Thursday, May 31, 2012

Haunted Attractions: Part 3

This is the third in my haunted house series. The first two can be found here:

Haunted Attractions: Part 1
Haunted Attractions: Part 2

For the next five years following Grimmwood I worked designing in theme parks for Halloween. The work was steady, paid well, was low risk comparing to producing your own event, and allowed me huge creative freedom. Things wound down in 2008, and in 2009 I found myself once again with an empty barn to fill.

At this point, I was not interested in super-imposing something onto an existing structure. That is, I put a gothic manor house inside the last barn. This time, I wanted whatever was in there to make sense in the context of it being a barn.

Why was this farm "haunted"? Why were people going into the barn? What was in there?

I settled on an idea... that the farm had been contaminated by a meteor. Some sort of virus. Mutants, zombies, mayhem. At the time, there was an "incident" at a local theme park. People believed that they saw some sort of "ufo" in broad daylight. It was humorous, and the perfect thing to build upon.

So I just had to create my own video:

So... now we have a "What?" We also have a "Where?" (On the farm). We also have a "When?" The video above was posted August 4th (Nearly two months before our event would open).  Next up was the "Who?"

I decided that there would be two distinct groups. One to expose what was happening to the public, and another to try to cover it up. Thus were born PHRAWG (Paranormal Heuristic Research Awareness Group), and Darkwater Industries. For PHRAWG, I created a blog. For Darkwater, I created this poster:

The essence of the event was that Darkwater had taken over the entire farm, and was doing experiments, but due to the Freedom of Information Act and interference from the PHRAWG activists, the site was open to the public. Darkwater agents in hazmat suits lambasted you for being foolish enough enter the barn, and warned you that if you were contaminated they would have to kill you. Once in the barn, the "experiements" break free, and all hell ensues.

Something lurking overhead

Corpse "Re-vivification"
Human-Arachnid Hybrid

Human-Animal Hybrid

All in all, the event was very well received. Many people commented it was the best haunt they had ever been to. It was humorous, creepy, and scary as shit.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Haunted Attractions: Part 2

In my last post, Haunted Houses: Part 1, I outlined my path from 8 year old kid building models of horror monsters and decorating his bedroom with a spooky theme to being presented with an empty barn to fill for a professional Halloween haunted house.

Barn which housed Grimmwood Manor
I had been working in the Halloween business for a while, and one thing I wanted was a "theme" I could not only hang my "haunt" on, but could also take with me. There were haunts that had traditional victorian house themes. There were lunatic asylum themes. There were haunted hotel themes. There were even sci-fi themes. What was my theme to be?

I decided to pick up on an idea from video gaming. I had recently played the game Silent Hill 2, and that game had various spooky buildings in a town. I thought... what if my theme is an entire town, and this particular year's "haunt" is just one of those buildings in the town? I can vary the design from year to year if I want by focusing on a different building in the town. An so the town of Grimmwood was born. Grimmwood had a university, a hotel, an asylum, and a sprawling gothic house called Grimmwood Manor.
The town even had a vistior's pamphlet!

I decided that the audience were essentially like PCs in an RPG adventure. That is, a haunted house audience isn't like a movie audience, or a concert audience, or a theater audience. They are there not only to "watch" the show, but to be part of it. They can talk to actors, ask them questions, and be chased by them. So my story starts with an invitation, "left under your door"

It seems that you, the guest, are descended from someone who once lived in the town of Grimmwood, and for some reason, Professor Grimm wants to see you! But soon, another message is left!

50 points if you can identify the guy in the photo!

Upon arriving, (and buying your ticket and getting in line!) you are greeted by Dr. Payne, who fills you in on the rest of the story. 
Dr. Payne (right), a patient, and the butler peering out

It seems the good Professor has been a patient of Dr. Payne for some time, and is quite mad. He seems to think if he can recreate the events leading up to the night his uncle Victor died, he can contact Victor via a seance. It so happened Victor died on the night of his daughter Iris' wake, so they've dug up dear iris and placed her body in the parlour, just as it was!

Iris Grimm

Portrait of Victor Grimm
The tour of the house ends with a seance gone bad, and "something" summoned that shouldn't be there.

