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Home > Member's Lbrary > Home & Yard Haunters > Turning Pro: the Story of Pirates of Emerson

Turning Pro: the Story of Pirates of Emerson
By Karl Fields

 

Halloween has always been a favorite of Patty Fields. As a young housewife in the early 1970's, she would make detailed costumes for her sons, Brian and Brad, which could never have been found in stores. She built 'crawl on your knees and find your way out in the dark' haunted houses in her basement, which became a favorite haunt of the neighborhood kids.

As the two boys grew older, the longing for a scary Halloween grew stronger, and in 1990 at the age of 18, Brad Fields, (Patty's youngest son), along with a friend put together a haunt in a neighbors garage. The attraction friend included black lights, strobes and a couple of illusions. The following year, Patty and older son Brian decided to join the fun and to build a bigger haunt at the Fields home on Emerson Street in Fremont California, and thus was born The Pirates of Emerson. From the beginning, the pirate theme just seemed to work. The family's favorite Disney ride was Pirates of the Caribbean, and the team was looking for something different from the traditional 'haunted house.' They had a few treasure chest looking trunks, palm leaves from the front yard, poles for logs and lumber for planks as both sons worked at a local lumberyard.

Patty's husband, Karl Fields did not have an interest in the production, or Halloween for that matter, until after that inaugural year, but he has been a driving force in the attraction from that point on. Planning for year two started immediately with prop building done year round and constantly being on the look out for set pieces to add to the haunt. Together with a few more friends, they built props and extended the haunt beyond the garage and into the yard. Originally most of the harbor houses were made of cardboard. Everything was very detailed, down to the sand they dumped around the pool. The actors dressed, as pirates, were all in costume. They had manned floating rowboats in the pool, one fog machine and a lot of enthusiasm. In its first year, Pirates of Emerson opened for one night and had a large crowd of people waiting in line to enter.

Over the years the Fields invited friends, relatives and neighbors and anyone else they could think of, to help with the production, still building their own props and sticking strictly to the Pirate theme. Year after year the haunt became more detailed and started to completely envelope the 3 bedroom house. By year three the haunt extended around the rear of the house. That ear, the walls were up, the roof was up, and most of the props were in place when only an afternoon away from opening, the automatic lawn sprinklers came on, soaking everything including the lawn. With a great deal of work, the crew were able to put it back together, "Well, most of it," Recalls Karl, and the show opened on time. By 1995 the Pirates had grown from 2 side yards and 2 backyards (all on one lot) to the front yard, which became a new entrance. They were now renting 4 fog machines and had invested several thousands of dollars in the 3 day, 1/4 acre event.

But this time, the Pirates of Emerson was a group of about 30 friends and family that started opening a yard haunt to the public. Admission was a can of food, which was donated to a local food bank and attendance was about 150 souls per year. In the years that followed, the numbers of volunteers declined and the attendance increased until peaking in 1998. With only 8 volunteers left, they ran over 2500 guests through the yard in three nights, collecting 2 tons of food for needy families, (adding to the 5 tons from the prior six years of haunting).

Karl and Patty Fields are the engine behind the Pirates of Emerson. Their yard had been sacrificed to the Halloween gods every year, and in 1998 they asked the remaining volunteers "Should we go pro?" No one actually had an idea what this move into the 'for-profit' Haunted Attraction Industry would really take physically or financially, but the overwhelming response was YES - and so the odyssey begins.

In January of 1999 the decision was, more or less, made to move from the yard into another facility. They looked from one end of the San Francisco Bay area to the other. Buildings were found, but problems with parking, building size, rental costs and of course 'The City' arose at each location. "It's really amazing what the words Haunted House will do to a landlord" remarks Karl, "Most of them shrank at the idea of this operation being run out of their building." 3 months went by with a multitude of NO's, and things were looking grim. Then in March, Karl and Patty made a trip to the Chicago TransWorld show. Seeing all of the latest props and speaking with other professional Haunters, created an excitement in the couple. They came back with a 'gung-ho' attitude, ready to make this haunted adventure a reality, but another 3 to 4 months went by with no luck on locating a building. Things were getting tight as the large props started arriving from the orders placed in Chicago. Advertising agreements, actor recruitment, designs and the ordered suppliers and props were all based on going commercial in 1999. It was too late to turn back!

