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If there are other ways his creativity might take form in the future, Thomas Saltsman says he’s not yet sure how.
Last Halloween a garage-sized dragon exhaled smoke. Before that, an enormous spaceship opened its doors to costumed kids so beguiled some forgot to ask for treats. Then again, who needs candy when you can feel like an astronaut?
For kids and grown-ups alike, Saltsman’s two-bay garage has become a North Shore Halloween showstopper with set and sound design that rivals any major Boston theater production. Last year’s dragon spread like wild fire over social media. Saltsman says he heard feedback from as far away as China.
Yet its disappearance perplexed neighbors and this year they were asking for it to return. The way an installation can appear, as if out of nowhere right around Halloween, and then return to an unsuspecting garage along Marblehead’s Pleasant Street is part of the appeal to Saltsman. “I love that it goes away,” he says.
This year’s story – since that’s one way Saltsman conceives the experience – starts on his short driveway. A huge, black “ghost” shipwreck looms near the sidewalk, wind whistling in the background. One 30-foot mast juts into the sky, another is busted and dangles over his house. A projected, bobbing water line ebbs and recedes like a mysterious tide while a hole in the ship’s side beckons curious explorers to walk inside.
Saltsman says his annual Halloween effort, now some 15 years in the making, is about creating an illusion. He wants his garage to disappear and for visitors to feel as if they’re elsewhere—in the hallway with those spooky twins from “The Shining” like a few years ago, for example. Or underwater inside this year’s listing sunken ship. The constructed forced perspective of a two-foot drop from entrance to exit was enough to make this visitor woozy.
An architect by day, Saltsman says his Halloween endeavors have become an artistic outlet for things he’s dabbled in over the years, including technical theater design and sculpture. His home, circa 1828 from the sidewalk and an eclectic mix of eras on the inside, reflects the breadth of his interests (and his wife’s too, they are both architects). He points out two classically-proportioned wax figures he sculpted on display in his living room. The backyard is where he tends the bonsais.
But in the days leading up to Halloween, he’s most concerned with pulling off the ghost ship. To nail the effects, he cast thousands of plaster barnacles and mussels to glue to the walls. He re-used paneling from one of his client’s homes to route the material away from landfill. He reuses and recycles as much as possible, he says, talking up the Styrofoam packing a friend gave him as if itself was captain’s treasure. His wife Brooke Trivas Saltsman didn’t just inspire the ship’s figurehead, it has her face.
To pull off such an effort Saltsman has a lot of collaborators and he starts planning months in advance. He sketches scenes, models them and bounces ideas off his wife, whom he calls his “creative sounding board.” At some point, dozens of volunteers start filing in and out of their garage to construct the design. Saltsman says that close friends Katie and Tim Sullivan are key to making this happen every year.
Katie Sullivan says that one of her favorite parts is hearing reactions as she and her husband offer crowd control on Halloween night. “[Visitors are] already amazed” before they enter, she says. Then once inside they’re in disbelief “to see even more magic, where we have projections, special effects, props, scenery.” Over and over she hears appreciation for the artistry and that it’s something a small crew of people do for fun and not for money.
Saltsman started out crafting haunted hallways at his daughters’ elementary school. That’s where the Saltsmans and Sullivans met, though Katie Sullivan says at first her kids were too afraid to enter.
She wants to reassure families who may want to bring their kids to the ghost ship that “nothing’s going to jump out or get them … there’s no blood, no gore.” (Spoiler alert: there are a few skeletons and a ghost.) If anything, she thinks the experience could unleash kids’ imagination and expand their understanding of what Halloween can be. Perhaps not coincidentally the Sullivans now have two kids studying set design in college.
Saltsman says he may have another installation next year, he may not. If his garage vanishes a few weeks before Halloween, that’s a telltale sign that some new illusion is afoot.
In addition to Halloween night, the ghost ship on Pleasant Street in Marblehead will be open to visitors from 5-9 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 1 and Saturday, Nov. 2.
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