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Zozobra moving back to Friday?

Audience members cheer for the burning of Zozobra in Santa Fe's Fort Marcy Park. Organizers are hoping to burn the puppet on the Friday of Labor Day weekend this year. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Audience members cheer for the burning of Zozobra in Santa Fe’s Fort Marcy Park. Organizers are hoping to burn the puppet on the Friday of Labor Day weekend this year. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Zozobra may have to get ready to burn earlier this year – and make a long-awaited return to Friday night.

The torching of the giant puppet has been attached to Santa Fe’s Fiesta weekend for decades. But, for 2014, the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe is proposing to burn Old Man Gloom the week before, on the Friday night of Labor Day weekend.

Instead of providing a fiery start for Fiesta weekend, the ritual burning will now be the kick-off for a “week-long celebration,” said Ray Sandoval, who coordinates the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe’s Zozobra operation.

The move requires city approval. The Kiwanis Club on Tuesday filed a permit to hold Zozobra on Friday, Aug. 29, this year, at the usual spot in Fort Marcy Park.

The growling puppet’s return to a Friday night performance is a big deal. Many longtime Santa Feans regularly bemoan the event’s move to Thursday in the mid-1990s for public safety reasons.

Sandoval said the raging debate about whether to burn Zozobra on Thursday versus Friday night has gotten to the point that it’s “a vampire that needs to die.”

“Every year in June, we have to wait and see if the mayor and City Council are going to put it back to Friday,” Sandoval said.

The huge community event has gone through some difficult times in recent history.

The moving of Zozobra, a 90-year-old invention of artist Will Shuster, from his Friday night slot came after a teenager was shot and killed in the middle of the raucous crowd that had spilled into the Plaza from the burning at Fort Marcy Park.

Since then, police officials have lobbied for keeping Zozobra on Thursday, with no Plaza food booths or music afterward, and say it’s helped keep the event that can draw more than 30,000 people under control.

Then, in 2012, long-simmering resentment about the cost of admission – which had risen to $20, including for children without advance tickets – and loss of the Friday celebration boiled over.

The burning that year was delayed for hours due to wind. Fed-up Zozobra adherents used petitions, letters to newspapers and social media to complain not only about the price, but also about how elaborate and long the burning ritual had become, the loss of traditional mariachi music and a ban on strollers. The Zozobra director resigned amid the outcry.

Sandoval took over, lowered ticket prices and promised to make the event community-friendly again. The 2013 burning was well received.

Sandoval said the big question was how to move the event back to Friday. The Labor Day weekend scheduling allows for Friday night burning without the police having to also deal with a spillover crowd looking for Fiesta food booths or music on the Plaza.

The Kiwanis Club commissioned a telephone poll of registered voters in Santa Fe on Tuesday and Wednesday. In the Tuesday night polling, most people favored a Friday night burning and also favored the move to Labor Day weekend, Sandoval said. Asked why they wanted the event on Friday night, the most common response was being able to have a day off and sleep in afterward.

Sandoval said the Kiwanis Club treated last year’s Zozobra as a “trial run” for a Friday night event, with more security, radio communications and surveillance cameras, targeted street closures and ushers to help people get around.

“We think we can do a really good job,” he said.

As part of the changes, Sandoval wants to make Zozobra more of “an economic generator” for Santa Fe instead of something viewed by downtown businesses as a nuisance or attended only by hooligans.

He said there are plans to offer a discount on Zozobra merchandise to attendees who bring a same-day receipt from a local restaurant. He also says the Labor Day scheduling will make it easier to market Zozobra as a unique tourist attraction – no one wants to take a kid to Burning Man, he said – or as a target day for setting Santa Fe high school reunions.

Sandoval also said he’d like to see national sponsorships for Zozobra to help keep ticket prices down and fund the Kiwanis charities the event raises money for.

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