PALO ALTO, Calif. — There are certain predictable outcomes when you live in a neighborhood with a bunch of billionaires. The real estate prices have gone up, of course. Prices in nice restaurants have doubled, too.
But Palo Alto resident Bill Glazier did not expect to lose trick-or-treaters to the annual Halloween production staged outside the home of his neighbor, the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. “The Jobs used to give out this organic chocolate that nobody really likes. It’s not like they’re handing out iPhones,” Glazier says. “People go because they want to see the show.”
The show on Thursday night, put on by Emerson Collective founder Laurene Powell Jobs, who was married to Steve Jobs, was a series of professional-grade set pieces featuring a lighthouse, a metal shop and a lunch counter. It involved actors and props and lighting and stagehands, some of whom handed out bags of gourmet candy at the end of the display. The zombie cheerleader, zombie gym teacher, zombie lunch person and zombie friends zombie-danced to pop hits like Beyoncé and “Whip It.”
The show required permits from the city of Palo Alto for noise exemption, special events and road closure to shut down traffic for six blocks. In recent years, the show attracted roughly 3,000 people, according to a spokesperson for the Palo Alto police.
The tradition started with the former Apple CEO, a Halloween aficionado, who famously dressed up as Jesus Christ for Apple’s first Halloween party in 1979, “an act of semi-ironic self-awareness that he considered funny but that caused a lot of eye rolling,” Walter Isaacson wrote in the 2011 biography “Steve Jobs.” In addition to the organic chocolate, the Jobs house also used to hand out boxes of carrot juice, a favorite beverage of Steve Jobs, the inveterate health nut and vegetarian, according to the 2005 book “iCon Steve Jobs.”
But more recently, much like the tech industry itself, the Halloween festivities have rapidly scaled from an organic attempt at connection into something unrecognizable. In Palo Alto, the suburban home to some of the richest billionaires on the planet, lines form hours before the show starts and curve around two blocks.
At times, the setup felt like a suburban Burning Man, the annual “commerce-free” desert festival where Bay Area techies, who might otherwise not interact with people outside their social circle, build elaborate stages and structures and delight in the communal ritual of gifting other Burners with free things — reveling in the freedom and safety of bounded generosity. Like Burning Man, the Palo Alto displays are ephemeral, often going up Halloween morning and vanishing 24 hours later.
In recent years, flashy new entrants have joined the race. Marissa Mayer, the former CEO of Yahoo and employee No. 20 at Google, waged her own competing Halloween bonanza in nearby Professorville on Thursday night. Trick-or-treaters lined up for a stupefying selection of movie-size candy: bags of Haribo Goldbears and Sour Patch Kids, full bars of Nestle Crunch, and boxes of Hot Tamales, Jujyfruits, Goobers, Milk Duds and Nerds. Plush stuffed animals — swans, zebras, sloths, elephants, pink giraffes, narwhals with sequins — were constantly restocked by a handful of adults behind the scenes. Kids were allowed to grab one candy and one toy, according to the adult restocking bars of Toblerone. The density and decadence were dizzying, at any age.
“Palo Alto is so spirited at Halloween — I just love it!” Mayer said in a statement. “Trick-or-treating in Professorville is a fun activity that really brings the neighborhood together.”
One of Mayer’s neighbors, Kim Blanding, who works in product marketing at Facebook and who brought her three boys to trick-or-treat at Mayer’s house, was dressed in all black with red lipstick as disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, a costume she chose because Theranos was “the epitome of Silicon Valley and VC demise,” Blanding said. “It’s such a chauvinistic world and yet this woman was able to capture it, but she was a fraud.”
A mile away in Old Palo Alto, in the empty lot across the street from the Jobs house, Yasmin Lukatz, the stepdaughter of billionaire casino magnate and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, threw a carnival-themed show. Circus performers took turns on a makeshift stage near a blowup funhouse maze, while a witch perched on a tall bendy pole and bobbed in the air.
“It feels like because of where it is, you have to be part of the party,” said Lukatz, who bought the property that was listed for $11.4 million in 2014.
An invite-only section of Lukatz’s carnival had banners for ICON, or the Israel Collaboration Network, a group founded by Lukatz to connect tech communities in Silicon Valley and Israel.
In past years, the show outside Google co-founder Larry Page’s house, 500 feet away from Powell Jobs’s Tudor mansion, has been epic, as repeat visitors will attest. There was the UFO theme and the carnival theme. Dennis, a Palo Alto resident who works in fire protection and who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, said the best year was the Gotham show a few years ago. “It looked like some Disney Hollywood people came up and spent $1 million,” he said.
But this year, there was only a table with Christmas lights and plastic cauldrons filled with normal fun-size candy. Andy, who also spoke on the condition that only his first name be used and who works in logistics for one of the families on Page’s private cul-de-sac, said the families were “calming things down” this year and have been very busy, so decided to keep it low-key.
Some regular visitors were disappointed, peering past the rotating cast of women in costume handing out candy to make sure they didn’t miss anything. But across the street, the party went on, with a nine-person band blasting Motown classics and the fog machine next door at the Jobs house beckoning.
Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, chief communications officer for the city of Palo Alto, said the “neighbors reimburse the city for city-related costs.” But Old Palo Alto resident Lynn Brown, who lives down the block from Jobs, told The Washington Post she doesn’t have to chip in because the “nice neighbors” foot the bill, which she believes means it’s taken care of by Powell Jobs and Page. Powell Jobs declined to answer questions through a spokesperson for Emerson Collective. Page did not respond to questions.
Longtime residents may miss the old days, but the event has expanded far beyond them, judging by the crowds Thursday night. Particularly in the early hours, they were mostly multigenerational East Asian families who came from Mountain View, San Jose, Fremont, Milpitas or just a few blocks away in other Palo Alto neighborhoods to see the show and to let their kids trick-or-treat safely on closed-off streets. They spoke Mandarin and Hindi and Japanese and Turkish, code-switching to English to answer questions from The Post.
According to 2017 estimates from the American Community Survey, Palo Alto is 75.8 percent white, 31.3 percent Asian, and 1.2 percent black, a similar demographic breakdown to most tech companies.
Practical information about the Old Palo Alto Halloween event spreads by word of mouth, social media and private messaging apps. Kiki Wei, a Taiwanese event planner from Newark, Calif., organized a group by sending messages on the Korean messaging app Line and WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg owns four homes a five-minute drive away. Wei first heard about the event years ago from a friend’s Facebook, which did not specify the exact location. “You need to Google ‘Steven Jobs address,’ ” she said.