Carving his way into Halloween traditions

A family member once described John Scalzitti’s approach to life with this quote:

“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”

Truer words have never been spoken, especially when it comes to Scalzitti’s pumpkin-carving hobby. What started as carving a few simple Jackie O’ Lantern pumpkins with his three young daughters has evolved into a 25-year tradition that, by his own admission, is now a borderline obsession.

It all started in the summer of 1998, with the retail debut of the pumpkin pattern or template books.

“I am no artist; the templated patterns provide a great guide to some pretty cool designs that produce a great finished product,” Scalzitti said. The obsession grew from there.  For the last 25 years, John and his children have produced eight to 12 oversized, intricately carved jack-o’-lanterns each year.  The Scalzitti girls are grown now, ages 26, 31 and 33, and occasionally still help John with his annual labor of love.

“My two younger daughters, Amanda and Olivia, help with a few designs of their own each year and my oldest daughter, Therese, is busy carving pumpkins with her own her four young kids,” he said. 

Scalzitti, a digital advertising consultant by day, has collected thousands of patterns; in the early days they were only available in books but have now since migrated online. Scalzitti, 64, regularly collaborates with online template designers via their websites during the year.

“In the early years, the designs were mostly the classics, like witches, vampires, Frankenstein and all the classic villains and monsters,” he said.  

As the actual pumpkin designs grew in popularity, so did the subject matter.  Every year, Scalzitti can count on new pattern releases with designs from the music world, movie stars, animated characters, popular movie characters, politicians, and all things pop culture.

There was a time when Scalzitti made sure to carve a famous person that passed away in the previous year. While he never reveals each years’ upcoming designs before Halloween, Scalzitti flatly proclaimed Pee Wee Herman will be the first cut pumpkin he crafts this Halloween.  

Every year, trick-or-treaters both young and old anticipate Scalzitti’s creations that have lined the circular flower wall of his Crystal Creek Drive home in Brecksville’s Emerald Woods neighborhood since 2004. Starting in September, people start asking him what characters he will be carving that year. Other than his family, no one knows until the inaugural lighting on Halloween night.  Each year, Scalzitti tries to include carvings that appeal to all ages and interests.

“I’m always surprised when I get comments that cross age lines and are totally out of character and unexpected, and it happens a lot,” Scalzitti added. “One year, the 5-year-old neighbor boy absolutely went crazy for my Ozzy Osbourne pumpkin.”

The boy’s dad explained to John they listen to Ozzy Osbourne every night at bedtime.  Scalzitti was surprised to hear the 5-year-old recite his family’s Ozzy Osbourne album collection in its entirety.   

Another notable reaction came from a 7-year-old who could not contain himself as he screamed for his mother to come see the Walter White (Bryan Cranston) pumpkin from the television series, “Breaking Bad.” The youngster explained to Scalzitti that the show was his favorite as well as his mom’s.

“You should have seen the look on the mom’s face when the youngster proclaimed they never miss an episode,” Scalzitti said.

IIn2022, Scalzitti crafted pumpkins in the likeness of the characters from “The Wizard of Oz” and was surprised at the number of youngsters that were not familiar with the film.

“There were more than a few young parents that got some unsolicited parental advice about that,” Scalzitti noted.

Scalzitti added that while every year people’s reactions are unique, “there are things that do not change from year to year, and that’s the questions I get.”

Each year, everyone always asks how long does it takes to carve all those pumpkins?” The answer always remains the same.

“The short answer is the actual carving takes about two to three 12-hour days, but the process is year-round,” Scalzitti said. “I evaluate designs all year long.”

Design selection goes beyond online templates.  Scalzitti has used designs and logos from many sources that catch his eye during the year. Several of Scalzitti’s favorite designs have been company logos lifted from cups and bags that he has carved into pumpkins.

He is also inspired by current events from the previous year.

“There were so many COVID-themed designs for a couple years, which I ultimately passed on, because I try to keep my designs for a family audience,” Scalzitti said.    

After the designs are finalized, Scalzitti’s work begins in earnest around the first of October with pumpkin selection.  

“Finding pumpkins that meet my criteria is getting harder and harder,” explained Scalzitti. “I had a local pumpkin farmer that was almost as enthusiastic about my pumpkins each year as I was, but he has scaled back as he is entering retirement. Before his retirement, he planted a special heirloom variety that dated back to the 1950s for me each year that were perfect for my needs.”

