Mark Patinkin: The average Joe behind R.I.’s Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular

Meet John Reckner, the low-key former postman who’s the brains behind the elaborate show of intricately carved pumpkins marking its 30th anniversary at Roger Williams Park in Providence.

I’ve long thought the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular is Disney-quality, so I expected the head guy to be an imagineer-type.

You know — some tech sophisticate as flashy as the quarter mile of lights, music and super-carved pumpkins that make up the show at the Roger Williams Park Zoo.

Not exactly.

He’s a 72-year-old former postman named John Reckner.

I met him Friday at the gutting house.

That’s what they call a tented area of the zoo where a dozen workers prep the pumpkins.

There are a lot to prep. The show, marking its 30th year here, features thousands carved traditionally, but what makes it a huge draw are the “intricates.”

That’s Reckner’s name for the show’s signature part — pumpkins etched with oil-painting quality.

There are 125 of those, and Reckner was working on a poignant one honoring Ryan Bourque, a young Jamestown policeman killed by a drunk driver in 2016. The image includes Batman playing the guitar — a tribute to two of Bourque’s passions.

It’ll join pumpkin images of Burt Reynolds, John McCain and Stephen Hawking as part of the memorial section called Celebrating Lives.

The show has a dozen more themes, including Fairy Tales, the Rainforest and a Boston Sports section with Belichick, Gronkowski and Red Sox greats like Ortiz, Pedro, Mookie and Ted Williams.

When I asked Reckner how he thinks up all these themes, he shrugged and said, “Just brainstorm, you know?′

That’s pretty much his personality; he’s a low-key guy.

I found him wearing an old sweatshirt and knit cap, looking more like a pumpkin gutter than the head guy. But he’s the visionary, hiring dozens of artists. The 125 intricates take six hours each, often go bad in a week, and have to be redone four or five times each show.

His etchers include tattoo artists, illustrators and a Hawaii surfboard maker who flies in each year to join the crew.

The artists draw the images with markers, then etch details with a special tool, both for artistry and to let inside light bring them alive.

I asked Reckner if it breaks his heart to see his art go bad in a week.

He again shrugged and smiled.

“You get used to it.”

He was 42, on a Vermont escape with his wife and two young kids, when he saw a row of houses with double-sized pumpkins. He noted they had flat faces that would work for art.

That was Reckner’s college major. The pumpkins got him thinking.

A year later, while walking his dogs through woods in Oxford, Massachusetts, where he lived, a vision hit him — how about a show of artistic pumpkins, in nature, with music and lighting?

Not long after, he took out a Sharpie and a paring knife and invented a new form of art.

Reckner’s first show was in 1988 in his home town, with 10 intricates. He kept adding more, and a decade later, a Providence tourism official named Jim Wood happened by and pictured it at the zoo here.

Reckner now hires 40 people to work on the “Spectacular,” and the same number in Louisville and Minneapolis, where he puts on similar Jack-O-Lantern shows.

Matt Curll, a production coordinator with the Providence show, used to be a plumbing contractor. But he likes this better, partly because of Reckner.

“He’s a general who works with his troops,” said Curll.

Each member of the team seems as obsessed as Reckner. Tristan Wright constantly checks the intricates, getting them replaced when needed, and Mike Finizza is at it all day making sure the lighting and music are just right.

They sometimes work 8 a.m. until midnight, and that’s fine with them — it’s the kind of work that makes them want to get up each morning.

Not long after, he took out a Sharpie and a paring knife and invented a new form of art.

Reckner’s first show was in 1988 in his home town, with 10 intricates. He kept adding more, and a decade later, a Providence tourism official named Jim Wood happened by and pictured it at the zoo here.

Reckner now hires 40 people to work on the “Spectacular,” and the same number in Louisville and Minneapolis, where he puts on similar Jack-O-Lantern shows.

Matt Curll, a production coordinator with the Providence show, used to be a plumbing contractor. But he likes this better, partly because of Reckner.

“He’s a general who works with his troops,” said Curll.

Each member of the team seems as obsessed as Reckner. Tristan Wright constantly checks the intricates, getting them replaced when needed, and Mike Finizza is at it all day making sure the lighting and music are just right.

They sometimes work 8 a.m. until midnight, and that’s fine with them — it’s the kind of work that makes them want to get up each morning.

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Date: 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

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intricately carved pumpkins marking its 30th anniversary at Roger Williams Park in Providence.