In 1983, the California Institute of the Arts, being a liberal arts college in, what was then, a remote part of the Santa Clarita Valley had garnered a few reputations. It was not unusual to see helicopters hovering around the dormitory on weekends because of the “clothes optional” pool (if you enjoyed seeing naked hippy-types). There were also the drugs. It was well known that on the west side of the dorm building was the “fourth floor walk up” which was the only floor not accessible by an elevator. I visited that corridor once and it was like walking into an opium den. The air was thick with marijuana smoke and half of the dorm room doors were open all of the time. However, I believe what CalArts had become most infamous for was their Halloween party.
Every year, attending students and alumni who were fortunate to call in early and request tickets would gather in the Main Gallery room for a party that resembled something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. You name it; it was there. I can best illustrate with this short story:
My first CalArts party began at a Denny’s across the I-5 freeway. Knowing that there would be no “solid” refreshments (unless you include magic mushrooms) a group of us decided to eat dinner before we attended the party. We bumped into some fellow students who had just left the party who warned us: “Don’t bother standing in line to see what is in the box. It is just a guy masturbating.” Okay. That was a good tip.
When we arrived at the party, lo and behold there, in the middle of the room, was indeed a big box about 6’x 6’ x 6’ with one door in the back, and one window in the front. There was a line of people queued up to look into the window. Every now and then, a naked guy would exit the box and another would enter to continue the entertainment.
And then there were the costumes.
They ranged from conceptual to the professional. One year, a woman walked around dressed like Jesus Christ “crucified” to a full-sized crucifix made of soft mattress foam painted to look like wood. Since it was the early eighties, seeing ultra-punk-rock-Road Warrior-types slam dancing was not unusual. I recall one individual simply standing against a wall holding a flashlight that shown into his opposite palm on which he had written “Happy Birthday.” I think I’ve given you a rich enough mental picture on which to draw.
That autumn, things were slow at our house. I worked on my own creatures from time to time, but I was forced to get temp agency work for the Bank of America just to make ends meet. No offense, but working in the financial world just heaped more depression on what was already becoming a desperate situation. When things appeared at their bleakest, I got a call from James Cummins asking if I was interested in going with him to the CalArts Halloween party.
I hadn’t seen any of my friends from CalArts in months. To them, I had fallen off of the edge of the world. I thought it would do me well to see some friendly faces for a change, and I truly missed their company. Even though CalArts wasn’t the right school for me, now that I was on the bumpy road to my vocation, the comfort and camaraderie of an institution now looked appealing. The grass is greener…
Then James dropped this bomb: “Hey, I was thinking we’d both go as witches!”
What? Witches? Are you kidding? Aren’t witches supposed to be female? Aren’t male-witches normally called Warlocks? James laughed and expressed his opinion that witches were a-sexual and besides, they would be cool costumes to make. This was years before actor, Robert Picardo, would portray Meg Mucklebones in Ridley Scott’s Legend, so in a way, we were cutting edge. I agreed. After all, it was better than reviewing ATM card requests at the bank.
We started out by life casting our faces and teeth. This decision had been made about a week before the party so we knew we didn’t have a lot of time for construction. Once we had our facial casts we went to work on our masks. We decided to produce one-piece foam latex masks that we would glue down rather than a series of complex over-lapping prosthetics. It was cruder, but faster and truthfully, who was going to know the difference besides us?
Not an artistic recreation of the author.
James, at the time, was tall and thin, so his sculpture had a pointed nose and chin. A scar ran down from the forehead across the eye and down the cheek. A bulged fake eye protruded from the damaged socket. It looked like I would be driving that night. I was shorter and tubbier so my witch looked a bit like the actor Karl Malden with a bulbous nose and a few well-placed warts. James, being the more experienced make up artist, set a one day limit on the sculptures because we’d have to mold them, run them in foam, paint them and finish them in record time.
When the molds were in the oven, curing the foam latex, we made crooked teeth directly fabricating gums in dental acrylic over our teeth casts rather than sculpting, molding, and casting them. James had left over acrylic teeth from Strange Invaders so those were pushed into the acrylic gums before they set. Voila! Witch teeth in moments!
Then, it was off to the Salvation Army to find appropriate wardrobe. I don’t recall what we purchased, but I do remember that it was layers of things that were used to create the costumes. And, we managed to find some old wigs. James kept looking out for trinkets and props for both of us. There were no Spirit or Halloween Adventure stores for us to pilfer so unless we purchased something lame and plastic at K-Mart, we had to go with something found or….eaten.
“Ah!” James exclaimed. “We need to go to Kentucky Fried Chicken!” Honestly, I couldn’t imagine anyone needing to go to Kentucky Fried Chicken, however…he had a vision.
We ordered a bucket of chicken, returned to my garage, sat and had an eating marathon until we had a pile of chicken carcasses in a big kitchen pot. Yes, it was as disgusting as it sounds. We boiled the bones until all of the flesh and connective tissue dissolved and then set them out to dry.
Using coarse twine, we assembled necklaces out of the bones. Then we painted and punched hair into our masks. Distressed press-on nails, made our fingers claw-like and we decided to wear sandals to expose our toes and feet hairy to increase the weirdness of it all.
I recall one night Mark Shostrom walked into the garage and found us working on our costumes. He pulled me aside to ask why the hell we were dressing as witches? Weren’t witches supposed to be female? I shrugged. We were already committed.
The night of the party, James and I had all of our materials assembled. We glued our masks on ourselves and painted the exposed parts of our skin to match. Donning our wigs, James put on a leather, wide-brimmed hat to finish off his look, and then felt around, half-blind to get into the front seat of my car. As he sat down, he turned to me soberly and said, “As long as we don’t break character, no one will think this is ridiculous. So, whatever you do, stay in character!”
Ridiculous? THEN, he brought up that this idea was ridiculous!?
After a week of non-stop work, eating all of that chicken (which had resulted in diarrhea), purchasing clothes from the Salvation Army, NOW he was saying that this could all be ridiculous?! I wanted to strangle him, but I decided to see it through.
I already had the damn wig on.
We arrived at the party and James’s plan worked. We were unrecognizable, however, we could distinguish our friends. In croaking voices, we’d call them by name, beckoning them over to us. It was hilarious watching them approach, hesitantly, with narrowed eyes asking, “Who is that?” We never let on until we were ready to leave, then suddenly we identified ourselves to uproarious laughter. It was a complete success.
A couple of days later, I was talking about the Halloween party with my ex-dorm mate, Steve Burg (who had been dressed very effectively as a Blue Meanie from Yellow Submarine). He told me that the reason for the success of witch costumes was that no one could figure out who those two ugly women were at the party. After all, weren’t witches supposed to be female?
Next Time: “Career Reset”
…And Last Time on Blood, Sweat and Latex…: “Getting a Foot (And Shaft) In the Door“
Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 27-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and 2012’s Men In Black 3.
Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.