All Souls Procession Bigger, Badder than Ever in 25th Year
November 7, 2014
by Brad Poole
Day of the Dead has come and gone, but you still have a chance to pay homage the dearly departed – the 25th All Souls Procession is this weekend.
The procession, a two-mile throng that will wind from 6th Avenue through Downtown Sunday evening, started in 1990 as a way for local artist Susan Johnson to honor her father, who had recently died. About 30 people came to the first procession. This year they expect 100,000.
“The procession is the largest, most inclusive Day of the Dead oriented event in North America,” said Paul Weir who has been technical director of the ceremony since 1991.
All Souls is largely a funeral, but it always includes a little more than that. Art and theater combine with mourning to produce a unique melding of culture and entertainment. Much like Dia de los Muertos, the ceremony is about recognizing our connection to death.
Flam Chen Pyrotechnic Theater Co., a circus arts group founded in Tucson in 1994, produces All Souls. The group has toured the world performing and worked in Hollywood and with Cirque de Sole in Las Vegas. The annual Tucson fete is a labor of love for Flam Chen members and volunteers.
“The procession is important to us. It’s a lot of love, and a lot of attention,” said Weir, who is also Flam Chen’s technical director.
He estimates that about 6,000 man hours go into the procession and finale every year. Hundreds of volunteers contribute time and expertise to pull off the performance.
Part of the allure of All Souls is that anyone can be a part of it. There are no tickets. There is no form to fill out. You can just show up with your group, and join in.
“There are no boundaries to participating,” Weir said.
In the procession’s fifth year, 1995, Flam Chen created the now familiar finale. The group built a large paper urn, which was burned in a post-procession celebration. The money for the first urn came from the Black Rock Arts Foundation, the organizers of Burning Man. Over the next few years, Weir watched as the procession grew.
“After it hit 30,000 people, I was totally scared,” he said.
This year, there are events spanning the weekend. The Procession of Little Angels, a children’s procession, is set for Saturday, and there’s a concert Saturday night at La Cocina. Night of the Living Festival will feature more than a dozen bands for $12.
On Sunday, there is an after party at the Rialto with Itchy-O marching band, which is probably not what you think. Just try not to dance when you hear this drum-heavy burst of musical enthusiasm. The money helps fund All Souls.
The procession has become an economic engine. Tens of thousands of participants leave behind an estimated $17 million for local businesses.
The money for the $110,000 ceremony comes from about 1,500 donors, most of whom give $5-$20. Major donors include Animal Health Hospital and Buffalo Exchange, and this year, the city kicked in $10,000, Weir said.
The future of the procession might be linked to Tucson Origins Heritage Park, a planned 22-acre park the foot of A-Mountain. Weir hopes five of those acres will be carved out and turned into a world class, permanent circus facility that will host the procession finale annually.
Whether it’s at the park or not, All Souls will keep moving ahead. Stage designs are already set for 2015-17. Next year will mark a departure from past years.
“We’ll be spread out more. There won’t just be one big stage. There will be two or three smaller ones,” Weir said.
The procession has personal roots for Weir. In 1982, as a troubled teen in New Orleans, he attempted suicide, and his heart stopped. Those few minutes of death left a lasting impression.
“I’ve been unraveling that mystery ever since,” he said.
All Souls Procession is Sunday from 4-9 p.m. It starts near 6th avenue and 6th Street. For more information about participating or watching, visit their website.