Get dressed to the nines on Halloween

Julie Kaiser

Today is the day to don a disguise — maybe because it’s the one time of year you can revamp your image, all in good fun. Young or old, reserved or boisterous, dressing in costume changes everything — at least for a few hours.

We asked readers to describe their most elaborate costumes, and e-mails started arriving almost immediately, complete with detailed descriptions, colorful photos and even a YouTube link.

People take Halloween seriously around here. We’ve chosen a handful to highlight.

Monica Heshmat, 44, of Chatham, Ill., caught her costume fever years ago when her children, Colin and Claire, were little and competed as the spider and Miss Muffet (among other disguises) in a neighborhood costume contest. Five witch trophies from those earlier years adorn the top of her entertainment center and help create a spooky atmosphere for her third-annual “Witches Who-Ha.”

Three years ago, disappointed that her kids (now 15 and 13) were growing out of their Halloween enthusiasm, Heshmat hosted her first Witches Who-Ha on Friday the 13th.

“It said a lot about my friends when I tell them my idea and they participate with enthusiasm,” she said. “They could have all just showed up in black pants, but instead we take it for all it’s worth. It’s really out of the ordinary.”

In September, they held a garment swap, where the friends exchanged fabrics and embellishments and brainstormed new costumes. The work paid off. On the night of the party, Oct. 17, none of the couple dozen witches in attendance looked alike.

Most wore a variety of black fabrics and lace, hats with feathers and ribbons, striped stockings and buckled, pointy shoes, but there also were witches with green stringy hair, witches with tarantula bling and even one (a newcomer) wearing red high-top sneakers.

“We love Halloween because it doesn’t have any expectations,” said friend Rosemary DiNello, 45, of Springfield, Ill. “Adults can lose that sense of fun. Every year, everyone dresses differently. The best part is seeing everyone’s costumes when they walk through the door.”

“We can look and act as silly or goofy as we want to,” added Chatham neighborhood friend Lori Willoughby, 44, whose witch’s costume cost less than $15. “We think about it all year round. I found my shirt for this costume at the new Goodwill store in July.”

Many of the costume pieces came from Goodwill or other secondhand stores, although a fair number of embellishments (and shoes) were found at places like Wal-Mart and Target.

“During the garment swap, Monica’s kitchen is full of everything everyone has found through the year,” Willoughby said. “We are pulling this off of that and putting it over there with that so we don’t end up spending a lot of money.”

Heshmat’s grandmother, now 86, was an accomplished seamstress who sewed many of Heshmat’s childhood get-ups, including a witch costume. She taught her granddaughter how to sew and helped her create several of her children’s contest-winning costumes. That eye for detail and fearlessness in taking apart dresses — as well as channeling her inner fashion witch — is evident in the Who-Ha costumes Heshmat makes for some of her guests.

And the Who-Ha isn’t just about talking, eating and drinking the Witch’s Brew. One year, they caroled around the neighborhood singing, “Five Little Pumpkins Sitting on a Fence.” Another year, the guests gathered ’round while Heshmat read scary stories. This year, murmurings could be heard of taking the party on the road to Salem, Mass., for the 10th annual Witch’s Who-Ha.

“She morphed intensely,” former roommate Julie LaFrance, 41, (who traveled to the Who-Ha from Hillsboro, Ill.) said of Heshmat, who never once dressed up as a witch in their college days. “She’s beyond control now.”

“My husband always wants to know when it’s safe to come home,” Heshmat said with a slight cackle.

For the Sheppard family of Auburn, Ill., dressing up has become a special Halloween tradition that gives daughter Megan, 14, a starring role.

“Every year, we have to think of ingenious ideas for Halloween,” Tracy Sheppard wrote in her e-mail. “Our daughter is disabled, and we think of family ideas that are one-of-a-kind. This year, our daughter’s special-needs jogger is being transformed into a Secretary of State Police car. It will be complete with flashing lights and all the decals that the capitol police car has.” (To see a YouTube video of it, go to watch?v=X_Di3YvKRAw.)

To complete the law-enforcement effect, Scott Sheppard, 43, will don his Secretary of State Police uniform, and Megan and her younger brother, Jacob, 6, will be investigators-in-training. Tracy Sheppard and oldest son Joshua, 18, will dress as jailers in black-and-white stripes complete with handcuffs. Even Molly, the family’s yellow Labrador retriever, will be disguised in a canine unit T-shirt.

“She loves it,” Tracy Sheppard said of Megan’s reactions each Halloween. “It is fun because it is something she can be involved with. She really enjoys it.”

The police car proved most challenging to piece together. Scott Sheppard estimates he spent 80 hours working on the vehicle that Megan will sit in as her costume.

“Trying to figure out how to make the frame to put on the jogger was the hardest part," he said. “I messed around with the wood and finally found the shape and design I wanted. The easiest and most fun part was cutting out the car’s shape and getting all those pieces painted up, using my imagination and trying to replicate one of our squad cars.”

Each Halloween, the Sheppards greet about 200 trick-or-treaters at home with a fog machine and scary music wafting out from the house.

“Every year is so much fun for us,” Tracy Sheppard said. “The kids love Halloween, and we love to see the kids have so much fun. Halloween is a great time to meet new people and see old friends and their children, who come year after year to see what is going on this year … just being together having fun as a family and knowing that these times will be so memorable to our kids forever.”

