Day of the Dead Celebration Demonstrates the "Art of Community" in Fort Lauderdale
The Florida Day of the Dead Celebration is definitely something to gawk at, but for all the right reasons. Located in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the motto for the fourth annual event is "memory for the dead, party for the living."
And quite a party it is. The Dia de los Muertos Family Day starts at 2 p.m. at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, while a procession of freaky painted folks gather at Huizenga Park at 6 p.m. These beautiful skull-faced revelers follow founder and owner of the Puppet Network Jim Hammond to Stache. There are skulls to paint, mariachi bands playing, Mexican ofrenda altars to honor ancestors, crafts to buy, and so much more. Like so, so much more, it's ridiculous; like arial performers insane. This year they're introducing luchadores to the ring and Dance Macabro, a Gothic fundraiser.
We spoke with event producers Hammond, Iron Forge Press' Chuck Loose, and Tortuga Tile Works' LuRu Rudawsky about their Saturday, November 2, extravaganza.
New Times: How did you guys get together to work on this project?
Chuck Loose: Jim Hammond is the original organizer and creator of the event. I think we've all shared a common interest in the tradition and visual imagery since our youth; At least I know I have, growing up in New Mexico. But it was the fact that our companies (Iron Forge Press and Puppet Network) were neighbors in the same area of town that got us involved. I think it was literally, Jim knocking on our door and saying, "I want to do a puppet processional to celebrate Dia de los Muertos in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Want to be involved?"
LuRu Rudawsky: I was aware of Jim's large street puppets, and I have always been interested in community spectacle and Day of the Dead, so I showed up at the first meeting to see how I could get involved. I liked the creative energy of the group, and it seemed like a good fit for me.
Jim Hammond: The first glimpses of our Day of the Dead Celebration occurred in 2009, when I developed three sidewalk processionals for Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Trash 2 Treasure, Puppet Guild of South Florida, and Museum of Discovery & Science. Soon after, I left the road with Broadway's The Lion King, and opened Puppet Network. They were community based projects incorporating papier mache workshops free to the public.
Having always been extremely interested in remembrance rituals for the dead and an obsession with Harvest Festival traditions, translating these workshops and processions was natural segway into Day of the Dead. Our true launch with my first $2,000, individual artist grant from the Broward County Cultural Division in 2010.
When you started, did you think it'd be this successful?
Loose: We hoped it would! It's nice to know that there's others that share our interest in it. With South Florida's diverse population, I think the readiness to celebrate Day of the Dead was always there, it just needed a community based creative like Jim Hammond to make it a reality.
Hammond: It started as a handful of creative friends making a bunch of puppets and bringing together 75 participants to carry them one Fall afternoon. If it ended there, that alone was a success. As we built it together, adding new creative and cultural perspectives and partners, our goal was to stay focused on creating a fun event that we would want to attend even if we were not playing a part.
Last year, a senior woman with her family came up to me, pulled me out of the crowd for a few minutes speaking Spanish -- which I unfortunately do not speak -- and hugged me with tears in her eyes. A young man with her translated: "My Grandmother wanted to thank you for what you have done for our community." That is true success that I had hoped for, but never anticipated reaching with a handful of puppets.
Tell me what makes the Puppet Network special, besides the fact that it's neat and unusual in that it is a Puppet Network.
Hammond: Puppet Network is a design and fabrication firm specializing in costumes, props, and scenic elements for live entertainment, media, and festivals, all with a touch of puppetry magic. We are a for-profit company, but what I think what makes us special is that we have a corporate conscious that focuses much of our attention on non-profits, education, and community heritage events.
How'd you guys gather all the support from other agencies?
Loose: We fund this through grants, donations, and from our own pockets. Fortunately, there's been a lot of generous people in South Florida that have seen what we've done, like it, and want to support it, either financially, or through volunteerism. Our goal is to present an event that is not only respectful of the traditions of Day of the Dead, and seeks to put a modern spin on it, but also is open for anyone who want to be a part of it.
The "art of community" aspect is something we can't over-stress. This is a volunteer driven celebration, and allows people who might not be "artists" to explore their creative impetus.
What's your favorite part of the event?
Loose: The Skeletal processional! Oversized puppets, a thousand people in costumes, mini-floats, and miniature horses in skeleton makeup, among other amazing sights!
Rudawsky: Seeing everyone in costume and smiling.
Hammond: It's two fold. First, working with the families in the puppetry workshops, illustrating that art is part of everyone's lives. In the past, before we had an "artist class," farmers played violins or designed quilts, and embraced their own creativity. These workshops are opportunities for everyone participating to know they had a hand in building the giant puppets and art at the event.
Secondly, the moment before the skeleton processional starts around 6 p.m., every November 2, when I look into the crowd and can see what costume, mask, and makeup each participant has spent time designing and creating. From elaborate stilt walkers to moms who painted a little skull on a baby's face. I get chills at that moment every year.
What are you dressing up as?
Loose: A person that has to run around all night coordinating performances and answering questions.
Rudawsky: I wanted to be able to wear comfortable shoes this year, since I run around so much. So this year, I am going to be a bandito, so I can wear boots.
Hammond: Slightly stressed out but really happy executive producer.
What's going on with the musical element of the affair?
Loose: This year's celebration will feature performances by Everymen, Darling Sweets, Riot Act, and Bobby Lee Rodgers on the Boneyard Bandstand stage (inside American's Backyard in the Revolution Live entertainment complex). In addition to mariachis and traditional Mexican and Bolivian folk dancers, the outdoor Folklorico stage will feature Los Bastardos Magnificos. Complete details are available on our website: dayofthedeadflorida.com.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
Loose: The lucha libre wrestlers! No doubt.
Rudawsky: I am always partial to seeing the artwork of my fellow Craft Crypters.
Hammond: The event for me is often a dreamy blur of color, makeup, and logistics. What I always enjoy are the photographs posted throughout our social media by the press and individual participants and families after the event. Photos of their costumes, art and traditional ofrendas of to loved ones they want to celebrate make me the happiest.
The Dia de los Muertos Family Day, 2 p.m., at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale,1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Procession begins at 6 p.m. at Huizenga Park, 32 E. Las Olas Blvd.,Fort Lauderdale.