Chance of a ghost: Week of the Dead offers variety of haunts, old & new

Oct 6, 17 • 5enses, FeatureNo Comments

By James Dungeon

The “Week of the Dead” is a week of events and workshops leading up to the Day of the Dead that promote the art, culture, history, and folklore of Arizona.

Each of the events benefits its respective non-profit and sponsors including the Prescott Center for the Arts, Smoki Museum, West Yavapai Guidance Center, and Yavapai Cemetery Association.

Day of the Dead” art exhibit

Oct. 2-Nov. 2: Art show featuring Día de los Muertos-themed pieces. Benefits the Prescott Center for the Arts. (PCA Gallery, 208 N. Marina St., 928-445-3286, free admission)

Ghost Feast”

Oct. 11: A dinner-theatre-inspired evening of tapas and “Ghost Talk TOO!” teasers on the El Gato Azul patio. (El Gato Azul World Bistro, 316 W. Goodwin St., 928-445-1070, $30, RSVP)

Ghost Talk TOO!”

6, 7:30, & 9 p.m. Oct. 21,22, 27 & 28: Period costumes, creepy props, mood lighting, eerie sound effects, spooky sets, special effects, and more adorns a series of vignettes in this multi-genre ode to Arizona history and folklore. Directed by Erica Muse, written by Parker Anderson. (Prescott Center for the Arts Stage TOO!, alley between Cortez and Marina streets behind PCA, 928-445-3286, $10-$13)

Historic Cemetery Walk”

10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28: Dearly departed spirits from Arizona’s past tell their stories on this hour-long guided tour through the gravesites of Yavapai County pioneers. (Citizens Cemetery, 815 E. Sheldon St., 928-713-8807, $5-$15)

Sugar Skull Decorating” workshop

Noon-3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28: Decorate a sugar skull, fun for all ages, family-friendly event, supplies provided. (PCA Gallery, 208 N. Marina St., 928-445-3286, $3 per skull)

Día de los Muertos Celebration”

11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29: Experience Arizona’s Southwest and Spanish influences with mariachis, Ballet Folklorico, Why Not? Bellydance, authentic foods, children’s craft booths, art, music, drinks, and a rousing cemetery procession. (Smoki Museum, 147 N. Arizona Ave., 928-445-1230, free admission)

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Sugar skulls decorated at a Prescott Center For the Arts Gallery workshop. Courtesy photo.

‘Day of the Dead’ art exhibit & ‘Sugar Skull Decorating’ workshop

[The “Day of the Dead” art exhibit is Oct. 1-Nov. 2 at Prescott Center for the Arts Gallery, 208 N. Marina St., 928-445-3286. The “Sugar Skull Decorating” workshop is 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, also at the PCA Gallery, and costs $3 a skull. Find out more at PCA-AZ.Net. In the interim, here’s an interview with Sukey Jones, lead curator for the “Day of the Dead” art exhibit.]

What kind of art is in the ‘Day of the Dead’ show and what exactly is the Day of the Dead?

There’ll be art representing various iconography and symbolism related to the Mexican Day of the Dead. We haven’t received all of the entries yet, but based on what we’ve had before, there’ll be photographs, watercolors, oils, and some three-dimensional art. We’re also hoping that, again, we’ll have art from Prescott’s sister city in Mexico, Caborca. It’ll be the fifth year for that. The Day of the Dead was traditionally celebrated in central and southern Mexico, and it combined the Catholic holiday of All Souls Day and All Saints Day with earlier indigenous traditions that honored departed loved ones. Now, it’s a celebration that’s spread to most of Mexico. It’s Nov. 1 and 2, and people believe that during those days the gates of heaven open up to let the souls of children and adults visit the Earth again. People prepare special festivities and altars in their homes to entice those loved ones back. Candles and marigolds and favorite foods and bottles of tequila and hot cocoa and even toys for the children — you decorate the altar with anything you think will bring your dear ones back for a visit and make them happy.

