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City man makes Halloween come alive

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / John Isenberg and his son, Ryan, 15, both of Altoona adjust a fake animal skeleton.

The unique, made-from-scratch Halloween decorations at 500 Tennyson Ave. go well-beyond the typical with lighting and smoke effects — all from the imaginative musings of Altoona resident John Isenberg.

Halloween is his favorite holiday and he decorates his mother-in-law Gloria Wagner’s home and yard as it is more visible. The display will stay up until the first week of November, depending on the weather.

“It’s become a ‘must see’ destination,” in the Garden Heights neighborhood, Wagner said. “Parents of neighborhood kids like to stop and take photos of their kids in the display,” Wagner said. “The cars slow down to take it all in, too. It’s a neat thing for the whole neighborhood.”

Wagner’s daughter, Erin, is married to John. The couple’s son Ryan, 15, helps his dad by videotaping how-to segments for YouTube and with setting the display up in the yard.

Isenberg said he tries to vary the display and includes something funny — last year the plastic, oversized skeletons were having wheelbarrow races.

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Ryan plugs in a smoke machine for the Halloween display in the front yard of his grandmother Gloria Wagner’s house at 500 Tennyson Ave.

“I’ve always been into haunted houses and stuff,” he said. “I can’t really say why.”

While the yard display contains some store-purchased items, such as the skeletons, the main attractions are products of Isenberg’s craftsmanship using PVC pipe, “monster mud” and other household materials. Monster mud is something Isenberg masterminded when he needed a skin-like covering for his creatures.

“Besides being creative, he is very knowledgeable about a lot of things,” Wagner said. “He can fix anything. We sometimes call him MacGyver, like the guy on the TV show. And besides that, he cooks like a chef! He is an amazing person and we are glad to have him in our family.”

John said he likes to rearrange the display and add something new every year. During this pandemic Halloween season, he created a “skeleton candy shoot,” which safely delivers treats to neighborhood children.

He also made a giant pumpkin-like creature striding out of a swamp.

He said it took about 14 days to build it because it had to be done in stages to allow for drying time between layers.

“He’s lifesize at about 5 feet tall, and about 36 inches across at the shoulders,” Isenberg said. “If someone gives me an idea, I can draw out what’s in my head and then I can make it. The hardest part is building it and figuring out how it all fits together.”

It takes Isenberg several months to design and build a new display so he usually starts in July. He shares his processes on the RAI Adventures YouTube site. It has captured more than 30,000 views just this Halloween season.

Isenberg is teaching his son, Ryan, to film the projects as a way to show him that making videos isn’t easy. But rather than scaring him off of becoming the next Scorcese, the experiences have reinforced Ryan’s fire for film, which he is pursuing at the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center.

A display favorite last year, the Demogorgon inspired by the show “Stranger Things,” will reprise its performance, as well as other older favorites, the scarecrow and a 13-foot spider.

Isenberg’s Halloween scaryland started innocently when he wanted to make a different kind of pumpkin and started researching online. In his previous job, he worked 12-hour days. But when he joined the Wagner family business, Mountain Filtration Systems, he found he had time to pursue this interest.

“I had some free time that I wasn’t used to,” he said, and built a giant scarecrow. “Then, I wanted to add a pumpkin, but I didn’t want a plastic pumpkin; through my research I discovered paper mache pumpkins.”

Both of those original pieces have been repaired and modified over the seasons to minimize wind and rain damage. The pumpkin has been “beefed up” to weigh over 5 pounds and the scarecrow is tied down with ropes to prevent it from “becoming a giant wind sail,” he said.

Asked what display is his favorite, he answered like a typical parent who denies he has a favorite child. “I’m attached to them all, but if I have to pick my favorite, it is the one we just did.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 814-949-7030.

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