Zozobra burning goes ‘back to the people’ as it returns to a Friday night

Loading photo...

Students from the New Era After School Academy on the southside of Santa Fe take a closer look at the head of Zozobra at the Sanbusco Market Center where “Old Man Gloom” was constructed. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Tonight, one of the City Different’s most popular, and certainly most unique, traditions takes place at Fort Marcy Park when the despised 50-foot marionette effigy known as Zozobra meets his fiery demise for the 90th consecutive year.

Tradition resumes in another way as the burning of “Old Man Gloom” returns to a Friday night for the first time in 17 years.

Since 1998, the year after a young man was killed on Santa Fe’s Plaza following Zozobra’s burning, the event has been held on the Thursday prior to perhaps the city’s oldest tradition, Fiesta de Santa Fe.

Ray Sandoval, chief organizer of the event put on each year by the Kiwanis Club, said moving it back to Friday night – albeit the Friday of Labor Day weekend and a week before Fiesta de Santa Fe officially opens – is necessary to keep the tradition ignited by Santa Fe artist Will Schuster in 1924 alive.

“Friday is essential to Zozobra’s survival,” Sandoval said. “Moving it to Thursday has been bad for Zozobra economically and bad for the tradition. So we’re looking to save Zozobra not only monetarily, we’re looking at saving Zozobra as a tradition.”

Early indications are the move to Friday will be beneficial for the event. As of Thursday, pre-event ticket sales were at 10,000, about 10 times more than the pre-sale a year ago.

Last year, Zozobra drew about 32,000 people. Sandoval said he didn’t want to speculate how many will show up this year. “But we’re ready for this,” he said. “We’ve been planning for this. We wanted to bring Zozobra back to the people.”

Gates open at 3 p.m. and entertainment starts about a half hour later. The event officially begins at 7 p.m. If all goes as planned, Zozobra should go up in flames about 9 p.m.

Keeping a promise

Sandoval, 40, has been attached to Zozobra since he was about 6 when he says he was lucky enough to get invited to the Zozobra build. “Just from touching the chicken wire, I was hooked. I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of,” he said.

Sandoval has remained involved with the event ever since then, save for a few years while attending law school in Boston and opening up a law practice in Seattle. He says his lifelong love for the tradition played a part in bringing him back to his hometown.

For about a decade, he served as former Zozobra guru Ray Valdez’s right-hand man, in charge of the pyrotechnics that makes the spectacle of Zozobra so spectacular.

He took charge of the overall event last year, following the ill-fated 2012 event plagued by high winds that forced two delays to the festivities and after which many attendees complained Zozobra had strayed too far from its tradition.

That was also the year ticket prices were raised to $20 apiece, further raising the ire of a faithful but increasingly irritable crowd.

Sandoval said the price increase came at a time when Zozobra’s flame was flickering. The Kiwanis Club’s Zozobra fund was beginning to rely on its cash reserves. A rainout would have exhausted them entirely.

But even Sandoval admits the “$20 experiment” was a failure. The event attracted just 13,000 to Fort Marcy Park, the lowest draw on record.

“Because, for a family of five, with a twenty dollar ticket, you’re talking one hundred dollars to go see Zozobra,” he said. “Although the proceeds go to help our charities, we made a promise to Will Schuster 50 years ago this year that we would present Zozobra to the citizens of Santa Fe and that’s our first duty in hosting this event. So it was important for us to provide Zozobra at an affordable ticket price to allow Santa Feans to come and enjoy him.”

But there’s the rub, Sandoval says. Lowering ticket prices to $10 last year meant the event needed to attract more people for Zozobra to stay solvent. The best chance to do that was to move it to Friday.

“We looked at historical records for a Thursday burn versus the historical records for a Friday burn and we felt it was necessary to go to a Friday in order to keep Zozobra on stable financial footing,” he said. “So the question became which Friday.”

A pre-Fiesta event

The burning of Zozobra has long been tied to the opening of Fiesta de Santa Fe, though they’re two separate events put on by different organizations.

Still, the groups have always worked as partners and still do, even though this year’s Zozobra was moved up nearly a week to Labor Day weekend.

