by John Conron

The following history of Will Shuster’s Zozobra is taken from part of a Library of Congress Local Legacies Project that was submitted by the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe on January 10, 2000 on behalf of NM Senator Pete V. Domenici. This national program made every member of Congress eligible to submit five documentaries to the project on subjects of American community traditions to celebrate the bicentennial of the Library of Congress. These projects then became a permanent part of the Library of Congress collection. These documents were also placed on the Library of Congress Web site, which serves as an educational tool in schools throughout the nation. The website can be found by clicking here . The Kiwanis submission to the Library was undertaken during the 1998-1999 and the Kiwanis Project Coordinator was Warren C. Salomon. This history was written by longtime Zozobra pyrotechnic advisor John P. Conron a local accomplished Santa Fe Architect.

Zozobra - A Santa Fe, New Mexico Phenomenon

by John P. Conron

Once upon a time in the Land Of Enchantment a momentous wedding took place. The date was July 11, 1598. It was a wedding of two very diverse cultures, separated by centuries of time and thousands of miles of geography. While the cultures and lifestyles were drastically different, they shared similar architectural building materials, and a recognizable landscape.

Into the territory that was to become New Mexico came the groom, the Spanish Conquistador, a proud soldier/colonist with body armor, a horse, firepower, and knowledge of building walls of mud. The bride was the local San Juan Pueblo native with a similar knowledge of building walls of mud. In addition both cultures cut logs from the nearby forests to span those walls of mud to support the roof - a roof of tree branches, twigs and packed earth.

But this peaceful beginning led to a strained relationship that culminated in 1680 with the bride’s family, friends and allies throwing out the groom and all his family and relations from the newly colonized territory. The Spanish Conquistadores were reduced to refugees; they fled all the way south to the safety of the southern banks of the Rio Grande near present day Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Twelve years later Don Diego de Vargas led an expedition to re-conquer the territory of New Mexico. He accomplished his task in September of 1692 with the recapturing of Santa Fe. In order to remember that famous, or infamous day depending on your point of view, Santa Fe community leaders later met to declare that an annual Fiesta, a celebration, be established:

Proclamation from the Spanish Archives of New Mexico, 1712:

In the Villa of Santa Fe, on the sixteenth day of the month of September of the year seventeen hundred and twelve, gathered and met together in the house of res idence of the General, Juan Paez Hurtardo, Lieutenant Governor and Captain General, ... the purpose being that, recalling how this Villa had been conquered on the Fourteenth day of September ... of the year of sixteen hundred and ninety-two by the General Don Diego de Vargas Lujan Ponce de Leon, Marguis of La Nava de Brazinas, and that for twenty years no fiesta had been observed, as this Villa should have, in honor of the Salutary Blood of Our Redemption, and so that in the future the said fourteenth day be celebrated, with Vespers, Mass, sermon, and procession through the Main Plaza, ... it is our will that it be celebrated for all time, a Fiesta in honor of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. ... [Signed by nine community leaders.][1].

While this particular Fiesta, remembering the re-conquest was held annually for some years, it ceased to happen for many more years. It was re-established in September of 1919. That year Edger Lee Hewett, Director of both the Museum of New Mexico and the School of American Research and his staff organized a three-day event of processions, programs, performances and Indian dances to commemorate the history of Santa Fe. The annual Fiesta has happened each year since, and always in September..

But by the mid 1920s it appeared to many Santa Feans to have become “dull and commercialized”, according to Will Shuster, the creator of Zozobra, in a 1950 article in the New Mexico magazine. (See below.).

Old Zozobra BurnTo counter this dullness, local artist Will Shuster had created an effigy to be the focus of a private Fiesta party at his Camino del Monte Sol home in 1924 and again in 1925. This effigy was designed to represent the tribulations and gloom of the past year that had to be exhumed before the celebration of Fiesta could truly begin. Gloom must be dispelled by burning before joy could be fully realized. The effigy was burned to highlight the parties; jubilation could be realized as the effigy collapsed in flames - gloom had just been dispelled!

In the then small city of Santa Fe, the Will Shuster party could not go unnoticed by the community at large, and in 1926 the Fiesta Council asked him to bring this idea of dispelling the tribulations and gloom of the past year by the burning of evil. Zozobra was born!.

...And who was Will Shuster?

