The future of Highball Halloween

The city’s premiere party scares up national attention

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
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From the October 24, 2013 edition

After six years, this weekend’s Highball Halloween will mark the first time the festival has two full days of activities. A host of new events join favorites from previous years designed to draw a broader audience while still expressing the event’s core theme of celebrating Columbus’ creative and artistic community. And taking part in a little Halloween revelry.

“From the get-go we’ve talked about creating an event that was very rich in substance and would have a full weekend appeal,” said John Angelo, founder of Highball Halloween and this year’s producer. “It’s not just closing the street and having a party. There is a combination of branding and tourism, as well as spotlighting artistry and talent in Columbus.”

Highball is most recognized for its Costume Couture Fashion Showdown, a professional fashion and costume design competition. Fashion designers present four “looks” and the costume designers come up with a costume inspired by the collection. A panel of industry experts judge; first prize is $1,000. Anyone who’s experienced the runway exhibition knows how spectacular these pieces are.

While the fashion showcase is still the marquee, the extra day means more cultural, artistic and celebratory events. This year events include: A costume contest for the general public, the Kids' Day Festival and costume contest, a pet costume contest, a tailgate party for the Ohio State vs. Penn State football game, cinematic makeup artists and muralists performing their craft live on the street, a stage show hosted by Nina West and live music and DJs. The highlight of the new events is the 5K Costume Zoom at 8 p.m. Friday.

“It’s more of a parade than an athletic endeavor. It’s going to be one of the wackiest, most fun ways to burn a few calories,” said Betsy Pandora, executive director of the Short North Alliance, a not-for-profit organization overseeing Highball and the development of the Short North Arts District.

Pandora took over for Angelo in August, and has pointed to Highball as not only the Short North’s signature event, but also the city’s. She cited a recent article from Fox News as representative of the national attention Highball is receiving.

“Fox News called Highball the ultimate Halloween event in the nation. We’re starting to see it really turning into a cultural festival, a festival that celebrates the artistry [and] design, but also the cultural traditions behind Halloween.”

This year’s cultural activities are another addition both Angelo and Pandora call an “exciting experience.” The Dia de los Muertos aspect has been amplified with music and murals inspired by the Latino holiday, A Grim Reaper’s Dance Party, giant skeleton puppets in the streets, traditional Catrina face painting and sugar skull workshops.

“It connects us more as a community when we have residents who are from a cultural heritage and are able to share and celebrate it,” Angelo said.

So as Highball expands and grows — doubling the number of days and events — what could be in line for the future of this well-recognized event? Pandora has stated she’d like for Highball to gain even more national recognition, similar to festivals like South by Southwest and Mardi Gras.

Pandora said making Highball more accessible and approachable to a broader audience is paramount to its growth and success. The event has always been enjoyed by the artistic and fashion communities, but the future could mean an event for just about everybody. Hence kids’ activities and the tailgate party for the football game being added.

“It’s like almost marrying two different worlds: traditional Ohio State experience and your not-so-traditional tailgate experience,” Pandora said.

Cultural activities are another area that could be expanded in the future. Angelo thought a Venetian Carnival presence would fit nicely within Highball’s aesthetic. And eventually there could be a number of “zones,” each offering a different cultural experience with the backdrop of Halloween.

“It’s just a series of party experiences side by side, but … when you dig a little deeper you realize you’re also sharing cultural and lifestyle artistry,” Angelo said.

So is a South by Southwest-level event possible? Pandora said not in the near future, but maybe down the road. Angelo also felt there’s potential because a similar professional component is already at Highball. If South by Southwest has professional music and film seminars and events, why can’t Highball have similar events stemming from its signature artistry?

“I think we’ll see industry developments around Highball that will center [on] hair, makeup and fashion, costume designing,” Angelo said.

The fashion industry becoming a bigger player in the event isn’t outlandish at all. Abercrombie & Fitch and Limited Brands, two international companies with headquarters in Columbus, are sponsors this year.

Whatever the future holds for Highball, this may be the last year Angelo will be involved. He stepped down as Short North Alliance’s executive director, as did his partner from his career, to spend more time with their 18-month-old daughter. Even though he still produced this year’s Highball, he’s not sure what the future holds.

“I think it’s a big question mark. [I plan] to take [the next] year and really ponder the question of, ‘What’s next?’ Is it here in Columbus? Is it elsewhere,” Angelo said.

While Angelo isn’t sure if he’ll be at the helm for next year’s Highball, he’s confident Pandora and the team responsible for putting on the event will be successful because a certain brand and philosophy is in place.

“They understand what the core of Highball is, and why it’s so different from virtually every other Halloween event,” Angelo said.