Haunted Playground 2014

Another study in event infrastructure

  This was my seventh year helping with the Haunted Playground effort.  The 20th year for the event itself, the fair bit of history behind it considerably predates me so I still feel like a relative newcomer to the effort.  In case it isn't clear from prior-year writeups, it's the major annual fundraiser for the Martins Pond Association, the proceeds from which help maintain various aspects of the Pond and the playground/park and general community.
[Said writeups, for reference:   '08   '09   '10   '11   '12   '13 ]

This year we were down a couple of key people as they'd moved out of the neighborhood, so various things they used to do got farmed out to others.  What fell to me as additional responsibilities were things involving electricity in some way -- the PA / sound system, and the small collection of FRS radios used for event runtime management.  As with prior years much of my view is about the technical infrastructure, but this time I've got a whole section specifically about it in more detail.  I would love to find someone who's interested enough in these aspects that they'd want to help with it, as the various tasks I've shouldered over the years really are a bit much for one person.  And there's always a possibility that I couldn't participate some year, or there's a bus out there with my name on it, or whatever -- basically, it couldn't hurt for me [and indeed, anyone on the crew] to have a backup.

[Small images link to larger ones, as usual.]

Painting the flats Two weekends out was set-painting day, requiring a bunch of volunteers to come help apply artistic concepts to the same set of flats that had been in use over the past several years.  I don't feel like I'm that competent with painting, but many hands are always needed and I could help with simpler stuff.  My usual task in advance of that is to hang a couple of lights in the storage trailer and arrange to power them when needed.  It was rainy, so we had to work in the same shed-like area of the muni building as last year instead of outside.  Anticipating this, I also hung a couple of lights here so we could see into the darker part better and tried to clean up a little before the crew arrived.  This whole area gets pretty dirty, as it's not that well protected from the elements and the dust raised by cars passing on the gravel right outside.

Some nice artwork The Dance School folks wanted a circus theme this time, and while I could help with the relatively geometric nature of the big-top image, I can't draw living things to save my butt.  [Last year's dead trees were something of an exception, but the statement still holds because they were DEAD! Someone else tackled the circus-animals problem and came up with very nice horse and elephant "rampant" figures to bookend the outer wings of the set.
But I was there more to help out than fire off a lot of pictures, and it was a pretty dismal, drizzly day out.  The latex paint was once again taking forever to dry enough to allow adding details or other colors on top -- always a problem in wet weather and the short timeframe of the day.  We leaned them up in the work area to dry more overnight, and I understand that folks came back to work on them more the next day before [carefully] putting them away in storage.  By then I was off to the Cape to help someone move, so I couldn't pitch in on that.


Ready for shows, including TV coverage The magician fellow set his stage up at the usual one end of the basketball court [along with his usual energy-hog halogen work lights, argh].  The local cable-TV folks had also arrived to capture the kids' costume parade and whatever else that it wouldn't be too dark to video.

Egyptian themed staff Some of the core staff adopted an Egyptian theme this year.  In theory the overall theme was supposed to be something about "Indiana Jones", but other than a few related hints and props in the graveyard, I didn't see a lot of emphasis on that.

Note the microphone in his lap -- a critical piece of run-time equipment, which I'll talk about more later.

Big crowd for kids costume parade Quite a few attendees arrived around the start time, and it was clear that it was going to be a busy evening.


Dance School rehearsals Per my usual, I tried to go around as dusk gathered to get quick shots of the skit sets before it was totally dark.  The dancers were running through rehearsals and getting makeup/costumes sorted out.  Here we can actually see the full elephant artwork, along with the quick-n-dirty strapping strutwork anchored to the tent supports to hold everything up.

Narrow backstage for dancers The set was a little farther toward the back line of the tent this time, giving the dancers *just* enough backstage overhang to shelter from the occasional little spits of rain that came through.  In general we got pretty lucky this time in terms of weather, despite something like a stated 30% chance of showers.

Red carpet skit Red carpet undead fashion skit.  I didn't really watch it closely enough to get the full story.  I think at this point people were hollering for me on the radio to come fix something, so I couldn't stick around for a full rehearsal run.

