COME ON BABY LIGHT MY FIRE

Pasatiempo - - RANDOM ACTS - Paul Wei­de­man

“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;

file photo

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