Detail from illustrated story “Scary Halloween, Meeting for the Witches” 1962

                                                             Ancient manuscript of “Scary Halloween, Meeting of the Witches” 1962 

More than half a century since the masterwork of fiction,“Scary Halloween, Meeting for the Witches” was penned by its anonymous 4th Grade author and illustrator, how the story ends remains a mystery. Only one double-sided loose-leaf page has survived the onslaught of time, but so  have I! —that  anonymous author.  Sadly, I do not remember l how “Scary Halloween, Meeting for the Witches” ended, but happily ever after, no doubt.  I don’t know how today’s Halloween story ends either. We’ll have to see.                                                                                           

    Once upon a time, two thousand years ago, Halloween was a Celtic festival; the night when ghosts returned to the earth. Halloween rages on, scarier than ever, in a consumer frenzy to rival Christmas. Sugar-thirsty adults roam CVS like zombies, zeroing in on the isle of “Buy One-Get One Free” bags of candy, gaudily packaged to entice Super-Size-Me Trick or Treaters—Future Diabetics of America. 

     Halloween is indeed a gruesome parade; tots in Mickey Mouse ears, pubescent gamers inhabiting Fortnite skins, hapless dogs humiliatingly costumed as bumble bees, cats, and dinosaurs. Helicopter Parents loom large; themselves gleefully costumed to steal the thunder of youth. Surreptitiously pinching Snickers, Skittles and Reeses Peanut Butter Cups from their progeny’s non-biodegradable plastic pumpkin candy pails, buckets, and bags.

     Call me a bitter old witch, but the only redeeming aspect of this pitiful procession are the witches. Witches continue to haunt the human imagination. Witches shall reign the planet centuries after this decade’s coterie of Unicorn Princesses, trademarked Super Heroes; and the toxic action figures, ballistic nylon backpacks, and store-bought polyvinyl chloride costumes they’ve spawned, have been reduced to landfill. Leaching toxins into Earth’s poisoned oceans, where Schools of discarded Spidey masks choke whales, and strangle starfish.

     Of all the witches in my witch history, the wicked witch who struck the deepest chord in my psyche, was Grimhalde, the exquisitely-evil, glamorously Gloria-Swanson-like creature, from Walt Disney’s 1937 masterpiece, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. “Mirror Mirror on the Wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

     Snow White? Horrors!  Despite her icy vanity, Grimhalde concocted and threw back a bubbling potion that turned her into an ugly old crone, replete with hooked nose, wart on chin, and rogue hair sprouting out of it. Who knew  I was destined for chin-hairs too? Children know nothing of the crows-feet and wrinkles waiting in the wings; of creaking bones, and old bag sags—poised to befall all who fail to kick the bucket quick enough. 

     I was five years old in 1959, seeing a movie at the “Movies” for my very first time. Accompanied by my mother and  sister, Ellen. Ensconced in upholstered seats among row upon row of upholstered seats in The Old Country Theatre, in Plainview, New York—fascinated by the unfamiliar and eager community of strangers who too, had come out in the night to see Snow White.

Mid 20th Century kids in homemade Halloween costumes. (Winterroth & Gennaro Family Archives)

     Impatient for the movie to start, I fiddled with my braids, observed other children without braids, but with bangs; or barrettes, curly locks, and fuzzy cru-cuts. All these other children with their parents, and popcorn, compare to us and our Raisinets. Finally, my person disappeared in the excitement of dimming lights that went pitch black.  All was as deeply inked out, as in those silent seconds before total darkness dissipates into the brownish-yellow, somewhat green, near impossible-to-define color blotches, that pulse behind closed eyelids. Except my eyes were open! Then suddenly filled with illumination reflecting off the giant screen, where I was soon to behold a magnificence of scenery I never imagined existed.