Something very tall summoned

Like my first spook house at the historic tavern, this event went over well with adults, as well as with older children. The middle group... the teenagers looking to get drunk and grope their girlfriends in the dark, were less enthused. It was a ton of fun to design and run, and I got many enthusiastic responses. I have to say I believe the thoroughness of design was a result of many years of designing and running RPG adventures.

I built the story on character devlopment. Each scene had a "host" character who would interact with the audience. Sometimes the audience would get chased out of a room, sometimes not. The actors were great at owning their character, and improvising their parts. Because like RPing, you really never know how your audience is going to react, and you have to be able to adapt to each individual situation.

Next: Incident at Froggy Bottom

Haunted Attractions: Part 1

I'm a haunted house designer. That is, I have designed "haunted houses" for theme parks, farms, and even a 270 year old tavern once owned by Patrick Henry's father-in-law. In the industry, they are called "haunted attractions".

When I graduated from high school, I really didn't know what to do with myself. I wound up getting a job at a local costume/magic shop I had been purchasing from for years.. Turned out, they weren't only a retail shop. They were one of the largest wholesalers in the country. They had warehouses that ran an entire city block.

The company was owned by a gentleman that once did "midnight spook shows" at theaters. I write about Phil in my "Magic of Fundraising" post. He was known as "Dr. Evil" way before Austin Powers ever came on the scene:

Dr. Evil

Dr. Evil (who I know as "Phil") was a haunted house enthusiast, and sold much merchandise to Jaycee groups around the country (to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per haunted house). He even co-wrote a book, "How to Operate a Financially Successful Haunted House"

I worked at this costume shop for three years, and had plenty of opportunity to look through that book, along with many other books on special effects makeup, horror movies, and things that go bump in the night. I knew that one day I would operate my very own haunted house.

Truth be told, I had been designing "haunted houses" since I was about 8 years old. I had almost every Aurora monster model that had been put out. Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy, Dracula, The Salem Witch, King Kong, Godzilla, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Forgotten Prisoner of Castle Mare. I used to "haunt" my bedroom on my summer vacations. I made my first coffin when I was 13, and got coffin handles for Christmas. I even slept in it one night. I was goth before goth was ever invented.

In 1994, my wife and I moved to Virginia, near Richmond. I heard about a place that did a "haunted history tour" the year before. It was a 270 year old tavern, where Patrick Henry was a bartender. I managed to get to a meeting of the board of directors (the tavern is owned by a preservation foundation). I asked them how much they made the year before. They told me $1000. I told them I would rent the building from them for $1000 if they let me produce my own haunted house there. And they did.

The Hanover Tavern
I had a stipulation placed upon me. The event had to feature the actual history of the tavern. This was to be an educational tour. So I did my research, and there was an interesting array of people who had stayed there. From Patrick Henry himself to General Cornwallis, George Washington, and P.T. Barnum. And so these were the ghosts you met. Cornwallis had come back to pay his bill... in the form of a hand reaching out from a grave, and a ghostly illusion of him materializing on the back porch. A ghost appeared warning you... projected onto a white bust of George Washington. And P.T. Barnum and an assemblage of dead clowns awaited you in the dining room... with your tour guide's head the main course!

What was cool to me about the attraction (and to many of our patrons) was that there were no chainsaws. There were no rubber masks. There were no teenage actors. This was a weird form of interactive theater, where adults were having a blast having the daylights scared out of them. I was in heaven.

The location was rather remote, and financially, it turned out not to be quite worth the effort I had put into it to make it work. It was several months worth of work, a fairly stout investment (not only did I rent the place, but bought the props, paid the actors, etc...), and quite exhausting. I was not ready to just jump in and do it again the following year.

However, in 1999, a local radio station wanted to do a haunted house. They had a venue they used for concerts in the middle of Richmond. They hired me to design and direct it, but in the 11th hour the city shut them down due to building code issues. Well... didn't quite shut them down. The station just didn't want to spend the $150,000 to bring the building up to the city's demands. I had a blast designing it. It was called the Fright Factory.