Kym Garner of Springfield wrote in with stories of previous family disguises that won their son Hunter, now 2, awards in a Halloween parade.

This year, grandma Debi-Lynn Slater, 55, continued her role as a sewing assistant with the Garner costumes.

“My mom’s passion has always been sewing (her license plates are U SEW 2),” Garner wrote in her e-mail. “I have never had a store-bought Halloween costume — ever. If you’d like a family that has taken the homemade Halloween tradition they were raised with and are able to continue it into the next generation … then we’re your people.”

For this year’s disguises, Garner's family wavered between the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf or Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In August, baby Iris arrived and made the decision for them.

They found a wig for her yellow curls, and Goldilocks will be sleeping in Baby Bear’s bed, which is a disguised wagon complete with bed skirt, sheets and a pillow.

Hunter will wear a teddy bear costume Grandma made for his mom about 25 years ago when Kym was 2 years old. Kym, 27, and husband Mat, 28, (as Mama and Papa Bear) will wear brown sweats and appropriate bear accessories, including ears, vest, homespun apron and costume pearls.

With a newborn in the household this fall, the costume extravaganza has proved more difficult for Kym Garner to put together (even with Grandma’s help).

“The most challenging part has been finding the time,” she said. “Having a 2-year-old, a 2-month-old, a full-time job and housework has made it a little hard to find time to go to the sewing machine.”

If you need a Pirate of the Caribbean for your Halloween party, look no further than 28-year-old University of Illinois student Joe Dattoli. One year, he won $500 at a costume contest in Decatur, Ill., for his dead-on impersonation of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow.

“Normally we’ll just go to family get-togethers, costume parties and bars and stuff,” he said. “Last year, I went to Catch 22 and had numerous people want to take their pictures with me. I like to do that because I can take on his personality. I think I could go down to Disneyland.”

He built his costume around a store-bought version purchased at The Party Tree in Springfield. Then he added to it with a wig — complete with dreadlocks, jewelry and bandana — bought on eBay. He also purchased special boots, rings, wristband, belt, pistol and compass — even a baldric (which holds the sword). His girlfriend helps him with the makeup.

“I grow my goatee out for it because the facial hair is mine, not stick-on stuff,” he said. “Ever since the first movie came out, I’ve been a huge fan of Johnny Depp and "Pirates of the Caribbean." I like Halloween a lot… You get to get dressed up and do something different.”

By day, Dawn Neuhoff, 48, works as a maintenance records specialist for Standard Aero Aviation in Springfield. But around Halloween, she morphs into Paul Stanley of KISS fame, joined by the rest of the band: her best friends Judy Claussen, 48; Jeryn Meister, 46; and Dawn’s sister, Deana O’Dell, 48.

The four have become veterans at dressing like the famed rock stars. They no longer wipe red lipstick all over O’Dell’s tongue for the authentic Gene Simmons look. (The lipstick didn’t last and tasted awful.) Now they use red food coloring and then add the coloring to her drinks to maintain the trademark red as the night goes on. Neuhoff admits the overall disguise becomes bigger each year.

“One funny moment was during our second year,” Neuhoff said. “We got a Hummer stretch limo and had our friends and husbands dress up as groupies and bodyguards. At one place (Sammy’s Bar and Grill), our ‘bodyguards’ got out and blocked off the sidewalk and everyone was looking out the window to see who was getting out. People were standing up and clapping as we walked in!”

The most dramatic aspect of the costumes is the face makeup. During the first year, the women’s makeup rubbed off too easily, so the group enlisted the help of makeup artist and professional clown Rene Gallaher of Auburn to help the following year. She’s been their makeup guru ever since.

“The hardest challenge the very first time was learning the exact points of their face makeup, knowing where to put the star, how to put the star over the eye and over the nose, how to make the points exactly pointed,” Gallaher said. “We were working off a poster the ladies had. It was right there in your face, so I was being critiqued and I was critiquing myself.”

Gallaher uses professional grease paint in her work as Sunshine the Clown, and she uses the same for the KISS members. She applies the makeup with sponges, fingers and brushes. With grease makeup, she notes, you have to powder it down, so she uses an old powder puff to add the finishing touches. The best part for her is watching the transformation.

“Once they get into costume, they are them,” she said of Neuhoff and her friends. “Once they get into costume, they are having the time of their lives. There’s nothing greater than seeing someone enjoying what they are doing.”

Transforming all four of the women into KISS takes about three hours, most of which is dedicated to perfecting the makeup.

“The makeup stays on so good now that some of us who forgot our cold cream will have a red face the whole next day,” Neuhoff said. “Talk about tough to remove, but totally worth it.”

It’s not a given that “KISS” will rock Springfield each Halloween. Last weekend, the group drove down to St. Louis dressed as KISS to check out an American Idol Halloween contest.

And at some point each year, Neuhoff said, the group of friends gets together and someone will ask, “Do we want to get dressed up this year?” A friend will say yes. Another will say no. And then those in favor beg until they convince the naysayers to agree.

“It sure doesn’t work to be KISS unless we have the whole group,” Neuhoff said. “I’m sure we’ll keep dressing up until people are tired of us … or when one of us breaks a leg in our 6-inch-tall boots!”

Julie Kaiser is a freelance writer who can be reached through the features desk at 788-1512.