McDonald Mansion a favorite Santa Rosa destination for Halloween
If you live on McDonald Avenue in Santa Rosa, you have to be prepared to like Halloween or evacuate for the night. The historic drive, lined by houses old enough to harbor generations of ghosts, has evolved into a major destination for trick-or-treaters of all ages, who are drawn to the extravagantly spooked-out old homes that, strung together, make the whole street feel like a Halloween theme park.
Fortunately, John and Jennifer Webley didn’t have a problem rising to the holiday challenge on McDonald Avenue, where Halloween eclipses Christmas when it comes to neighbor outdoing neighbor.
When they first moved to the neighborhood about 15 years ago, they started out modestly enough but eventually started staging short skits in their front yard — most famously “The Werewolves of Yosemite,” involving two hunters who found themselves the main meat entree for father and son werewolves.
There was a tent and a campfire and a camp chair. But what happened was, they were laughing and joking and drinking and engaging in repartee with the audience.
“It drew a bit of a crowd,” Nebesky recalls of that early production.
It kept growing from there. When the Webleys bought and began restoring the McDonald Mansion, a few doors down from they were living, the parklike grounds were just too tempting. They moved Halloween over to the fabled Mableton estate even before they formally moved in four years ago.
The playful pair, their four kids and a cast and crew of 50 friends and family members, have created ever larger and more awe-inspiring theme displays that edge close to stage productions, with realistic sets and props and costumed characters who interact with guests and draw them into the fantasy.
The grounds surrounding the mansion each year are transformed into another world, everything from New Orleans and Jack the Ripper’s London to renditions of “The Birds” and “The Wizard of Oz,” complete with wizard projected behind a giant screen.
This year’s theme remains under wraps, to save the surprise for the several thousand kids and their chaperones, who begin lining up at 5 p.m. waiting in great anticipation for the Victorian gates to creak open like a stage curtain, unveiling some new flight of imagination from the Webleys and their all-volunteer crew.
But Mark Nebesky, Jennifer Webley’s brother, who acts sort of as a stage manager and director, said it will out-amaze anything they’ve done before, with a giant prop taking up much of the front lawn.
“The main reason we do this is to give back to the community on some level,” said Milan Webley, an 18-year-old Army recruit who, his mother says, provides muscle to the team. “I love to see little 7- and 8-year-olds running around with the biggest smiles on their faces, and just to think that we could be a part of that.”
Milan Webley likes to assume small background parts but big brother John Webley Jr., 25, who is flying home from New York where he’s studying art, seeks center stage with high-profile parts like The Matter Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland.” Their sister Sarah, 27, is an artist who paints sets and props.
“In our family we do love Christmas and we celebrate it but Halloween is really something special. Christmas is more private. Halloween is a chance to really share with the public and bring people onto the grounds and show our creativity and, quite literally, to the gate to an audience,” said John Webley, Jr.