Unsung Heroes Behind the Scenes of Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze

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by Rick Pezzullo – 

Cheryl Bernstein stands in front of 98 pumpkins she carved for Celtic Knots display at the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor. —Photo by Rick Pezzullo

It’s become the must-see Halloween event in the Hudson Valley for the last 13 years, with the star attractions being more than 8,000 illuminated jack o’lanterns.

Each pumpkin and “funkin” are individually hand-carved by a dedicated group of talented individuals. Between 20 and 25 artists, sculptors and tattoo professionals handle the 1,000 fresh pumpkins each week of the 45-night Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson.

Meanwhile, four female senior citizens, led by master carver Cheryl Bernstein, create all the artificial “funkins,” which are transformed from a sponge-like material for a longer shelf life and help the large construction attractions stay secure.

“We have a lot of people who come back each year because they love to do it,” Bernstein said. “Getting it all up and carved is the work. The event is the party.”

Bernstein has been a part of the Blaze since it was first conceived in 2005 with creative director Michael Natiello. That year, 2,500 visitors marveled at the sights over eight nights. This year, 170,000 people are expected to enjoy the festivities.

The modest Bernstein, who also coordinates all the volunteer pumpkin scoopers, stressed she and her trio of funkin creators, Brigid Feranda, Inge Schroeder and Vern Ford, take their cues from the visions of Natiello. New features this year include the Statue of Liberty, a fully-functioning, 20-foot diameter Pumpkin Carousel, the Pumpkin Possum Posse, and a pint-sized herd of dinosaurs.

“Michael decides on the themes and plans out what he wants designed,” Bernstein said during a recent tour, where she took particular pride in 98 funkins she crafted for the Celtic Knots display. “Then Vern, Inge, Brigid and I carve it. This is up my wheelhouse. I enjoy the detailed work. I love doing it. My hands not so much.”

Historic Hudson Valley receives shipments of pumpkins on flatbed trucks from Wallkill View Farm in New Paltz. For the length of the Blaze, 50,000 votive candles are used. Meanwhile, 2,900 volunteers help make the event run smoothly.

Besides the looks of amazement on people’s faces as they walk through the nine-acre historic property, Bernstein said she also enjoys the wedding proposals that take place at the Blaze. This year, six proposals are planned in front of the wedding chapel display, where special messages on pumpkins can be ordered.

“I know it’s something people will remember the rest of their life,” she said. “I always ask (visitors) what is your favorite thing (at the Blaze), hoping it’s one of mine.”

The Blaze runs through November 25. Van Cortlandt Manor is located at 525 South Riverside Avenue, just off Route 9 in Croton. For more information, visit www.hudsonvalley.org, or call 914-366-6900.

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