Chicago Halloween MVPs prep with best decorations, best candy

Chicago Tribune

The seemingly innocuous minivans that appear in Oak Park every Halloween are hiding witches, ghosts and goblins that have arrived to do major candy damage.

When she spots those vehicles turning onto her block on the northeast side of the village, Stephanie O'Donnell grabs her bucket of Costco candy. She's ready and knows what to expect, as she's no rookie anymore.

O'Donnell now knows that the minivans, which typically come from Chicago, along with various suburban neighborhoods around Oak Park, don't contain just one or two children.

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"There are minivans that slow down on the block, and there are 15 people jumping out," O'Donnell said, comparing them to clown cars. "On our first year here, I had zero idea that we had so many trick-or-treaters, and I was horrifically unprepared."

The mother of two easily hands out 1,000 pieces of candy, going through six or seven giant Costco bags, which she opens as needed and returns if ever there's a bag that doesn't get devoured.

Costco declined to comment on how many bags get returned post-Halloween annually.

Halloween spending this year is expected to reach $8.4 billion, the highest in the National Retail Federation's history, with consumers spending $2.5 billion of that on candy. And a new survey from www.care.com found that Chicago is the third most family-friendly city for Halloween this year (it follows Los Angeles and New York), and some streets are simply more destined to be trick-or-treater destinations than others.

They have better decorations than other streets, they hand out better candy (we're looking at you, full-size chocolate bars) and they've gained a reputation, over the years, for simply providing a better experience.

These are the streets that close off traffic to cars every Oct. 31, so that trick-or-treaters can rule the road, and as a byproduct, homeowners here become Halloween MVPs.

If they're not prepared, they'll have to deal with thousands of sugar-fueled children with high expectations. It could get sticky.

Stacey VanOverbeke's street, Burling between Wrightwood and Fullerton avenues in Lincoln Park, gets closed off block-party-style every Halloween, and she preps by purchasing 1,000 pieces of candy, knowing they'll be gone by 7:30 or 8 p.m.

But she doesn't just stop at candy. For the last 13 years, VanOverbeke has been grabbing Italian beef at Serrelli's Finer Food before heading to Pilsen to pick up tamales. She pairs these with spiced rum cider, pops on some spooky music, and her house becomes a gathering spot for adults.

The kids, on the other hand, run through the haunted house that's set up in a neighbor's front yard, or they trick-or-treat through the block, which takes an entire hour.

"Whether you want a party or not, it is happening," VanOverbeke said, adding that it takes weeks for her to recover.

Hyde Park is another hot spot for trick-or-treaters, and Susan Weingartner was so excited to celebrate Halloween in her new home that she arranged her closing date so she could be there for Oct. 31.

"We moved in before the furniture got there," Weingartner said. "It's an old Victorian home, and it's got a spooky look, so it doesn't take that much to add to it, but every year, I add a bloody hand or a broken leg or something like that."

The entire 5700 block of South Harper closes down and is transformed into a haunted strip of Chicago, with bloody corpses, zombies and cemeteries taking over the usually calm street.

It takes Weingartner half a day to set up her nine bins of decorations with the help of her children, and she doesn't put them up until a few days before Halloween, because she doesn't want the weather to ruin them.

She expects to have about 3,000 trick-or-treaters this year if it follows last year's pattern, and to hand out the candy to the steady stream of outstretched hands, Weingartner recruits her husband, her grown children, her former students and any friends who want to take part.

Despina Kotsapouikis of North Center, simply puts a trash can stuffed with Costco candy outside her door and hopes for the best (it never has a single piece left when she returns home after trick-or-treating with her kids).

Her neighborhood attracts trick-or-treaters from afar, thanks in part to the presence of the Jenkins family. Jeff Jenkins is a former Ringling Brothers clown and a co-founder of the Midnight Circus, and he happens to live in North Center, so every Halloween, he sets up a little spooky Halloween circus, Kotsapouikis said.

There's another house with a themed Halloween show. Last year, the family set up a butcher shop and gave out bloody eyeballs. This year's theme is expected to be Sweeney Todd.

This year, they are going to put together "a whole barber shop of gory candy," Kotsapouikis said. A nearby church does a haunted house, which also attracts trick-or-treaters.

"People pop out of white vans here to go trick-or-treating," Kotsapouikis said.

Over in Oak Park, pure competition led Woody Meachum to build a 16-foot pirate's ship, which he proudly displays in his front yard.

"The guys at the other end of the block always did their block really big," said Meachum, who works in advertising. "If they were going to do something, I was going to do something."

Three weeks later, he has the biggest ship on the block, which attracts up to 1,800 visitors annually (yes, one year he counted).

"People get bused into our block," Meachum said.

To add to the fun, he dresses up as a pirate and sits in front of his ship, which has real steam coming out of it, and he plays music.

If he runs out of candy, he races to Jewel to buy more.

It's a yearly tradition that Oak Park officials are well aware of, and rather than being nervous about the onslaught of visitors that the holiday brings, they're proud, and they welcome their guests with open arms.

"People have been celebrating Halloween here for a long, long time, and it's safe to assume that there are people coming from surrounding communities," said Erik Jacobsen, communications coordinator for the village of Oak Park. "We like to share our community, and people are welcome to come."

With or without the invitation, come they do, before piling back into their vans, buckets filled to the brim with candy.

Until next year.

Danielle Braff is a freelancer.

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