Will Shuster in his studio

William Howard Shuster, Jr. (better known to Santa Feans as Will, or Shus) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 26, 1893. He grew up in a comfortable, well situated, middle-class family. William, Sr. was a respected hat maker. History also reveals that his maternal Grandfather Steck “was a fun-loving, mischievous gentleman who assisted the young William getting into mischief... much to the consternation of Will’s mother. The beloved Steck patriarch was known for his sense of humor - a characteristic that the young Will undoubtedly inherited from him”.[2]

Will Shuster served in World War I from April 1917 until May 1919. He was in battle in France, where he was under fire from German artillery using shells filed with mustard gas. For Will this resulted in a life-long case of pulmonary tuberculosis. Lieutenant Shuster was released from the army and returned to Philadelphia and his wife Helen.

His doctor, a Shuster cousin, told him that if he remained in Philadelphia he could expect to live one year. If, however, he moved “to a high dry climate in the west ... he had a good chance of dying of snake bite, old age, or bad whisky. Shus opted for the West”.[3]

The Santa Fe high, dry climate and active walks, while not curing his tuberculosis, certainly held the disease in remission. He led an active and creative life in his new environment.

Will Shuster ArtWill Shuster had taken art lessons in Philadelphia and painted avocationally. After he and Helen moved to Santa Fe in early March of 1920, he began to paint in earnest. He was encouraged by his new artist friends in Santa Fe and by John Sloan, of the famous New York Ashcan School. Sloan and his wife Dolly, who had become close friends of Will’s, spent the summer months in Santa Fe. Although paintings in oil on canvas were his main thrust, under Sloan’s tutelage he also became a most competent etcher.

In addition Will was a founding member of one of Santa Fe’s most famous artist groups, Los Cinco Pintores, a group of five young and struggling artists.

Will Shuster's Art

The five -- Will Shuster, Fremont Ellis, Walter Mruck, Willard Nash and Jozef Bakos – have all become rather famous. While their talents may have varied somewhat, their works remain a major part of the Santa Fe art scene in these last years of the twentieth century. Unfortunately for them, their art now sells for a far higher price then they ever realized during their years in Santa Fe.

Early Zozobra

In an article published in New Mexico magazine in 1950 Will Shuster described that first public burning of Zozobra:

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. It was not the Fiesta of the Marquis de Penuela, but actually amounted to a revolutionary protest fiesta [sic], staged by the artists and writers of the community and called El Pasatiempo [The Pastime]. It was a protest against the regular Fiesta, which was becoming dull and commercialized.

Between us, we worked out the general idea of the show. Dana dug up that wonderful name ZOZOBRA meaning “the gloomy one” from a Spanish Dictionary, and I got to work on the details of the show with a budget of fifty dollars. That was how I innocently took the tiger by the tail.

The first Zozobra was a rather simple affair. The power company set up a pole about fifteen feet high on the lot in back of the old city hall in Santa Fe. Dan Eastman, the son of Max Eastman, the writer, aided me in the work. 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. That soaking and drying was a nasty job. I have never tackled it again.

Gus Baumann [a well known artist in Santa Fe and a famous puppeteer] volunteered to make the head. Somehow or other Gus and I didn’t get together on the scale of the figure, for when the head turned up, it had been wonderfully fashioned by Gus out of cardboard cartons but was entirely too small for the figure. It sat on top of the pole like a pinhead. It was, I admit, a well intended but pretty sorry-looking Zozobra.

On the night of the show, a circle of bonfires was lighted around the base of the figure. The Kiwanians in black robes circled slowly about Zozobra carrying green torches and chanting a dirge. On cue, Witter Bynner [a renowned poet] leading a large group of Fiesta merry-makers, all in gay costumes and waving bright colored whips, dashed out of concealment and drove off the glooms. The effigy was lighted, roman candles and red fires were set off, and with much hilarious shooting the merriment was under way.[4]

The idea behind the creating of the first Zozobra grew from the Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico. An effigy of Judas, filled with firecrackers, was led around the village on a donkey and later in the day burned. New Mexico visitors to the Indian village brought the story of the burning back to Santa Fe, and to the imaginative and inventive mind of William Howard Shuster, Jr.

