Brandon Reynolds doesn’t just slip on a mask for Halloween. Rather, every year he reaches into the greater community, rounds up a group of locals and extracts a curated multi-person costume. But that’s a guise, too. Underneath, the 26-year-old says the driving force is a need to create community.
“If more people felt the way I feel after Halloween, then you’d have way more excited, activated, creative people that want to change whatever problems or situations that they feel they can make a difference in,” Reynolds says. “It’s the cast-iron on the burner.”
But it wasn’t until Halloween 2012 that the concept wholly solidified via an incarnation of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air — Reynolds was Will and James Avant IV of OCD Cakes (located at Findlay Kitchen) was Carlton. Yes, Coogi sweaters were worn, hats were flipped backward and dorky dances ensued.
“Sure, it’s a production, but when it comes down to it, it’s all of my friends — they may not even know each other — coming together for a cool time,” Reynolds says of the shoots. “That’s why I keep coming back, not because of the virality… it’s just hanging out and that’s what makes it so stress-free.”
Peep Reynolds’ Facebook page: his account is littered with Halloween hype. The shoots — with themes ranging from nostalgia-inducing cartoons Hey Arnold and The Boondocks, as well as grittier takes like Breaking Bad and I Am Legend — rack up hundreds of likes annually, with an equally hyped comments section. Behind the lens, Carlo Cruz has been the cameraman for most of the sessions.
This year, he’s taking it a step further — from photo to video — via a spin on Lil Dicky’s “Freaky Friday,” except the "body swap" in question is between Drake and the Fresh Prince, Will Smith. (He's already been making the rounds with his crew this year. See: Fresh Prince and Bruno Mars visited Brown Bear Bakery, with boombox in tow while Will Ferrell and Drake taught the sacred act of giving handshakes. Check back later this week for the "Freaky Friday" vid.)
On top of that, he says the video will showcase Cincinnati and all her splendors. Fiona the hippo will even make an appearance, made possible by Cincinnati Zoo’s Fia Turczynewycz, the sustainable communities advocate. (Years ago, Reynolds was her waiter at Taste of Belgium. Later, they connected again.)
“'I was your server and now you’re helping me put this together three years later.' That’s not Cali. That’s not New York,” he says. “The odds of that happening are the higher here… It’s limitless here.”
When I met with Reynolds at Downtown’s Coffee Emporium, he excitedly introduced me to a friend — who knew about his seasonal shoots — and held up a latte. He just started drinking coffee last week, he laughs. Later, he would introduce me to someone else. Even then — in a Cincy caffeine hub — he was on alert for connections and moments. “That’s the epicenter. That’s the neutron-star,” he muses. “That’s the highly-concentrated thing. It’s not the costumes, it’s the community.”
In 2016, the aforementioned Hey Arnold shoot took place just a stroll away from where we recently chatted at Coffee Emporium, near Rhinehaus. The photo acts as a cosplay of sorts. Like the cartoon’s opening, they stroll through the street. You can almost hear the familiar upbeat Jazz and Helga’s snarled “Move it football head.” But how does Reynolds knit together a costume through an apparent disparate network? “Give them the energy and they’ll manifest.” He cites Janell Francois, who portrayed Helga, and how she fashioned the character’s pigtails, trademark uni-brow and pink dress.
Through pushing to create these moments, Reynolds has amassed a makeshift network of Cincinnatians. In each connection, a separate storyline is revealed — like how he met Greg Hand, the former University of Cincinnati spokesman.
Reynolds’ first words to Hand went something like this: “Hi Mr. Hand. I do a Halloween shoot every year and this year we’re doing Breaking Bad and I need you to be this serial killer named Mike.”
Since that shoot in 2014, Hand has remained akin to an uncle figure for Reynolds, who laughs remembering the moment he first asked him to take on the role.
“To this day he says it’s one of the weirdest things anyone has said to him," Reynolds says.
The move to video feels necessary to Reynolds, who eventually wants to move this passion for creation toward hosting “experiences.” That desire to create spaces stems from his one-time dream to be an architect in high school. That need never left him.
“I just want everyone to get social,” Reynolds says. “Maybe that’s where my architecture dreams from high school will finally be realized… creating this space for people to be inspired and deeply connect.”
Now, he hopes that the video format will “draw eyeballs” to Cincinnati itself, to show that it’s a place where people can self-actualize and be a part of something bigger on a fun and uniquely creative level. From its origins — him dressing as Gerald at a UC party — the usually spooky-associated holiday has taken on a new life of its own. Unmask it and you see that the flesh of the operation is “powered by relationships.”
“Halloween is now my favorite holiday… Halloween is just this concept of actualizing — it’s turned from costumes to creation — you take something that you want to become out of your mind and you bathe in it,” he says. “That feeling gives me the goosebumps. It feels good to create.”