Halloween 2014: Cyrano de Bergerac

Posted by jdg | Friday, October 31, 2014 | ,

This past summer my son wanted to learn to fence. At six he was still too young for most of the area fencing classes and camps taught by people who actually know what they're doing, so all he had was me. We bought some used fencing gear, watched a ton of old swashbuckler movies, read a lot of really old fencing manuals, and poked at each other with practice foils just about every day all summer long. You can learn just enough from youtube to have a lot of fun. What we lacked in actual skill and professionalism we made up for with panache. We backed each other up tower staircases and knocked over Louis XIV chairs and brought chandeliers crashing to the floor. We got into arguments over who were the greatest swordsmen of all time. Scaramouche? Zorro? The Scarlet Pimpernel? Inigo Montoya? No, no, no, I said. All great swordsmen, true, but have you heard of Cyrano de Bergerac? He once defeated one hundred enemies with nothing but his rapier and his wit. (I might have waited to mention the nose. And all the unrequited love. And the poetry recited by hunky proxies under balconies). That story of one hundred enemies defeated in combat caught fire in his brain like a Flemish tapestry under a spilled candelabra: Cyrano de Bergerac fought off a hundred attackers as though they were ants! Did I mention he has a huge nose? Who cares! Do you think Inigo Montoya could fight off one hundred enemies all by himself? Inconceivable. 

So, when Halloween costume time came, the decision was easy. Explaining it to people would prove the difficult part. It was awesome to hear him explain to random people that he was going to be "a famous French fencer with a long nose" when they didn't know who Cyrano de Bergerac was.

We went to the amazing Colonel Hecker house on Woodward Avenue to take some pictures. It's one of the only true French Châteauesque houses in the city, and I couldn't resist. Right now there are law law offices there, and the lawyers just scurried away when they saw him.

There is a very short window in a man's life when he is willing to dress like a seventeenth-century fop. For most men this willingness probably peaks at about six-years old. For the rest, well, I suppose that is why there are renaissance faires. I was not going to let this moment in my son's life pass without exploiting it. When it came to the actual costume we did a lot of research. We visited art museums and actually paid attention to the Dutch paintings. I was always very nerdy about seventeenth-century history and literature so I excitedly showed him pictures of Charles I and we pinned details of Rembrandt's Night Watch. I bought lace. He let me buy him tights.

Other than those tights, that latex nose, and the wig, every part of the costume is hand made. I was going to go to a costume shop to buy him a wig, but then I remembered I live in Detroit. Detroit is not a wig desert. We walked over to the neighborhood wig shop but none of the wigs had prices. The lady asked me how much I wanted to spend. I said $20 and it turned out every wig cost $20. I wish I had said $15. It turns out all wigs have names. Together we (the wig shop lady, my son, my daughter and myself) agreed upon a model called "the LaToya."

I sewed the quilted tunic, the breeches, and the wool cloak. I sewed those freaking doilies on the sleeves. The tunic sleeves are made from leather I get from Cadillac upholstery remnants. I added some scrap leather to his old shoes to make the boots. I made the hat out of some really thick oil-tanned leather I had sitting around and he actually found those pheasant feathers in a field where we were playing baseball. Talk about panache.

I made that sword over the summer on a whim. I had this beautiful piece of purpleheart sitting around and I wasn't sure what I was ever going to do with it and I saw a picture of a rapier that belonged to some German prince and decided it was so beautiful I had to make a wooden version for my son as a reward for all his hard work learning to fence (he really did practice every day). I wanted to learn how to do wood inlay so I crushed some lapis lazuli and figured out how to inlay it around the hilt. Now I want a lathe.

Yeah, I went a little crazy on this costume but I figured most of it could be used for all kind of imaginative play well after Halloween. He will spend many hours as a well-dressed pirate, a musketeer, Zorro, Inigo, and whoever else he can imagine himself to be. But today he was Cyrano. At one point while I was taking these pictures he stood on the sidewalk looking up at the "French castle" and he said (in a very serious voice) as the rush-hour traffic buzzed behind us: "I just really feel like I am Cyrano de Bergerac right now!" And he was.

Halloween 2014: The Big Friendly Giant

Posted by jdg | Friday, October 31, 2014 | ,

My daughter is a tiny thing. There's no use denying it. At school recitals and other events we see how the top of her head hardly reaches the chin of the next shortest kid in her class. She doesn't seem to mind too much and by now it's become a part of her personality. There are things she likes about being little. When she plays flag football with the hulking, sweaty boys in her class, they can't reach down far enough to grab her flags. It takes longer to outgrow her favorite clothes. And there are things she doesn't like about being little. Younger kids try to pick her up. People often ask if she and her six-year-old brother are twins.

Halloween is still a huge deal at our house. The planning begins early. I go way overboard. It is the great holiday of childhood, when for a few magical hours scattered over a few days in late October, a kid can become whoever or whatever they want to be.

Leave it to the tiniest kid in class to want to be a giant.

I have already written about how much my daughter loves Roald Dahl's magical book The BFG, and how much joy and comfort that book has brought her. For the last seven months, it's been pretty much a given that she wanted to be the Big Friendly Giant for Halloween. I would throw out other suggestions but her responses were tepid at best. This was what she wanted. I just needed to figure out a way for the nine-year-old girl who still can't go on most of the rides at the county fair to tower over all her friends.

So I built her some stilts.

I was pretty sure this was going to be a disaster. My wife had no faith in the stilt option. I cobbled some foot-tall peg stilts from leftover wood, leather, and velcro that I had in the basement. I cut up an old bike tire for the bottoms. I wasn't super confident that this would work myself, but half an hour later she first found her balance and I couldn't get her out of them. I think she really liked the view from up there.

The next morning there was an event at school and she walked up to her entire class wearing them and I don't think I've ever seen her smile like that. She walked an entire mile in those stilts. I felt confident at that point we could incorporate them into her costume.

Her mom made her some super long pants. The head was tricky. I thought about using a bald wig and some fake ears on a headband, but I have so much scrap leather it was simple to cobble together a hat with gigantic ears and rabbit-fur eyebrows. There's even some rabbit fur in the ear canal and some on the back of the head.

It was a more permanent option than a bald wig, so if she wants to play BFG in the future all she needs to do is slip on her hat.

One of the kids' favorite Halloween activities (even more than trick-or-treating, I think) is the photo shoot where we try their costumes on for the first time and go some place magical that really brings them to life. The BFG is a very large gentleman with questionable English who farts a lot and lives in a cave he only leaves to catch dreams he blows through a magical trumpet into little houses and he eventually visits the Queen of England in her palace. We don't have a Queen in Detroit, and the closest thing we've ever had to a king is Henry Ford. So went out to his personal fiefdom of Dearborn and took some pictures near his palace at Fair Lane, where there is also a cave and a tiny farmhouse where the Ford children played.

If you see a big-eared giant towering over you this Halloween, don't worry. I can guarantee he's friendly.

(Just stay back a few feet in case he needs to whizpop).