Kids with ZozobraFrom 1926 until he officially granted a deed to Zozobra to the Santa Fe Downtown Kiwanis Club in 1964, Zozobra was Will’s personal “baby”, his word, and responsibility and, as he wrote in the same article, “my great pre-Fiesta worry.” He was his own worst critic, always refining the show, but the basic concept that gloom must be destroyed before merriment can begin has remained a constant. For many years Will built Zozobra from memory, until eventually building for himself and his volunteers a small working model of the wooden frame. This model was given over to the care of and use by the Kiwanis club. Gus Denninger, a member of the Kiwanis club, who had woodworking tools in his basement, perfected the construction of Zozobra by pre-cutting and labeling the many pieces of lumber in his workshop before the actual building began in an available work space. In the work space the volunteers, adult and children, assemble the parts; the arms, body, and head are constructed separately, and are finally joined together at the Fort Marcy Park site.

In an article in the Albuquerque Journal in the early 1980s, Will comments on one reason for his continuing interest in producing the annual Zozobra show:

... the look in the youngsters’ faces as they saw this monster who might have stepped out of a fairy tale go up in smoke. That is a reason for Zozobra. He appeals to the childish fancy – in all of us. It is a scene from a fairy tale of our own making.[5]

Hirohitlmus 1943

For the first several years the Zozobra show was staged on a vacant lot behind city hall, but Zozobra was growing taller, the show a bit grander, and construction of new buildings in the downtown area began to press in on the location of the annual pre-Fiesta burning. Accordingly, the Zozobra part of Fiesta moved up to the expanding Fort Marcy Park north of downtown Santa Fe where a high bank of earth was created from the hill overlooking the baseball field, providing a spot where the monster could stand, facing and growling at the massed onlookers on the field below. It was, and still is, an ideal setting for staging the beginning of the annual Santa Fe Fiesta.

Zozobra 1943

Throughout the years, except during the years of World War II, Zozobra continued to grow larger, until in 1999 he reached a height of 51 feet. But because of wartime privations in the 1940s, most precisely a lack of lumber for building the frame, he shrank, at one performance at least, to eight feet tall! During one of those war years, when a bit more lumber was available, Will’s creativity presented to the public Hirohitlmus, a caricature of the three Axis leaders against which the United States, Britain and France were fighting: Japanese Emperor Hirohito, Germany’s Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

In the early years of the annual burning of Zozobra, while Dana Johnson was still editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican, stories about sightings of the evil monster, Zozobra, were reported in the daily newspaper during the days just prior to the scheduled burning. The articles were all presented as serious news items. One such occurrence had Zozobra seen in the Pecos River valley. The newspaper reported that the New Mexico National Guard was called out to trap the beast! The troops trapped the monster in an old Indian cave at the junction of the Pecos River and Espirito Santa Creek. The newspaper went on to say that Zozobra was anesthetized with 66 gallons of ether, loaded onto a railroad flatcar and brought to Santa Fe on the railroad to be burned on schedule. On August 31, 1932 the New Mexican ran this story:


The case of the famous Jersey Devil recalled by the sensational reports this week of the appearance of the monster Zozobra, or Old Man Depression, as this freak of nature in human semblance is called... Following reports by Cyrus McCormick, Jr. that a 25-foot tall grotesque giant with rolling eyes and tongue tore across the McCormick place near Nambe [a community some 16 miles north of Santa Fe] night before last, leaving a trail of sparks and embers and uprooting a large cottonwood as he passed, and another report of his presence near Arroyo Hondo. Miss Luisa Pugh of De Vargas Street, reported today that she heard a noise at her window last night, that an enormous clutching hand with 12-inch claws on the end came through the window and she seized an old cavalry saber belonging to her grand-uncle, the Duke of Wellington, and cut off one of the claws, whereupon the frightful nocturnal visitor, leaving several washtubs full of blood around the place, disappeared. The claw is on exhibition in a case in the second story of the Old Palace. ...

Zozobra 1933

As stated above these newspaper reports were written as straight news items. But the Santa Fe readers knew better! To be sure there was a Cyrus McCormick, Jr. living in Nambe, there was, and still is a De Vargas street in Santa Fe. But in 1932 there was not, and is not today, a second floor on the “Old Palace,” which is, of course, the historic Palace of the Governors on the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe.

