You know that great big pumpkin on the show, the one I carved with a headless horseman for the fireplace mantel? Well, production for Halloween Block Party happened in California way back in July, when finding great big pumpkins was nothing short of a great big pain!
After about a week's worth of phone calls to every orchard, pumpkin patch and farmer's market within a hundred-mile radius of San Francisco, we finally stumbled upon Davis Ranch, a goldmine in Sloughhouse, California, twenty minutes east of Sacramento, where the pumpkins and other gourds they just happened to plant early this year were like a gift from the heavens!
This was July, mind you, and a sweltering 98 degrees. I don't think Amber and Margarita with Davis Ranch, both of them such sweethearts, had ever seen two happier customers! They even had one of my favorite squashes of the season, a giant hubbard, perfect for the gourd-geous flower arrangement I made with black dahlias the night of the party.
So with our rental all packed with pumpkins, we headed back west...
...but not without a stop at another lucky find, a farmer's market on the road, where the corn husks were free for the picking!
Now if there's one thing I learned as a magazine editor about decorating for the holidays, it's work with what you have. Luckily, the house we were assigned, a great bungalow on a leafy block in Alameda, could not have been more perfect.
And the John family...does it get any cuter than this?
As the designer throwing a party "on a budget," I was allotted the least amount of money, so good bones were crucial to a successful outcome. From the moment I stepped foot in Amy and Bill's house, I knew I could do something classically beautiful for them that wouldn't cost a lot of money and, more important, that they could do themselves year after year. I don't know about you, but I'm not calling a carpenter to decorate for Halloween!
For my design, I was inspired by a story that I myself grew up with—The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It's a much-told tale here in the Hudson Valley, where the town of Sleepy Hollow lives on in infamy. Natural materials and a bountiful feast were prominent parts of the story that I wanted to recreate for the John family's Halloween. Here I am on the first day of shooting, just outside their house, revealing my design.
Inside we went, where in the living room I divulged all my devilish plans, including a gravestone wainscoting, eerie cloth-covered furniture and, of course...
...a fireplace mantel full of real pumpkins, beautifully carved.
Now these were not going to be any ordinary pumpkin carvings! For this family, I wanted to do something extra special, so on the Sunday prior to shooting, Jaithan and I headed to the nearby Alameda Antiques Show, where I found a table full of old wood carving tools, along with a beautiful set of black amethyst glass perfect for the party.
A designer is only as good as his team, and mine, I must say, was amazing! Here's my friend Scott of one of my favorite blogs Tartanscot, along with Jaithan, carving pumpkins at the house.
I did the headless horsemen, Scott and Jaithan took care of the trees...
...and my old friend Merrill punched out spiders for the chandelier. They were the ones behind the scenes, along with the John family, who helped make everything possible.
Shooting began early the next morning, when I showed Bill—remember the flight we took in his plane?—how I did the gravestone rubbings for the wainscoting.
With newsprint and crayon, I simply traced over beautiful, centuries-old gravestones in a cemetery, right in Sleepy Hollow, then did a quick brown wash for a more aged look.
As the day wore on, the design took shape. Here I am with Bill and Amy decorating the mantel with natural materials like cornstalks, gourds, and Spanish moss, together with a few spiders and cobwebs for a more ghoulish effect. For me, decorating for Halloween, especially on a budget, needs to be double duty. Take away the creep factor—the spiders and the webbing—and you have a fireplace mantel beautifully decorated with fall harvest materials all the way through Thanksgiving!
The next day was all about the exterior, where I continued layering inexpensive, natural materials just about anyone can find. Well...maybe not so much in July but at least now, right?
For my big project on the outside, I enlisted Bill and Amy's help to build, from the ground up, the headless horseman himself! With rebar and a wooden rod for support, we stuffed clothing from the Goodwill with hay until our ghostly figure took shape.
Here he is all finished, a carved Jack O'Lantern for his head along with a cape, tattered and torn, blowing by force of air from behind the hay.
Midnight came, but the show must go on, this time in the kitchen, where I prepared three dishes for the party with Jaithan: spider web cupcakes, bone meringue cookies, and fall leaf tortilla chips.
Celebration candles in black added a spooky but sophisticated touch.
Finally, the day of the party arrived, but first, the finishing touches had to be done. Here's Luke helping me with the luminaries.
With brown paper bags, black spray paint, rock salt and votive candles, they were such a simple and inexpensive way to light the path for our guests.
Brown bags did double duty, catching treats that Liam and Luke helped Jaithan fill for the kids just before the party.
What's Halloween without a costume? Since this was a party inspired by The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, circa 1790, I opted for a period costume in the manner of Ichabod Crane, bearing striking resemblance, I'm told, to Ben Franklin. Kelley Moore, another super talented designer on the show, looked bewitching for pre-party cocktails.
Any minute now and the guests were due to arrive! Here's an illustration of the bountiful feast in Washington Irving's story that inspired my table for the John family.
We have ham falling off the bone with a cranberry chutney, creepy crudité in hollowed out gourds, fall leaf tortilla chips with six layers under dip, spider web cupcakes, and sticky toffee apples. Finally, to drink, a spooky pomegranate punch with a black sugar rim.
Let the party begin!