Columbus, Ohio USA
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Backstage at Highball Halloween
Stellar Short North event celebrates five years
By Margaret Marten
September/October 2012 Issue

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© Larry Hamill 2008

It’s almost Halloween night 2011 and the back room of the former Monkeys Retreat has become a curious laboratory, a mystical imaginarium where humans undergo transformations into fantastical creatures. Particles of powder and glitter whirl in the air then settle on every surface in sight. Over there are wigs dressed in impossibly intricate styles, and over here, leotards, painted and spangled and looking like skins shed by magical beasts.

This is backstage at the Short North’s Highball Halloween – a Halloween event like no other in the country.

This year, the Highball will celebrate its fifth anniversary. John Angelo, consultant and former executive director of the Short North Business Association (now the Short North Alliance) is not only the Merlin behind the event, but its creator as well.

To pull back the curtain on Highball Halloween is a bit like Dorothy and her friends discovering the ordinary man behind the Wizard of Oz. But it’s true. Magic doesn’t appear out of nowhere, so taking a peek behind the curtain might just give this year’s attendees more respect for the event.

Not like Athens
“Like any event in the Short North, it started with a brainstorming session,” says Angelo. He had gathered a group of creative people to conjure new ways to showcase the Short North and its businesses, when he mentioned the idea of a Halloween event, similar to those in San Francisco and other locations.

“Like Athens?” someone asked with just a hint of skepticism. It was a fair question. For years, Ohio University in Athens has held a Halloween event attended by hundreds of people – and leading to its share of good and bad publicity.

But Angelo explained this event would be different. It would capture the artistic heart and soul of the community. “I thought we should develop a concept that was unique to the Short North, an event that would support the brand and speak to the artists and designers who live and work here and who visit the area. It wouldn’t be just a party,” says Angelo.

The group was won over and Highball Halloween was born. But could Angelo really pull it off?

No. Well, at least not by himself. No amount of pixie dust could achieve that. The event was just too large. So Angelo put together a team to help him, along with committees – lots of committees, whose members, in large part, are the ones who create the magic behind Highball Halloween. There’s the marketing committee, for example, the entertainment committee, the costume judging committee, the designer committee and the operations committee.

Larry Hamill © 2011

And there’s Candy Watkins. “Candy worked with ComFest for years, so she knew how to navigate all of the city’s regulations,” says Angelo. See, when you’re asking the city to close High Street – the first time any major road has been closed in Columbus, you’re going to need someone who knows how to get it done. And Watkins was the woman for the job. “No one understands how big a deal it was to go to the city and ask for a street closure,” says Angelo. Yes, Columbus has closed streets in the past – for marathons and parades – but those are different permits from those for a staged event. Those kind of permits have not been granted until Watkins and Angelo pulled off their magic trick.

“I knew we had won over the city when Mayor Coleman stood on the stage and asked, ‘Are we going to have a Highball every year?’ and the crowd cheered,” says Angelo.

Highball Halloween has, in fact, gone on to become a major, award-winning community event. Along with the Gallery Hop, Highball has earned an Experience Columbus Expy award, and it’s now promoted regionally as a “destination event.”

“Highball makes an outstanding contribution to the Columbus experience,” says Experience Columbus Communications Director Beth Ervin. “It recognizes the creativity, passion and drive which is what Columbus is all about.”

That first year, between 12,000 and 13,000 people attended the Highball. Last year, 17,000 people were there, and 20,000 are projected this year. “Nearly half of them are coming from beyond three miles away,” says Angelo – and 13 percent from beyond 10 miles. About 5 percent of Highball’s attendees are coming from beyond 50 miles away, a number that seems to be growing and pleasing hotels and restaurants in the area.

But Highball was a success “out of the block,” says Angelo.

First year fumble
Of course, what people didn’t know that first year was that the event created some real headaches for organizers.