The premise was that you were entering the lab of a scientist working on a time machine. The lab has been destroyed.  He is on recorded video, talking about his experiments. But as he is explaining the machine, something goes wrong... a portal opens, and he is grabbed by a demon. As you leave the lab through the portal, you are sent through time to various different locations... from Poe's reading room to an egyptian tomb to a victorian graveyard, and finally a Hellraiser type of chaos... winding back in the pristine laboratory. The professor unscathed... wondering how you got there... just as the demon comes to whisk him away.

The following year, I found myself decorating for Kings Dominion Fearfest. Then in 2002 I designed and directed Busch Garden's Sea Dog Cemetery (zombie pirates!). By this time, I had gotten quite good at making props. I had been doing film and theater for about 10 years.

Impaled corpse for Busch Gardens

In 2003 I decide to make a go of it on my own again. A local farm was already doing a Halloween event, and let me use one of their barns. I got the local Ren Faire to provide most of the actors. This is the year Grimmwood was born.

Next up, Grimmwood Manor in Haunted Attractions: Part 2

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Arts Organizations vs. Artists

If you've been following my blog for any length of time, you have probably noticed a recurring theme... that of "arts organizations" vs. "artists".

I see the role of an arts organization as being twofold:

1) To bring arts to the community
2) To financially support artists, so they can actually create the art that is being brought to the community.

Too many times I see business models which rely on the artists supporting the organization, rather than the organization supporting the artists. Arts administrators for organizations often get paid far more than the artists working for those organizations. Organizations rationalize costs for materials, advertising, promotions, and administration, but somehow can't justify actually paying visual and performing artists a fair wage for their time.

We live in a time when the process of art creation is continually devalued. Over an over again I see the phrase "it will be great for your portfolio!" or "you will get plenty of exposure!"

The problem is, if everyone thinks like this, the only thing exposure will be good for is getting more non-paying work. It is like Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."

What does this mean in practical terms? Don't do anything you wouldn't want everyone else to do. If you are asking someone to work for free, assume everyone else is also asking that person to work for free.  From the artists perspective, what good does it do for you to perform for free in front of 10,000 people, other than to let 10,000 people know you are willing to perform for free?

It is high time for artists and arts organizations to re-evaluate their relationships. Self sustaining business models must be created that allow for artists to prosper, so that they can afford to bring arts to their community.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Boy Grows in Brooklyn

The post I put up on Trees and Small Towns made me a bit nostalgic, and got me thinking about how neighborhood in big cities are very similar to small towns.

When I was six months old, my parents moved to Brooklyn, NY, right around the corner from where my mother grew up. The neighborhood is Borough Park, and I lived on 18th Avenue, half a block away from McDonald Avenue. We lived over a Deli, and we walked to school.

18th Ave is the street on the right. I lived where the third building is.
The original we lived in was destroyed by a gas explosion sometime in the 1980's I think.
That fire alarm on the corner is the same one that tempted me nearly every day, 40 years ago.

McDonald is very similar to New Utrecht Ave, which is where the train chase scene in the French Connection was filmed. We used to walk to the corner and ride the train to Coney Island. It was just like in the movie. Minus the guy with the gun. And the car below chasing us. And the wreck at the end.


 My grandparents' house. My mother, her three sisters, and her brother grew up in the house with the two white chairs on the stoop.

The red brick building is "new". My grandparents owned that lot also, and had peach trees and a grape vine growing there. I have hostas growing in my yard that came from that house. I can't imagine losing all the light on that side of the house. How depressing.

My brothers and I used to walk to school every day, from the time I was six. My brothers would have been 8 and 9. The church and school are on opposite corners from each other. Cub Scout meetings were in the church basement.

Holy Ghost Church, where I received my First Communion. Now they call it Holy Spirit.
I attended Holy Ghost Catholic School from 1st to 4th grades. Again, now they call it Holy Spirit. Google maps tells me the walk from our apartment to the school was a third of a mile. I walk further than that to my mailbox now.
It seemed like everybody in the neighborhood knew who we were. Whether you walked to the bakery across the street to pick up a loaf of fresh baked Italian bread, went down to the Deli on the corner, just talked to neighbors as you walked by, or made friends with Woody (the biggest German Shepard you've ever seen in your life), there was never any sense of being alone in a big city. It was in effect, a "little town", where you could travel from one side to the other in under 10 minutes.

