest of the week, however, is general admission and guests may purchase their tickets at the gate.
“We had 140,000 people last year and expect as many this year, if not more,” said Diane Nahabedian, director of marketing and public relations for Roger Williams Park Zoo. “We are telling folks that are coming Friday, Saturday, or Sunday to get online and buy timed-entry tickets, that way everyone has time to get in and walk through at their leisure.”
Nahabedian also recommends that visitors consider coming more than once, as each time the pumpkins are re-carved, the designs are just a little bit different, keeping the displays fresh and new throughout the show.
The proceeds from the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular go directly to the zoo and help fund its programs, animal care and conservation efforts, something that’s important to both Reckners.
Beyond that, according to Kimberly Reckner, it’s been the realization of a dream for her father.
“It’s more than a passion. I don’t think he could live without his pumpkin show. … I don’t think any of us could, really.”
THE JACK-O-LANTERN SPECTACULAR runs through Nov. 5 at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday timed entry tickets available online only (no sales at the park): $18, child $15 (ages 2 to 12). Monday through Thursday tickets sold online and at zoo admissions: $15, child $12 (ages 2 to 12). Trail open 6 to 10:30 p.m. Last ticket sold at 10 p.m. Children one and younger are free. rwpzoo.org