Dec 16, 2012

The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe has a cure for gloom. Take a look at what one spectacular event can do for a club and a community.


It’s September in Santa Fe, New Mexico. On the hills, the chamisa is just about to bloom—aromatic yellow buds open in the sun. Tourist season is done and the locals have begun to reclaim their town. Fiesta celebrations are about to begin, just as they have since 1712. On Fiesta’s eve, only one event is big enough to kick off Santa Fe’s party season—and Kiwanis is at the heart of it.

An old Dodge Ram pulls up at Fort Marcy Park, and Ray Valdez, cell phone ringing, gently pushes 50 ID cards and lanyards from the vinyl seat. Valdez, who joined the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1992, is too busy to talk. He’s expecting 25,000 people at the park tomorrow. He’s got three Key Clubs to manage—they have exclusive rights to food and drink sales. Old friends, including far-flung club members like Matt Horowitz, a New York art conservator, are in town to help with the show. Plus there’s a 50-foot-tall marionette to finish up.

Valdez and his crew have been working on this since December. This is Zozobra, more formally known as Will Shuster’s Zozobra. The Santa Fe club has been producing the event since 1964.

A cure for gloom
To understand Zozobra, you need to understand Santa Fe. This is a town with more art galleries per capita than anywhere else in the United States. It’s been an artists’ colony since the turn of the last century. “We’re a bunch of crazy artists here,” says Kiwanian John High. So it’s fitting that Zozobra was conceived by an artist.

In 1924, inspired by a Yaqui Indian pageant involving an effigy and firecrackers, Will Shuster created Zozobra. His giant animated marionette representing anguish, anxiety and gloom would be set to the torch, burning away the town’s worries.

The first Zozobra, a.k.a. “Old Man Gloom,” was part of a protest against traditional fiesta’s commercialism and pageantry. Today, Zozobra keeps Santa Fe’s fiesta fresh. And it includes its own pageantry—a fire dancer chases away “glooms” played by local children; the marionette waves its limbs, turns its head, rolls its eyes and groans. More than $8,000 in pyrotechnics explode when the puppet burns. Over the years, Zozobra has grown to 50 feet. He’s the largest marionette in the world—you can find him in the Guinness Book of World Records.

A devoted crew
It’s easy to understand why Shuster handed off his beloved pageant to these Kiwanians. They’d been devoted volunteers for years—and their passion continues. Zozobra is a huge event. It takes 4,500 service hours and 250 volunteers to pull it off. The “Z crew,” a core team from the 70-member Kiwanis club, pulls it all together. There’s Zozobra’s wooden frame to build. Sewing the skirt takes 200 yards of material and 10 Kiwanians with sewing machines. Children crawl into Zozobra’s body to stuff it with 100 30-gallon bags of shredded paper. Kiwanian artists carefully craft the muslin-covered hands and head, then add light-up movable eyes. Construction alone takes four months to complete.

Anyone would be exhausted just following the Z crew around, but the morning of the burn, at a warehouse on the fairgrounds, these Kiwanians are merry—hugging, joking, kissing, breaking into song. Zozobra’s silky blue bow tie and cummerbund are carefully placed. His giant skirt is rolled up. Kiwanian Ray Sandoval, an Albuquerque lawyer who’s been involved with Zozobra since he was 6 years old, puts finishing touches on a nostril. Talia Storch worries Zozobra’s shaggy green mop top won’t fit through the door. It does, but just barely. In the corner, a Kiwanis sign is perched on its side, ready to load into the truck. Traditions abound. As they have for the past 26 years, the guys from Wilson Storage pull up with their flatbed to haul Zozobra to the park.

A flaming success
By midmorning, Zozobra’s hanging against the blue sky, and the green field below is filled with schoolchildren. Key Club members are selling sodas and snacks, hawking T-shirts, painting faces. Kiwanian Bob Clifford, who’s in charge of security with his wife, Mary, buzzes around in his Zozomobile, directing traffic.

By late afternoon, glooms slip into their white costumes. Fire dancers fuss with makeup. Kiwanians make sure cables and detonators are in place. Fiesta royalty show off their bling. A little girl comes close to the fence to give her Zozobra doll a good look at the real thing. Locals finish scrawling down their worries and stuff the notes in the gloom box, which will burn with Zozobra after dark.

Bands play—a Led Zeppelin cover band, a girl mariachi band, a local group called Soul Fire. They all donate their performances—this is a charity event, after all. In one day, the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe will raise more than $175,000 for the community’s young people. Zozobra scholarships and grants are awarded at a special banquet each year. “Kids get really excited,” Storch says. “They’re proud to have Zozobra funding. It’s cool to be a part of that.”

To the people of Santa Fe, Zozobra is much more than a fundraiser. “That gloom box is cleansing,” says Kiwanian Angela Ortiz-Flores, a therapist who works with at-risk teens. “It’s not magic, but it gives you peace for a little while.” 

Kiwanian Dan Clavio, the MC who will read Zozobra’s death proclamation, agrees. “It has great significance for the community,” he says. “It’s an affirmation that things are going to get better.”

As the sun sinks behind the mountains, the music swells, and Zozobra’s eyes light up. His arms flail, his head turns. Behind the scenes, Kiwanian animators pull ropes that move the giant puppet’s head and limbs. The field is packed now—25,000 people are on their feet. Torches glow. The gloom box is in place. The crowd shouts, “Burn him.” Zozobra’s arm snaps, and suddenly he’s ablaze. The crowd cheers as their worries go up in flames.

Years the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe has hosted Zozobra
Volunteers who help with Zozobra each year
Scholarships supported by the $175,000 Zozobra earns in one night

To learn more, go to burnzozobra.com

Story by Alyssa Chase; Photos by Faith-Michele James

Stories produced by KIWANIS Magazine

blog comments powered by Disqus