Meet the man behind Old Man Gloom

What's New — By stevelarese on September 6, 2011 at 7:30 pm
Zozobra with firedancer ©

Zozobra with firedancer ©

For the past 21 years, Ray A. Valdez of Santa Fe has created a monster. And not just any monster, but Zozobra, the 50-foot-tall bow tie-clad bogeyman who every September meets a fiery fate as the unofficial start of Fiesta de Santa Fe.
“It’s a marionette, not a puppet,” Valdez explains. “You stick your hand up a puppet.”
With his trademark black ponytail and stylish goatee, the 45-year-old might not look like your typical Dr. Frankenstein. But as event coordinator for the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe fund-raiser, Valdez brings life – and demise – to the creature also known as Old Man Gloom. Valdez and a cadre of dedicated volunteers continue a tradition that celebrates its 87th anniversary this month. In 1924 Artist Will Shuster created Zozobra as a way of bringing some levity to the solemnity of the Fiestas de Santa Fe, an annual religious commemoration of the bloodless reconquest of New Mexico by the Spanish after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Shuster’s secular celebration soon grew into a Santa Fe institution.
“Like every Santa Fe kid I’ve always been crazy about Zozobra,” Valdez says. “I quit a job at McDonald’s in high school one year because I was scheduled to work at the same time as Zozobra. I went in a week later and got my job back.”
Valdez says he remembers his and other Santa Fe families driving their cars right onto the grassy grounds of Fort Marcy Park to watch the festivities. Today, 40,000 people pack onto the field to watch the show that includes live music, dramatic fire dancing and culminates with Zozobra wailing in flames as fireworks stream overhead.
Despite his gloomy reputation, Zozobra actually helps Santa Fe. The event raises $50,000 to $100,000 yearly for local scholarships. In 1964 Shuster turned all Zozobra copyrights over to the Kiwanis Club to use for fund raising.
It was a class trip in the fifth grade that solidified Valdez’s Zozobra infatuation, and also his career path. He was allowed to hold the marionette’s original blueprints, and the drawings sparked a fascination with building. Today, Valdez is a custom home contractor, and he saves scrap lumber from his sites for use in building Zozobra every year.
“Zozobra gave me a career, and now my career helps make Zozobra,” Valdez says.
Valdez became involved with Zozobra in 1990 when a friend invited him to help assemble the huge marionette. People saw that Valdez could read blueprints and was an expert builder. In 1992 he joined the Kiwanis Club, and since 1994 Valdez has overseen the entire production. Valdez became friends with Dr. August (Gus) Denninger, a long-time Kiwanian and friend of Will Shuster. Denninger explained to Valdez that Shuster had made a small wooden model of Zozobra’s frame, and would painstakingly scale it up by measuring a piece of model, then telling the workers how long of a piece of wood to cut.
“This process drove Gus nuts, so he finally decided to draw up blueprints for people to follow,” Valdez says, adding that now he’s using drafting software to perfect Zozobra. “Over the years we’ve found better ways to move the eyes and arms and have strengthened Zozobra to better withstand wind.”
A few years ago strong gust sent Zozobra’s dress billowing like a sail. Valdez leaped to grab the corner of the fabric and took several rides 20 feet off the ground before the crew was able to grab hold of him. “While in the air I was thinking we should have more guy wires.”
Valdez says that he’s privileged to oversee an event that has shared so much history and goodwill with his hometown.
“Before Gus died, I promised him I’d never let Zozobra fade away.”
And Valdez is keeping his word.
This year’s Burning of Zozobra is Thursday, Sept. 8 at Fort Marcy Park in Santa Fe. Gates open at 3 p.m., burning at dusk. Tickets are $10 advance, $15 at the gate. For more information, click here.

Tags: celebration, entertainment, family, fiestas, kids, Music, party, santa fe, zozobra