As reported by author Tony Hillerman in a 1960 New Mexico magazine article describing what will happen on the scheduled afternoon and evening before and during the show that begins Fiesta:

... he will rise again on the hillside overlooking Fort Marcy Park, using a Public Service Company of New Mexico power line pole for a backbone. [A permanent steel pole has in the last few years replaced this wooden pole.] That night, the gigantic puppet [at about 40 feet tall at the time] will be both guest of honor and victim at one of the largest and loudest celebrations in the West. With his ponderous arms waving, thunderous loudspeaker groans issuing from his wagging jaws and pumpkin-sized eyeballs rolling evilly [the eyeballs are, actually, large sized, painted aluminum pie pans], Zozobra will go up once again in a towering column of flames. Overhead salvoes of aerial bombs will be exploding; massed batteries of roman candles will be shooting their stars [upward towards the sky]...

Behind the smoke, fireworks and flame a small army of volunteers will be toiling at the task of properly executing Old Man Gloom. Zozobra’s puppet strings are sturdy ropes. It takes a squad of men dashing back and forth at the end of them to produce an awe-inspiring wave of the giant’s arm, to drop his jaw or roll an eyeball. Other crews man the battery of fireworks ... From backstage; the scene reminds one of a frantic band of Lilliputians besetting a highly inflammable Gulliver.6

What is the creature made of? He is a finely conceived and well-crafted framework of preplanned and pre-cut sticks of wood, covered over with chicken wire and yards of muslin cloth. He is stuffed with bushels of shredded paper. In 1999 the New Mexico State Police headquarters in Santa Fe happily donated the stuffing and it included shredded obsolete police reports and even personal divorce papers. The inclusion of such papers as divorce papers and paid off mortgage papers, etc. has been a tradition for many years; let the fires of the burning of Old Man Gloom wipe away your personal adverse happenings. While the body cloth remains white, the belt and “blouse” buttons vary in color from year to year. The deep-set eyes are painted green with black eyebrows. His fuzzy hairs are exposed strands of the shredded paper and spray painted to the color desired by the builders of the day. His lips are spray painted red. He is a sight to behold!

Zozobra circa 1930's

A major star in the annual production is the Fire Dancer, or Fire Spirit, who, dressed in a flowing red costume, appears at the top of the stage to drive away the white-sheeted Glooms from the base of the giant and taunts the growling monster with red flares. The dance was originally created and performed by Jacques Cartier, famed New York ballet dancer, local dance teacher, and landscape designer. By the late 1930s Will had decided that Zozobra needed a more elaborate staging. He enlisted Cartier to perform a fire dance on the steps leading up to Zozobra, who was stranding tall and fearsome at the top of the steps, and was growling out at the audience below. “The fire dancer, dressed as a scarlet flame, leaped down the steps, snatched the flares, and climbed back up [dancing all the time] to send the old man to his doom.”7 The fire dance has been a feature of the Zozobra show since the very early years. Cartier danced and threatened the monster for 37 years. He handed the duties and the flares to his dance student, James (Chip) Lilienthal for the 1970 burning of Zozobra. Thirty years later, Chip continues to perform his annual role.

Perhaps because members of the Kiwanis Club had been actively volunteering for many years in the construction of Zozobra, and because age was taking its toll on him, Shuster officially asked the Downtown Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe to help in the building of the giant monster in1963. Kiwanis members, such as Harold Gans and Alex Jordan, had been among those early volunteers. In fact Harold Gans has been a Zozobra worker since those first years when Will’s son, Don, asked his school mates, including Harold Gans, to join him in the task of stuffing those early Zozobra’s with paper. Harold went off to World War II, but upon discharge from the army, returned to Santa Fe and to Zozobra. Harold succeeded the original voice, the groaning, wailing voice of Wyatt Davis. For thirty years Harold groaned and wailed at the loudspeaker until, recognizing his own age, he began to tutor an apprentice. However the apprentice did not work out and Harold was called upon to groan once again during the 1999 Zozobra burning. When in 1964 Will deeded to the Kiwanis Club the responsibility for the annual construction and destruction of Zozobra, he also gave to them the detailed model that he had build of the wooden skeleton of the monster. The Kiwanis Club immediately and officially copyrighted the Zozobra show. Under the guidance of Gus Old ZozobraDenninger, the Kiwanians have perfected the construction of Zozobra into a science. Lumber is now measured and cut with such accuracy that the amount of unused lumber will fit into a small wastebasket.The body sections are labeled and bundled with instructions for assembly. During some four or five evening sessions, members armed with gloves, hammers and wire snips assemble the gigantic figure. The body, the arms, and the head are constructed separately, waiting to be joined together at Fort Marcy Park. The final stages of preparation are perhaps the most coordinated and exciting of the construction process. Delight registers on the faces of those who chance to witness the caravan of flatbed truck and escorting police cars as they pass through town on the way to Fort Marcy Park from the construction site to the final destination for the burning. At the park his parts are laid out and assembled. No one needs to be told that it is Zozobra! School children by the school bus load begin to arrive by 9 AM. They watch with fascination as the body parts are assembled and Zozobra israised and tied to the steel pole. All those children know that he will burn that evening and, accompanied by their parents, many will be on the ball park field later in the evening to witness Zozobra’s final minutes and the firework display that will lighten the sky above his head.

