As I write this column, Halloween night is still hours away, and I’m already over it. This year, I’ve been chased by chainsaw-wielding maniacs, singed inside a smoldering orphanage, spooked by roller-skating specters and seen a man stick a nail through his sinuses – and that’s just my eight-odd visits to Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights (thank you, discounted Frequent Fear pass). I also marched down International Drive with a zombie horde (at the Spooky Empire horror convention) and was menaced mano a mano at the Alone haunt at Busch Gardens Tampa. Not ignoring the holiday’s more theatrical tricks and treats, I also had my screw turned once or twice by Orlando Shakes’ Turn of the Screw, and I sobbed with the survivors of Todd Feren’s The Zombie Monologues. Even downtown’s Third Thursday art stroll wasn’t exempt, as CityArts Factory was overrun with fake cobwebs and gore-streaked frescoes; even the outdoor U-Haul venue, home of the Daily City Mobile Art Show, featured an artist appropriately named “Scarecrow.”
But despite devoting most of the last month to despair and dismemberment, I barely clawed the surface of slaughter offered in October. I missed the Enzian Theater’s Haunted Swamp: Walk of Terror, Scott’s Fall Corn Maze in Zellwood and the LaVene Family Trail of Nightmares in Celebration (a truly terrifying locale). A dozen other events shrieked like banshees for my attention and were all exhaustively declined: Orlando Museum of Art’s Edward Gorey exhibit’s closing party, Scaryoke at Stardust Lounge, GOAT’s Resurrection fundraiser (featuring Grammy nominee Elsten Torres). Even though I’m a lifelong fan of the freakish and frightening, I felt completely overwhelmed by this year’s oversaturation. For some reason, this city can’t sustain a year-round haunted attraction, but it can collectively fund a ghoulish gold rush for the five weeks before November. Instead of being able to get our boo-fix year-round, fright aficionados gorge on gore throughout October then hibernate till the next Halloween season. While in past years I was happy to feed endlessly at the trough of terror, by the time Oct. 31 dawned I was done with demonic drama and décor.
If you’re like me, you’re in need of a happy place to wipe away the cobwebs, actual and allegorical; a quiet place with simple, old-fashioned comforts, where the closest you’ll come to Halloween horrors are kids in cartoon masks collecting candy. I rediscovered my anti-All Hallows oasis earlier in October along the small-town sidewalks of Winter Garden’s Plant Street. This real-life answer to Disney’s Main Street, U.S.A., preserves a historically interesting piece of Central Florida’s vanishing past. Winter Garden also provides a platform for independent businesses that sell a range of products from French food and fine wine to fresh veggies and vinyl records. To accentuate the Pleasantville -like atmosphere, I arrived during the city’s monthly Cruz-n-Car Show. While the street-shuttering event played hell with parking, it provided an amazing look at vintage vehicles, some 50 years older than I am, and all in better shape than my year-old Honda.
The jewel in this Mayberry-like town is the restored Garden Theatre. It’s gorgeous, from the classic neon marquee outside to the starlit ceiling and Spanish tile appointments framing the vintage stage. The adjoining Roper Garden Building is home to roof-top hydroponic greenhouses and a mini fish farm (and will make a safe hideout during the upcoming zombie apocalypse). I had not visited since late July, when the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation – which had previously restored and run the theater – spun off its theater operations to a new entity called Garden Theatre Inc. I was relieved to see general manager Alauna McMillen still at her post. Upstairs in the balcony at a media night reception, McMillen and board member Michael Lewellen (former vice president of public relations at Universal Orlando) reassured me over a glass of red wine that the reorganization hasn’t shaken up their staffing or disrupted productions. In fact, McMillen was happy that Garden Theatre Inc. had just received its 501(c)(3) tax-exemption certification, which is essential for fundraising.
The only real change is that Garden Theatre Inc. will work with outside organizations to produce shows, rather than then doing it in-house. If Jester Theater Company’s current production of Noises Off is any indication, the partnerships should serve audiences nicely. Michael Frayn’s deservedly popular 1983 backstage farce needs no introduction nor review; suffice to say that director Jay Hopkins – who has been talking about mounting this script since back when we were both producing shows in the Centroplex Studio Garage, and nearly got his wish last year before budgeting forced a delay – has amply demonstrated his passion for finally getting these indelibly idiotic characters and the massive multistory set on stage. You’ve got one more weekend to experience the exquisite absurdity of some of Orlando’s best actors (including Marty Stonerock, Don Fowler, Jason Horne, Tyler Cravens and Sarah Lee Dobbs) acting intentionally awful.
If that isn’t enough of a pumpkin palate cleanser, the Beth Marshall-produced A Christmas Carol is just around the corner, starring über-intimidating Dennis Neal as Scrooge. If I were the ghosts, I’d be afraid of him.
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