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Digging our Roots: Halloween Parades at SDC from the 1970s to 2018

Digging our Roots: Halloween Parades at SDC from the 1970s to 2018
A Halloween celebration in the late ‘60s at the SDC. Source: Gregg Montgomery


By Teresa Murphy for the Glen Ellen Historical Society

For the many people of Glen Ellen who worked for years at Eldridge — previously the Sonoma Developmental Center — the experience was life-changing. Now that SDC is closed, rich memories flow from that historical community.

In fall, the recollection of happy Halloweens comes to mind as neighboring vineyards go golden and the Butler oaks turn crimson. Halloween parades were the highlight of the year, and I wish there was a way to capture the spirit we had at Sonoma Developmental Center in those days.

The anticipation of Halloween began months in advance with the building of floats to represent the various cottages, all competing for the Grand Prize trophy. The Malone Cottage Monsters were there. The Cohen Cowboys and the Blues Brothers of Bane Cottage were big hits. Flatbed trucks were coveted for a float foundation. But the tram — the little train-like vehicle with multiple articulating cars — was highly sought-after.

The fight for the Grand Prize trophy began with months of secret planning. Lumber, sheets, poster paint, glue, and cardboard were clandestinely assembled in hidden corners of the dental office, plant operations, the physical therapy department, and living areas to secretly create delightful Halloween themes.

Black spots on sheets draped over wheelchairs became 101 Dalmatians. Colorful tropical cardboard fish attached to the spinning wheels of tiny wheelchairs produced an exciting Underwater Wonder World. Galleons and haunted houses were built on flatbed trucks to celebrate treacherous pirates. The Addams Family was on a float, with the late Program Director Mary Lou Dunlap as Grandmama, watching the Flying Vampire rotating outside her house chimney. Program director Jerry Fields was a handsome shirtless Buddha, and Jack Blankenship was fine-looking King Kamehameha, festooned with multiple leis.

I remember the center’s plumber, who was placed in a makeshift cannon to be shot up to the iconic brick center building where a ‘twin’ staffer would appear to be the resultant and successful cannon fodder.

Everyone — staff, families, foster grandparents, and residents — was moved by the stirring marches of the Sonoma Valley High School band and by the Eldridge Fire Department. Local Glen Ellen folks would even take the day off to attend our parades, setting up lawn chairs from the Malone Cottage starting point, past the Nelson Circle, to the judges’ table at Fredrickson Building. Everybody and their grandchildren watched in awe as the feathered and foiled residents marched along the parade route for judging.

Clover-Stornetta Dairy provided the sound system for the parade, which gave the unforgettable Jim Tallent the decibels to whisper a secret spell, or warn of approaching vampires. Judging was an honor, complete with candy bribes and choreographed dance routines to impress the judging committee and influence their decision. The Grand Prize was presented to the most talented spooks. New trophies were proudly displayed in nursing stations, living rooms, and break rooms, reminding us of years of devilish delight.

Halloween at SDC was a day when there were no barriers between managers and staff, or staff and residents. It was ghostly fun, and was a great leveler for all those who were part of the exciting, soulful, a bit sentimental, and very spooky, SDC festivities.