Could you describe the typical iconography of Day of the Dead?

The marigolds are a big one. People make arches out of them as kind of a gateway. The smell is suppose to entice loved ones to return. The candles are supposed to light the way back, as well. There’s also papel picado, this brightly colored tissue paper, that’s basically made into banners. And then there are, of course, the sugar skulls. We’re doing the workshop on Saturday, Oct. 28 for the fourth year in a row. It’s proven very popular with couples, families, and individuals of all ages. People get really into it. It’s a folk art tradition. You get to play with colorful icing and glitter and decorate your own sugar skull. … With the skulls, I’d just say it’s not a scary thing. The sugar skulls, well, really, the whole sugar art thing, was brought to Mexico by Italian missionaries. They made sugar art for religious festivals — including angels, lambs and various religious symbols. The skulls represent a departed loved one. You would’ve had the person’s name on the forehead of the sugar skull and you would’ve either put it on your home altar or taken it to the cemetery and put it on the person’s gravestone.

How has the art show changed since the show began?

When we first started, five years ago, the art we got didn’t always match the theme because Day of the Dead was something that not all of our local artists were familiar with. It’s been fun over the last few years, how people are learning more about it and how wonderful an idea it really is to celebrate those who’ve passed. It’s a day of remembrance. It has absolutely no relationship with our Halloween. I should probably repeat that: It has absolutely no relationship with our Halloween. It’s a day of remembrance, though it’s not exactly remembrance in the way we think of here. People in Mexico spend the day having picnics at grave sites, cleaning tombs, playing cards, and listening to local mariachi bands. It’s very festive. It’s not supposed to be sad or mournful. … This year, well, how to explain this? The United States often takes celebrations and kind of commercializes them. I’m kind of saddened to see how Day of the Dead has been taken over and you can find this stuff at dollar stores and everywhere else. It’s kind of losing its tradition. This year, we’re really making an effort to be respectful to the traditions of the holiday and educate people about the greater spirituality behind the Day of the Dead.

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‘Ghost Talk TOO!’

[‘Ghost Talk TOO!’ is at 6, 7:30, and 9 p.m. Oct. 20, 21, 27, & 28 at Prescott Center for the Arts Stage TOO!, alley between Cortez and Marina streets behind Prescott Center for the Arts, 928-445-3286. Tickets are $10-$13. The event is a collaborative fundraiser sponsored by PCA and West Yavapai Guidance Clinic Foundation. Proceeds benefit PCA’s Youth Scholarship Program and youth programs of West Yavapai Guidance Clinic. Find out more at PCA-AZ.Net. In the interim, here’s an interview with Erica Muse, director of “Ghost Talk TOO!” and Parker Anderson, playwright of “Ghost Talk TOO!”]

The new name, I assume, alludes to the change in venue?

Muse: It does. PCA decided to do something different with Ghost Talk this year. Obviously, it’s an allusion to Stage TOO!, but we also wanted to get across that it’s a continuation of “Ghost Talk.” When Karen Murphy stepped down, people were afraid it was going to end, but it’s still going strong after a decade.

How did you get involved with the show?

I was actually approached by Robin at PCA, and it was suggested to her by Karen. I’d worked with Karen and used to be the director of the Chino Valley High School theater program, where we’d done some work with PCA. … She also knew about my work on two haunted houses there, so she probably figured I had some interest in putting on a Halloween show.

What can you tell us about this year’s show?

This year, our writer, Parker Anderson, has gone with things that are very historically accurate. He isn’t using any stories that are just legend or urban myth. Everything can be backed up by historic documents. So, some of the traditional Prescott ghost stories that have been involved in the past will be missing, but, instead, there will be some new and exciting stories unfolding. … I don’t want to give away too much, but one has to do with Jerome, and the scope has widened from Prescott to all of Yavapai County.

What’s the rationale behind making them more historically accurate?

That’s Parker’s domain, really. When he brought it to us, though, we all agreed. He’s been writing about historical ghosts for a while now, and he’s actually written a book on the subject, so we trusted and trust him on all of this.