     Background art! Hand-painted in remarkable hues that shadow and shape a landscape. A chemical architecture of castles on cliffs, forests crawling with vines, dreamscapes mazed with corridors. There’s familiar comfort in noticing the backdrop details that elucidate the character of a place; the poetic lean of the mop rested against a wall, the weariness of a wooden bucket in a humble cottage. An arrogant cobweb swung like a rope bridge across a corner of the ceiling, seductively threatening to collapse.  A mouse hole.

   “Don’t eat it! We children tried to warn Snow White off the shiny red apple in the witches bony claw. “It’s poison!” Powerless against the velocity of evil, we watched helplessly as Snow White bit into the poison apple that doomed the maiden to deathlike sleep in a glass coffin. This inspired a nightmare of my own. I dreamed the witch Grimhalde was descending a stone castle staircase, coming to get me!

      It was a lucid dream. I knew I was dreaming, so I turned my head and rested the other side of my face on the pillow, dramatically changing the scene. Now I was watching two gigantic brown bears in yellow and red satin shorts, pummelling each other in a smoke filled boxing ring, cheered on by cigar-chomping bald headed men urging the bears to fight to the death. So I turned my face back to the other side, but now the terrifying witch who had proceeded in real time, was that much closer! What to do?! Focus on the beastly bear fight? Or surrender to the witch? I screamed! But nothing came out! I screamed again, even harder, but the more
 I screamed the less I could be heard, until my panic reached a sleep shattering crescendo—a mirror cracked! This woke me up. My heart beating like that of a frightened sparrow captured in the terrifying clasp of a giant’s hand.

The witch had  proceeded  in real time and was that much closer!

     When I grew up, I attended the State University of New York Fredonia, where I toured in a children’s theatre production of “Pegora the Witch”. I played one of seven princesses, a role dwarfed by that of Pegora—the Witch. I transferred to the State University of New York in Cortland where I was cast in hokum about a witch coven entitled “Dark of the Moon”. I played Conjuror Woman. Aha! This was more like it! Sadly, no actual covens existed on campus, so I joined the sorority Nu Sigma Chi and participated in the Beta Frolic’s send up of  “The Wizard Oz”. Alas, the role of the Wicked Witch was snatched up by a senior sister, leaving me no choice but to play Glinda, the Good Witch.  

     Shortly after that, I dropped out of college, and moved into New York City to enchant the larger world with my magical talents. I was twenty years old and determined to turn myself into a star overnight.    

     My fourth grade friend and fellow actor, Faljian (fortune teller in Armenian) enticed me to join her at the Metropolitan Opera where they were hiring supernumeraries. Aka “spear holders”, the opera version of an extra—What enticed me to join the ranks of human scenery gracing the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House aside from the fact that I would be on stage at the Met, was Faljian dangling Tony Randall, a witty actor famous as Felix Unger in the television adaptation of the 1965 play The Odd Couple by Neil Simon. Mr. Randall was a huge opera buff, who according to Lynne Faljian Taylor occasionally joined the ranks as a supernumerary. We might meet him in person! “Making it” was about “who you know”, and just think! We might get to know Tony Randall! On our first call Faljian and gathered on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House with the other supernumeraries to be cast as Nobles, Knights, Guards, Monks, Priests and Penitents, Warriors, Virgins, Children, Spirits,Courtiers, Populace; when to my utter thrill, the Director selected me out  to play a non-singing role!

     I was to portray the Princess Bathilde, who would elegantly saunter across the expansive stage, sung on by the Metropolitan Opera chorus in a procession of courtiers, ladies in waiting and footmen. I was being presented as a gift in marriage to the leading man, Roland, who would reject me because he was under the spell of Esclaremonde. At which point I was to fall into a dramatic swoon. Lifting my hand to my forehead without allowing my enormous damask sleeves to block my face, or toppling the two ton two foot wig crowning my head like the leaning Tower of Piza. 

