University Heights Street Becomes Halloween Extravaganza
There's a street in San Diego's University Heights neighborhood where dragons, singing skeletons and death come to play — for one night only.
The half-mile haunt on Maryland Street is one of San Diego's biggest and most family friendly Halloween celebrations. Andy and Paula Cameron and their neighbors put it on for free.
"People ask if we have kids, and we say we have hundreds of them, every Halloween," Paula said.
The Camerons have been building elaborate Halloween sets at their home for 18 years. It all started with a gag gift when Andy's career shifted from animatronics to theatrical set building.
"I started complaining I wanted to do more animatronics and she got sick of listening to me, so she bought one of these rubber masks," Andy points to a large latex dragon mask on the end of a jib. "She said, 'Here, animate this!' I don't have money to do that, so I just did it out of what I had laying around in the garage. Pieces of an old fence, a whole lot of plumbing parts, some bicycle cables, and an old smoke machine I took apart and put in his nose."
What resulted was a 10-foot long dragon named Norbert that tilts and pivots with lifelike movements. The dragon is operated from behind a structure. Its spikes pop up, its eyes move, and it can raise up 18 feet in the air.
"Little kids that I remember them seeing Norbert for the first time, and just 'ahhhh!' And now I see them and they're teenagers and they're coming up, 'Norbert! How ya doin'!' Everybody loves him. He's just become an institution in the neighborhood," Andy said.
"We had a newlywed couple on the way to their honeymoon, they stopped on the way to the airport, they stopped by and had to have their picture taken with Norbert. And then we had a newborn baby, right out of the hospital, mother stopped before she wanted to go home, had to get her picture taken with Norbert with the newborn baby!"
If you go:
When: 5 p.m. to midnight Friday
Where: Maryland Street between Meade and Lincoln avenues in University Heights
Parking: Recommendation is to park a couple of blocks away at Alice Birney Elementary School, 4345 Campus Ave.
Norbert impressed the neighbors and some wanted to be part of the fun. Now the Camerons transform more than a dozen houses on Maryland Street, between Meade and Lincoln Avenues. Andy builds all the sets and animates and lights them. Paula is an artist and designer, so she paints everything.
"Basically, I like to say as a joke, that he'll make it technically fabulous, and I'll make it pretty," Paula said.
The Camerons spend at least 200 hours putting together the neighborhood display, and many neighbors volunteer to help.
Rich Wise is one of those neighbors. He and Andy transform his house into the Bates Motel from the Alfred Hitchcock movie "Psycho," and he dresses up as Mrs. Bates.
"They're better known as Mr. and Mrs. Halloween in the neighborhood," Wise said of the Camerons.
Wise has been involved in the neighborhood display for 17 years.He said in his first year participating, there were 200 trick-or-treaters. It has grown a great deal through the years.
"I'd say between 3,000 and 5,000, and that can cause a traffic jam on the street. Police have come by to help with traffic control in years past. Sometimes it feels like we get bus loads of kids because they come in spurts," Wise said.
But that's not what Andy Cameron says they're going for.
"You'd see them pull up, drop off all the kids, look around at all our stuff, get back in the van and leave. And it's really for our community, it's for us, for the people around here. It's all based on the idea that when I was a kid, I remember trick-or-treating and coming around a corner and seeing a lot of lights and props and somebody was doing something and you'd run over there. So I always like the idea of coming around the corner and seeing all this," Andy said.
Another thing the neighborhood display is trying to avoid: being too scary.
"It's not Frightmare. It's not gore. It's not horrible. It's just a fun atmosphere and lots to look at. Everyone comes in great costumes. It's a celebration of the neighborhood really," Andy said.
Paula adds, "It's our own twisted take on promoting community."
The Camerons said the display costs practically nothing because it is made from old parts, found objects and discarded theater set pieces. A mask discarded from a theater set is used as a dead woman in the graveyard. An old Furby becomes a squawking raven.
And just down the street, an animated plastic skeleton and his band of pumpkins - Frank Skinnottra and the Gabbing Gourds - welcome trick-or-treaters, as long as you respect the neighborhood.