Mad scientist lab entrance Lab for hideous re-animation experiments
The "mad scientist lab", somewhat less of a skit and more a walk-through display with a couple of turns.  A short routine had the good Doctor jamming needles into the "victim" which would then raise its head and thrash around and scream -- putting the "animated head" table with the hole cut in it to good use once again.

Path to pumpkin patch The path continued out of there toward the pumpkin patch, with this year's addition of decorated and candle-lit milk jug lumieres completely encircling the weed patch for a nice visual centerpiece in the field.  To help carry that theme even farther, I stuck a couple of neon flicker-bulbs on top of my car which was parked near the same area.

Pumpkin patch at dusk The Patch always seems to look best at late dusk, showing everything lit up but with the pond still visible behind.  The floating "Harry Potter" candles came back, perhaps hung a little higher this year -- they do add a nice visual depth to the whole presentation.

Just as a quick infrastructure note, the Patch needs a little bit of power.  That big crack in the pavement is the perfect place to drop its feed cable in and have it not be a trip hazard.

Gorilla skit rehearsals The gorilla escapes!
A skit was added, sandwiched between the pumpkin patch and the Graveyard.  Our old "cage" prop got exhumed from the way-back of the storage trailer and returned to show-ready condition, this year containing the "mad gorilla" in a scenario that it gets upset by a heckling audience member, escapes the cage and drags the heckling kid back in and throws him around for a while.  Or rather a similarly-dressed dummy, and after an easily done swap back and forth the kid emerges from the cage unharmed after all.

While it's obvious "meatball theatre", apparently this seemed realistic enough to some kids in the tour groups that they wound up scared and crying.  See, that's how we should all react to outward demonstrations of violence -- how do so many people so easily lose that innate aversion to it later in life??

  I did not manage to get any shots of the Graveyard at all this time, but it was more or less the same setup as previous years down there on the little sand beach.  This time they borrowed a powered post-hole auger for construction, which made setting the fence posts a whole lot faster.  But despite having nifty power tools to play with, the hard reality we were given to understand was that this would be the usual graveyard crew's last year for making it happen.  It was always a ton of work for them, and a bit of burnout had set in -- they wanted a well-deserved retirement from the responsibility, and it was time for someone else to either take it over or come up with something different.

Long shot of event I hopped up on the back of someone's conveniently parked pickup, way off at the far edge of the parking lot, to shoot a broad view of the whole running event and the healthy load of people attending it.  The only light that the park normally gets at night comes from the one sodium-vapor streetlight over the basketball court, and that's it.  Everything else seen here was brought in by our crews, much of it from me, notable exceptions being the magician's stage wash and the police rollers out at the road crossing.

And if you keep reading, you learn more about how all that gets put together.


  I've talked about a lot of the support functions for this event before; my prior-year reports dwell heavily on it and should also be consulted for reference.  This year I was basically the one-man crew for power, lighting, sound, video, and communication.  It was doable, but my plate was *very* full this year and as I said, I'd encourage anyone interested in some of these technical areas to help out or even take on subsets of the responsibility.  To that end, I feel obligated to document some of these areas a little better and outline the thinking and process that went into them -- whether it came from me or from the prior wisdom of the group.  If you're *not* interested in any of that, you'll probably find this entire section pretty boring.

But it's not magic, and in general anyone with a little technical acumen could easily put this stuff together.  It just takes a little time to get all set up, and it helps to be comfortable on ladders.  That's true of a lot of the event setup, in fact... we have all these 8-foot flats, and they all get fastened together by strutwork at the top.  Anyway, this section is possibly a precursor for a manual on this stuff, useful documentation for, say, some year when I couldn't pitch in for some reason.  It's fun to do the work; it's not quite as fun to be a single critical resource.  And for the things I've come to be in charge of, I make absolutely no claim that I set them up in the most optimal way -- anyone would be encouraged to redesign parts to make them better!  All of this is what the community makes of it.

