New Yorker Spotlight: Behind the Scenes and Screams with Clinton Hill’s Halloween Queen, Janna Kennedy Hyten

Posted On Fri, October 31, 2014 By

Posted On Fri, October 31, 2014 By In Features, holidays, Interviews, New Yorker Spotlight, People

Photo by Chris Franko

When Janna Kennedy Hyten was growing up in rural Florida, she probably never envisioned the crowds that would one day gather outside her Brooklyn home for Halloween 313. At the time, Janna’s physical world was small, but her imagination was large and primed to create the wonder, joy, and gore necessary to captivate thousands of children each Halloween.

Halloween 313 began 20 years ago when Janna opened her home at 313 Clinton Avenue to Clinton Hill‘s children. Over the last two decades, what began as elaborate Halloween decorations on the home’s exterior, developed into an annual, full-fledged, front yard production with fun names and storylines like “Grimm Scary Tale,” “Pirates of the Scarebbean, The Curse of the White Pearl,” and “20,000 Screams Under the Sea.”

We recently spoke with Janna to find out more about the woman and home behind Halloween 313.

nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn halloween 313, nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn, halloween 313Janna’s team setting up and testing out makeup. Photos by Chris Franko

Do you know the home’s history?

Yes, actually, that’s who is in the coffin in the other room. Her name is Susie B. Crimmins and she was married to Albert Gould Jennings, who built the house in 1882. The Jennings were lace manufacturers from Pennsylvania. In fact, Albert had a factory right down on Hall Street, and the very ironic thing is that some friends of mine took us through a tour of Greenwood Cemetery and the great big tombstone there is Albert’s father, Abraham Gould Jennings.

There are some very interesting stories about the house. The original owners were married for 10 years when the husband filed for divorce. He was in Paris at the time and wanted to leave his wife because she showed far too independent a spirit and was accepting invitations without his permission. They had the marriage annulled, but they had children. From what I found out recently about the house, they had a debut party for the daughter here and they had 600 people on this parlor floor. The largest party I have had is 300-350 and that was shoulder to shoulder, so I can’t even imagine. I know the Victorians had a lot of furniture, as do I, but it blows my mind.

nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn halloween 313, nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn, halloween 313, janna kennedy hytenWe also found out recently that this was not their primary residence. It’s in Manhattan and The Marymount School is where their home was. A woman who lived on the third floor actually taught there. There are a lot of very weird links to this home.

I met a clairvoyant who came here in the ’60s and was friends with someone that lived in the house. She was sitting on the stoop when her eight-year-old son went inside to use the bathroom. He went up to the second floor rear and said he saw a woman in a long white nightgown staring out the back window. So he comes running down the stairs to tell his mother that she looked like a ghost and was very fair and very pale.

Years later, she came to New York and actually came to the house. She walked in and put her hands on the wall and felt for vibrations—and she brought her son, who is in his mid-40s now, and he said “I absolutely do remember seeing her.” I think the previous landlords that lived here actually thought there were ghosts in the house. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I sure have fun making them.

Have you always been passionate about Halloween?

As a kid, I lived out in the middle of nowhere. We lived five miles from town. It was a small neighborhood at the time. There were only a few kids I grew up with. Back in those days, it was the same kids from kindergarten all the way through high school. I remember going trick-or-treating with my mom a few times wearing fabulous costumes that my grandmother and mother made.

In Florida, because it’s so hot, it didn’t cool down until October 31st, and then there would be this change in the air. I always had a big imagination as a kid and I played by myself a lot, but I could always find things to do. Riding my bike on Halloween night was probably the most fun. It was fun to be outside in the dark. Where I lived was very dark and there were only porch lights on the houses.

I don’t think it was until I was in college that Halloween really started to click for me. I’ve always been interested in making costumes because I learned to sew when I was about 13. Today, when I get an idea for a costume there is no stopping me. When I made a Marie Antoinette costume for my 50th birthday that was really fun. I had a party where I invited everyone as royalty.

nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn halloween 313, nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn, halloween 313Janna’s crew prepping the home last weekend 

Halloween 313’s origins have a lot to do with the neighborhood. What factors led to its creation?

1994 was the first year we were not afraid to have Halloween here. When we moved here in ’86, it was really scary and not safe. I would try to get home before dark. I would not get off the G train at night. ’94 was sort of the first year that we felt like “OK, this is safe enough.” It was the first year my daughter trick-or-treated and the first year the Society for Clinton Hill established the Halloween walk for children. They passed out maps over on Hall Street and it was just a small group of homes that handed out candy.

At the time, there were maybe eight couples that stayed in the neighborhood and had children. Everybody was packing up and leaving. We were heavily graffitied back then. It really didn’t change until late ’90s. I remember when we bought the house in 2001. It was a year or so before things started changing. We started to see more and more people renovating and gardens being put in.

How did the event develop from decorations to shows?

The house got the name the “Haunted Mansion” long before we did Halloween. I got my friends involved and the very first year we built a 16-foot Jack Skellington. We are all artists and a lot of my friends are theatre people. Suddenly, we started noticing people in the neighborhood walking up and saying, “Oh, I do this” or “I have a shop around the corner.” We realized we had neighbors that have facilities to build what we needed. They just walked up and said, “Do you need help?”

