Bordentown’s Thompson Street is a bit like Brigadoon, the mythical place that arises only one day every century, then disappears back into the mists. Except that the block of well-kept row homes on the west side of this Colonial-era city blossoms once a year, in festivities that culminate on Halloween.
Throughout October, Thompson Street slowly arises from its ordinary life to become enchanted on Halloween night, when it has seen wizards and smoke-breathing dragons, vampires, UFOs, pirates, and even possessed pumpkins.
Last year residents and visitors saw cowardly lions, a tin man, a lost little girl with her dog, and witches both good and evil, as Thompson Street celebrated the 75th anniversary of the film “The Wizard of Oz.” Look carefully and you can still see the yellow brick “road” that winds up the lane.
Much of the street’s Halloween adornment springs from the imagination, careful eye, and skilled hands of Frank Rios, who, with his partner Pat Patrizio, transforms their residence at 5 Thompson Street, then shares the joy with their neighbors up and down the way.
“Transform” might be a mild word to describe the fantastic scene that unfolds in front of the Rios-Patrizio home. For example there was that smoke-breathing dragon, a huge creation that seemed to wind in and out of the windows of the property. One year Rios, a freelance interior designer/decorator, crafted a cave-mansion, home to an elegant vampire. Another time it was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh’s burial place, with guard mummies.
In 2011 the front of 5 Thompson Street featured a theatrical-sized painted backdrop of a haunted house, spooky trees with perching owls, and a yellow full moon. In the middle was a giant, mutant “pumpkin-monster,” crafted from chicken wire and papier-mache, with a torso and limbs made from discarded wood and vines Rios found in the woods and along the river.
The pumpkin-monster — who had several brethren along the street — was lit from inside; the effect was as though it was possessed, and would reach out with its arms to take passersby into its lair.
“I got started with the decorations because I love Halloween,” says Rios, 53, a native of Maracaibo, Venezuela, who heard about Halloween as a child. “In my country, we don’t have Halloween. There is no custom of trick-or-treat, for example. I brought my love for the holiday to the United States, and I was amazed by the enthusiasm people have here.”
“About 11 years ago, we started decorating our own house, then did a little more each year, and neighbors began to come to me and ask if they could be part of the fun,” he says. “I was happy to have them come and help.”
The decorating build-up and big night on Halloween are purely nonprofit. Neighbors, friends, and admirers donate a little money, candy, and snacks here, contribute a little elbow grease there, and somehow it all comes together to a fabulous finish.
“I also do my homework, look out for props, clothing, and things at yard sales,” Rios says. “I love to go to the ‘dumps’ around the area and collect things that people have thrown out, like pieces of plastic, old fences, and whatnot. I see the discarded items there and start to visualize in my head. I start to see things (in their completion), and that’s where the magic comes together.”
Rios says the hardest part is not the design, construction, and creation of the themed decorations — it’s coming up with a fresh idea.
“I always want to do something different from the year before,” he says. “One year I thought we’d pool ideas from the neighborhood, but we ended up with about 40 different concepts. Finally one neighbor said, ‘You’re the creative person, you pick the idea, and we’ll follow.’ So I take the idea, make sketches, and take them around to show everyone. But other neighbors do their own thing, too, because so many people on Thompson Street are creative.”
Last year’s centerpiece in front of the Rios-Patrizio home was the Wicked Witch of the West’s lair with a green-faced-snarling witch, her elixirs, a crystal ball with the frightened Dorothy and friends inside, skulls and body parts, and one of her flying monkeys looking on.
Adjacent to the witch’s warren was a castle guard, wearing a long gray and red uniform coat, armor, and fur hat, and wielding a spear. Patrizio was dressed in a similar costume, and Rios was decked out as the mayor of Emerald City; both costumes and the guard’s garb were made by Rios.
Ruby slippers were suspended from the utility wires along Thompson Street, along with lots of witch’s pointy hats. The striped-stocking legs of the Wicked Witch of the East — who, in the movie, gets crushed when Dorothy’s house lands on her — dangled from numerous windows.
