If things had gone differently over the last two decades, the hulking old brick building near the 18th Street exit off of Interstate 70 in Kansas City, Kansas, might look more like the setting of a real-life horror story these days.
Instead, Chris Green expects the Alcott Arts Center's parking lot to be alive with a few hundred kids celebrating a family-friendly Halloween on Tuesday.
They’ll make their way through a cone-marked maze to candy stops, get their faces painted by volunteer Sheryl Nance-Durst (who’s been doing this for years), marveling at other volunteers performing skits while dressed as aliens, superheroes and interplanetary Star Wars favorites.
“Those volunteers really put together something special for these kids,” says Green, one of the art center's founders.
All of which testifies to a neighborhood’s ability to prevent having to live with a truly scary building.
What's now the Alcott Arts Center opened in 1923 as the Louisa May Alcott Grade School. During the Depression, the school’s PTA ran a thrift shop where members mended clothing for the city’s children. In 1951, when the West Bottoms was flooding, Procter and Gamble set up a first aid station in the school for employees of the Sinclair Refining Company. Used briefly from 1977 to 1986 as an office building, it became the alternative school for drop-outs and students who only needed a few credits to graduate.
By 1999, it was surrounded by abandoned truck stop buildings and, as the Arts Center’s website puts it, “a less than desirable motel that rented rooms by the hour.” Though it was in a largely residential neighborhood, the school board planned to sell the building to be turned into a minimum-security prison.
Neighbors formed an alliance to stop the prison plan, and the building was sold instead to the Central Avenue Betterment Association, which, with more input from members of the nearby community, determined it should be an “arts-only” building.
For the last 16 years, the Alcott Arts Center has been a self-sustaining entity, a place for arts classes, car shows, dramatic readings, and other events — even auditions for a feature film. Its all-volunteer staff has been able to offer grants and scholarships to artists and have hosted more than 300 exhibitions. (Meanwhile, the troubling buildings that used to be across the street and the sketchy motel were replaced by a strip center anchored by the Ball's Sunfresh, a couple of gas station/convenience stores and Heartland Habitat for Humanity.)
The Halloween tradition began 12 years ago.
“All the people we impact — the kids, the plays, the exhibits — it’s nice to know that we still put something positive in the community for everyone to be included and nurtured and be cultured,” Green says.
This year’s theme is “Out of this World,” and there’s a deeper Star Wars connection than most of the kids will ever know.
Darryl Woods, one of the Alcott Center’s board members, is also a licensed LucasFilm artist.
When he’s not at his day job at BNSF Railroad, where he’s worked for 26 years, Woods is an illustrator, drawing comics and caricatures.
Over a decade ago, he went to the San Diego Comic-Con (one of the world’s largest such conventions), toting two of his portfolios to show to LucasFilm representatives. He says they dismissed his realism portfolio as not sufficiently polished, but were impressed enough with his cartoons to sign him up as an official artist and send him to the Los Angeles Star Wars Convention to draw for fans.
“I thought, ‘Wow, man! My dreams come true!” Woods says.
Being a licensed LucasFilm artist means he can use LucasFilm characters in his creations, sell them, and make prints for distribution. LucasFilm gives artists a choice to either donate their profits or keep them; Woods donates all of his proceeds to Children’s Mercy Hospital, where he also volunteers at the hospital, drawing patients’ favorite characters.
Since discovering and honing his artistic talent, Woods has worked with different events, both private and public, often with a tip jar set out to increase his Children's Mercy donations.
BNSF pitches in for the prints and all of his art materials; without his employer’s support, Woods says, he would be unable to continue.
For the Alcott’s Halloween party, Woods has created a series of portraits and made about a hundred 11” x17” prints of different LucasFilm characters and other popular cartoons which he’ll personalize for the kids.
“We can have Scooby Doo taking a bite out of your name,” he says with a laugh.
He’s done the portraits in a black and white coloring book style, so kids can them home and color them in.
“With my talent, you know,” Woods says, “I just want to give back to the kids, make them happy. It’s only right I give back to the community.”
It’s that attitude that enabled a community to create positivity where dark shadows once threatened to take over.
"Out of this World" annual Halloween celebration, 5-8 p.m. Tuesday, October 31 at the Alcott Arts Center, 180 South 18th Street, Kansas City, Kansas, 66102; 913-233-2787.
Monique Gabrielle Salazar is a Kansas City freelance writer, artist and producer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.