Sandoval says it took 18 months to settle on that date. A consulting firm was hired to research and analyze the options, countless hours were spent in discussions with city officials, law enforcement and the Fiesta Council, and feedback was received from their target audience, the citizens of Santa Fe.

“We put everything on the table,” Sandoval said. “One thing I told my team is we can’t make any assumptions. We have to do what’s in the best interest of the event and what’s in the best interest of the citizens of Santa Fe to keep this tradition going.”

Moving it back to the Friday of Fiesta weekend – Zozo’s spot for decades before the 1997 shooting – was considered.

“As we explored this more and more, what we found out was that the burden we’d be placing on city staff and law enforcement on a Fiesta Friday night was just enormous,” he said. “We found out it just was not a tenable situation.”

Dale Lettenberger, deputy chief of the Santa Fe Police Department, agrees. He said the Friday before Labor Day was the preferred date from law enforcement’s perspective.

“It was something Kiwanis brought up and we all wanted to look at to see if it makes a difference. We were against having it on the Friday before Fiesta because of the impact it would have on manpower.”

Moving it back to later in September after Fiesta was also considered, but that would be too big a break from tradition.

“Zozobra is a pre-Fiesta event and we want to keep it that way,” Sandoval said.

The answer to which Friday was best suited to host the burning was found by reviewing history, Sandoval said. For decades, Zozobra was held on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, when Fiesta was also part of the holiday weekend.

“In fact, in 1969, which was Jacques Cartier’s last dance as the fire dancer, Zozobra burnt on Aug. 29,” he said.

Sandoval says the new date fits nicely into the schedule of events leading up to the Fiesta’s official opening on Sept. 5.

“So now you have a weeklong celebration,” he said.

Safety first

In years past, the celebration had gotten out of hand, often fueled by alcohol.

In 1971, Mayor George Gonzales and Police Chief Felix Lujan declared a state of emergency after several hundred mostly young people clashed with police in and around the Plaza.

Fights broke out, rocks were thrown at police and nine storefront windows were reported broken before police used tear gas to clear the streets and disperse the unruly crowd. State Police reinforcements were summoned and then-Gov. Bruce King called in the National Guard to protect state property.

But most of the unrest occurred Sunday and Monday night that year, days after Zozobra had burned.

In 1976, things flared up again. This time, problems started when dozens of mostly youths in their late teens and early 20s got into it with a group of motorcyclists on the Saturday of Fiesta. That set off widespread havoc, and again there were numerous incidents of fist fights, rock and bottle throwing and broken storefront windows around the Plaza.

Sam Pick was mayor at that time.

“There were a bunch of bikers in town and we had some university students who liked to fight,” he remembered. “We had to use tear gas and there were a lot of windows broken on the Plaza. Though he won’t admit it, the only person who was happy about that was Joe Valdez because he owned the glass company.”

According to newspaper reports, about 65 people were arrested that Saturday and another 15 on Sunday. St. Vincent Hospital officials reported that an unprecedented number of people were treated for injuries that year: 86 on Friday, the night Zozobra burned, 99 on Saturday, 100 on Sunday and 93 on Monday.

At that time. Police Chief Larry Moya said it was time to consider moving Zozobra to another location, perhaps Santa Fe High School.

But it took a killing to get the event moved, although not to a different location.

Following Zozobra’s burning in 1997, gunfire erupted in the Plaza. Twenty-year-old Carlos Santiago Romero was killed and two other people were injured by stray bullets in what police said was a gang-related shooting. That prompted the City Council to take action to move the event to a Thursday in the hope that it would attract a more passive crowd.

Sandoval thinks that was an overreaction.

“Although it was a horrible tragedy, we have to be able to overcome that,” he said. “I don’t think the actions of one individual should change something like this.”

Still, Sandoval said public safety is his primary concern. “I would be lying to you if I said I haven’t had any sleepless nights. I want to make sure that people are safe,” he said. “To move it to Friday, I had to be convinced it was going to be safe.”

Sandoval said there will be about 100 private security personnel on hand at Fort Marcy Park tonight. That’s in addition to SFPD, State Police and the Albuquerque Police Department’s horse patrol.

“With the outside agencies that will be assisting us, we’ll have 150 to 160 officers out there,” Lettenberger said.