Of course it didn't hurt that my grandfather was a very prominent man in the neighborhood. I don't know if I really thought about this until now. He had lived there for many years... since my mother was a girl. I'm sure that most of the neighborhood knew we were his grandkids, and were watching out for us.

It really is all just variation on a theme. I've lived in the midst of one of the largest cities in the world with a population of about 2.6 million people. I've lived in mid-sized cities and small towns. And now I live in a rural area, with three wooded acres, a pond out back, and horses for neighbors (no pun intended). And in many ways they are all the same. Whether "next door" is the building which shares a wall with you, or it is 1/4 mile down the road, a "town" is a state of mind, and we are all neighbors.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

How Much is Your Time Worth?

I continued to be intrigued and puzzled over the attitudes many non-profits have regarding the value of time. I have seen accounting managers fret over $5.00 in undocumented expenses, and wring hands over $20 in cost overruns. I have seldom seen anyone worry about labor overruns.

I'll give you a concrete example. Let's take a typical state sales tax exemption form such as this:

Most non profit groups like you to bring these forms with you when you go shopping, and have the store manager fill in their info. The problem is, most sales clerks are not familiar with such a form, and it usually takes a while to round up the manager. Suffice it to say that 15 minutes is a realistic time frame for filling out such a form in a typical retail store.

Now, let say I am running around  shopping for an event or a production, and dropping $20 here, $30 there, maybe sometimes less than $10.00. Virginia has a 5% general sales tax. So, on a $20 purchase, I would be saving the non-profit group $1.00.

If I were running a business, and paying an employee say, $16 an hour to run around shopping, it would not make sense for me to have that employee fill out one of these forms for any less than $4.00 in savings. (actually more than that, because the real cost to my business of having an employee whom I pay $16 an hour is at least double that). So, it wouldn't make any sense for me to have him/her stand around for 15 minutes unless the money being saved exceeds the money I am paying to have that person to stand around for those 15 minutes. In real terms, this would be a $160 purchase.

However, non profit mentality tends to be that your time is worthless. You are expected to stand there for however long it takes to save the organization even ten cents. If you are in a contracted or flat salary position to execute a project, this means that your hourly rate drops dramatically.

On a similar note, if the scope of a project is increased there will typically be fretting over the materials budget but zero consideration into any extra labor involved, unless it threatens to keep a project from being completed by a given deadline. $20 extra in material can be considered more of a burden than 20 hours extra in labor.

So this question goes to both the artist, as well as the arts administrators and boards managing arts organizations. What is an artist's time worth? Is it minimum wage? $10 an hour? $20 an hour? How much does the highest paid person in your organization get? Is their salary supported by having numerous people below them working for scandalously low wages? Do you even keep track of the man-hours involved in your productions?

How much is YOUR time worth?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Major Earners in the Cultural World

The next time someone tosses the phrase "we're a non profit" in your face like it is either an excuse for having a crappy business plan which doesn't include actually paying you for the work you do, or as some sort of elitist one-uppance, here's some food for thought. I just came across this 2010 article from the New York times listing some of the highest earners among "cultural" non profits.

Institution                                                                      Name                                                                                Compensation
                                                                                                                                                                         (calendar year 2008
                                                                                                                                                                       unless otherwise noted)

Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation                       Thomas Krens                                                     $2,741,96

Metropolitan Opera                                                        Peter Gelb, general manager                           $1,345,000 (F.Y. 2010)

Museum of Modern Art                                                  Glenn Lowry, director                                         $1,320,000 (F.Y. 2009)

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts                       Reynold Levy, president                                    $1,181,030 

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts      Michael M. Kaiser, president                             $1,131,000 (F.Y. 2009) 

Smithsonian Institution                                                 G. Wayne Clough, secretary                               $525,700 (F.Y. 2010)

New York City Opera                                                    George Steel, general manager                        $360,000

The Website has financial reports available for nonprofits around the country. Some basic information is free, but you can get the IRS form 990 if you are willing to pay for the reports. The form requires listing the highest paid officers and employees.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Trees and Small Towns

When I was 12 years old, I moved from Brooklyn, NY to Charlotte, NC. When people think of Brooklyn, they tend to think of a concrete jungle.  And I guess to an extent that's true. This is the block I lived on from when I was 6 months old to when I was 9 years old:

Corner of 18th Ave. and Dahill Rd.

