City Tech Spooks Brooklyn with “Haunted Hotel”

Thousands of scare-seekers have accepted this eerie challenge in the four years since New York City College of Technology’s “Haunted Hotel” first opened its doors during the week leading up to Halloween. This popular annual live, theme-park-quality entertainment attraction is produced by Theatreworks, the college’s resident theatrical troupe, with design, construction and operating support from students and faculty of its Entertainment Technology Program.

 

The event has grown larger and more technologically sophisticated, and every year more and more New Yorkers, for whom the daily Gotham routine isn’t nearly horrific enough, show up at the Voorhees Theater eager to be scared silly.

“Research pictures and a child’s coloring book of a Victorian seaside hotel has provided us with our theme inspirations and we always refer back to it to make sure our motifs fit the times,” says Professor Charles “Chip” Scott, the director of Theatreworks. Certain props need surgery to fit in. “I found a superb six-foot effigy of Count Dracula at Party City in Connecticut to be our hotelier,” Scott says, “but I had to cut off his incisors and lose the red cape to fit the story.”

In this year’s event, called “Survive the Pirate’s Eyes,” students and faculty will refine special effects introduced last year. These include the hotel facade, the audio-animatronic pirate, a bloody bathroom, a graveyard, the upside-down room, an animated sitting room, a handyman’s unfortunate dumbwaiter accident, talking skeletons, a coffin in the basement, the living portrait, and an exit video that allows you to watch other patrons still inside being frightened out of their shoes. The “Haunted Hotel” story line—an excerpt from it serves as the epigraph at left—is by Norma Lee Chartoff, a local freelance scene designer and occasional City Tech adjunct.

 

Students design new effects each year. Last year, senior Scott Hittelman designed and built a video graveyard room, and this year senior David Reierson is building the bloody bathroom.

“By working on “Haunted Hotel,” which uses a great deal of sophisticated interactive equipment, students learn how to design and incorporate an ever-growing number of small exhibits crammed close together,“ says David Smith, director of the Entertainment Technology Program. City Tech students, he adds, “learn much about sensory bleed, crowd control, interaction, distribution of resources, and so on. It’s an ideal environment for students to do what we call culmination projects, which integrate a number of different technologies. These projects also create a spirit of teamwork and cooperation that is different from our theater production-based ventures.”

The Gravesend Inn, a beautiful Victorian seaside hotel erect- ed in 1878 on the grounds of a former cemetery for Brooklyn’s first settlers, was a thriving resort in the heyday of Coney Island's grand amusement era. The waters of the nearby Atlantic were another graveyard—the final resting place of sunken pirate ships from years gone by. Coney Island was ‘the countryside’ to New Yorkers during the early 19th century—a popular destination for week- end getaways and longer respites from summer in the steamy city.

Many vacations were spent at the Gravesend Inn, until something strange happened there in October 1932. But what exactly occurred that fateful October? Come visit this poor, abandoned hotel. Inquire within. Although it is abandoned, perhaps you may encounter some of its former guests—some invited, some not. If so, feel free, if you dare, to ask them what happened.

The results are decidely spooky, even for some of those who have helped make the production happen. Smith says his seven-year-old daughter, who has worked behind the scenes since she was a toddler, can attest to that. “Two years ago I took her through the exhibit. When a student, dressed in a hockey mask and wielding a chainsaw, suddenly appeared through a hidden door, she began to cry. At that point, the student, plus other ghosts and goblins came rushing out to console her. It was a humorous sight, seeing all these denizens of evil saying ‘It’s all right, little girl, don't be scared. It’s only make-believe.’

For Professor John Huntington, on the entertainment technology faculty, years of watching the terror-struck cringe through the Haunted Hotel’s corridors include seeing supposedly tough guys getting spooked and the faint-of-heart backtracking at top speed out of the maze of separate rooms. “But most of all, I enjoy seeing people laughing and having a great time,” he says. He adds, “The sophistication of ‘Haunted Hotel’ is possible because the audience itself, although unaware of it, is actually in control of the effects throughout the installation through the use of motion sensors in a networked, interactive ‘Show Control’ system.” City Tech is a world leader in show control technology education, with systems and equipment donated by companies in Canada, Sweden and France, as well as the U.S. Huntington is the author of Control Systems for Live Entertainment, the only book on the subject.

For those who miss this year’s “Haunted Hotel” (from October 29 to October 31; for information call 718-260-5588), a video stream of last year’s version can be seen by clicking on “CUNY’s Classiest” at www.cuny.edu/news.

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City Tech “Haunted Hotel”