George W. Walker studied acting as a child at the old Studio Theater School co-founded by Jane Keeler in 1927. The training, Walker explained, helped him launch a career in public speaking, which is how he describes the 15 years he spent as a Presbyterian clergyman.
After leaving the pulpit, Walker launched a children’s wilderness camp with his wife in northern Ontario. He also served as vice president of student services at Genesee Community College.
At age 69 Walker has been married for 46 years and has four children. Today his main interest is the 7-acre Halloween village he and his family built over 21 years on 1410 Main Road in Pembroke, the town between Newstead and Batavia. Holiday Hollow is open on weekends in October to families who enjoy old-fashioned fun. It features seven shows produced and performed by Walker family members. There’s food and pumpkins and a Wacky Witch whom Walker plays to perfection.
People Talk: You were a clergyman for 15 years. How did you leave your mark on the pulpit?
George Walker: Preaching. It is a performance every time you get into the pulpit. You’re holding the attention of people who were out Saturday night wondering if this will be boring. So making it full of energy and human interest is important. I’m still ordained, just retired.
PT: What’s the road to ministry like?
GW: Pretty strenuous. I was brought up a Presbyterian, so I would say I’m pretty spiritual. It’s academically demanding, especially since the denomination is all about education. You need a four-year degree. I went to Westminster College in western Pennsylvania, and then I went to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and then I earned a doctorate. Very few people know that I’m Doctor Walker.
PT: Why did you leave?
GW: It’s very hard on the family. Everyone wants you to be the perfect family man but not spend any time with your family. Albert Schweitzer raised hell until he was 30 and then devoted the rest of his life to God. I’m not exactly raising hell right now but I did 15 years as a clergyman and I said that’s enough. It’s very demanding in ways people don’t expect, even holidays – Christmas Day, Memorial Day. I don’t mean to sound at all insensitive, but they’re going to need you to say a prayer at a monument.
PT: What did you do next?
GW: We looked at higher education, and I saw an opening at Genesee Community College. I became vice president of student services, a glorified title for dean of students. I oversaw admissions, athletics, counseling office. I was there 20 years. My wife was a stay-at-home mom. She did substitute teach, and she had a home sewing business. She made replicas of “Star Trek” uniforms for years. She became very close friends with Leonard Nimoy’s secretary. She made over 1,000 uniforms, one at a time, but her enthusiasm for “Star Trek” died out. She was a science major and a seamstress as well. Now she does all the costumes for Holiday Hollow.
PT: How did you and your wife meet?
GW: We met at a summer camp. We were one of the few romances that lasted, Camp Otter Dorset near Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario.
PT: You’ve worn many hats.
GW: Yes. That is sort of our philosophy on life – my wife and I – and we try and pass that on to our family. Life is about having as many experiences as you can and not waiting. We missed the camp very much after we closed it, so for a few years we cast about looking for something to do. Believe it or not, we always wanted to have a tea room with a little entertainment.
PT: But you also needed to make money.
GW: We grew pumpkins. We thought it was an easy crop, and it’s not. This is sandy soil so that may have something to do with it. Then we thought, “Why would anyone come out here to buy pumpkins?” So we added a puppet show. We quickly learned that we were in the entertainment business. Now we get our pumpkins from a local farmer. Holiday Hollow started with the puppet theater, and at first we sold hot dogs out of the back. Then we built a galley, a little haunted parlor. In most theaters you sit put the whole time and the scenes change. Here the audience moves. We go to three different sets in the woods. After we set up our village, we finally built our theater, and we do tea shows in there. So we came full circle, but it took us almost 20 years.
PT: Have you given any thought to adding a zombie or two?
GW: Only if they would be comical. They are becoming so popular now, but we want young families to know that this is a safe, friendly happy Halloween alternative. Nobody chases you with a chain saw. Funny zombies would be OK. Teenagers lose interest in us, and we understand that. Parents come and laugh a lot.
PT: Why did you name it Holiday Hollow?
GW: My oldest son wanted to be open for all holidays, and we did an elaborate Christmas show once. It was on our bucket list, and we won’t be doing it again. All of our children have been involved. Our oldest son is a theme park designer. He’s worked at Universal Studios in Japan, Disneyland. Right now he’s in Abu Dhabi working on an amusement park called Ferrari World. The sheiks who wanted to build it are fabulously wealthy. They all have Ferraris. Their children have Ferraris. But to the guests from Europe, Japan and India, Ferraris are not a big deal. So the park did not do well. They brought in a team including my son as creative director so they could broaden the appeal.
PT: Your family must have a ball on Christmas.
GW: We have our extended family here in Yorkshire Hall. We actually bought the old AM&As Christmas boughs at auction. We decorate the hall with them.
PT: Where can I find you on Halloween night?
GW: Trick-or-treating with the grandchildren. This year we’re visiting Corfu, and there is the tradition that we come back here and have a big spaghetti casserole.
PT: How do you make money?
GW: It was always pay as you go. We’d make money and reinvest it. It was never about the money.