Then Patty came up with a new angle, "How about using a tent?" Karl started communicating on the Internet with other haunters that had used a tent before and he thought it could work. They turned their location search toward vacant lots, parking lots and open fields. Property was found in a multi use neighborhood and the owner gave them the go ahead. Right away the City had reservations. Parking was a concern, and the Emerson crew were required to notifying all businesses and residents with in 300 yards of the property line. Several business owners said 'no-way' and so the search continued…until, finally, the ideal location was found!

An agreement was made with the landlord for a percentage of the gate, and finally, the professional version of Pirates of Emerson was a GO, but way behind schedule. It was now August and time was a huge concern. Everything, from the city permits to ordering the tent, had to be rushed. Massive plans were made in the next few weeks, from how the layout would work to where to rent fencing, a generator, security, parking lights and of course, port-a potties. Decisions had to be made on the logo, sponsors, ticket and flyer printing and a crew had to be put together to work the Haunt. Mike Bowman, a family friend, and Karl's son Brian helped immeasurably in this process. It was no small task! Five revisions of the blueprints later, the Pirates had their building permit, 12 days from opening day of October 1. Because of the time frame, final city inspections had to be put off until 3pm opening day. The building department inspection was passed with no problems, but fire had a couple last minute concerns. They were not pleased with the number of emergency lights in the attraction, but the main problem was with the back up generator. Karl had set up all of the emergency lights and exit signs to switch power to second generator, rather than to a battery, in the case of a power failure. The inspector's position was that code makes no allowance for this. That in the event of power failure, the exit signs and emergency lights had to be powered by a battery.

The Fire Marshall was kind enough to schedule another inspection for 8pm that night and Karl immediately went to the local Home Depot and purchased their entire inventory of 12 volt emergency lighting and exit signage. When the new inspection started, the installation crew was only a few lights ahead of the Fire Official, but eventually finished before he did. After a lot of stress and sweat, Emerson passed and the doors to the attraction opened only 2 hours late. Nobody seemed to care that they opened late, just that they had opened! At the time, it was felt that the City was constantly creating new hoops for the crew to jump through, but in hindsight, They realize how much they had gotten away with as a home haunt, and that just because they were a first time pro, did not mean that public safety could be compromised in anyway.

The Pirates of Emerson was open 15 days in 1999, weekends from October 1 through October 31 and besides the original volunteers they had left form the early days, they were able to get 38 more people to sign up; some for 1 day and others for all 15. Regardless of the staff size, the show would have gone on. Karl and crew were determined to make this happen! None of the rooms were built to solely rely on actors and the show was designed to be been done with the original crew of 8.

The crowds at the new Pirates were great &endash; no more of a problem than they had at their private haunt &endash; and all of the patrons seemed very pleased to have a quality, adult haunt to go to in Fremont. Through put was not a problem as they had honed that aspect from their very busy home haunt. By any measurement the season was a success! Everybody loved the attraction from young to old and Emerson has already been invited back to the same location for next year. With a place to call home and for the rest of the year, they can concentrate on sponsorships, advertising programs, maze layouts and new scenes. Except for the week of the TransWorld convention, where they went to regenerate their excitement for haunting, (and to blow the budget again!).

Karl feels that going pro was a lot more difficult than they had imagined. New requirements seem to show up at every turn, and of course each new requirement meant more money! While they were not looking to make a living from the event, at least not yet, they did hope to break even. Unexpected expenses like a $15K tent, $6K in generator rental, a 45' trailer, city mandated engineering and testing cost, put a crimp in the profits. They spent virtually nothing on advertising but received a tremendous amount a free publicity due to the notoriety of the home haunt from prior years. Along with joint promotional programs with several local businesses, it also helped that over 30,000 cars pass by the entrance to the Haunted Attraction daily, on the compute to Silicon Valley. In hindsight, they had no choice but to go pro, if they wanted to grow or even continue. The number of people in their yard was taking its toll, and the ever increasing traffic on the residential street was becoming unmanageable. They knew it was just a matter of time until some 'City Official' would put a stop to the Pirates of Emerson Home Haunt! When asked if they had it to do over, would they do it again, Karl replies, "You bet!"

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