It's a little more than "just plug stuff in", as there actually is an overall design of the setup.  Here's an aerial of the park, overlaid with the basics of where we need to place lights and run power.  It shows the model of bringing power out to the field from the pavilion, which is only one of several options for that area.
Lighting and electrics map
The single streetlight for the park is shown by the little yellow circle near the road.  The white circles are where I add our large lights mounted up high, to flood much more of the area as evenly as possible -- especially over the "tot lot" playground itself and most of where people will be milling around.  There's less need for broad-area light down at the beach and out toward the field, where the skits provide their own effects-lighting as needed.

I usually use my own collection of heavy-duty extension cables to lay out the base feeds for all this, as MPA and other contributors don't own enough of same to fully provision what's needed.  The Association also owns two giant ugly white Romex cables that are stored at the park, which hail from before my involvement; the two long shots to the beach are where those traditionally are used.  With quite a few lights and sometimes things like foggers running too, the Graveyard had significant power needs and got most of two circuits available.  [One was split to supply the minor needs of a light at the swings and the video truck.]  If the Graveyard ceases to be or evolves into something else, the power map can be re-thought as needed.

All existing site power ultimately originates from the breaker panel in the storage building.  Some of the circuits appear at the pavilion.  Refer to this map of available outlets around the whole facility, and note that I was already trying to make this information well-known back in 2011.  We've basically got nine circuits to play with, a mix of 15 and 20 amp capacities.  Power draw obviously should be balanced across different circuits and the expected loads taken into account.

Prius as field generator Here is a piece that is probably something other contributors can't provide in exactly this fashion, but there are workarounds that the event has used before.  The skit tents in the field need modest amounts of power, and instead of stringing long cords from pavilion outlets it's easier to just bring in a local power source and plant it in the middle of the field between them all.  This was done in the past with a generator, which created a huge amount of noise in the field -- to the noticeable detriment of the skits!  The Prius "plug-out" unit is good for about 2400 watts total, balanced across two legs of 120/240V, and is far more quiet and efficient than a typical fixed-RPM gas generator.  As another alternative, some of the newer inverter-style generator sets from Honda and the like are much quieter than their predecessors -- in fact they work much like the Prius rig, generating only as much DC as needed and inverting it back to 60Hz AC output.
This unit could not, however, supply the 13 or more amps on *one* leg to the Skilsaw that one of our construction crew was trying to use!  On the overload it went into an error state and shut down, but at least it protected itself and didn't sustain any damage.  In general, all the tent skits and pumpkin-patch combined shouldn't really be drawing any more than 2000 watts or so -- implying that the lighter-gauge but long extension cords can be used to distribute field power.  It always helps to sanity-check anything electrical that a skit's team intends to bring in to make sure its demand is within reason.

Distribution cable strain-relief As power gets split and run out, it all needs to have strain-relief so that when (not if) someone trips over a cable, they don't pull plugs out of outlets.  Note in the previous shot how everything's tied down and taped flat as it comes out of the car, and here is how at some downstream point all the cords are brought together and tied firmly so that's the first physical meeting point and a pull on a cable won't reach the plugs.

I do this [and many other fastening tasks] with black cotton theatrical tie-line, which is easy to un-do and completely reusable unlike the plastic zip-ties.  Two or three wraps and a *square knot* bow-tie -- that's important -- finish off a nice strong anchor point.  The plastic bag then goes over the plugs/outlets to keep rain off.

Lack of strain relief Here's what people tend to do when they're not thinking about that, and not leaving any slack for cables to move.  The connection to the strip is depending entirely on the "grab" of the outlet, and then from there someone ran strings of lights pulled tight into the canopy structure.  I fixed this by pulling out enough of the generous slack in *my* cable above to knot the strip cord and its feeder together, but sensible and safe cable-management procedure shouldn't be solely *my* responsibility.  Especially when people actively resent me coming along to re-do their wiring jobs in a more "professional" fashion.

But let's face it: the friction of a plug in an outlet is NOT what we would consider any sort of stress-bearing anchor point.  It has to be made physically secure so it doesn't come apart when simply pulled on a little, especially when an entire tent's worth of lighting is downstream of it.