Does that real-world basis affect the show’s aesthetics?

A little bit. There’s still going to be some amount of playfulness and definitely some audience interaction, but it’s not going to be as vaudevillian as it’s been. It’s both an advantage and a disadvantage, but I’ve never seen a “Ghost Talk” during the past nine years. It’s good because I won’t be trying to emulate something, but it’s bad because I’m not sure what people are used to. No matter what, anyway, some people are going to want it to stay the same and some people are going to want it to change. Karen, who’s been writing and directing it for the last nine nine years, has been very helpful and sweet. I worked at PCA costuming and doing props, and she’s always been my go-to person who knew exactly where to find things. I could ask for, say, a garter belt for 1920s flapper, and she knew exactly where it was. … That’s probably the biggest thing we’re facing this year: People think that because she stepped down that we’re not doing it. That’s why we’re trying extra hard this year to get some positive press that this is still happening.

What’s the structure of the show?

There’ll be 10 to 15 individual vignettes, that is, ghost stories with actors acting as those characters. Some have narration, some have introductions, and some have interaction between characters, but ultimately most ghosts end up telling their own stories. … The show is more geared toward adults, and there are some adult themes, including one story about a prostitute.

Do you have a favorite among them?

It’d rather not share too many details about the stories, but one is an unrequited love story, and I like that one a lot — especially the interaction between the two main characters. You know, I’ve never directed anything like this before. It can quickly become a bunch of monologues, but that story about two people stands out. I like that one.

How does the smaller venue of Stage TOO! affect the staging of the show?

It’s a completely different feeling to stage a show in a smaller, more intimate venue. The audience is right in the actors’ faces versus the distance of a stage. It’s a different kind of acting and a different kind of a set design. I’m used to working with a small black box and the audience in a traditional seating pattern that goes up at an angle where the audience is at a distance except for the front row. This is going to be completely different. On stage, you have to be a lot bigger with your character and movement and facial expressions. If you’ve ever seen someone who’s gone from theater to film, it looks like they’re overacting a lot, and that’s because the camera is so close and they’re used to grand gestures and facial expressions. In this environment, you have to be subtler and reign in some of those impulses.

Why do you think ghost stories are such an enduring tradition?

I think people in general are fascinated about the idea of another dimension, of the spirit realm, and really anything extraterrestrial, anything we can’t see or touch. People are generally fascinated by those sorts of things, even if they don’t want to admit that in public. Going to a show like this gives people the chance to explore and think about that. I think, for some people, Halloween is an excuse to indulge that guilty pleasure.

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How did you end up as the playwright for “Ghost Talk TOO!”?

Anderson: Well, Karen Murphy did it for several years and she’s decided to retire from it. Erica is directing it, and I’m the playwright now. Karen always did a lavish, kind of musical production that was just plain fun. This year, it’s going to be a much smaller production with historically accurate stories.

Why shift the focus away from, say, legends and tall tales?

Partly, it’s because I’m a local historian and I value historical accuracy. I like to know what actually happened. Basically, what we’re doing is telling eerie stories of old Yavapai. It’s not alleged hauntings, but kind of darker stories, like 19th century murder cases. We’re having the characters kind of coming out to the audience as ghosts because it’s Halloween, but they’re not representing so-called real, local hauntings.

Have those kind of stories been part of previous “Ghost Talk” productions?

In a way, it’s kind of going back to the original way the program was when it originated at Sharlot Hall Museum, where it was created by a lady named Jody Drake. She did it with largely historically accurate stories. It ended because some people there felt it unseemly for a museum to be doing such a thing and they put the kibosh on it. Then Prescott Center for the Arts took it over and Karen Murphy wrote and directed the show and turned it into this big, elaborate, fun production. So, what we’re doing is more of a throwback to how it originally started.

What kinds of stories will be told?

