BHS Haunted House's Creator Says Goodbye

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By: Press Release
Published: 10/15/10

By JOHN SULLIVAN

I created the Haunted House with a simple idea, the need to raise money to support the club’s large musical productions.

In 1978, as the newly appointed Assistant Drama Coach, I was speaking to fellow Mass College of Art graduate James Fitzpatrick about ways to raise funds. Mr. Fitzpatrick, who shared my love of all things Halloween, asked, “Why not run a Haunted House?”

Those six words led to a 4-hour phone conversation, with me taking notes and making sketches as we spoke.

The next day, I approached the head of the Drama Club, James Ruberti, and asked what he thought. “Go for it,” he said.

I started looking for abandoned buildings in Hyannis to hold such an attraction, driving the Town Building Inspector crazy in the process, as I did not realize that there were rules about where you could hold such an attraction.

Just when it looked as if the idea would never happen, Assistant Superintendent William Geick called and suggested we use the Sixth Grade building (now Pope John Paul II High School) because it was not being used at night. The Haunted House had found a home.

Now came a second problem. Where would I find enough actors to inhabit the Haunted House? The Drama Club was already into its fall production of “The Pirates of Penzance” and most of its members were involved. I turned to my art classes and within a week collected enough students to fill all the roles.

With dozens of art students creating masks, costumes and props after school, enthusiasm for the project grew to the point that students from the Music Department and many of the school teams signed on as assorted ghosts, beasts and monsters.

When the Pirates cast learned what was going on, Mr. Ruberti altered his rehearsal schedule to allow them to participate. Those seasoned actors became the “Ghoul Guides” that led intrepid visitors through the dark corridors of the haunted house.

The first weekend’s attendance, though small, was enough that we could call the haunted house a success.

Then came Monday. It seemed as if every BHS student who had been there was talking about it in school. Word spread quickly, as it always does among high school students. That night at the haunted house, a couple of the ghouls called me away from doing makeup to come up front to look out the door. To my shock and surprise, literally hundreds of people were in line!

I immediately called Mr. Ruberti for reinforcements. Mr. Ruberti canceled his Pirates rehearsal and sent the cast to the Haunted House to help out.

Along with the Drama Club regulars, Mr. Ruberti and another teacher, Andy Milk, got into the act as “leg-grabbers,” howling like werewolves and scaring the younger members of the crowd.

When the dust cleared several hours later, I realized that the Drama Club had terrified over 600 people that night. The first Haunted House was officially a hit.

Though tickets to it were just a dollar, the first Haunted House raised over $1,400 for the club after expenses. The only real problem I recall was that since no one on Cape Cod had ever had an attraction of this sort, some people, thinking it was a sit-down show, dropped off their kids and didn’t return for two hours.

The second haunted house moved to the West End Marketplace, where, now head of the Drama Club, I had painted murals as a summer job. When the owner heard about the haunted house, he asked me if we would be interested in using the unfinished upstairs for the attraction.

Again the haunted house was a success and the West End Marketplace enjoyed a boost in the off-season.In its third year, the haunted house featured something new and not just the move to the Knight Hall at Barnstable High School. That was only the beginning.

Since “E.T.” had become the top-grossing movie of all time within weeks of its release that summer, I thought that having the lovable alien visit the haunted house would be a great idea. Not knowing how to make an animatronic creature did not stop me. Neither did Steven Spielberg’s refusal to allow the publication of pictures of E.T.

So, I and fellow illustrator Richard Sullivan (no relation) went to the movies armed with sketchbooks.

Watching the movie while madly sketching away, we filled page after page with front views, back views and details of E.T.’s eyes, hands, head, and feet.

Then the real work began: four months of creating the form, sculpting the clay, crafting the molds, and building the moving parts for a working model of E.T.

Meanwhile, Dunfey’s Hyannis Resort asked the Drama Club to hold the haunted house in their Tivoli Room. I accepted the offer and set about to make the biggest haunted house so far, enlisting over 120 students to participate.

E.T. proved so popular that Selectman Marty Flynn gave me the key to the town and made me Grand Marshal for the first-ever townwide Halloween Parade.

Over 4,000 people attended the parade and another thousand attended the haunted house that night.

All I remember is students dropping like flies from being so tired of yelling and screaming. There were kids in costume sound asleep behind every piece of scenery! At one point our dragon stopped moving and I looked inside and saw the operator asleep, but standing, propped up by the dragon’s neck.

That night the haunted house had to stay open for nine hours to get everybody through.

The next year the third entry in the Star Wars saga, “Return of the Jedi,” was the big hit; naturally, the Drama Club students asked if they could build a Jabba the Hut for the Fifth Annual Haunted House. It was a big task, as Jabba was no small interstellar crime lord: 20 feet long and 6 feet high, Jabba required four students to operate him. Other Star Wars characters, including Bib Fortuna and Salacious Crumb, were also created to keep Jabba company in his lair in the haunted house.

Like E.T., Jabba was given the key to the city, but he promptly ate it!

After its tenth year, the haunted house stopped being an annual event for a few years. When it was ready to come back, it was temporarily evicted from BHS because of construction, but appeared in various locations, most notably the empty Woolworth’s store at the Cape Cod Mall.

When the school construction was complete, the haunted house moved back to BHS for good, which is a lot easier. We used to have to rent giant U-Hauls and lug all the props and settings wherever the haunted house was being held.

Now everything is right here and we can set it up and take it down pretty quickly.

Over the years, Drama Club members have created hundreds of masks, costumes and props, which are carefully stored away for the next year’s haunted house. That treasure-trove of horrible heads, monstrous mugs and frightening faces enables the haunted house to maintain its reputation as the largest, scariest, and most elaborate on Cape Cod.

Now comes this year, my last with the attraction. It’s my 30th Haunted House—28 scary ones and 2 haunted house juniors, which we tried to make for kids.

I’ll miss this part of my job a lot. Halloween has always been a fun holiday. It’s been a good run and I’ve had fun, but it’s time for a change. For me as well as the Drama Club.

And as always, I hope our legion of fiends, ogres and misshapen monstrosities live up to the slogan I coined for the Fifth Haunted House: “If the kids don’t leave crying, we’re not doing our job!”

The Barnstable High School Drama Club’s Haunted House will open on Saturday, October 16, and will also be open October 17, 21 through 24, and 27 through 30. It will not be open on Halloween. Tours will be given from 6 to 10 PM. Admission is $10, with all proceeds used to fund the BHS Drama Club’s upcoming productions: “Seussical,” “Twelfth Night” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”Further information for the haunted house or any of the Drama Club productions can be obtained by calling 508-771-6246. Visit the Drama Club’s website at www.bhsdc.org.

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