     Heartbroken by rejection, I’d  collapse into the arms of the chorus. Imagine, being rejected on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House! Rejected in a temple where the voices of the world’s greatest singers, composers, musicians, scenic, lighting and costume designers resonate in the seasoned woodwork. What an honor! No rejection could ever top this! Perhaps it was an omen, that from now on I would be cast in everything I auditioned for and never be rejected again! Of course only an  astonishing  Sorceress could secure a spell of such good luck. Alas, Dame Sutherland had already granted one wish for me. She had autographed my libretto so I would just have to cross my fingers and count my  lucky stars.

    The next opera was Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, with its renowned 1967 Chagall sets and costumes. Alas, The Queen of the Night, like Esclaremonde, ruled supreme in this magical opera. I was demoted  from a Princess to a goat. My role was to wave my hoofs on the mountain where The Queen of the Night sang her aria. The mountain was tall, steep and populated by supernumeraries costumed as Chagall creatures like myself. We hung onto the mountain by handles as it moved downstage.

The gigantic rubber mask I had to wear over my head smelled like the bottom of our backyard swimming pool liner. It was rank and suffocating in there. As the mountain moved  forward, the floor of the stage beneath it, dropped away and you could see many feet down to a lower level under the stage. If you fell off the mountain it could be curtains! Broken legs, hoofs, snout and who knows what! As the orchestra played and the gorgeous voice of the queen rang out, my contac lense inhaled particles looming. Suddenly a sharp pain like a knife stab pierced my eye. I squeezed my eyes shut in agony. Reflexively raising my hand to my face, I let go of the handle. I felt myself falling off the mountain.

I tried to grab something to hold onto, but the mountain side was a moulded form. A silhouette of my goat body splayed in the bowels of the stage flashed in purple blotches under my squeezing eyelids , when a mysterious power guided my hand  back to the handle in the split of a second! I saw the blur of the Queen of the Night’s feet through my the nostril holes of my rubber goat head.  Saved!  But still in the grip of a  eye clenching agony, seconds passed as hours in hell. Mercifully the aria ended  in applause that sent the mountain receding  back upstage.  Behind the site lines, we removed our animal heads; like one  chimera dismounting  the mountain.

     The adventure was a dramatic come down from my heights of swooning glory as Princess Bathilde only an opera ago! When the production of “The Magic Flute” ended,  I put my supernumerary days behind me. Faljian and I never did see Tony Randall, but the sepia figure of my twenty one year self luxuriously robed and balancing a very tall wig on my head,  as I fell into the arms of the Metropolitan Opera chorus, imprinted my soul. She rises over my memory like the golden scrim on that historic stage. 

In the years since, I’ve played a variety of witchy villains and even voiced a couple of bears—wearing boxing shorts and beating each other to death—not. I’ve inhabited to role of a Grandmother Bear and her grandson Archie, sending the little bear gently off to dreamland, with a bedtime story that was not scary.

Good Night Sleep Tight. Audio book narrated by Jane Gennaro

AFTERTHOUGHT

March 14, 2020

Life is in the details of the everyday. That diamond of sunlight sparkling on my shiny long tweezers, as I  extract a brain from the skull of a chipmunk my cat Faccia killed. Visions of Disney chipmunks, sweeping dirt under the rug of the Seven Dwarf’s cottage, with their fluffy tails, to help Snow White tidy up the place. Animals are sentient persons, just as dwarfs, witches, princes and paupers and trees are persons. As auditions and bookings have dwindled, my art inspirits the expired and like nature itself invites humans to accept and understand that each of us and all of us are Mother Nature’s creatures. 

I honor the big lives in small bodies as art. When my feral cat Faccia drops a mouse or vole at my feet, as if to say “This is what you should be eating” I drop the rodent into a  jar of  CVS 99% rubbing alcohol. In this state of suspended animation, the individuality of the specimen, be it chipmunk, mole, frog or vole is affirmed and celebrated. Each creature makes a contribution. Each critter is a sacred  link in the chain of life on our planet.