John Reckner may be known statewide as the creator of the annual Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park Zoo, but he has earned another affectionate moniker among his family and friends.
“They also call Johnny ‘The Lord of the Gourds,” Steve Curll said with a laugh. “Even though he’s not very fond of the nickname.”
Reckner and his crew were at the zoo for the 18th year in a row to kick off the spooky local staple last Thursday night, and they spoke briefly about the dedication and chaos of the craft.
Curll said the team lost count of how many pumpkins are scattered around the zoo, estimating the figure to be more than 4,000. Half of those gourds sit above spectators in the trees, as Curll said they went through quite a few Christmas wire sockets and bulbs.
“Some of the intricate pumpkins take up 18 hours to draw, and then some of them just as long to carve, depending how much detail is in there,” Curll said. “It depends on what the picture is, how much detail there is in it and how spot-on accurate they want to get it.”
This year’s theme was the Four Seasons, with each section of the spectacular featuring pumpkins depicting zodiac signs and holidays for each time of year. There was also a pumpkin dedicated to the late Nicholas Cardi Jr. in the memorial section toward the end of the trail.
One particular display of which the men were exceedingly proud was the 1,700-pound pumpkin that sported a painting of the famous image of Marines raising an American flag at Iwo Jima. They said it took 24 hours to create.
“Definitely Iwo Jima,” Dillinger Gates said when asked which pumpkin was his favorite on the trail. “I have a great-grandfather that fought in Iwo Jima, so it’s kind of sentimental.”
The Iwo Jima pumpkin wasn’t even the largest on-site, as Curll noted there was a 1,965-gourd still being carved as walked off the path. Reckner marveled at how fast pumpkins can grow, saying that they are only the size of a baseball in July.
“I don’t think there’s anything on earth that grows that fast,” he said.
Curll said the crew went “a little chaotic” with decorating the bridges this time around, also adding that there are more props this year than in previous installments. The workdays can be hectic, though, as they work toward the goal of one-upping themselves.
Reckner pointed out that Curll pulled a 13-hour shift on his birthday, Oct. 2, the day before the spectacular was set to open. Curll said the work goes on essentially nonstop, as they crew gets about one month in the park to set up.
“Right after this one ends, pretty much,” Curll said regarding when preparation for the next year begins. “We start to brainstorm and Johnny and all the guys get together and they figure out the plan for next year and once the summer starts rolling around, we start building stuff. They start ordering little things here and there, all spring and all summer, and then end of July, beginning of August we start really cranking on getting stuff together.”
Curll said the workdays can last up to 15 hours, though sometimes they may be quicker than that. Thankfully, he said, rain held off for the most part. Despite the occasional inclement weather and arduous labor, Curll said it hardly feels like work.
“That’s the cool thing about this, you come to work here and you don't wake up thinking, ‘Oh, crap, I’ve got to go to work today,’” Curll said. “You wake up and you know you're going to go have some fun. Whether you enjoy building stuff, or carving pumpkins, or even just getting sloppy messy gutting them all, it’s a pretty good time. Everybody has fun, for the most part. We joke around, we make it a fun time.”
Curll said about 40 people work together to make the spectacular possible, including approximately 20 part-time and full-time artists. Not all of them are local, either, as they said artists from Arizona and Hawaii have flown in to contribute along the trail. Some even carve out most of their vacation time to create a design or provide aid in setting up.
“Then there’s about seven or eight pumpkin movers at the house that help out moving the stuff,” Curll said. “One guy was here today, he comes two or three days just to help out towards the end just to get everything buttoned up. There’s a couple guys who do that where, ‘Hey, can I get the day off today? ‘Yeah, why?’ ‘Oh, I’m going to go do some pumpkins.’ It’s a cool thing. Even when people go away, they still want to come back and take part.”
The year’s worth of planning and month-long design and staging process is over in a snap, though. Curll said he doesn’t realize how quickly it flies by, but once the spectacular ends on Nov. 3, the breakdown is much faster.
“Everything that goes up has to come down at the end,” Curll said. “Whatever’s not getting saved for next year, gets cut out and recycled or whatever. Pumpkins all go to compost and then they go to pig farmers and stuff, too.”
The days of toiling, both setting up the pumpkins and cleaning the trail afterward, are more than worth it to the crew. They are literally and figuratively family, between those who come from out of town and Curll getting to work with his cousins and other relatives.
After all, if it weren’t for family, Curll never would have known about the event in the first place.
“I’ve always loved Halloween, so when my cousin Matt said we’ve got this thing going on, you want to come hang out and help us out? I showed up and I was like, ‘Are you serious? This thing exists?’ I’ll do this every year,” Curll said. “Hell yeah, sign me up. It’s like being a kid.”
The cycle starts anew next month, but it’s clockwork now for the so-called Lord of the Gourds and his family of artists, carvers and contributors.
“Every year we have to come up with a new theme, so it’s all new images and so that’s a challenge,” Reckner said. “The same people come back every year. They take the time out of their lives to put this on.”
This year’s Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular runs through Nov. 3. For more information or tickets, visit rwpzoo.org/jols.