Preassembled PVC light pole rig The PVC pipe we see the bottom of above is my same old light-pole, more or less designed and dedicated to the purpose with an appropriate hole that fits over the end of the threaded rod holding the volleyball net.  There's actually a better shot of this thing from 2009, the first year I deployed it.  This is generally put together in advance at home, it's just easier -- and then transported and set up as a single unit.  The two "giant CFL" redneck-lights are clamped and tied to a piece of wood that inserts into the top of the pipe, and more ties and tape stabilize it against turning.  As the ball-joints in the clamp light arms aren't very strong, the edges of the reflectors get fastened in near the pole to prevent wind from kicking everything around -- that's needed out there when it comes whipping off the pond during most days!

Cable fly, done wrong The pipe gets firmly lashed in near the top of the volleyball-net post, and here we also see the power cord feeding all of this stretched overhead running back to one of the pavilion outlets.  Take note of a couple of important details: the cable is padded over the bend, and anchored at this end against the pull by a taut-line hitch of rope from below. 

Now, what's interesting about this is that I missed a step that I'd done last year, which would have helped lessen the needed tension in the black cable.  Take a look at this picture.  It shows a midway support raising the cable fly nice and high, and I simply forgot I'd done that last time [as this was only the second year of flying this cable instead of trying to bring power to these lights some different way].  One of the two tall steel pipes we have has a little hook attached on the top specifically for this purpose and was right there stored in the park building; I simply forgot to bring it out and use it.

Another part of the rationale for doing this fly from the pavilion, midway-post or no, is that the same circuit can power these lights and also run to anywhere along the volleyball net to power the games tent and other stuff -- which would otherwise need to be fed from the storage building and winds up having a cable lying across a fairly high-traffic area.  So running it this way is a notable safety improvement for our visitors.

Food pavilion running I usually put smaller clip-lights at each corner of the pavilion where the food gets served, using 30 and 40+ watt bulbs [real watts, not the "incandescent equivalent"] for plenty of light both under there and spilling out around the sides.  These are clipped/tied to the conduit feeding the outlets.  This area is a major nexus that a lot of people pass through, and they need to see things.  In some years I've also hung the little decorative "pepper" and christmas lights and such around the perimeter but didn't this year, as we had someone tall helping who could reach all the little hang points from walking around on the ground instead of me having to shuffle a ladder around.
Visible just to the right of the pavilion is the tall pole that carries the pair of big outdoor fluorescent fixtures to light the actual playground area, fed from the obvious outlet at that corner [which uses up to 200 watts of its capacity].  The pole to use is the *other* steel pipe with the coupler still threaded onto its lower end, which drops very neatly into the hollow fence post next to that access opening into the tot-lot.  I didn't design those pipe rigs -- they come from before my time, but are exactly the right thing for this application.  The assembled rig with the two lights on top and power run up is heavy, and it helps to be up on a ladder right over the post for the drop-in.  Once it's seated and turned to the correct orientation to send light basically north and south, I generously gaff-tape the fencepost junction to prevent it from spinning.  Since people walk right by this entering the tot-lot, it needs to be made fairly goof-proof.

  The five pavilion circuits also supply the food-prep equipment, such as crock pots, the popcorn maker, and the cotton candy maker.  These need to be balanced across circuits to avoid overloading; I generally supply outlet-strips with longish feed cords to bring power down from the outlets up high and distribute it around to various points.  The circuit numbers are labeled near the outlets, which I keep refreshing periodically with a sharpie -- P1 thru P5, from the breaker panel in the storage building.  Most of the outlets are GFCI either at the outlet or the panel; P1 and P5 [at the west end of the pavilion] are *not* currently GFIed.  If the skit-tents in the field are fed from the pavilion instead of an independent supply, P1 or P5 are the nearest outlets to there and whichever one is used should be largely dedicated to that purpose with little or no local loads.  That implies careful rebalancing of the pavilion/food loads across the remaining circuits, and may limit usable capacity there.

Oops, the lamp got a crack Very dusty lamp stock
The klunky pair of outdoor fixtures on a crooked piece of wood and PVC pipe that goes up over the tot-lot originally came from me but gets stored at the park, where I suppose anything could happen to it.  This year when I went to test the assembly, the grey plastic 100-watt unit wasn't working.  There was a bit of condensation water inside the housing, so I was thinking that might have gotten into the CFL circuitry or something.  Pulling the six screws and the front cover for closer investigation revealed that the lamp itself had gotten a small crack in the tube [where my finger is], rendering it nonfunctional.  Okay, so now I needed a replacement lamp, and after I was done with various other setup tasks that afternoon I tooled off to Home Depot to try and find one.

