Jack Ohman

The revealing art of the Halloween disguise

Jack Ohman, second from left, trick-or-treating as Walter Cronkite with boyhood pals.
Jack Ohman, second from left, trick-or-treating as Walter Cronkite with boyhood pals. johman@sacbee.com

Halloween is truly a bizarre holiday. In the runup to Christmas and Hanukkah, celebrations of life, we inexplicably kick off the season celebrating, well, death. Hmm.

It’s also a moment for disguise. In California, the land of Hollywood, we know this and strongly identify with reinvention. In addition to creepy skeletons and the usual gamut of cemetery-based iconography, Halloween allows us all to transform into something we’re not.

That means costumes.

Costumes can be as simple as a black mask or as liberating, and maybe revealing, as full-persona makeovers. We can be superheroes, warlocks, goblins, the Village People, animals, plants and anything else we can conjure up.

While it’s fun for adults in search of their inner witches and ghosts, it’s mostly about kids.

Millions of parents dress their kids up in costumes that defy taste. My own son once said he wanted to be an injured NASCAR driver. We passed on the opportunity to let him do that. Another year, he said he wanted to be Apollo 13. I’m not kidding.

So I dutifully went to the fabric store, bought a few yards of white foam, and carefully fashioned a walking Command Service Module. He complained that the side panel wasn’t blown out. But it was rainy in Oregon that year, so I left the panel intact. Apollo 11, maybe.

My mother always made me elaborate costumes. She was a great seamstress, and she seemed to enjoy the challenge. You want to be Snoopy? OK, I’ll put a large cup under the mask to make a snout (it worked). You want to be the Red Baron? She sewed me a realistic-looking brown jacket with a fur collar, a flight helmet, and we appropriated my dad’s Korean War red dress scarf. I still have it.

When I got older, I made my own costumes. I think the last year I went out, when I was 14 back in Minnesota, I disguised myself as Walter Cronkite. I put flour in my hair, slicked it back, sprayed it, and drew on an Uncle Walter mustache. I donned a tie and trench coat. My friend made a very realistic camera and followed me around. He now lives in Sacramento, and Gene, if you’re reading this, you did a hell of a job as my cameraman.

Some parents see costuming their children as a too-elaborate sight gag. I’ve seen kids dressed as the Michelin Man, the Pillsbury Doughboy, packs of cigarettes and bottles of Jack, and, frankly, I don’t like this. Don’t inflict your odd predilections on kids.

I’ll go as Walter Cronkite again someday, now that I’m around his age. No need for that flour.

And that’s the way it is.

Jack Ohman: 916-321-1911, @JACKOHMAN