However, from 9 to 12, I lived on this street in Brooklyn:

E. 33rd St.

Brooklyn really does have a lot of beautiful tree lined streets.

Charlotte is well known for its trees. Here's the street my parents lived on for over 30 years:

Woodbury Forest

But when I think of southern towns, specifically "downtowns", I don't think of trees. I think of neglected or repurposed department stores, hardware stores, banks and post offices. I used to travel Rt. 11 a lot from Charlotte to Asheville, and passed through Chesnee. This to me, typifies a classical southern town:

Chesnee, SC
In 2006, I worked on the film Cold Storage, the third feature written and directed by my friend Tony Elwood. A lot of Cold Storage was shot in Saluda, NC:

Saluda, NC. Photo from

Tony is a sort of Alexander Payne in some ways. What Payne does in Sideways and The Descendants, Tony does in the rural south. The towns... the locals, the landscape, almost become a character in his films. Tony grew up in the town of Kannapolis, just outside of Charlotte, and his affection for the south shows in his films.

Kannapolis, NC, just around the corner form the Gem theater, where Tony fostered his love for film
Other small towns I've been in that stick with me include Chester, SC. There is a reason Chester is commonly used as a filming location:

Chester, SC. Photo from the town's website

In 1994, my wife and I moved from Charlotte to the small town of Ashland, VA where we lived for 6 years before building a home about 10 minutes away. Ashland is a very historic town, dating back to the 1840's. 

"Downtown" Ashland, VA, looking down South Center St.

Cross Brother Grocery Store just celebrated their 100th anniversary:

Cross Bros. Grocery opened in 1912

Here's another shot of Center St:

S. Center Street, Ashland, VA. Photo from

OK... so here's the thing. Notice that in Ashland and also in Saluda, there are a lot of trees planted along the street. In fact in Ashland, you can hardly see the storefronts in the summertime from across the street. Signs and windows are obscured by foliage. 

Here's Train Town Toy and Hobby in Ashland:

Train Town Toy and Hobby. Photo from Flickr

Personally, I think it is nuts to cover up 100 year old historic buildings, particularly storefronts in a downtown area, with trees. Sure, the trees provide shade. But if you are going to hawk your town as steeped in history, do you really want to obscure your best features by planting trees in front of them?

Don't ge me wrong. I love trees. I live on 3 wooded acres with a pond out back. But I think the trend to "prettify" downtown areas by covering them with trees is misguided. I'm not sure what the solution is... but it must have something to do with moderation. Smaller shrubs? Large trees, but fewer of them? Creative alternatives to providing shade?

Shepherdstown, WV seems to have a nice balance of trees and building visibility:

I love the streets of Harpers Ferry, WV:

Harper's Ferry
Chimney Rock, NC proudly displays their buildings:

Chimney Rock, NC

What's your take on trees and historic downtowns?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Everyone In the Circle Please Shift One Seat to the Right

Here following is my open letter to government officials. It is intended primarily for my local town council members, but extends far beyond:

Dear Council Members,

I am writing to you as member and Catalyzer of the Ashland Arts Alliance, a newly formed creative "industry cluster" focused on Ashland, Virginia. The Ashland Arts Alliance is one month old, and boasts 64 members, with membership growing almost daily. The Alliance includes a core of professional visual and performing artists and craftsmen, who have forged a career in the "creative arts". It also consists of novices, hobbyists, and students.

The three primary goals of the Alliance are collaboration, referral, and solidarity. These goals have been and will be achieved through rapid communication channels, open-mindedness, inclusivity, and lateral empowerment. In the thirty days since the Alliance has gone "live", we have had 11 advertised "meetups", with 7 more announced.

