McDonald Mansion a favorite Santa Rosa destination for Halloween

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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.

It all started with a shared feeling among the grown-ups in the family that Halloween was getting increasingly usurped by adults who were turning it into a PG or R-rated spectacle.

“We felt children are slowly being left out of Halloween. And the direction it’s going in just isn’t fun,” Nebesky lamented. “We’re making Halloween for children and there’s hardly anything that’s scary.”

Even “Sweeney Todd” was done tongue-in-check, with nothing gory, just a sinister Jack the Ripper slinking among the shops of old London. The set was mainly to recreate A Victorian street along the driveway complete with haberdashery, a hat shop, a bordello and a candy store.

It’s all about dressing up. Nebesky said he and his siblings, especially Jennifer, grew up in San Francisco loving dress-up and combing thrift shops. Jennifer, who was into theater as a child, has amassed a huge collection of costumes over the years.

Jennifer Webley is a hatmaker with her own shop in downtown Santa Rosa. Her sewing room is downstairs in the mansion. For Halloween, it becomes a costume factory, with a crew of sewers hard at work under the direction of Ginny Winter, who worked at the costume shop at Sonoma State University and designs all the costumes for the McDonald Mansion Halloween production. Nebesky combs the internet for ideas on how to create realistic masks and prosthetics.

“I’ve always loved theme parties,” Jennifer Webley concedes. “I actually can’t put on a party without having a theme. My mind doesn’t work that way. When the kids were growing up we had an Austro-Hungarian theme party and got all dressed up for that. When I turned 50, we had a Liberace party.”

The collection has gotten so big Webley has had to get offsite storage.

Meanwhile, a group of builders, many professional, built sets and props in a barn in Freestone, where Nebesky lives.

“Everyone volunteers,” said Jess Flood, a longtime friend of the Nebeskys. “This isn’t some big financial production that is made out of this. It’s what you have in your barn, what we can make and what we can re-use from the year before.”

Flood, a professional event planner, contributes by engineering traffic flow to make sure the crowd can safely navigate through the various vignettes that are set up throughout the yard, ending with the candy station at the exit gate.

The planning begins in summer when ideas are kicked around for the next theme. No formal vote is taken. The decision seems to be reached organically by consensus. Building begins in earnest in September. In the last few days running up to Halloween the sets are assembled. Every year, there is some special effect to captivate the crowd. One of the more memorable was when Mark’s wife Siobhan, acting as mean Miss Gulch from “The Wizard of Oz,” spent the night peddling a stationary bike with a basket bearing a Toto puppet that periodically popped out and bit her on the derrière.

Volunteers arrive early on Halloween day and fill up on potluck before assuming their stations. The morning after a group arrives early to break down the set.

“We’ve never had anything bad happen here,” Jennifer Webley said. “Everybody is so nice and so well behaved and patient in line. It seems to us people are so happy their children are havingg this nice experience. We’ve never so much as had a smashed pumpkin. That’s a pretty good record.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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