COME ON BABY LIGHT MY FIRE
“Zozobra Sentenced to Death,” read the headline in the Santa Fe New Mexican on Sept. 2, 1938. “Will Shuster Named by Court as Executioner; Gloom to Be Burned.” Bizarrely enough, the story shared the newspaper’s front page (and a similar headline size) with items about the kidnapping of a California woman and about Adolf Hitler meeting to consider the “fate” of Czechoslovakia. The 13th burning of Zozobra was evidently a big deal in Santa Fe.
The story relates that Judge Lorenzo Gutierrez pronounced to Zozobra “that a big bonfire, the largest ever used to burn anyone, be built around your feet and that you be destroyed to the point that not one shed [sic] of your gloomy hide remains to mar the day for Santa Fe residents and their visitors, and that your remains be left where you died as a reminder to those who might by some inconceivable accident wear a long face during the three days of Fiesta.” Will Shuster chose artist John Sloan to light the fatal fire on Saturday, Sept. 3, 1938.
Shuster is credited as the inventor of Zozobra, although artist and marionette-maker Gustave Baumann made the effigy’s head for the first burning. And, in an interview conducted by Sylvia Loomis for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, Shuster said the idea for Zozobra was actually sown by Santa Fe architect Kate Chapman and artist Dorothy Stewart, who were thinking the town should have something like Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade. Zozobra may also refer to Yaqui celebrations during Holy Week in Mexico; that fiesta includes burning an effigy of Judas after a procession on a burro.
But Zozobra has always been part of the Fiesta de Santa Fe. And the history of Fiesta goes back to the late 17th century. Twelve years after the Spanish conquistadores were routed in the 1680 Pueblo
Revolt, Don Diego de Vargas led an expedition to reconquer the territory. City leaders declared that a Fiesta celebration should be held in memory of the day, according to a Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe history assembled in 2000. Nothing was done until 20 years later, when the town’s military leaders issued a proclamation that the first Fiesta would soon be celebrated “with Vespers, Mass, sermon, and procession through the Main Plaza.”
An annual Fiesta was held for some time, but over the next two centuries there were long stretches of time during which the celebrations lapsed. It was re-established in September of 1919 and has been held each year since. In 1924, for a Fiesta party at his own home, Shuster made and burned a small effigy representing the past year’s miseries. The figure was enlarged for a first public burning two years later. “E. Dana Johnson, who was then editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican, and I got together to hatch out a show for the Fiesta,” Shuster later wrote of the occasion. Originally named El Pasatiempo (“The Pastime”), it was staged as “a protest against the regular Fiesta, which was becoming dull and commercialized.” He added that it was Johnson who came up with the name Zozobra after finding the word in a Spanish dictionary to mean “the gloomy one.”
“The power company set up a pole about fifteen feet high on the lot in back of the old city hall [today’s Santa Fe Public Library],” Shuster wrote. “We swathed the pole in a garment of burlap and stuffed it with excelsior that had been previously soaked in a copper sulphate solution to make green flames when it was ignited.” Because of a lack of communication, Baumann’s head was way too small. “It sat on top of the pole like a pinhead.”
Kiwanis Club members dressed in black robes slowly circled the effigy chanting a dirge and carrying green torches. Poet Witter Bynner, leading a bevy of costumed merry-makers waving bright colored whips, came running out of concealment. As The New Mexican reported the next day, City Attorney Jack Kennedy, standing in for the mayor, “solemnly uttered the death sentence and fired several revolver shots at the monster.” At that point the “weird green fires” shifted to red, bonfires surrounding Zozobra were lit, “red fires blazed at the foot of the figure and shortly a match was applied to its base and leaped into a column of many colored flames.” As the conflagration raged, the band switched from a funeral march to “La Cucaracha,” then everybody marched down the street to the armory “and the big baile was on. It brought out the biggest crowd of native merrymakers seen here for years.”
Zozobra was Shuster’s “baby” for the next 38 years, until 1964, when he deeded it to the Downtown Kiwanis Club. The giant marionette was made larger and larger over the years until, in 1999, it was 51 feet tall. He started shrinking during World War II because of shortages of materials, and one year, he nearly reached human size at eight feet tall. For one of those war years, Shuster morphed Old Man Gloom’s appearance to a combined caricature of Japanese Emperor Showa (Hirohito), Germany’s Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the enemies of the Allied forces. His nickname was “Hirohitlmus.”
The Fire Dancer, who tortures the effigy and inflames the crowd, is a star of the Zozobra production. The character was created and performed by professional dancer and dance teacher Jacques Cartier for 37 years, then the role was handed to a Cartier student, James (Chip) Lilienthal, in 1970. Lilienthal continues as Fire Dancer 45 years later.
The Zozobra event is a major fundraiser for the local Kiwanis Club, which targets the money to a children’s orthodontics program and to higher-education scholarships for students graduating from Santa Fe high schools. This year, the program includes performances by Mariachi Buenaventura, Beyond Fused, the Casa Sena Singers, and the Shiners Club Jazz Band, among other groups. The big guy himself — made of wood, wire, poultry netting, muslin, nails, screws, pulleys, plywood, shredded paper, spray paint, pizza pans and duct tape — is to be 50 feet, 2 inches tall. A crowd of some 40,000 spectators is anticipated.
In a 1938 Santa Fe New Mexican article, “The Why and How of Zozobra,” Shuster wrote, “Old Zozobra has grown up from his back lot days as you can see. It is now a spectacle, significant and exciting which will stand up with the best produced in this country and it is Santa Fe’s own show.”
Top left, Will Shuster and Zozobra, Santa Fe,
New Mexico, 1942; courtesy Palace of the
Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Negative No. 027852
Top right, John Candelario: Zozobra, Santa Fe Fiesta, Santa Fe,
New Mexico, circa 1943 depiction of Zozobra as “Hirohitlmus”; courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Negative No. 165802 Left, detail of Zozobra;