“We did three craft workshops with the neighbors last year. We all got together in the park behind Thompson Street, and I taught everyone how to make the legs and have them come out their windows,” Rios says. “As for the ruby slippers, it occurred to me that (masking) tape is cheap, so I made all the pairs of ruby slippers — hundreds of them — with tape.”
“When we hang the stuff outside, it has to be wind and water resistant, so that was another factor,” he says. “It’s not just magic; it’s a lot of work. It’s one-of-a-kind, though, and I invite people to take pictures, because they’ll never see this again.”
As Rios mentioned, there are many other creative people along Thompson Street. For example, last year Kim Poedubicky, who has lived on the street for 22 years, crafted a five-foot mesh, chicken wire, and quilt stuffing tornado that seemed to spring out of her garden.
At the corner of Thompson and Third streets is a whole other kind of creativity: Wade Roberson and his legions of hand-carved jack o’lanterns. He carves more than 100 pumpkins — donated by Hlubik Farms in Chesterfield — with faces that are not just ghosts, skeletons, and witches, but the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Cash, Jim Morrison of the Doors, Snoopy, and Charlie Brown. Roberson is known on Facebook as the “Bordentown Pumpkin Man.”
Speaking to Rios on yet another rainy early October day, he is worried that the Thompson Street transformation is running behind.
“I thought it was just Labor Day,” Rios says. “I know I got behind, for one reason, because I was studying to become a United States citizen.” He earned that honor in August, after being in the U.S. for 25 years.
His hometown Maracaibo, in northwestern Venezuela, is near rich farmland, horse, and cattle ranches. Rios’ late father had intended to be a medical doctor but switched his studies to veterinary medicine, specializing in large farm animals. His mother, as Rios describes it, is “a Maracaibo housewife.”
Rios came to the U.S. for an extended visit in 1989 and decided to stay. “I felt out of place in South America,” he says. “Even with the language barrier, I felt really good here.”
He and Patrizio, who is also an interior designer/decorator, were living in Trenton, where, for years, Rios was employed at General Porcelain Manufacturing, painting fine porcelain and ceramics. The couple decided to move to Bordentown when they visited a friend’s restaurant here and walked around the city while waiting for a table.
“We looked around and realized it was a very safe place. We saw the house at 5 Thompson Street and called the realtor,” Rios says.
In addition to Rios’ work as an interior designer/decorator, he works part time as a night manager for the Ashford Estate, a luxury wedding venue outside of Allentown. He says working part time suits him, especially at this time of the year, when he is so focused on putting the Thompson Street decorations together.
Both partners work hard to polish numerous details of their display, but Rios is probably the more focused one. In past years, he has taken on tasks like sewing dozens of flags to adorn neighbors’ homes. This year, he gave himself a break and bought the flags; however, Rios insisted on ironing all of them before handing them out.
If decorating his home for Halloween, helping and coaching neighbors, then playing ringmaster for the big night’s activities isn’t enough, Rios is also a percussionist in the Uptown String Band, based in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and oversees the band’s performance on Thompson Street at Halloween.
“A few of the guys came to our block party and were amazed by the festivities, so since 2010 part of the string band has been playing here on Halloween night,” Rios says. “We march from one end of the street and then back, playing our music, just about an hour or so.”
As narrow and populated as Thompson Street is on Halloween, people make room to dance. It’s all very family and kid-friendly, a true block party, where traffic is closed off for the big night.
Although television and the big screen like to promote gory, ghoulish programming for the Halloween season, Rios likes to go in the other direction and deliberately tries not to scare the children who come to Thompson Street.
“We’re creating memories for them,” he says. “The little kids come and see this, and they’re amazed.”
And what is this year’s theme, by the way? You’ll have to see for yourself.
Halloween Block Party, Thompson Street, Bordentown, begins around dusk on Friday, October 31.
Directions to Bordentown and Thompson Street: Exit 57A off I-295 South. Exit onto Route 130 North, at the first light, make a left onto Farnsworth and take it into the center of Bordentown past the shops and restaurants; make a right onto Park Street, where parking along the curb should be available; Thompson Street will be within walking distance. It is closed to traffic on Halloween night.