With our haunted, historic past and the love of all that is theatrical, Halloween is a welcomed holiday throughout the city. Though the pandemic sidelined many traditional Halloween celebrations, one mainstay that has continued for many decades is the St. Charles Avenue Skeleton House. Each year, the Skeleton House delights visitors with the comical, satirical and topical costumes and props that adorns each skeleton. Louellen Berger has been the driving force behind the Skeleton House for decades with no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Q: How did you get started? I’ve always decorated. I came home from college one year, back in the ‘70s, and decorated my parents’ door. It was during a time in the early ‘70s when no one was trick or treating anymore because of threats of harmful items being found in candy. So, everyone thought I was crazy for decorating. But I’ve been decorating ever since. Some years later, the oak tree in my front yard had a branch that started to curve down to the ground and I thought, “I wish I was 12 again and just lay in that tree all day and enjoy life.” So, I put a skeleton in there instead, just reclining back. But I wanted to make more than one statement, so I added three more skeletons. They were all gymnasts. One was doing a backbend, one was doing a cartwheel and one had a hula hoop. I got a lot of nice compliments. So, I gradually added two or three, three and four; and it got to quite a big number these days.
Q: How many skeletons do you display? It varies. The first year of COVID I only had two, it was a pumpkin theme and that was the first year I introduced a song. I didn’t want people congregating outside the house and spreading the virus. That was the theme of “Hamilton” and so I only had two skeletons, Hamilton and King George, with pumpkins all over the house. The next year, since I hadn’t added any before, I had six more added. But I also remove ones each year that aren’t relevant anymore. This year, we’ve had some remodeling done to the house and I’ll put a few in the original widow’s walk on the roof of our house. All in all, I have between 70 and 80 skeletons set out each year.
Q: When do you start your preparations? Every board that I’m on or a part of knows that in September they’re not going to see me. I really scale back on everything else. It was far more difficult when it first started because they didn’t sell skeletons with joints.
It takes me two days to put everything together and then another day to light them all. The lights are important because it’s a completely different effect at night with the lights.
My problem is I don’t keep my skeletons in a climate-controlled facility. They are stored in our garage. So, every year I need to pull them out and because a lot of them are in their position with hot glue that of course melts in our in our hot summer so I have to do a lot of maintenance.
Q: Has this become bigger than you ever expected? Oh, it’s so far bigger. The inspiration came because of one tree and then seeing people’s reactions. But then truthfully, it was a need not only for my parents – who I would have come sit on my porch and it gave them such a joy and chuckle when they were alive – but others who are maybe shut in their houses or can’t get around. I have friends tell me their parent hasn’t been out of the house in years, but they come out to see my decorations from the car.
Q: Do you have a favorite skeleton? I’m asked that question a lot from people. But I guess I do have to say it’s my original. Just because that was me as a child – always in a tree. And I just love the oaks here in New Orleans. I’m a native New Orleanian and if, as a child, I saw an oak tree me and my friends would be in it. So, that’s Lazy Bones. That’s the one that started this whole thing. There’s another that isn’t necessarily unique. I was up all night perplexed one year because someone had slipped a note in my mailbox suggesting I was a devil worshiper. I was kind of blown away, because my whole focus was really twofold – on entertaining children, as well as the elderly, and allowing families a safe haven and safe place to go on Halloween night. So, i decided that I was going to show three skeletons going off to church (my church is next door to my house). I didn’t know if people would get it. The first one was called “born again.” But that came so easy. I wanted to also have a chaplain or a pastor. And I couldn’t think of another pun or another name. And like at about three in the morning I woke up and I thought “Pastor Prime” and I just laughed out loud. I just thought that was divine intervention I don’t know how that popped into my mind like that. But I just thought that may be among the most clever.
Q: Why do you continue each year? One, I share a birthday – the day, not the year – with Clint Eastwood and I have recently read that Clint was asked, “Why do you keep producing? And how can you keep up this energy?” And he said, “I want to do anything I can to keep the old man out.” And I think being creative, being active leaning over bending, installing, hammering, using the electric screwdriver all helps maintain me as a somewhat in shape, physical person. As long as I can continue putting that out and being creative and working with other people. It’s also a big family fun project for my family. My much, much grown children have offered a lot of fun names. I bounce off some titles off of them. Starting in July, two or three new themes came out of us all being together so it’s a fun family thing as well, even though none of them actually physically helped me except the grandchildren. Every year, I do have my five local grandchildren help – we have 11 grandchildren. I just don’t let them use the hot glue gun. We have cool glue guns for them. Every year when they were little all they did was the pearly gates, they would put the Mardi Gras pearls on the gate. But as they got older and above even at three, they all started helping me so that’s a fun, fun activity. That takes several afternoons because we don’t do it all in one afternoon. Don’t have the attention span or some things have to dry.