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Rain dampens Zozobra, but fiery tradition goes on

September 1, 2018

Thunder growled, Zozobra howled and some ticketholders missed the show.

Caught between two storm cells Friday night, Old Man Gloom went up in flames for the 94th time at the Fort Marcy Ballpark with tens of thousands of crowd members chanting, “Burn him.”

Outside the gates, as the massive marionette went down in a pile of ashes earlier than expected, a couple of hundred people arriving late stormed the security gate in an attempt to catch the last minutes of the production. Many of them got locked out and began chanting, “Full refund” at the ticket booth.

The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, which presents the show each year, had pushed the timing of the burning by about 15 minutes to try to beat the weather.

“The decision to go early is never an easy one to make,” said event organizer Ray Sandoval. But one heavy storm had hit the park ahead of the show and meteorologists warned another was on its way.

Around 9 p.m., he said, security officers began letting people without bags go into the park unchecked, but continued checking those who were carrying bags. When people caught wind that the show, originally schedule to start at 9:30 p.m., would begin early, people stormed the gate, Sandoval said.

Organizers and law enforcement, concerned that someone might enter the crowd with something dangerous hidden in their belongings, blocked everyone from entering, Sandoval said.

It was a difficult decision, he added.

“We had two threats this evening,” he said, citing lightning and unchecked bags. “We think we made the best decision.”

He plans to compensate those who were locked out of the show, whether that means free tickets to next year’s event or a refund, Sandoval said. More information about the compensation will be released Monday.

“We’ll make it right for those who couldn’t get in,” he said. “Overall, the event went really well.”

Santa Fe Police Chief Andrew Padilla said more than 20 people jumped the gates or biked past security officers after hearing the burning had begun early.

“Other than that, it was a great, successful event,” the chief said.

There were no arrests, he said, and the lightning wasn’t close enough to create concerns about evacuation.

There were five emergency medical incidents during the event and one case of a missing child — a 12-year-old who was reunited with her family within a quarter-hour.

The event was monitored by 112 law enforcement officers from five different agencies, Padilla said. Officers from the Los Alamos Police Department, the Albuquerque Police Department, the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office and the New Mexico National Guard assisted city police.

“Many, many people put this together,” Padilla said.

This year’s burning of Zozobra paid tribute to the 1960s — with tie-dyed headbands, fringed vests and peace signs — as part of a 10-year celebration of the decades leading up to the marionette’s 100th anniversary.

Perhaps the rains were an appropriate addition. Mayor Alan Webber, who addressed the crowd, said, “This is what Woodstock looked like.”

Lisa Law, a photographer who documented the 1960s counterculture, including Woodstock, parked her old ’60s-era hippie bus on the ballfield for the first time in a decade. The bus was a staple at Zozobra for more than 20 years before growing crowds forced her to stop bringing it.

This year, she said, the Kiwanis Club invited her back to help share some flower power.

“They felt my bus represented the ’60s more than anything in the state,” Law said.

Zozobra, wearing a bolo tie and gnarled peace sign, was more subtly dressed for the decade, but Sandoval said as an old man, Zozobra wouldn’t have been into tie dye.

“Old Man Gloom will give a nod to the decade, but as an old, grumpy man,” Sandoval said.

This grump and gloom, with a hint of mystery, is why Lilo Martinez calls himself a Zozobra superfan.

“To me, he’s like a villain,” said 17-year-old Martinez.

He carried a small, handmade version of the marionette. Using pizza boxes, bottle caps, old shirts and anything else he could find around the house, he created his own 1-foot-tall Zozobra. Along with his Zozobra, he carried a binder with cartoons of the effigy. People stopped him to take photos, which he said added to the festivities: “It feels like I’m famous.”

This year, he said, the burning means more to him than ever because his mother had a stroke that left her paralyzed. While she was recovering, he was looking forward to burning away the gloom.

Michelle Bay arrived just after 3 p.m. Friday with her family to watch the show for the first time in 10 years. She stopped attending Zozobra after stepping into a hole one year after the show and spraining her knee as the crowd dispersed.

Her fears of a similar incident happening this year were alleviated, she said, when she noticed the event appeared more organized.

“It’s a lot more taken care of,” she said. “They’ve put a lot more work into it. You can tell.”

By arriving an hour before the gates opened, she and the five kids and adults in her party managed to snag prime grass space on Magers Field under a tree at the edge of the main bridge to the ballpark.

“We wanted to get a good spot and relax a little bit and enjoy the fresh air,” she said.

Her cousin, Rose LaRouge, sat with her. LaRouge and her 11-year-old daughter, Melaine, have enjoyed going to Zozobra together for the past couple of years. She said while her daughter, who has autism, needs to stay away from the large crowd and use earmuffs to help with the noise, it’s been amazing to share the tradition with her.

“I remember going with my mom, so it’s been great to keep it with family and just keeping it Santa Fe,” she said.

Bay and her family waited five and a half hours for the fireworks. But it was worth the wait.

“It’s amazing,” Melaine said. “The fire burns a giant robot.”

Flames started shooting out of Zozobra’s right side and quickly engulfed his head. While fire licked Old Man Gloom’s skirts and burned him to a skeleton, the marionette still held his left hand in a peace sign as he crumpled to the ground.

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