This is kind of an odd duck of a unit, with a mogul [read: big] screw base.  Since HD used to sell the fixtures, they should have also carried the replacement lamps.  But that was a few years ago, and grubbing through the outdoor-lighting section where this stuff used to reside wasn't turning up a whole lot.  I finally dug *way* back behind the stock of metal-halide bulbs and 68-watt giant-CFL bulbs from EcoSmart [nee TCPi] that they're still selling, and my hand fell on the *last* lamp they had that would fit in the grey unit -- only 65 watts instead of the original 100, but that's all that was in stock and it would have to do.

The dust on the box told the story of how old this lamp was, and I took it up to the customer-service desk to ask if there was *any* possibility they might have still had the 100W version in stock -- a long shot, but worth at least asking.  Nope.  They couldn't even look up a price on this 65W one since neither it nor any of the related "lights of america" product line was in their database at all anymore.  Because of that, the guy at the counter couldn't actually sell the item -- so he gave it to me for free, and I simply walked out of the store with it.  I guess I was helping them clear out old stock or something.  Well, fine, but that also meant that a> running 65W instead of 100 meant it was less bright, and b> if this lamp stopped working, I was basically effed.

But later I found out where to directly order the 100W lamps, as the company that supplies them is still in business even if they're not feeding Home Depot anymore.  I ordered a real replacement from there a couple of weeks later.  I imagine that down the road we'll have stuff all based on LED, but not until the prices get a little more reasonable.

Storage building and truck We've got a few different things going on here, pointed out by the different color arrows.  The red ones point to where I mounted more of the big CFL lights: one atop the pond end of the swing set, and another clipped to and braced up by a couple of cinderblocks on top of the building.  [The latter light got moved from where I'd put it on the chainlink fence by the road before, after last year's wanton destruction.]  The green arrow is where one of the PA speakers is, angled slightly downward with a bit of 2x4 under its rear edge.  This aimed it exactly at the basketball court, giving good coverage there so the announcements during the costume-parade were solidly hearable.
Behind the "swings light" is where the rental truck gets parked and turned into a video projection rig, shown later and in prior-years' writeups.  This puts the back of the truck near where all the picnic tables get spread out, so people sitting and eating can conveniently watch what's on.

The blue arrow points to a weird one-off thing this year and is probably a little hard to see.  A batch of grave rubbings showed up, nicely mounted on backboards and with weather-protective plastic over them, and we wanted to exhibit these.  After they got attached to some leaning backboards, I rigged a small light hanging way out into space on an outrigger of strapping to throw light back in and down on the display.  The inboard end of the strapping got weighted down on the roof with whatever was handy and heavy enough -- in this instance, a couple of decrepit lawn chairs that were kicking around.

Sound table tucked in the building I put the sound system just inside the building as opposed to where it had been outdoors in previous years, for a little more protection under that day's minor threat of some rain.  Power was right there to be had, and connections could easily run right outside above the table.  [Said "table" is a door up on two sawhorses, as all the real folding tables we have generally get allocated to food service and games.]
The sound system is fairly simple: a powered mixer, two speakers with 1/4" output cables [in mono], and a wireless mic to send into it via XLR.  I also supplied an old CD player I had around as a music source, run into the RCA "aux" inputs at line level.  Various "mix CDs" of Halloween-relevant music have been generated over the years, in various levels of quality -- this should really be boiled down to a non-redundant collection of MP3s or something, which could play in random order from a laptop or ipod or the like.  For this year I picked one of the discs with the most tracks on it, set the player on "loop", and called it a day.

The newer wireless mic from Shure is the one to use, as it's got far better quality and range than the old Audio-Technica 300.  The user manual for the Shure is here; its major subtlety is that the microphone's working channel gets programmed from the base receiver via infrared link.  Because our usual MC has a good strong "radio voice", I found that he was overdriving the front-end circuitry itself and to compensate, set the internal level switch to "-10dB" inside the microphone itself. 

