At every other house on Swiss Avenue, trick-or-treaters barely let the candy drop to the bottom of their bags before muttering a “thank you” and scampering off to the next glowing porch light. But at Dave and Ann Brown’s home, they tend to linger.
That’s because anyone familiar with Halloween on Swiss Avenue knows that in just a few minutes, as 12 foreboding chimes sound, the phantom will appear on the Browns’ balcony to “play” his pipe organ. A fog machine signals his arrival, and pyrotechnics synchronize with the song’s crescendos. The show repeats every 20 minutes, and as trick-or-treat traffic picks up, the crowd gathered in the Browns’ front lawn starts spilling into the street.
The phantom of the opera, as the show is commonly known, has been a tradition since the Browns moved into the neighborhood in 1997. It’s quite an ordeal, and more than once they have tried to throw in the towel. But their neighbors won’t let them.
“I just thought it would be cool to have a haunted-looking organ,” Dave Brown says of the family’s first Swiss Avenue Halloween. “Now it’s to the point that I keep hearing I’ll be in a lot of trouble if I don’t put it back year after year.”
The pressure is intense come Oct. 31. Neighbors estimate that 3,000 to 4,000 children and their parents descend on the historic district each year, and for some residents, participation is not optional.
“You are deed restricted to do this,” Clark Mitchell exaggerates, if only slightly.
The candy alone is daunting. Neighborhood resident Linda Solomon estimates that each household spends around $400 on various candy treats, and it’s still not unusual to run out. But it’s not just the candy that draws the masses from throughout Dallas each year. Mostly, it’s the spectacle that trick-or-treaters have come to expect.
The Browns aren’t the only ones who go all out for the occasion. Mitchell says he and his partner, J.W. Brasher, usually take off work the two days leading up to Halloween to decorate their front lawn, as well as the day after to recuperate. Last year, they ushered children through an elaborate tent topped by a giant spider. One of their former neighbors was a little more grotesque with his decorations, using old appliances for themes like “refrigerator of death.”
“He’d go down to Fiesta, where you can get those cow heads, or put peeled grapes in a jar, and kids walked by with all this gross stuff coming out,” Mitchell says.
“The pièce de résistance was the George Foreman grill of death — you opened it up and there was a squished dead body inside. You have to understand Lee. He was a twisted ticket.”
Most homes are more Harry Potter than Friday the 13th, but it’s not surprising that some residents take joy in giving visitors a bit of a fright. This Halloween will be the second for Marian and Jan Mohamed to lug out their purple spider with the red blinking eyes that, along with its colossal web, covers most of their façade.
“We’re the scary house on the block, just to give the kids an experience,” says Jan Mohamed from behind his zombie mask. Their costume-clad friends included Dracula, the devil and the grim reaper, which was enough for one little kangaroo to start crying as he came up the sidewalk. (His mother managed to console him.)
There’s also the massive Halloween garden at the corner of Swiss and Fitzhugh that has a Nightmare Before Christmas feel — rows of mechanical ghosts, zombies, dancing skeletons, miniature haunted houses, and even three witches making a brew. And then there’s the Ehrhardt home, easily identifiable by its gravestones and, during election years, political signs spanning the length of their lawn. Each child receives a piece of candy and a small piece of orange paper reminding parents about the upcoming vote — written in English on one side, Spanish on the other.
“On the years it’s not a voting year, we give them a voter’s registration card,” says former state representative Harryette Ehrhardt.
She makes sure to greet each family with a “we’re so glad you’re here!” or “thanks for bringing your children — we love having them!”Inside the Ehrhardts’ home is a hanging rack of white sheets and make-up for the rotating “ghosts” that help them pass out candy over the course of the evening, plus a full spread of munchies and a pot of chili on the dining room table to thank them for lending a hand. The Ehrhardts are no rookies; they’ve been passing out candy on Swiss Avenue ever since they moved to the neighborhood 35 years ago.
That’s long enough for former trick-or-treaters to now bring their own goblins and fairy princesses. One of those was 22-year-old Shannon Youman, who wanted her son, 3-year-old Tristan Rodgers, to experience the same kind of Halloween she cherished as a child. As they left each house last year, Youman thanked the owners for their years of service.
“They go through so much to make sure that this is a remembrance for children. They fix their houses, they fix their porches, and they dress up themselves. I know it takes hours, days, to set this up,” she says. “And it gets better every year.”
Residents know that the vast majority of children and families who trick-or-treat don’t live on their streets. Some of them don’t have
enough money for costumes, Mitchell says, and bring only a plastic grocery bag for their candy.
“It’s one of the times we can give back to the community,” Brown says.
Though probably only a quarter of the historic district’s homes participate, visitors seem more enthralled with the ornate scenery than intent on filling their bags with candy. Even ice-cream trucks and vendors hawking fairy wands have picked up on the event’s popularity. As the clock ticks closer to 8:30 p.m., the time that the porch lights go dark, the traffic on both the sidewalk and street are so thick that it prompts one strolling gypsy to remark:
“They need remote parking lots and a shuttle bus.”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.