As markets evolve and annual crops vary due to weather conditions during the growing season, sourcing pumpkins has also become more difficult, because 90 percent of the pumpkins grown each year reflect consumer demand for a mid-sized pumpkins available at the grocery store for about $10.

“For my designs to work, I need very big, oval-shaped pumpkins, as most of my designs are faces that require a portrait orientation. Pumpkins need to be balanced and generally as tall as my knee. You cannot get those at the grocery store and they certainly are not 10 bucks,” he said. Most of the growers know Scalzitti by now so they are not alarmed as he goes through his selection routine at their farms each year. Some even have put pumpkins aside for him during harvest from year to year anticipating his annual visits and requirements.  

“I have gotten familiar with the pumpkin farms in Northeast Ohio and the varieties they produce each year,” Scalzitti said. “In addition to shape and size, smooth flesh is key for crisp cut lines.”

With designs set and pumpkins on site, the carving process begins a few days before Halloween. “My late wife was a saint, for at least three days before Halloween, there are pumpkins all over the house, specifically the kitchen, and it makes a big mess. She never dampened my enthusiasm, though, but I know the pumpkin guts and dirt all over the house made her cringe,” Scalzitti fondly recalled.  

Over the years, Scalzitti has developed a very specific routine. First the exterior of each pumpkin is cleaned thoroughly before he transfers the designs. Scalzitti revealed that design transfer is a part of the process that requires meticulous attention to detail and lots of patience.

“It is best not to watch college football during the transfer stage,” he said. “I learned that the hard way and learned to always have a couple of spare pumpkins on hand.”

Once the designs are transferred, the cutting begins with removal of the seeds inside. These large pumpkins produce a lot of seeds, which he roasts for family and friends. Some years, the pumpkins can yield 3 to 4 pounds of roasted seeds.

“The carving is the part that folks find intriguing,” Scalzitti said. There are lots of questions,  but they almost always include: “Do you use special tools? And have you ever cut yourself?”

“Most people think I use super sharp specialized knives and electric tools to cut the pumpkins, but the fact is there is only one special hand tool that resembles more of a saw,” he said. “I do use some sharp small knives for the very intricate stuff but mostly a simple serrated blade is used for most of the cuts. And I use a hand-mixer to clean out the insides. “My wife loved it when I attached a special 18” drill bit to her hand-mixer to scrape the interior.”

Though he’s cut himself a few times, no trips to the emergency room or stitches have ever been necessary.

“All digits remain attached,” he joked.

After the pumpkins are carved, John tweaks the lit pumpkins in a dark room to make sure the lines are sharp and crisp. Over the years, Scalzitti has tried alternative light sources. There are some battery powered lights and newer ways to illuminate pumpkins – even with solar lights – but Scalzitti has found nothing works like a traditional candle, or in his case, candles.

“These pumpkins are very big and they require a half dozen or so candles. I usually hot-glue a half dozen tea lights together to get a bright glow, but nothing can replace the light from real flames,” Scalzitti proclaimed decidedly.

Every Halloween at dark, John and his family reveal the current year’s offerings for the first time. Each year a few folks gather waiting for the initial reveal.  Over 25 years, the carvings have attracted a loyal following.  One year, a police car was in his driveway with the officer inside, patiently waiting for the initial lighting. Scalzitti declared he was relieved to find out the police were only there for the reveal.

“Each year, a neighbor’s mother-in-law drives from Toledo to see my pumpkins and she reminds me every year that my pumpkins are the real reason for her trip and makes me promise not to tell her daughter-in-law or grandkids her true intentions,” Scalzitti said.

“It is great talking with people. One year, a young man, no more than 12 or 13, came by alone at the end of the night and was quietly studying each pumpkin. Without saying a word to me, he reached into his treat bag and handed me a single Laffy Taffy. He said it was a tip for a job well done. That was priceless,” Scalzitti recalled.

As good as the conversation is each year, Scalzitti feels it is special that so many folks, near and far, have made this part of their Halloween tradition with their families.

“It is also part of what makes Emerald Woods such a great family neighborhood. A lot of people look forward to this every year, young and old alike, and I have developed great relationships and conversations around my annual pumpkin designs,” he said. “I am not sure I will ever be allowed to retire.” ∞

Photo: One of Scalzitti’s favorite pumpkins features the face of Carl Fredricksen from the Disney movie, “Up.

Photo (main-above): Scalzitti says he typically crafts eight to 12 pumpkins every Halloween which takes him about 36 hours. Photos submitted.