The horse patrol is something that hasn’t been seen in years. Lettenberger said SFPD hasn’t had a horse patrol in more than 10 years. The steeds are being brought in primarily to patrol the area of the Cross of the Martyrs, a city park where in past years they’ve had some problems with people barbecuing and consuming alcohol, he said.

“That whole area will be closed off and we figured the easiest way to monitor the area is with a horse patrol,” he said.

At a city Public Safety Committee meeting last week, Lettenberger said there will be more than a dozen cameras placed around Fort Marcy Park that will be used to monitor crowd activity during the event.

In a phone interview, Lettenberger, who has worked close to 20 Zozobras, said he didn’t have the statistics in front of him but he estimated there have only been 1-3 arrests made each of the past few years.

“I would say that, in recent years, it has been a fairly peaceful event,” he said, adding that the arrests were for such offenses as disorderly conduct and underage drinking. “We’ll see how everything works this year, and will evaluate it at the end of Zozobra and look to see if we need to make any changes.”

In all, close to 180 SFPD officers will be working 12-hour shifts today. Some will be assigned duty around the Plaza, which will be closed to pedestrians after Zozobra.

Communication is key

Access to the Plaza area has been an issue in recent years, with some downtown merchants expressing concern about a rowdy crowd descending on downtown after Zozobra has gone up in smoke. Some hotel owners complained their guests were being scared off by the large crowd or had trouble getting through the Plaza to their hotels, and that revelers were coming in only to use their restrooms.

Sandoval did two things to try to rectify the problem. One, he added additional porta-potties at the site and near Paseo de Peralta, so now there are more than 100 available for use. The other, after meeting with downtown merchants last spring, he instituted a pass system that allows hotel guests and restaurant patrons to get to their destination by way of the Plaza.

Hotel guests and those with restaurant reservations are able to print out a pass or show an email confirmation on their cellphones to police officers that will allow them to pass through the Plaza. There’s also a phone number that can be called if there are any issues.

Sandoval said the passes were merely a convenience and, in years to come, there will be no need for a pass.

James Campbell Caruso, owner of both La Boca and Taberna La Boca restaurants downtown, said he typically closed his businesses during Zozobra when it was on a Thursday night – not a popular night for dining, anyway. But his restaurants will be open tonight.

“How could I close on Friday? It’s a huge revenue day,” he said.

Caruso said he doesn’t care much for the pass system, though he’s not worrying about it too much. “I always support local events,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s fair to close the Plaza when we’re inviting people downtown for an event … . My doors are open for everybody. I just need people to be able to get to my restaurant and park somewhere.”

Sandoval knows he can’t please everyone, but he’s done his best to address the concerns of downtown businesses by meeting with them and thinking outside the gloom box to find solutions.

“I’m willing to bend over backwards to show our downtown merchants that this event doesn’t have to be anything that is feared or despised, but can be an opportunity for all of us,” Sandoval said. “But we have to communicate.”

Keeping tradition alive

The economic benefit for the city, the Zozobra committee and the charities that benefit from the Kiwanis Club staging the event is one thing. But Sandoval says that, as the event’s organizer, he’s also tasked with preserving and celebrating the tradition.

That also figured in the decision to move the event to Friday night, away from a school night.

“Friday night was important not only to increase ticket sales, but we overwhelmingly heard from families that there was a generation of kids who were missing out on Zozobra. You cannot keep a tradition alive if you do not have a circulation of new blood and new fans.

“Zozobra belongs to the people of Santa Fe and we can’t ever forget that.”

Loading photo...

Kids from the New Era After School Academy on the southside of Santa Fe look at the head of Zozobra at the Sanbusco Market Center where “Old Man Gloom” was constructed. This year’s Zozobgra has a handlebar mustache. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Loading photo...

A sketch by Will Shuster from around 1929 shows a bare-chested Zozobra. The sketch was on display at the Sanbusco Market Center in Santa Fe leading up to tonight’s torching of “Old Man Gloom.” (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Loading photo...

Ray Sandoval, who is in charge of the burning “Old Man Gloom,” poses with the hand of Zozobra at the Sanbusco Market Center in 2014. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Loading photo...

The head of Zozobra stares down a student from the New Era After School Academy in Santa Fe at the Sanbusco Market Center. This year’s Zozobra sports a handlebar mustache. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Loading ...