We dramatized a variety of stories. There are a couple of local cases that lead to legal hangings on the Courthouse Plaza, a few characters who died under mysterious circumstances, and, in fact, two stories were deemed suicides. We actually utilize their suicide notes. Now, that may sound morbid, but these stories are over a century old and both men were not known to have families or descendants. … There’s a combination of some well-known local stories and some that aren’t as well known.

As a historian, what kind of sources did you bring to bear?

I tried to rely on primary sources, that is, old newspaper articles, old court records, and occasionally letters and firsthand accounts of witnesses. As a historian, I’m someone who values accuracy and I tried not to delve into legends. Let me tell you, there are a lot of legends in this area.

What distinguishes a true story from a legend, besides the obvious.

A true story is verifiable. A legend is not verifiable. It may’ve been kicking around for generations, but there’s absolutely no proof of it. Sometimes people look for evidence but, if they kind find anything to support it, then it’s just a legend. There are a lot of legends about stuff on Whiskey Row, but there are also a lot of true stories. You know, Bradley Courtney wrote a great exploration of that history.

Are most of the performances monologues?

There’s some interplay between the characters, but there are a lot of monologues. As a nod to how we’re having the characters coming out and addressing the audience as spirits, and the fact that it’s Halloween, as of this point it’s going to be narrated by a talking skull. … It’s a smaller production for a smaller house. It’ll be more intimate than recent versions. I’d like people to come away from it saying that they had fun and enjoyed it.

Why do you think people are continually fascinated by these kinds of stories?

People tend to like juicy, sensational stories. That’s why legends are so popular. You can take it as a negative comment on human nature, but people prefer to read about these kinds of things than, say, people curing diseases or something like that. I don’t think it’s such a bad thing, necessarily, though. People tend to read more about sad people and bad people than about heroes. You see it on television, too. I think it’s because villains tend to be more interesting as characters. They tend to be more memorable.

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‘Historic Cemetery Walk’

[The “Historic Cemetery Walk” is 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28 at Citizens Cemetery, 815 E. Sheldon St. Tickets are $10, $15 per couple, and $5 for children under 5. Find out more at Yavapai.US/YCC/Citizens-Cemetery or contact the Yavapai Cemetery Association at YCACitizens@Gmail.Com or 928-713-8807. In the interim, here’s an interview with Julie Holst, chairperson of the Yavapai Cemetery Association.]

What exactly is the ‘Historic Cemetery Walk’ and how long has it been going on?

It’s the 10th year of the Historic Cemetery walk. We have reenactors at grave sites around Citizens Cemetery. A member of the Yavapai Cemetery Association leads groups on tours around the grounds, and at each of the five sites, a reenactor in period clothes tells the story of the person in that plot.

What exactly is the Yavapai Cemetery Association, anyway?

Our organization was founded in 1995, and we preserve and protect the historic aspects of the cemetery. That means all the historic headstones. All the money we take goes strictly for that purpose as well as improvements to the cemetery. It’s repairing a lot of dilapidated headstones and ordering markers for some of the unmarked graves. Today, the group has about 100 people and a seven-member coordinating council.

What can you tell us about this year’s walk?

I’ll tell you about some of the cemetery residents coming out this year to tell their stories. One is Gussie Palmer, who will be reenacted by Donna Morgan. Gussie’s is a particularly tragic story: the story of a mother who unintentionally discharged a fatal shot to her young son while oiling her pistol. She was born Sept. 6, 1880 and died Nov. 25, 1891, which, as I say that aloud, makes me realize that has to be a typo. There’s also Farrell Tiernan, who will be reenacted by Monte Crooks. He was a well-loved, adventurous Irishman known around town for spinning a tale. He’ll be talking about his time in Alaska while serving as a member of the First Command. There’s no date of birth for him, but he died Feb. 24, 1909. Some sources put his age at 69, but our research puts him more around 81. Sometimes people die and no one had access to records or anyone with information. Name misspellings are common. Dates of birth and death — there are almost always discrepancies with those. And there’s Edith Ruffner, who’ll be reenacted by Melissa Ruffner, who’s actually a descendant of hers. She’s going to tell the story of this funky miner’s widow who once wrote to the Arizona Journal Miner that she “would and could” do a man’s work to support her orphaned children. She was born in 1880 and died Oct. 13, 1917.

