Auditioning the next voice of gloom

By Robert Nott (rnott@sfnewmexican.com) for The Santa Fe New Mexican

For about five minutes, I was the voice of one of the most powerful figures in Santa Fe.

No, not the mayor or governor or local legislators — nor the guy or gal who comes by your place to fix your internet problems.

I’m talking about Zozobra, the giant effigy of gloom Santa Feans love to burn every year. The Big Z, whose cries have amused (or is it haunted?) the city for decades, always gets the last groan.

Sure, when it’s all over, he’s just ashes. But the voice remains.

Oooooooooohhhhhhh.

Ray Sandoval, the main organizer of the annual burning of Zozobra, hosted by the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, held auditions Saturday at the Santa Fe Scottish Rite Temple for people interested in becoming the new voice of Zozobra.

It was the first such audition for the part in nearly 40 years, he said. To date, just five people — including the late Harold Gans, who did the job for about 40 years — have provided the voice of the big marionette who goes up in flames come September.

More than 60 people showed up to try out. Among them were actors, restaurant servers, Los Alamos National Laboratory employees, retirees, legal aides and people who just wanted to roar a little.

Those auditioning had to make the character come to life with their voices while watching a silent five-minute clip of Zozobra on a screen in front of them. The clip showed Zozobra reacting to the glooms (pieces of paper containing residents’ worries), the townspeople wanting to torch him and his real nemesis, the Fire Dancer.

Those auditioning took the work seriously, knowing this is the opportunity of a lifetime, especially with the 100th anniversary of Zozobra coming up in 2024. There was no clowning around or lampooning the character as the contestants took their roughly five-minute turns at the taxi mike provided by contestant William Parnall, a district judge from Albuquerque who was first in line.

Parnall brought a deep growl and King Kong-like characterization to his audition, setting the bar pretty high from the get-go. He bowed to applause after he finished — all the people auditioning were allowed to sit in the theater at the temple and watch the others moan and groan.

Elaine Rodriguez — who said her father, Jose, was a Public Service of New Mexico lineman who used to help with setting Zozobra up — gave a more sorrowful, introspective take in her audition, playing Zozobra as if he didn’t understand why all those people were showing up to torch him.

Still another audition candidate added a demonic laugh to Zozobra as the character went up in flames on the screen, suggesting the Zozo was looking forward to meeting the devil in hell.

Jordan Theobald of Albuquerque tried several different voices related to different Zozobra scenes on the screen, explaining to the crowd he is looking to get work as a voice actor. He said so many people have grown up with Zozobra that it makes sense they all want to play him.

Here’s how I got thrown into the mix: My boss, never afraid to fast-track any tough assignment my way — he sent me to Roswell a week or so ago to ferret out extraterrestrials and says he thinks I’m from another planet — asked me to take part in the contest to give it a you-are-there feel.

He knew my background included work as an actor in New York City and other towns I have had to flee — primarily because of my acting.

I’m actually a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. So, knowing I was trying out for the part of Santa Fe’s boogeyman whose existence threatens our happiness, I delved deep into my actor’s psyche to pull forth some theatrical lessons from those bygone days.

Reaching back for such memories to recreate them in a new role is called sense memory work, a big method acting exercise you learn when you are a devotee of famous acting instructors: Stanislavsky, Strasberg and the Stooges — Moe, Larry and Curly.

One acting exercise from the old days involves writing out, in long hand, all the stuff your character did over the last 24 hours of his or her life.

Since I had slept about 12 hours the day before the audition and spent the other half wandering around some downtown bars, I managed to knock that off in about 24 minutes. Only, for some reason, I couldn’t read my handwriting when I was done.

So I thought about Zozo’s background, real and imagined. Born in 1924, he has suffered a fiery demise every year since during our annual Fiesta de Santa Fe celebration. The late artist Will Shuster is credited with creating Zozobra back nearly a century ago, although former New Mexican editor E. Dana Johnson reportedly named him.

What did Zozobra want out of life, I asked myself. Where did he sleep? What went through his mind all year long in between burnings? Did he ever help anyone put a star on top of their Christmas tree?

Sandoval noted our audition was based on the premise Zozobra had been sent an invitation in the mail to attend a big gathering in downtown Santa Fe, where, unknown to him, he would be torched.

That scenario threw me, and rightly so. We all know how hard it is to land a Post Office box in this city, so where did Zozo get his mail?

Setting aside Zozobra’s height — he once stood at about 18 or 20 feet tall, but now he’s closer to 50 — I figured there must be something about his vocal range that makes him bigger than life.

In doing some research, I discovered that, in the 1930s, Shuster and others tried to recreate the roar of a lion for Zozobra.

Now, I’ve never encountered a real lion, though we all know newsroom editors like to bellow. So, I improvised. I channeled the spirt of the closest big cat I ever knew: Rio, my old pit bull/boxer, who is now lifting his leg over celestial fire hydrants.

Rio terrorized — that is, energized — my neighborhood off East Alameda for well over a decade. Construction workers dived onto the hoods of their trucks when he came by, and wary bicyclists and motorcyclists soon learned to avoid the paths Rio and I traversed in search of the perfect tree.

Thanks to Rio, delivery people, process servers and angry ex-girlfriends made sure to steer clear of my apartment. My guy friends wouldn’t come in, either, which suited me fine because they were always pilfering change from my coin jar and drinking my beer.

And get this: On the day he died, Rio refused to give in, escaping the vet’s euthanizing needle to lead us on a mad slapstick dash around my apartment. Even after his body was placed on the stretcher, Rio rolled off the darned thing, suggesting that even in death, he had no intention of leaving.

Just like Zozobra, Rio was convinced death is not the end of everything.

And Rio was right because I summoned forth his canine energy in my audition. I let the visual of Zozobra on the screen in front of me guide my dog-like intonations as I ordered around the “gloomies,” scared away the villagers with torches, and roared with rage at the Fire Dancer, whose fiery gyrations would burn me up but good.

I felt exhausted when I finished the audition, as if I had been singed to a crisp and needed some relief.

As a matter of fact, I kind of wanted to find a fire hydrant myself.

Sandoval said Saturday evening he’s calling back about five finalists Monday for a second round of auditions.

I won’t be one of them. I made it clear to Sandoval I would turn down the role if it was offered to me because of obvious conflict-of-interest issues.

But for a few exciting moments there, I was the voice of Zozobra.

And that was like sitting on top of the world — except it felt like there was a big stick of dynamite beneath me, with the fuse slowly hissing.

Thanks, Rio.