“The city was willing to close High Street, but it had given us a very narrow window to get things done,” Angelo recalls. City officials were understandably concerned with making sure people who worked downtown were able to leave without traffic snarls. “Our event was scheduled to start at 7 p.m., but the city wouldn’t close the lanes before 6 p.m.,” Angelo says. “That didn’t give us much time to set things up. We realized that we didn’t have enough people to get everything done we needed to. It was a baptism by fire.”

Yet despite the first show’s late start, it quickly drew a following. “When people saw what we had created, everyone fell in line. Now, the city trusts us,” says Angelo. But he always makes sure there are plenty of hands on deck to get the show started.

Highball highlights
If you’ve never been to Highball Halloween, you need to realize what makes this Halloween event different. Angelo immediately ticks off three items.

First, there is the elaborate stage, provided by Pagetech Limited. “It’s huge, it’s iconic,” says Angelo. There is a mystique to the stage, he adds. “Everyone wants on that stage.”

Larry Hamill 2011

Second is the Costume Couture Fashion Showdown. This part of the show is open only to professional designers. “We have plenty of them in town,” says Angelo, although the competition may be open this year to those outside the city as well.

“Each designer creates four looks of a collection. These are typical looks that you’d see on any runway,” he says. The designer also creates a couture costume with the same aesthetic as the other outfits in the collection. “No one else is doing this kind of mash-up,” says Angelo. Highball visitors love the fashion show, and there’s no question that designers receive a special showcase for their work.

The third item is the Cinematic Makeup Tent. Here, Highball visitors can watch real makeup artists transform pre-selected guests into fanciful creatures. Last year, three dancers from Ballet Met were the guests. Later, they performed a modern dance in full stage makeup. “People can stop by anytime during the night and see how the transformation is going,” says Angelo. Professional make-up artists who work in stage and screen are the magicians behind the makeup. Last year, Tommy Pietch was one of those artists. You can catch him now on the SyFy channel’s show FaceOff, a competition show for makeup artists. “He won’t be at Highball this year,” says Angelo. “He’s been invited to do body painting at the Playboy Mansion.”

Angelo tries to make certain there is always something new, fresh and exciting at each Highball. Last year, there was the Highball mural, an 8-foot by 20-foot mural completed by an artist in real time. There were giant body puppets, 15-feet tall. “This year I want to layer that with stilt walkers who are 10 or 11-feet tall,” says Angelo. The effect of different heights walking down High Street is what the Halloween Highball is all about.

“It’s not a scary event, the way most Halloween events are. We take the creative approach,” says Angelo. And what could be a more appropriate approach for the Short North community?

It sure ain’t the elves
Eventually, all parties end, and when Highball ends and guests disappear, the Highball crew goes to work. “No one takes cleanup more seriously than we do,” says Angelo. He and about 60 people headed by Candy Watkins, make sure all paraphernalia is packed away, and the area cleaned of trash. “It’s not just the crew,” says Angelo. “If something needs doing, the vendors and talent will pitch in as well.” Angelo won’t leave until everything on High Street has been cleared away. Then, he’ll go home, sleep a few hours, and return to walk the neighborhood – just to take care of any stray litter or Highball remnant.

Planning for the 2013 Highball will start in January, says Angelo. It’s at this planning meeting that the next location is decided and new ideas are discussed. Recruiting talent in terms of entertainment, fashion designers, make-up and hair stylists comes shortly after.

“The hardest part is deciding when to stop adding ideas,” says Angelo.

This year, the Highball will take place at Vine and High – by Martini’s. The stage will be set up alongside the convention center. Since Columbus is celebrating its 200th anniversary, the Highball committee chose a theme that includes part of Columbus’ name in the title. “Illuminatus: Light Up the Night” will take place October 27, from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m.

Angelo says it’s his dream for Columbus to be known for its annual Highball Halloween celebration. “Louisville has the Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis has the Indy 500,” he says.

“I’d like Highball Halloween to become the city’s signature event.”

And the way things are going now, that’s likely to be just a wave of the wand away.


© 2012 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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