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Tick-Tock, Zozobra

SANTA FE, N.M. — Thirty-five white-sheeted “gloomies” glided across the Fort Marcy Park sidewalk Saturday, their rotating arms transforming them into moth-like ghosts.

Saturday’s ghoulish roundup of children ages of 9 to 14 amounted to a dress rehearsal for the annual torching of Zozobra on Thursday night at Fort Marcy Park.

Ray Valdez, producer of the Santa Fe Fiesta’s iconic Will Shuster’s Zozobra event, corralled the tiny ghosts into form while the Zozobra Orchestra pounded out a hypnotic beat. Gloom Queen Savannah Bailey, 16, strutted like a majorette.

If you go
WHAT: Will Shuster’s Zozobra 2011
WHEN: 3-10 p.m. Thursday; burn scheduled for 8:15 p.m.
WHERE: Fort Marcy Park
COST: In advance: $10 general; $3 children 4-6. Day of show: $15 general; $5 children 4-6.
CONTACT:; Zozobra hotline 505-660-1965

“Gloomie handlers, we’ve got to fix a bunch of these costumes,” Valdez said. “You’re going to fall and break your neck. If you’re a parent with missing costumes, raise your hand so I can yell at you.”

Valdez barked out stage directions through a microphone while the “handlers” –– aka chaperones – herded the group across the sidewalk and down the stairs in front of the naked pole that awaits Thursday’s fiery monster.

Zozobra is a hideous, but harmless, 50-foot marionette, a toothless, empty-headed facade. His mouth gapes and chomps, his arms flail, and he moans and groans as the city of Santa Fe does him in with the help of the Kiwanis Club and shouts of “Burn him!”

His torching signals the beginning of Santa Fe’s Fiesta, a celebration dating to 1712 that commemorates the reconquest of Santa Fe by the Spanish after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. A Santa Fe artist, Shuster (1893-1969) created Zozobra in 1924 as a kind of counter-celebration at his home. His inspiration came from the Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui tribe of Mexico. They burn an effigy of Judas filled with firecrackers.

Today, the Kiwanis Club produces the show, raising money for local charity groups and scholarships.

“I solemnly swear I am up to no good with a pagan effigy burning,” Valdez deadpanned Saturday.

Valdez said he turned away 15 gloomie hopefuls because they showed up late to last week’s audition. “They’re Zozobra’s minions,” he said. “They came to do homage. They think it’s a party for them. They’re sadly mistaken.”

The ghostly paraders sported hand-decorated sheets bearing the monster’s fierce image, sometimes embellished with glitter, sequins and paint. Many sported a litany of contradictory slogans, such as “God Bless Zozobra” and “Burn him!”

Twelve-year -old Alex Duran donned the sheet at 10, after his brother grew too old to gloom.

“It’s just part of my family tradition,” he explained.

Gloom-handler Carleen Mody of Cochiti Pueblo said her son has participated in the pageant for six years.

“Trying to keep everybody in position is stressful,” she said as she ordered the troops to stay at arm’s length from one another.

The children are told to wear sheets of 100 percent cotton – synthetics are too flammable. “They’re the little spirits,” Mody said. “They’re there cheering him on. They’re representing the gloom part of it. They bow to the gloom queen.

‘The biggest problem is making sure everybody stays on cue.”

Mody’s son Masewa has been a gloomie for five years.

“My husband has been infatuated with Zozobra as a child,” she said. “One year, we made the mistake of taking (Masewa), and he was hooked.”

Masewa would give Old Man Gloom no pardon. “I just love the excitement, just helping out with things,” the Santa Fe Indian School student said.

“I just think he’s a big, grumpy, ferocious beast that millions of children fear,” he continued. “I think he deserves it. I would light him on fire, but I would get scared.”

This is 12-year-old Adan Gallegos’ third year as a gloomie.

“It’s a 50-foot marionette; it’s right there,” he said, his eyes sparkling. “It’s Zozobra. You’re starting Fiesta. Every time they burn him down, I feel like a brand new person. All my worries are gone.”

As the rehearsal wound down, Valdez called out the incendiary schedule.

“Zozobra is extremely dangerous at this point,” he warned. “He’s completely involved in flame. It takes him five minutes to burn to the ground.

“And don’t forget –– there are 20,000 people screaming in the field.”

Eleven-year-old Brianna Duran drew a replica of Zozobra’s face on her sheet. Her cousin gave her Mardi Gras beads to wear.

“I like to see him burn a lot,” she said. “He like takes away your bad dreams.”

The annual sacrifice brings conflicting feelings, she acknowledged.

“I don’t know why I feel sorry for him,” she said. “But he comes back again every year.”

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