“They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky. They’re altogether ooky. The Gentry Family!”
OK, OK — those aren’t the real words to the song, but the Halloween display at the Gentry house at Magazine and Second streets captures the spirit of the Addams Family — funny and scary, lovely and dark — to perfection.
The tradition started in 2012, about a year after the family — David and Jessica, and daughter Gigi — bought the house from the ex-wife of songwriter Paul Simon.
“I love building things, and I’ve had a soldering iron in my hand since I was 9 years old and living in Lakeview,” David Gentry said. “At first I just wanted to see what I could make happen.”
The display — which occupies the front porch, yard and windows of the Gentrys’ home — was modest the first year, but it has expanded to include animatronic skeletons, semitransparent spirits, a blue witch and carved pumpkins.
The show is carefully choreographed by Gentry, whose only formal training as a computer programmer came from a coding class during his senior year at De La Salle High School.
Gentry attended law school at Tulane after Loyola undergrad and works as an attorney.
“But I figure I only spend about 20 percent of my time doing that these days,” he said. “I spend most of my time on other ventures.”
Gentry helped found “In Home Music Teacher,” a company that makes it easy to hire a music teacher for whatever instrument your child might want to play.
“ It’s really important because so many places around the country don’t really have arts in the schools,” he said.
Come to think about it, it’s the visual artistry of the Gentrys’ Halloween production that makes it stand out from others around town — that, and the music, of course. If your ear is attuned, you can pick up parts of songs by Michael Jackson and swing numbers by Louis Prima.
“It’s not like we went out to a store and bought animatronic skeletons and put them on the front porch,” Gentry said. “We built them ourselves and built the computer board that controls them.
"Not one piece is isolated — everything works together. I’ve studied the way the human jaw moves when someone speaks or sings, and I’ve worked to make sure the skeletons’ movements are realistic.”
The performance unfolds over the course of about 18 minutes. Diaphanous ghosts rise in the windows on the second floor and dance to the music. The blue witch hurls a lightning bolt across the front of the house and into a tree in the front yard. Carved foam pumpkins light up sequentially, imparting an otherworldly glow to everything outside.
Mesmerized crowds gather every evening in October after sundown (until 10 p.m., midnight on weekends) to watch as the production progresses.
Besides programming the entire display and building the computer board to control it, Gentry also is the choreographer and director who ensures that every actor, every character, performs precisely the way that he envisioned it.
“Our neighbors love it,” he said. “A lot of them come back every night, and most bring their children. When we look out into the crowd, we see everyone from babies to toddlers on their parents’ shoulders to grade-school kids. There’s no real horror, just spookiness, so parents feel comfortable bringing their kids to see it.”
“Their house is a museum. When people come to see ‘em, it really is a scream, the Gentry family.”
The Gentry home is perfectly suited to its part-time role as “Ghost Manor.“ If it lacks the Second Empire roofline of the Addams family’s mansion, it more than makes up for it with authentic Queen Anne features that include the stunning wraparound porch where the skeleton band sets up every night to play.
In researching the history of the house, the Gentrys discovered it was built in 1892 after a fire destroyed the first house on the site. Better still, they learned that jazzman Joe “King” Oliver lived there in the early 1900s and worked for the home’s owner, Jacob Levy, of shirt manufacturing company Levy & Gonsenheim.
Music may be in the home's bones, but the Halloween visual artistry is strictly modern. David Gentry said some of the technology used to create the faux ghosts (alas there are no real ones) is actually from theme parks. He aims for a Disney’s "Pirates of the Caribbean" sort of feeling.
New this year are 40 carved foam pumpkins, lit from within and clustered about the front yard.
“It was a team effort to add the pumpkins. Jessica did all of the soldering and my kindergarten friend, Keith Bergeron, did all of the carving," Gentry said.
"People in other cities think you’re nuts when you talk about still having friends from kindergarten," he added, "but that’s just the way we do it here in New Orleans.”
When All Saints Day passes, the display will be disassembled, packed in boxes and taken to the attic for storage until next year. So if you want to experience Gentry’s techno-wizardry first hand … “go get a witch’s shawl on, a broomstick you can crawl on, then go and pay a call on the Gentry family.”