An acceptable ballpark output level for the PA can be obtained with both the mic input and main output levels set around "noon", and adjusted as needed for live conditions.  I found that as the park filled with people and got far louder, I had to sneak the levels of the MC and the background music up quite a bit to keep them sufficiently over the noise floor.

This gear is currently stored in my basement, as that's what we came up with when the folks who moved away needed to unload it to somewhere else.  Upon receiving it I went through everything to test it and eliminate parts and pieces we weren't using, so it's now a fairly clean package of amp, speakers, stands, cable, and mics all immediately road-ready.  That should *not* mean I'm the only person qualified to set it up and use it, so anyone else interested in making this stuff work should pipe up!

Back of storage building, where cables run Power and audio were run out the back of the storage building, through the little ventilation holes designed into the cinderblock assembly.  One corner of the anti-rodent mesh over each of these is loose enough to gently bend aside and let wires through.  The set of holes on the left is right above the main power panel and its two local outlets, and here you can see one of the "big ugly" Romex cables coming out and heading off toward the Graveyard.

Second speaker on a stick Where both speakers have been placed up on the building in previous years, I decided to move one farther out and put it on one of the stands to give it a better shot past the end of the games tent and toward the pavilion area.  The natural slope of the land gave it the perfect angle slightly downward for good coverage over the other half of the park. 

Both speakers got garbage-bagged this time because of that mild threat of rain, which is a common trick for outdoor gigs.  Sound still gets out of them just fine through that, with only slight attenuation on the high end that can be compensated for on the little graphic equalizer on the mixer.

Typical projector setup The truck got the typical video setup -- my "mattress cover" rear-projection surface tied up across the box opening, and a laptop and projector setup inside.  The providers of both laptop and projector can vary year to year, and the program material comes from other people.  That's my old-school card table it's all sitting on, though.

Sound is optional with the video setup; I also had a small set of computer speakers in the kit supplied to me this year but didn't happen to have enough audio cable to place them near the back edge of the truck box and make it worthwhile.  With all the other noise going on around the park, having audio from the video is of dubious value anyway.  It's been pointed out that program material that works well in a "silent film" sort of setting is probably the right choice here.

Ticket table light A work-light over the ticket table near the entrance is usually needed, so people taking money can see what they're doing without messing around with small lanterns.  Here I've provided a tall and heavy tripod to support a small light, in this case powered by another uninterruptible power supply inverter box under the table but this could also come from the "fence feed" in whatever form that gets set up, or maybe even a tap off the run for the magician's stage.  It was just easier to feed from my UPS this time, which had just enough battery capacity to run both the ticket-light and the decorative stuff along the fence for the time we were open.

This clip-light is one that stays pre-rigged for uses like dim backstage lighting -- a tiny 9 watt CFL bulb inside, and gelled a light blue color over the face of the reflector.  These go exactly as is to various other events too.  It's just the right amount of light for the purpose.

Elsa welcomes guests to the tours One final light went up on another outrigger, over where the tour guides welcomed each group before starting the walkthroughs.  Again, putting the light in front of the subject allows approaching people to actually *see* it.  For a couple of years now we've also put a small amplifier with a microphone here, to help the entire [and often noisy] groups hear the whole intro schpiel.  In this case our guide was sporting one of several Elsa costumes that were running around that evening; there's a better shot of her here.  I used another dim blue-colored "backstage" light here, whose relatively cold light worked really well with her costume!
This is still by no means an exhaustive list of the lighting we use; each skit gets a couple for basic switchable illumination and maybe some special effects stuff. The dance-school tent has signs outside that they want to light from the ground, and the Graveyard has always been full of weird colors from weird angles to punch up the spookiness.  But where we aren't striving for a specific effect, broad and bright for basic safety is what we're after. And as energy-efficient types of lighting become more reliable and less expensive, we are gradually "aging out" the collection of incandescent floodlights.

There are many more pictures from around the event on the MPA Flickr page, which as you might imagine dwell far less heavily on the inner workings of the event.

And as one final infrastructure note, I also maintain the email list for coordinating most of the people and planning involved with this.  Get involved, come join our crew!  Get in touch if you'd like to be part of the fun.

_H*   141108