By Meg Hardesty
When a celebrity dies, Kenny Krause receives a text message.
“It becomes a little bit morbid, because whenever someone dies, my first reaction is always like sad that they passed away,” his daughter, Katherine, laughed. “And my second thought is always – without fail – like I wonder if that is pumpkin worthy.”
His friends and neighbors in his Raleigh, North Carolina neighborhood nag him about his annual tradition.
“Oh, surely this will be the pumpkin.”
Kenny Krause is no artist. He neither draws nor paints. He doesn’t dabble in any other artistic medium except pumpkin.
Every Halloween, Kenny picks a celebrity who passed away in the previous year and carves his or her picture into a pumpkin. Neighbors and friends spend the year predicting and guessing whose face will be on the pumpkin come Oct. 31.
Kenny’s pumpkin boils down to a choice; there can only be one.
So who will it be this year?
The magic behind it all
Each year on Oct. 31, Kenny sits in his sunroom with eye goggles on and a Dremel drill in hand. Elbows deep in it, he guts the pumpkin, ridding it of its pulp and seeds. His shaving and drilling are precise, and no surgeon could match his meticulous methods.
From years of practice, he’s perfected his concoction of two-thirds water and one-third bleach that he soaks the pumpkin in. The bleach keeps it from rotting before the big reveal on Halloween. If one side is drooping, Kenny might add some shading for more support. But, it can’t be shaved down too thin or it will droop. It’s a race against time for Kenny.
He uses a computer software program to generate a pattern of the celebrity and reduces it down to three colors. When carved onto the surface, these three parts become pumpkin, shaved pumpkin or no pumpkin at all.
After years of perfecting his craft, Kenny knows what works and what doesn’t.
Selecting each year’s celebrity
Kenny carved his first celebrity pumpkin when Johnny Cash died in 2003.
Kenny is an avid country-western fan, so he found a jack-o-lantern pattern for Johnny Cash “out in lonely internet land.”
In the following years, Kenny found patterns on the internet for Ray Charles, Johnny Carson, Steve Irwin and Luciano Pavarotti. All became pumpkin worthy, each in his respective year.
In Kenny’s opinion, no one of any prominence died in 2008, and there wasn’t a new pattern on the internet for him to use.
Creating the pattern for the celebrity’s face has become his biggest time consumer, making it an operation.
When Kenny selects the celebrity for a pumpkin, he believes the person has to span generations and interests.
“He’s a big baseball fan, and if somebody kind of obscure to the lay person dies – but it’s a real big baseball guy – I kind of have to talk him off the ledge going ‘nobody is going to know who that is,’” his wife, Leigh, said. “I mean he did do Ernie Banks one year. Ernie Banks is not just your normal baseball character.”
He stays away from politicians and suicides, although he did make an exception for Robin Williams in 2014. He avoids anything controversial or divisive, and often takes input from his daughters, Eliza and Katherine. But, he doesn’t always take their advice.
“When Amy Winehouse died – and I’m a big Amy Winehouse fan – I was so upset that she wasn’t the pumpkin,” Katherine said. “I remember being so upset at the time because that was my suggestion, and he didn’t take it.”
Amy Winehouse died in 2011; Elizabeth Taylor beat her for the pumpkin.
A neighborly affair
Neighbors and friends can suggest, plead and text all they want to. However, Kenny usually keeps it a secret until the reveal on Halloween night.
“I would always try and creep by the sunroom, and he would put things up so that I couldn’t see,” Katherine said. “Our neighbors would always ask us and try and get it out of us, but joke was on them because we didn’t know either, so it was kind of funny.”
Part of the spectacle of Kenny’s annual pumpkin is the secrecy; it’s all part of the fun. Katherine even suspects Kenny gets paranoid sometimes and carves from their basement.
Karen Rindge, Kenny’s former next-door neighbor, said she’s already heard who the pumpkin is this year.
“I told my husband, ‘Ooh, I got the word! I already know who it’s going to be!’” Karen laughed, admitting that there is a sneak peak some years. “Sometimes, I think since we were next-door neighbors, he couldn’t help himself, and he had to let somebody know.”
For each pumpkin, Kenny tries to find music to correspond with the person’s life.
When Michael Jackson died, he played “Thriller.” When Andy Griffith died, he played the Andy Griffith theme song. Neighbors anticipate whom they’re going to see on the pumpkin when they hear the music.
“I’ll always listen for the music,” his neighbor, Molly Simmons, said. “The year that Florence Henderson died, I was sitting over here and I could hear the Brady Bunch theme and I was like ‘Oh Lord he did Florence Henderson.’”
When Pavarotti died, opera music played all night long, accompanying the trick-or-treaters on Kenny’s doorstep.
“If you walk by our house on the street and you hear opera music on Halloween and you don’t know the tradition, you might be a little bit confused,” Katherine said “But, it pulls you in, I guess.”
Kenny has built a reputation and community around his pumpkins, bringing a lighthearted, fun and innocent occasion to the University Park neighborhood each year.
“They were always the neighborhood house where everybody gathered, and the pumpkin was the draw because everyone wanted to see the pumpkin,” Molly said.
Kenny and Leigh tag-team the celebration each year. Leigh prepares Brunswick stew and ham biscuits for their guests each year and hands out candy. Kenny serves beer and wine for adults and takes care of the pumpkin.
“I remember Halloween as getting home from school and we’re folding napkins, we’re getting soup ready, we’re working on the crockpot, Dad’s downstairs.” Katherine said. “It’s a whole production for sure.”
Friends and family look forward to it. Kenny sends a picture of the pumpkin to his mother in Wisconsin, and she sends it out to more friends. Leigh sends it out to her father and his 88-year-old friends. Work friends in Wilmington and old high school friends text to ask about it. Even the head of Krispy Kreme texts Leigh each year asking who will be on the pumpkin.
“I get fussed at if I don’t get it on Facebook pretty early into the evening. I’m like, ‘Excuse me, I’m handing out candy,’” Leigh laughed.
To say it’s far-reaching sounds silly, but Kenny has added delight and tradition to his community for many years to come.
2022’s grand reveal
An animated Headless Harry stands to the left of the yard, removing its bloody head over and over. A blow-up coffin sits in the grass filled with beer and wine. Full-sized Snickers, Reese’s and Hershey bars lie on a fold out table next to the pumpkin. A British band plays over the speaker.
Kenny removes the tarp and lights a candle inside the pumpkin. Oohs and aahs fill the front yard.
None other than Queen Elizabeth II shines through the twinkle of the pumpkin.
God save the Queen. And the pumpkin.
Edited by Jane Durden and Mackenzie Frank