There is another vivid description of the night of Zozobra that is given to us by a very prominent New Mexico historian, Pedro Ribera-Ortega, and published in article written in 1981:

After old Man Gloom is constructed, at an estimated cost of $1,500.00 ($3,000.00 in 1999) he is hoisted into position by a crane at Fort Marcy Ball Park. There he placidly awaits his fate.

But he doesn’t remain placid long. As the hour of doom nears, Zozobra’s arms slowly begin to move and he emits the first menacing growl. He begins waving his arms more ominously at the crowd and the threatening growls increase.

When the flames at the base begin to roar, the red-clad figure of the Fire Spirit springs into view. He dances wildly up and down the steps at the base of the angry giant and takes a pair of red flares and threatens the flailing monster.

Old Man Gloom’s growls become agonizing screams as the Fire Spirit hurls the flares at him. Zozobra roars, his eyes glow with red flares, smoke pours out of his twisted mouth and rockets burst overhead as the fiery finish signals the beginning of a centuries-old celebration - Fiesta de Santa Fe - and everyone is free from suffering and woe which might dampen the spirits of Fiesta. Or at least they’re free until the classical mornings after which follows the festivities. Then they may wonder if Old Man Gloom doesn’t have a day or two of revenge, himself.8

Old Zozobra

Each year some 30,000 spectators pay a nominal admission charge to walk onto the Fort Marcy baseball field to watch the show, Zozobra, and to yell themselves hoarse. As the show is about to begin the crowd begins to chant: “Burn him - burn him - burn him”. The roars of the spectators do not cease until Zozobra has been destroyed. Only the timbres of the loud speakers carry the beat of the drums and the increasingly ominous groans and growls of the monster out to the spectators.

It is a unique luck of weather that Gus Denninger could say in a 1993 interview “its never rained on Zozobra. It’s rained before it; its rained after it, but its never rained on it”. The 1999 show has passed into history, and the luck of weather continues! There is much more than the staging of the Zozobra show each year for the delight of the spectators. To be sure it is a lot of work and it is fun for the volunteers and the 30,000 spectators. But more importantly, the show is the major source for funds that this group of dedicated Kiwanis members uses for its Scholarship program and for a Children’s Orthodontic program. Since 1952 the show has produced more than $279,525 in scholarships for higher education to students graduating from Santa Fe high schools. In addition the funds have provided camp fees for physically challenged children and other youth oriented programs. In 1998-99, for example, Kiwanis was able to fund 21 scholarships, plus 36 children and youth programs in Santa Fe for a total of $66,000. The funds are distributed through the Santa Fe Downtown Kiwanis Foundation, which originally established in 1965. This festival, this annual burning of the monster Zozobra, serves more than as the precursor of the Santa Fe Fiesta, it is a beginning of a future for many of Santa Fe’s young.

Life goes on and life ends: William Howard Shuster, Jr. died in February 1969.

After [72] years, all Santa Fe knows there has to be a Zozobra. If you don’t burn Old Man Gloom the aspens might not turn their autumn yellow on the mountains and winter would surely bring gloom and doom. ...

And when Zozobra meets his fearsome demise, filling another crop of Santa Fe children with delicious terror and their parents with an unexplainable glee, the odds are good that Shuster [in spirit] will be backstage again ...9