Jack-o-lanterns displayed in Rhode Island zoo exhibit

Posted: Sunday, October 27, 2002

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Never in his wildest dreams did Charlie Brown's pal, Linus, imagine a pumpkin patch quite like this one.

More than 5,000 jack-o-lanterns, including 200 pumpkins intricately carved in the likeness of characters ranging from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Alice in Wonderland, grace a three-acre woodland and wetlands trail at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I.

Arranged in 22 themed ''sketches,'' the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular leads visitors on a mystical journey through history, fantasy and nostalgia. Strains of an aria from Mozart's ''Marriage of Figaro'' play against a patch of jack-o-lanterns that seem to hover above the wetlands lake. Reflected in the water, the flickering images of the great composer surrounded by carvings of period instruments and musical notes appear to drift off into the moonlit night.

Turn around, and a haunting melody from the rock group Moody Blues accompanies an ethereal display of jack-o-lanterns carved to depict ancient Egypt, complete with pharaohs and hieroglyphics.

A little farther down the trail, Enyas songs from the movie ''The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring'' provide a fitting soundtrack for the Middle Earth vignette and its smoldering volcano.

The creator of this extraordinary event is John Reckner, an unassuming letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in Massachusetts.

''Sixteen years ago, our family was on vacation in northern Vermont,'' Reckner says. ''While there, we saw a hillside display of 300 jack-o-lanterns, and we decided that we'd like to reinvent the display closer to home.''

So, Reckner, along with his wife, Helga, their 30-year-old son, Travis, and 22-year-old daughter, Kim, have worked on the show with a group of about two dozen of their neighbors, relatives and friends since the first one was staged in their hometown of Oxford, Mass. in 1988.

Not surprisingly, Reckner, his son and daughter have all attended art school -- he in Cincinnati, and his children in Massachusetts. Son Travis is a chef at Rialto restaurant in Boston, while daughter Kim is still in school.

Work on the show begins in January, when the crew meets to select themes for the 20-plus vignettes. Beginning in mid-September when the large pumpkins ripen, each member of the crew takes four to six weeks off from his or her job to work, literally, around the clock on creating the jack-o-lanterns.

''During the three-week period leading up to the show, our pumpkin carvers work from 9 in the morning until midnight every single day,'' Reckner says. ''Among the 5,000 jack-o-lanterns, we have about 200 intricate portraits of famous people and detailed scenes. It can take up to half a day to finish just one of these.''

The time and effort put into each carving is obvious. Not as obvious to the visitor is that, over the course of the event's three-week run, each of the 5,000 jack-o-lanterns will need to be replaced an average of three times due to decay.

The largest pumpkins -- a 600-pound tribute to the Superbowl champion New England Patriots and the 1,100-pound depiction of world peace -- are not gutted, and are expected to last throughout the show. For these, designs are carved on the outside and special exterior lighting is used to illuminate them.

Reckner buys these mega gourds from local New England farmers who specialize in growing mammoth pumpkins.

''This year I bought 20 pumpkins in the 500-plus pound range at a cost of about $6,000. At the end of the show, I need to return them to the individual farmers,'' he says. ''They harvest the seeds and can sell them at a very high price.''

Over the years, the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular has become increasingly elaborate, growing from several hundred to several thousand pumpkins and enhanced with theatrical lighting, music and special effects.

The move from Massachusetts to the Roger Williams Park Zoo in 2001 allowed Reckner to place the show in a magical woodland setting, where the centerpiece is the Tree of Light. Each tree is strung with 300 tiny jack-o-lanterns and surrounded by a patch of hundreds more in myriad shapes and sizes.

Across the path is a tribute to comedians, a depiction of ''The Nutcracker'' ballet, and Pumpkin-ville, USA, where model trains whiz along their tracks, accompanied by the voices of children singing ''I've Been Working on the Railroad.'' Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams is commemorated in a Field of Dreams, and Alice joins the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit and others in a Wonderland pumpkin patch.

Last year's Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular drew 80,000 visitors and, depending on the weather, is expected to draw an even larger crowd this year. It serves as a fund-raiser for the zoo, with proceeds supporting the construction of new exhibits and zoo improvements.

The event runs from 6 p.m.-11 p.m. nightly through Halloween. Depending on weather and other conditions, the zoo may decide to hold it over through the weekend of Nov. 3.

What will Reckner and his crew do when it's all over? Go to Disney World, perhaps, like the Superbowl Champs?

''I think were going to do what we did last year,'' he grins. ''Drive out to Saratoga Springs for a few days and sit in hot mineral baths.''



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