One of the strengths of the dedicated "artist", for lack of a better term, is the habit of seeing both potentiality and actuality in a fresh light. This is certainly not to denigrate the imagination and creativity of every individual, as indeed I believe we are all artists by birthright. Rather, I use the word "habit" intentionally, for as artists, particularly professional artists, many of us must use all our creative energies on a daily basis to create a microcosm around us that allows us to thrive financially and spiritually with the world with which we are presented. Sometimes this means re-shaping the world around us. Sometimes this means simply viewing that world in a new light. In this spirit, I applaud your visionary action in creating an Arts and Culture District overlay in Ashland.

I bring your attention to the Comprehensive Plan adopted by the town council on December 6th, 2011, particularly to policy CD.13 titled "Public Art". As a refresher and for the education of the public, the policy reads:

The use of public art as a landmark enhances the visibility of arts and culture in the environment. As part of Creativity and Arts in Downtown and England Street, this area can serve as an on-going outdoor art exhibition using sculpture in open spaces. Public art should be displayed throughout the town, at places such as Town Hall, the Ashland Town Center, local parks, and on busy downtown streets such as England Street and South Railroad Avenue.

By locating art in significant areas throughout Downtown, a positive visual message is conveyed that Ashland is a town that supports the arts and its local artists. The Town should encourage Ashland Main Street to determine appropriate locations, a maintenance routine, and develop a request for proposal to solicit art for display. An additional method of highlighting creativity and arts in Downtown and on England Street is to feature art in businesses throughout town. This may be the artwork of local artists or area students. To enhance the Town’s appearance, art can also be displayed in vacant storefronts throughout Downtown. These connections and arrangements for the display of artwork in businesses should be made by Ashland Main Street.

The idea of bringing more public art to Ashland is a sound and inspiring one. Alas, funding for such projects in the current economy seems to be a Herculean, if not Sisyphusian task. While I have faith in the long term achievement of such a goal, I can't help but wonder what might be done to accelerate a public art endeavor.

As I have the habit of holding several thoughts in my head simultaneously, (a talent which I have found to prove quite useful time and time again), I will also bring to your attention the town ordinance on signage, Article XX Sec. 21-207.1, General Provisions (which is too lengthy to repeat here), and point out that I have heard frequent laments from business owners who think that the sign ordinance is too restrictive.

I believe that an obstacle that serves both to frustrate the business owner as well as impede progress in procuring public art for the the town of Ashland is the limited definitions we have come as a society to apply to "art". In a more quiet time in our cultural past, before the advent of electricity, signs had a tendency to be works of sculptural marvel. Illumination and industrial development have resulted in a trend for signs to escalate into ocular insults... either too boring to attract attention to a business, or too gaudy to be tolerable to a populace sensitive to aesthetics.

One possible solution to both goals... namely the acquisition of public art and a more visible promotion for business, is to consider "signage" as "art". That is, consider proposals for either two dimensional or three dimensional visual displays for each business that do not conform to existing sign ordinances, yet can help to promote the business in a creative and appealing way.

One such approach I have seen was in Martinsburg, WV, where large "artists pallets", about 4 feet wide and supported in a steel stand, were placed on the sidewalk before each business in the downtown area. These "pallets" were painted with murals by local artists. The images tied into the nature of the business before which they stood. An eastern dragon before a chinese restaurant, a family on vacation before a travel agency, and similar ideas. If the art can be designed in such a way as to promote a business, the business owner would be more likely to be willing to pay for their own "sign-as-art".

To initiate this endeavor, I would suggest facilitating a meeting which includes visual artists, business owners, and town representatives. Various ideas for two dimensional and three dimensional possibilities can be discussed, including size, materials, and possible locations for placing such creations. I believe part of the success of such a project will require refraining from creating an actual ordinance for such pieces, but rather approach each one as one does any piece of art... individually.

I have adopted a motto of late that goes to my vision of believing in mutually beneficial solutions to seemingly unrelated problems; "Everyone in the circle please shift one seat to the right". The idea is that the solutions to the problems are already in existence, and simply by changing our perspective or our individual function within the system, those solutions can become self evident.

I thank you for your time. Sincerely,

Arthur Brill