Jeanne Fleming’s kitchen is abuzz with folks making soup and cappuccinos, and coming and going with materials that need the woman-of-the-house’s approval. We’re less than two weeks away from Halloween, and this is nerve center for the biggest bash of that auspicious day: the 40th annual Village Halloween Parade down in New York City – a year after the event was postponed for the first time due to Hurricane Sandy.
On the kitchen table are a multitude of narrow strips of colored paper, each with a name on it. This is the parade’s lineup, and according to Fleming, all the slips of paper add up to 60,000 parade participants. The crowd watching live come next Thursday, for those unaware of such things, will be well over 10 million.
“You have to think of the community. You have to think of public safety, what the cops need, where everybody is at any moment and everyone’s individual needs,” Fleming’s saying in between consultations with everyone coming and going. “You have to keep everyone safe and everyone happy.”
Outside, crowds of folks are making dancing skeletons, large masks, parade flags. It’s a brilliant cool October afternoon, and the Hudson River glistens in the distance. We are at Rokeby, the historic, well-lived-in former home of the Astors, now 200 years old (and also known as La Bergerie). Fleming has lived in the old dairyman’s cottage for 44 years, and says that she couldn’t do all that she does if it weren’t for this place and the sense of deep community and support that it provides her. In addition to the Halloween parade, for nearby Rhinebeck’s annual Sinterklaas event in early December and various other pageants, from the Statue of Liberty’s centennial to Harbor Fests up and down the East Coast, Fleming’s the mistress of organizing and making shine.
Fleming is 68 and full of stories, as well as tons of details and dreams and plans. She moved to the area in her late teens, following a sojourn at the University of Southern California from her home in Pennsylvania (her parents owned a funeral home), where she married her professor, who got transferred to Bard College. She studied Medieval History and Literature, got her first big gig organizing cultural events for a consortium of Hudson valley colleges in the 1970s and eventually started creating pageants at Rokeby that started drawing audiences in the thousands.
Along the way, she helped start River Arts Repertory, a major regional theater experiment. She supported herself with a line of scarves with hands on each end, made famous when Sammy Davis, Jr. danced with one on a television special. She was the first to make and sell fairy dust wands, and was handed the parade that has become her life for 28 years from its founder, Ralph Lee, an old friend and collaborator who respected all that she did. They immediately brought in Bread & Puppet Theater, who had had a falling-out with Lee (and later with her, following a 9/11 piece that she asked to be left out, given its politics at a tender time).
“My work has always been more mythic than political,” Fleming says. “I go for a less folksy feel.”
As we walk around Rokeby and her home there, Fleming points out the masses of art materials that she keeps for various projects. There are stars and hobbyhorses and crowns and strange magical costumes for Sinterklaas – originally started as Old Dutch Christmas when Rhinebeck needed a boost after losing its crafts fair to elsewhere; the many paintings that she prefers over printed matters for publicity purposes; old puppets and mementos from years of pageantry work. The many events that she has staged at Rokeby are commemorated not in photos or video, but in series of plates that she uses for special dinners and for the charrette planning sessions that Fleming prefers to put her monumental projects together.
The personal nature of all that she does comes to light as her 23-year-old son Jordan enters the room and she speaks of his bout with cancer starting at the age of 9, how his kidney transplant was originally scheduled for the same day as last Halloween’s pushed-back parade, both later canceled, and how much lighter she feels since he has started on the mend since last spring. This year’s hero at the parade will be Jordan’s kidney donor.
She notes how the Grumpuses who make each year’s new Sinterklaas so much fun came about at a Rhinebeck village meeting, where the myth’s original Black Peters were nixed by a worried crowd and she demanded a curmudgeonly board member “as my hostage.” “Everyone started yelling and then he said he’d do it, but only if the town attorney was also a Grumpus,” she recalled. “Now there are 19 village elders doing these crazy dances in costume each year.”
We agree to get back to Sinterklaas in a month’s time, as more folks come and go with bits and pieces of the parade needing attention. The head of the Gay Men’s Chorus stops in after a motorcycle ride north, needing to take photos of some costumes. He was in the area for a Bard College meeting; he’s one of the school’s governors. A couple from Greenwich Village stop in to see Fleming’s husband Harlan, whom she married at a Khumba Mela celebration in India 24 years earlier, which she visited after doing the Statue of Liberty gig. “Everyone said I should see it, since they had crowds of 20 million and we’d only had 12 million,” she says with a hearty laugh.
We talk about Occupy Wall Street, which she accommodated in the parade two years ago, and how she loves to “live life at its fullest every moment.” We ask Jeanne Fleming what else she wants to do beyond the parade, Sinterklaas and the various other events that fill her life each year. She looks over at Jordan and blows him a kiss. She speaks about how hard it can be when one’s child is sick. And then she tells me of meeting an older woman years ago and asking her how she maintained momentum. “She said she just does that next thing, and does it as well as possible,” Fleming said. “I just do whatever comes along, and usually it comes out of what I’ve done before.”
And the theme of this year’s parade, we ask? “Revival,” Fleming replies. “And the full meaning of that hasn’t been lost on me.”