Whitefish Dons Its Mask

By Beacon Staff

According to local legend, the late Paul Harvey once called Whitefish one of the best places in the nation to be for Halloween. Apparently the throngs of people who travel great distances and the diehards who begin planning their costumes a year in advance agree with the famous radio broadcaster.

Nearly everybody in Whitefish considers Halloween one of the biggest days of the year for the town, and some stake claim to the holiday as the biggest of all celebrations. Wherever it ranks, it’s clear All Hallow’s Eve is a big deal up in these parts. This sentiment applies to both young kids and grown-up kids.

This year, like every other year, there is an official Whitefish Halloween Committee for the adult festivities, though committee chairman Rachel Burke concedes “it’s been running for so long, it kind of runs itself.” Mostly, the committee’s job is reminding downtown bars that it’s that time of year again, so get ready. It’s unclear how many other Montana towns have specially formed Halloween committees, though Whitefish is likely in the minority.

The centerpiece of the evening over the past decade has been the adult costume contest. It’s serious business, with money and pride at stake. Hundreds of people enter each year and hundreds more show up downtown, if for no other reason than to check out the gaggle of costume-clad hopefuls. The spectators, of course, are costumed as well. Burke said it’s unwise to show up downtown on Halloween dressed in normal clothes.

“You feel weird if you don’t have a costume,” Burke said.

Buck May, longtime owner of the Bulldog Saloon on Central Avenue, said the official costume contest idea was hatched by his former employee, the late Ann Marie Guidoni-Gunther. Halloween was already a big event in Whitefish, May said, when his bar started doing a costume contest 20 years ago. Organizers put a backdrop up at the Bulldog and took contestants’ pictures. Then bartenders voted on the winners.

In the late 1990s, Gunther took the idea and ran with it, getting nearly every bar in town onboard. The bars pitched in $150 apiece and selected two judges from their staff. Contestants paid a $5 entry fee and the proceeds went to the local food bank, May said.

A trophy called the “Italian Princess” was given – and still is – to the bar with the best decorations. The Italian Princess was named in honor of Gunther, who is still remembered each Halloween, May said. Gunther passed away due to heart complications several years after she started the costume contest.

“She was a dandy,” May said.

On the night of Halloween, contestants can register for $5 at any participating bar, which is every downtown bar except for the Palace and the Craggy Range. This year the Grizzly Den and the Sherwood are also participating. Since those two bars aren’t located downtown, the SNOW Bus will provide transportation throughout the evening. Burke said the registration proceeds go to the SNOW Bus.

There are prize categories for singles, couples and groups. Last year the first-place winner in singles won $300, Burke said.

“Some people make this their vacation,” she said. “They come from Canada, Texas, all over.”

The kids certainly aren’t left out either. May recalls one afternoon on Halloween, before the adult celebration kicked off at night, when the Bulldog handed out 80 pounds of candy to trick-or-treaters.

“There were hundreds and hundreds of kids,” May said.

And the kids have their own costume contest as well, which has swelled into a regional event, drawing entrants from Bigfork to Eureka. Angie Meehan of Parkside Federal Credit Union has organized the occasion for the past seven years. Meehan said originally she was helping to organize the adult party, but, having little ones of her own, she decided the kids needed a costume contest too.

In the beginning, kids came to the credit union, but their numbers grew too large and the event was moved to an outside tent. Then the kids outgrew that too. So Meehan approached downtown merchants about serving as judges for the contest and dishing out candy.

An event that started with “70 to 90 kids” now attracts up to 400 costume contestants and more than a thousand trick-or-treaters. There are cash prizes for the winners. The event is held on the Friday closest to Halloween each year, which this year will be Oct. 30 from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Bee Broadcasting will announce the winners.

“There are trick-or-treaters everywhere,” Meehan said. “It’s been great. It’s been a fantastic and very rewarding event for us.”

Meehan said this year for the first time Parkside Federal Credit Union is taking the event to the Kalispell Center Mall to share some of Whitefish’s ample Halloween spirit with other parts of the valley. That event will be held on Oct. 31 from 5 to 7 p.m.

“Hopefully we’ll spread that out a little bit and get some fun started in Kalispell,” Meehan said.