Zozobra’s Old Man Gloom moonwalks his way to ashes 

By Jeanette DeDios / NM News Port

The return of limited crowds to the 97th annual burning of Zozobra brought lots of smiling faces back to Fort Marcy Park in Santa Fe last Friday as they danced to retro 80’s music and cheered the torching of the 50-foot marionette known as Old Man Gloom.

The giant figure, made of wood and cloth, and stuffed with all that is bad this year ditched his bow tie and wore Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” jacket. His pasty face was changed to green zombie makeup in response to the 80s-decade theme. 

Old Man Gloom in Michael Jacksons “Thriller” jacket. Photo by Jeanette DeDios

“We were just thinking of a special way to build up to the 100 year celebration and we thought it’d be really cool to change his look every year while we count down the decades leading up to the 100th year celebration in 2024,” said Lisa Jaramillo, Zozobra Press Liaison.

“As a young child, I was fascinated by this big monster that we thought was real. If you didn’t behave, Zozobra was going to come after you,” said Raymond Sandoval, Zozobra’s Event Chair. “Old Man Gloom excited me in a lot of ways. Just to understand how they got it to move was so amazing.” 

The annual event is hosted by the Kiwanis Club, an international organization whose mission is to help the children of the world. 

“Zozobra has two purposes; one is to uphold this amazing Santa Fe tradition,” Sandoval said. “And second, it’s our largest fundraiser for kids. Last year, even though we weren’t able to have a crowd, we were still able to give almost $40,000 to kids through the Zozobra proceeds by selling merchandise.” 

A pressing concern for this year’s Zozobra was the rising cases of coronavirus and how organizers were going to combat that. 

“We worked with the Department of Health who were able to schedule appointments to get vaccinated as well as having testing sites at the event,” Jaramillo said. “Individuals weren’t able to get into the event if they hadn’t been tested or vaccinated. ”

Crowd watches as Old Man Gloom burns. Photo by Jeanette DeDios

Coordinators of Zozobra also limited the crowd size to 10,000 whereas in the past the event has brought up to 60,000 people. Other safety measures put into place included having volunteers showing proof of vaccination or producing a negative COVID-19 test, having vendors wear masks and change gloves, and encouraging spectators to wear masks.

“I’m glad that they were checking for vaccinations,” said Heath Pyle, who grew up in Santa Fe but was attending Zozobra for the first time. “It’s great to see a lot of people, even with vaccinations, wearing masks.” 

The year-long worries and fear that came with the coronavirus inspired spectators to submit their glooms on paper to be put into the towering figure prior to the event. People from around the country traveled to witness Old Man Gloom burn, and with him, thousands of miseries.

“I’m throwing in the collective struggles of 2020,” said Molly Roberts who traveled from Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her husband.

“We’re really excited to finally be here and see it. We’ve been wanting to come for a couple of years because we know this is a uniquely New Mexican thing,” Roberts said. 

“We’ve been extraordinarily blessed in the last year to not have people close to us, who contract the virus, not become severely ill,” Roberts added. “So we’re here to support anybody else who’s got some serious gloom to get rid of.”

Zozobra’s 97th annual Old Man Gloom in flames . Photo by Jeanette DeDios

There were plenty of New Mexicans there to see Old Man Gloom go up in flames. Delaney Painter of Santa Fe said, “I’ve been here many times and I like that everyone’s coming together to collectively get rid of our gloom together and celebrate.”

“That makes me happy inside, “ Painter said.

Once the sun went down, Michael Jackson’s Thriller blared out of the speakers as choreographed zombies joined Old Man Gloom for a dance. The crowd joined in and began cheering as the first sights of fireworks flew through the sky. There was no saving Old Man Gloom as his head — and then his entire body — caught fire. The final collapse left him in ashes as spectators celebrated, leaving gloom behind and hoping for a better year to come.

Jeanette DeDios is a reporter for NM News Port and can be reached at nmnewsport@gmail.com.