The Flame Game

Even at 91, Zozobra is still the hottest guy around

Making his way into the old Borders at Sanbusco Center, where the finishing touches are being made to Zozobra, Kiwanis Club event chair Ray Sandoval is elated. It turns out they’ve moved 27,000 presale tickets for Friday’s event—a new record.

For the uninitiated, Zozobra is a gigantic marionette effigy that, with its yearly burn, is responsible for eliminating Santa Feans' woes. The original Burning Man was conceived by artist Will Shuster, a Philly native who made an indelible mark on the region after moving to New Mexico in 1920 to help with the tuberculosis he developed after being gassed during the Great War. Soon after, Shuster joined the mythical Los Cinco Pintores, alongside Fremont Ellis, Walter Mruk, Jozef Bakos and Willard Nash. It was four years into his New Mexico stint that, along with help from puppeteer Gustave Baumann, Shuster created the Old Man Gloom's first incarnation, and a legend was born. In 1964, the artist transferred all rights to the Kiwanis Club, and the annual draw became a scholarship and community service initiative.

Last year, Sandoval launched the Decades Project, a look back at Zozobra, starting with its origins. "We were fortunate enough to start with the 1920s, and I was just like, 'Oh my God! This is going to be so much fun—the handlebar mustache, the bare chest, the first time that Zozobra had legs in 80 years, so it was a huge challenge," Sandoval tells SFR. "But the decade that kept me up at night was the '30s, because how do you celebrate a decade that is filled with the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the beginning of Word War II?"

Some clever thinking later, the project moved on with a 50' 2", bald-headed, grayscale iteration.

"That was to pay respect to how difficult of a time that was," Sandoval says. "I think that it's a good idea for not only traveling back in time in New Mexico and Santa Fe history, but to also remind ourselves of how far we've come as a nation and as a planet."

Of course, not all is doom and gloom, and on Friday at 3 pm, when doors open at Fort Marcy Park, the revelry begins. "You know, the whole thing is that it's fun for us, but it's not fun for him," Sandoval concludes. "We have some tricks up our sleeves and we will do a little bit of magic behind the curtain. Come Friday night, people will understand exactly what we're talking about."

91st Burning of Will Shuster's Zozobra
Friday, Sept. 4. Doors open at 3 pm; entertainment starts at 7. $10;
children under 10 free.
Fort Marcy Park,
490 Bishop's Lodge Road,

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.