80-year-old’s wish of being haunted house actor comes true

At Newtown’s Sleepy Hollow Haunted Acres, Rich Wilkes was transformed into a ghostly mad organist

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

That’s the Halloween spirit: On Sunday, Oct. 21, after being transformed into a ghostly mad organist by a professional makeup artist, 80-year-old Rich Wilkes spent nearly two hours lurking in the shadows at Sleepy Hollow Haunted Acres in Newtown, scaring patrons and having an absolute blast. Source: Wesley Enhanced Living

In the common area of Wesley Enhanced Living, located near Pennypack Park in Philadelphia, dozens of retirees sat chatting and watching television last Monday, most huddled cozily under sweaters and blankets to keep out the morning chill.

All except for one.

That day (and probably the rest of the month), 80-year-old Rich Wilkes traded in his everyday attire for something more befitting of the season of spooky — a bright orange T-shirt emblazoned with the face of a smiling pumpkin.

As the Germantown native made his way over to The Times in his wheelchair, it was hard to determine if he or the jack o’lantern sported a bigger smile. While Wilkes’ joy was due in part to his festive shirt, it was mostly caused by the adrenaline still pulsing through his veins after a once-in-a-lifetime Halloween adventure the night before.

On Sunday, Oct. 21, after being transformed into a ghostly mad organist by a professional makeup artist, Wilkes spent nearly two hours lurking in the shadows at Sleepy Hollow Haunted Acres in Newtown, scaring patrons and having an absolute blast.

For several years, Wilkes dreamed of earning a role as a cast member at a haunted attraction. A self-admitted classic horror movie buff, he longed to one day make people jump like his hero, Frankenstein. But due to health conditions that landed him in a wheelchair and caused speech and hearing impairments, that vision seemed nearly impossible from coming true.

Thankfully, Wilkes’ retirement community likes to support the goals of its residents, no matter what they are. Through its WEL Wishes program, Wesley Enhanced Living grants “wishes” to seniors to help fulfill their lifelong dreams.

According to Lisa Haino, creator of the program and director of marketing, communications and special events at Wesley Enhanced Living, staff works to accommodate any and all wishes whenever they come up. While some residents want to take a simple trip to Ocean City for a needed change in atmosphere, others long to feel a sense of their younger selves. For one such man, who used to play the harmonica, a staff member who plays guitar performed a small set with him in front of his peers.

Haino reflected on a select few who are a bit more daring in their wishes, including one woman who last week received a tattoo bearing the names of her three children.

“It all just really proves that age is just a number,” she said.

Sometimes, the wishes of residents are too large-scale for the budget, so the staff flexes its creative muscles. When one woman asked for a trip to Italy, virtual reality headsets were brought in, allowing her to still experience the beauty of the country. Wesley cooks also stepped up, preparing an entire Sicilian meal for her and her friends.

“The whole staff will get involved. Anyone who can help out really does. As much work and effort as it is for us to do it, it’s so worth it,” Haino said. “What we really strive to do is enhance the lives of our residents. Instead of just having a place for them to live, we really want them to wake up with purpose and look forward to their day.”

On Sunday morning, this was certainly true of Wilkes, who nearly refused to attend bingo out of fear he’d miss his ride to Sleepy Hollow.

“He gets very excited,” said Megan Boran, therapeutic recreation director. “We waited a little bit to tell him so he wasn’t driving himself crazy getting ready for it.”

Boran, along with certified nursing assistant Melita Clark, were dressed up and by Wilkes’ side during his haunting fun. After enjoying a hot dog and hot chocolate, Wilkes joined the cast of actors, who welcomed him with open arms and trained him in the art of scaring.

“That for me, it’s a very worthwhile project,” said Sleepy Hollow Haunted Acres owner Newton Gilchrist. “It makes the haunt so much better because the younger kids see some dedication. Our kids were thrilled to have Rich there.”

Gilchrist, who is in his 70s, commended Wilkes for his stamina. It was assumed he would participate for about half an hour before growing tired. That was far from the case. Even during his brief break, Wilkes was scaring from the shadows of his corner, putting out his hands and emitting an evil cackle.

“He enjoyed the attention. He was excellent in his spot and he did everything just right,” Gilchrist said. “He did quite a show on the keys, he was just perfect. Everybody who worked with him just thought he was top notch. I can’t say enough positive things about it.”

When the trio returned to Wesley Enhanced Living, Wilkes’ floormates and most of the community were wide awake, excitedly waiting to hear how the evening went. As Boran and Clark wheeled him in, not a word needed to be said. Wilkes remained true to his ghostly character, waving his arms and letting out his signature cackle.

It was clear that was the happiest he’d been in a long time.

“Listening to him laugh and watching him scare everybody, it was amazing,” Boran said.

“It’s why we’re here,” added Haino.

Until Wilkes starts brainstorming his next adventure, he has one more task at hand this Halloween season — to join his fellow residents in welcoming trick-or-treaters.

“He’ll be front and center as always,” Boran said.

For more on Wesley Enhanced Living, which has six locations including one in Doylestown, visit wel.org. For more on Sleepy Hollow Haunted Acres, 881 Highland Road, Newtown, visit sleepyhollowhayride.com. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com