Jumanji Mural and
Keene Pumpkin Festival

October 13, 2009 — Come for the random filming location. Stay for the awesome 40-foot-tall jack-o-lantern towers.

Jumanji came out in 1995 and made a brief splash in the mud puddle of popular culture not for its story, nor for the nostalgia of its source material (a 1981 children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg), but simply because of its name. Jumanji was fun to say, so people said it...often. Heck, it still is. Even typing the word has its joys and is worth all the italicizing I have to do to stick it in this article as much as possible.

Jumanji is the story of a boy named Allan who gets trapped in a magical jungle game for 26 years and can only free himself by helping some other kids finish the game he started while saving their town from all the jungle shenanigans that it releases.

I didn’t watch Jumanji when it originally came out in theaters, but for no real reason. To put that in perspective, I did watch Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, Street Fighter: The Movie, and Judge Dredd: The Kind of Movie that same year. That was also the year of Showgirls, I guess. “Absolutely frightening.” Actually, this is kind of fun. Come to 1995 with me for a bit.

Anyway, when I finally watched Jumanji on DVD more than a decade later, I found myself pleasantly surprised and was satisfied with that small part it played in my life. Then I found out that the town where it was filmed was two hours from where I lived. And then I found out that the film makers left an artifact of sorts from their visit. And just like that, suddenly the movie took on a significance in my life that it really shouldn’t have. I had to visit it.

The exterior scenes in Jumanji were filmed mostly in Keene, NH, which is in the southwest corner of the state. The film makers came, renamed the town Brantford, unleashed their ILM-rendered animals to run amok in the town, gave a bunch of locals “I met Robin Williams” stories, and then left…their only trace a large mural advertisement on a brick wall in the middle of town for a fictional shoe store whose primary purpose in the story was to give a badly wigged David Alan Grier a high-tops gag.

All right, it has a little more to do with the story than that. The fictional shoe company is called Parrish Shoes, it was central to the economy of Brantford, and it was owned by Allan’s father. After Allan reappears decades later from his imprisonment in the game (as Robin Williams), he learns that his father grew so despondent over the mysterious loss of his son that he let the family business fold, pretty much taking down the town with it. Allan is overjoyed to learn that his usually detached father really did love him after all. Oh, and sad to see how the town ended up.

Part of setting up the town to look like it had a shoe factory that was fundamental to its existence (the exterior of which was actually filmed in North Berwick, ME), the movie makers painted a large advertising mural for Parrish Shoes on the side of one of one of the buildings downtown. Made up of a white rectangle and a some images of men’s footwear back when it looked like women’s, it bears the name of the company, the phrase, “Available at Anthony’s Quality Clothier,” and the date of the company’s founding, 1850.

Surprisingly, the mural was actually used in the film less than you’d think relative to the work hours spent painting it in the first place. In fact, it was only seen briefly a couple of times blurred in the background. You’d think they’d use it to better establish continuity in a movie that spans a couple of decades and opposite ends of economic prosperity (1969: boy bicycles past the proud and shining example of the town’s prosperity; 1995: Bum urinates against the flaking and forgotten image from the town’s heyday). But I guess I don’t make movies for a reason. 14,000 probably.

According to one of the anonymous uploaders of Wikipedia, the film makers actually removed the mural when they were wrapping up production. However, the locals liked it so much, they had it repainted. From what I could tell through the background blur, it does look like the film makers might have graffiti’d the mural up a bit for the 1995 scenes, so if it really was repainted, that might factor in, as well.

I feel like I say something similar in every single article, but the mural’s pretty easy to find (I guess I don’t look for things that would take anything other than Google effort to uncover). It’s located at the beginning of West St., right off the central square of Keene where Main St. splits into Court St. and Washington St. In that square is a small park with a gazebo and the pedastal’d statue of a standing soldier, which can be seen at various times during the movie, but most notably during the animal stampede scene. Another similarly placed statue from that movie, a man on horseback that is supposed to be one of the Parrish forefathers, is actually a movie prop.

After learning about the Jumanji mural, I became way more susceptible to references to Keene, so it was probably for that reason that I learned about the annual Keene Pumpkin Festival.

Now, there are few things in this life I like more than pumpkins, but one of those is pumpkins with angular, candle-lighted features carved into them...jack-o-lanterns, or as my phonetic pronunciation has them, “jackal lanterns.” And while lots of places throw festivals dedicated to these large orange gourds, few places do it like Keene. As a result, I decided to mass murder birds and time my visit to the mural for the day of the festival.

Every October, the population of Keene swells from its usual 20,000 to three or four times that on the day of the pumpkin festival, with each attendee caring under their arms a beheaded vine-spawn ready to have a hot candle placed in its cranium to chase away the evil spirits. In fact, on eight different occasions, Keene has set the world record for the number of jack-o-lanterns assembled in one spot, with the most recent record being 28,592 at the 2003 festival. However, in 2006, the bullies down in Boston used their massive native population to needlessly take the record at 30,128, which the city currently still holds.

When I went last year for the 18th annual festival, it was a blustery, rainy evening...but that didn’t quell the spirits of the attendees, nor the live flames inside the pumpkins. In fact, volunteers with lighters were constantly walking around ensuring the latter. As to the former, it’s hard not to have fun when you’re shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people in an Autumn dusk surrounded by Halloween wonder. In fact, there were so many people there that I was too embarrassed to have my photo taken with the Jumanji mural and waited until a few months later to return for it...which is why there is snow in some of the pictures. Merry Halloween from O.T.I.S.

There are, of course, various festival-type things to do (and eat) at the celebration, but mostly you mill around in crowds and look at jack-o-lanterns carved with faces, pictures, words, and anything else that provides a window for the soft, yellow interior flame that is the jack-o-lantern’s finishing touch. Unfortunately, that also meant annoying advertisements for local businesses, some spelled out in individual letters spanning rows 15 pumpkins long. If anything should be sacred, it’s pumpkin flesh. Personally, though, I just want demon faces etched into my Halloween fruit. I also want to start measuring distances in pumpkins.

And Keene was certainly orange with pumpkins on that day. They were everywhere, stuck in tree branches, balanced on curbs, arrayed on five-foot-tall wooden stands that lined the length of the main street and ended in a maze of pumpkins at the aforementioned town square. In addition, at various points giant pumpkins of the sort you usually see coddled in blankets and baby oil for competitions were gleefully mutilated into monster jack-o-lanterns.

The most eye-catching bit, though, was the pair of giant, 40-foot-tall, tiered towers of glorious jack-o-lanterns that flanked Main St. In fact, if I hadn’t of stuck so many adjectives in that sentence I’d probably have more to say about them. The entire celebration ended with a fireworks display in the night sky held up by one of those towers. I don’t usually equate Halloween with fireworks, but it definitely makes sense that the only way to put a period on tens of thousands of glowing pumpkins is to make loud, bright explosions in the sky.

I found out later that Keene ended up with 25,568 jack-o-lanterns that year. I don’t care if it’s not a record. It’s still Heaven made of Halloween. Jumanji.