When I was doing it, I was decorating the house and throwing a party. When tenants, neighbors, and friends became involved then we started to have awesomely written shows and then we added a stage. We have a core group with 10-12 people. They come and go. This year, I inherited someone new. They simply spread the word. In 2004, we had a 55-foot space ship on the lawn. That attracted the young man that moved in two doors down who became our scenic designer. He came running over. I’ll never forget this. He said, “I so want to be apart of this!”

halloween 313 brooklynSeamstress Kerri, hard at work on costumes last weekend

Who is Halloween 313’s core group?

Marc Ashmore, Tombstones
Andrew Watts, Writer
Claudia Howard, Director, Song Stylist, and Sound Editor
Matt Duncan, Set Design
Larry Heintis, Set Construction First Mate
Katie Luscombe, Social Media
Daniel Thompson, Costumes and Props
Emily Wasserman, Head Fundraiser
Deanna DeMaglie, Props and Painting
Sandro Guiliani, Painting
Kerri Besse, Seamstress

Over the years, how has the event changed?

Well, the first year that we did it Halloween was on like a Friday night and that Saturday night I had a party. What was interesting is that we decked out the parlor and turned it into a haunted mansion. We had a table with a hole in it so we had a headless diner. There was also a coffin and a guillotine. That year maybe topped out at about 75 kids. And then they told 75 of their best friends, and the next year I swear there were cars coming from the Bronx and Long Island dumping the kids off in front of the house. It wasn’t until 2004 that we did our first show after a new tenant moved upstairs the year before. She wrote the first show.

What was the first show?

The very first show we did was with all the new owners of the condo. It was an absolute blast and it was called “Zombie Science School for Ghouls.” It was an all-improv show done in the front yard with an autopsy table out there with blood pumping through it. We had MRIs on an old box spring. It was just so much fun because we didn’t know what was going to happen and it was just hilarious. People are still talking about that one. That’s the show they always bring up because it was the goriest. It was the first and only show that we had so much carnage, blood, guts and gore. There were kids under 10 years old and they were captivated. Once we started having shows, that got us off the lawn and up onto the stage.

nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn halloween 313, nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn, halloween 313Janna and her crew dressed up for last year’s Halloween 313 celebration. Photos by Chris Franko

How do kids react to the shows?

It’s all over the place. I had an opportunity during two different shows to be in the audience and listen to the silence, which was amazing. They are just listening because all the parents are reading to children now and children are tuned in. They know what’s going on.

Why do you think Halloween is so popular in Clinton Hill?

I was told by Roslyn Huebener, who started the Society for Clinton Hill’s Annual Halloween Walk, that the first the walk was done for the realtors in the neighborhood. The same reason the house tour was set up—to let people come in and out of the homes and see what was going on.

Even back in ’94 when there were only a handful of families, Roslyn was aware that families didn’t have a place to go on Halloween. The only place to go back then was in Park Slope nearby her office. She thought she could do the same thing for Clinton Hill and she did. Roslyn single-handedly conquered the whole thing with the Society by buying the candy and supplying the homes with it so the children would have places to go. She does that to this day. She supplies several thousands of pieces of candy because we get 4,000–5,000 kids and their parents. Just imagine, you are a small homeowner where are you going to get that much candy? She even brings us candy.

Over the years, it grew and it grew. But I think what helped instigate it is what I do, what Pam Fleming does—honestly, she started her gig long before we did—around the corner with her show on Waverly Avenue, and what Michael Fink does on Vanberbilt Avenue in his “Purple Manor.”

halloween 313A taste of tonight. Photo by Chris Franko

Do you select a costume each Halloween?

The last time I actually did that was the very first Halloween 313. I was Michael Jackson and my husband was Elvis coming back from the grave because it was the year Michael married Lisa Marie.

This year’s show is called “Nightmare on Clinton Avenue.” Can you give any insights into the production?

We are pulling out all the stops this year. We have a lot of big surprises. I guess a tidbit I can offer up is that this year’s show mirrors the history of what’s gone on here for the last 20 years. That’s about all I can say.

How early do you start planning for next year’s show?

While we are working on the Halloween at hand we will make comments about what we want to do for the next year. In January, I send an email out to start planning. It’s the first reunion of the group after the holidays.

What has it meant to share your front lawn for 20 years?

I have always felt like it’s not just my home. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love this home, but I also want to share it. When people come in, I want them to sit down and put their feet up. Mi casa es su casa. If I didn’t feel that way, I couldn’t let perfect strangers walk in for parlor sales in my home. I feel blessed and lucky that I am in this home. I think in the greater things of the universe there is a reason why I am here and keep this going. I have had a lot of encouragement from friends and neighbors.

+++

Halloween 313 Presents “Nightmare on Clinton Avenue”
313 Clinton Avenue,
Clinton, Hill Brooklyn
TONIGHT, October 31st; shows start at 5:00 p.m. and run every half hour

Be sure to check out our gallery below, and Halloween 313’s Facebook page for even more photos!

nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn halloween 313, nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn, halloween 313

nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn halloween 313, nightmare on clinton avenue brooklyn, halloween 313

[This interview has been edited]

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Neighborhoods : Clinton Hill

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