How many people are buried in Citizens Cemetery, anyway?

Right now, we’re estimating about 3,500 people are buried there. There are only a little more than 700 extant headstones, and many of those aren’t legible anymore. Due to vandalism and deterioration over the years, many are no longer standing, so the rest of those are unmarked graves. We do research to discover who’s in those graves and we try to get as much information as we can. Once we discover someone new, we add them to our burial index and we have a marker program where we actually place markers on their grave sites so they’re no longer unmarked graves. We have a potter’s field and, in fact, William Mingus, whom Mingus Mountain is named after, was buried there. He does have a maker, now, though. And … well, I’ll save that for anyone who goes on the tour. As far as the rest of the cemetery goes, I should mention it’s not a segregated cemetery. It represents a wide range of individuals of all ages and backgrounds and races buried next to each other. It’d say the potter’s field represents maybe 20 percent of the total residents.

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Día de los Muertos celebration

[The Día de los Muertos celebration is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29. with a procession to Citizens Cemetery is sometime between noon and 1 p.m. at Smoki Museum, 147 N. Arizona Ave., 928-445-1230. Find out more at SmokiMuseum.Org. In the interim, here’s an interview with Cindy Gresser, executive director of the Smoki Museum.]

Could you give us an overview of the event?

We’re going into our seventh year of the event here at the Smoki. It was brought over from Sharlot Hall Museum by Jody Drake. The event’s continued to grow and increase, it’s really exciting to see so many kids get involved. Día de los Muertos is a celebration of life. It’s a day in which we remember our loved ones and remember their place in our lives. Even if it’s someone you admired, not a family member, you celebrate the life of that individual. We encourage people to create ofrendas, which are altars to their loved ones who are gone. Traditionally, these altars include four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. There’s almost always a candle, a plant — usually a living flower, but sometimes a representation of that — water or their favorite beverage, as well as their favorite food. The idea is to bring back the memories of these people.

How has the event changed over the past seven years?

I think the biggest change has been the acceptance of the celebration within our area. We have La Tierra involved as well as Prescott’s sister city in Mexico, Caborca. We’re focused on creating connections regardless of that Southern border we have. At Smoki, our mission is not specific to a particular time. We’re about the people of the Southwest and that goes into northern Mexico. We’re getting a lot more of Prescott’s Hispanic community on board, and they’re happy they have a place in the area they can embrace their heritage and holidays.

What would you tell someone who’s interested in coming who’s never been to such a celebration before? What should they wear and what do they need to know?

We encourage people to dress up. This is a fun party, a day to put on your makeup and dress like a sugar skull. It’s a free event to the public, there’s food here, and vendors, an open bar with margaritas and beer, though we suggest donations, and performances from Ballet Folklorico, a mariachi band, and, hopefully, Why Not? Bellydance troupe. And make sure you’re there for the procesión. It’s a procession over to the Citizens Cemetery, probably between noon and one, where we pay homage to all the individuals who crossed over right here next to the Smoki. The flowers come from a lot of places, but especially Allan’s Flowers, Safeway, and, we hope this year, Sprouts. It’s really a beautiful thing. The mariachi band leads us over there. For one day a year, there are several hundred people over in that cemetery talking with our folks that have gone on before us.

How do this and other events tie into the “Week of the Dead” celebration in Prescott?

It’s several organizations coming together for “Week of the Dead” including Prescott Center for the Arts, the Yavapai Cemetery Association, the Smoki Museum, as well as the West Yavapai Guidance Clinic. We’re working together to promote these feel-good events that help people deal with the notion of death and how to handle it. I think it’s beneficial for the community, at large, and it’s great to see all these organizations come together to offer the public a really wonderful series of events.

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