Commentary: A thousand trick-or-treaters? Just a normal Halloween in Alhambra, thanks to my neighbor

A multicolored store front with a sign above a door saying "chocolatier."
The “Chocolatier” built for Halloween by Duane Aamot in his front yard in Alhambra.
(Paul Thornton / Los Angeles Times)

My wife and I loved our block of small Craftsman homes the moment we bought our house in 2011. But it was the front yard across the street filled with rotting lumber and stage props that really charmed us.

It was August and still 20 degrees too hot to think about Halloween, but our new neighbor had already started erecting the frame for “MINESHAFT 2011,” as a sign outside his house indicated what that fascinating mess would become.

How odd. How fun. Whatever it was, in this part of Alhambra we had found a diverse neighborhood, with its own locally sourced quirkiness, fostering a community — and still hanging on as the inequality and housing crises surged around us.


We were in.

With some family already in the area, we knew this neighborhood would be fertile trick-or-treating ground thanks to an artist and set designer known for transforming his bungalow into a medieval dungeon, a UFO landing site or whatever film-like spectacle he dreamed up that year. A neighbor told me at the time: “However much candy you think will work, triple it.”

She wasn’t kidding. This year, on a strict budget of one “fun-size” treat per child, we still gave out all 1,000 pieces of candy we bought (anything more generous would require a car payment-sized outlay for trick-or-treaters). Almost every one of our 12 Halloweens in Alhambra have been similarly exhausting and exhilarating affairs that border on street festivals, and it’s all thanks to one gifted artist and builder on the block who decided to make our community a lot more interesting.

I say almost, because although Duane Aamot hasn’t technically missed a single Halloween in the 27 years he’s lived on the block — a fact he brings up with pride — he’s had to dial it back twice. In 2020, there was no trick-or-treating because of COVID, but he put out some props, sculptures and spooky lighting just to make the neighborhood feel normal. And in 2017, a bout with cancer robbed him of his strength and almost his life, but not our block of its Halloween. Aamot still managed a postcard-worthy setup better than anything most people saw that night.

Absent a pandemic or mortal threat, Aamot doesn’t hold back. His mine shaft in 2011 was a stunning Old-West re-creation. The Louisiana bayou he built last year included an artificial swamp with real fish and attracted a troupe of Polynesian fire dancers who entertained trick-or-treaters late into the night. Years ago, as Aamot tells it, his work was so convincing that a priest passing through the neighborhood (a Catholic monastery is within easy walking distance) stopped to scatter holy water and mutter a few blessings.

“What a compliment,” Aamot told me.

This year’s attraction — a brightly colored “chocolatier” featuring a walkthrough maze, upbeat music and original artwork — drew a few thousand people, Aamot estimates. (The crowds grew large enough to draw police and fire department presence, so this guess sounds reasonable.) As we took stock of this year’s festivities two days after Halloween, Aamot stopped toward the end of his maze, pointed to some darkened, oddly shaped props and said, “I’m going with this next year — very Tim Burton-like, forced perspective.”

Not even before some Halloween revelers’ hangovers had faded, Aamot was already thinking about 2023. And what a relief it was to hear that, even though there’s no doubt my neighbor will deliver 12 months from now. It’s an assurance that our neighborhood’s peculiarities — like those nurtured in other communities where artists can still afford to live — will persist, at least for now.