–By Rachel Galvin
It took about a year to prepare for this year’s Day of the Dead, in its seventh year, said founder Jim Hammond, who worked on writing the grant and filling out paperwork for sponsorships for at least nine months leading up to the big day. It took him about six months to work on the concept and design, and then the last final eight weeks are crunch time. With just 750 attendees in 2010, the event swelled to over 13,000 participants by 2015.
“We receive multiple grant,s but our first grant was the CIP grant from the Broward Cultural Division. Our first year, we received $2000 towards the event. Last year, over $19,000 went in CIP funds to our partner artists,” said Hammond. “We are also proud to be one of the few Broward based organizations who has received the prestigious Knight Arts Challenge Grant two years in a row as well as several other grants and sponsorships.”
His big part of the puzzle are the puppets. With a Masters degree in Puppetry Design from The University of Connecticut, he created his Sideshow Productions in 1996. He has designed puppets for clients like Florida Grand Opera, New World Symphony, Florida Philharmonic, Broward Center for the Performing Arts. He has worked as part of the puppet department of Disney’s The Lion King National Tour, and has been a spokespuppeteer for a series of Allegiant Airlines national commercials, and worked elsewhere.
For Day of the Dead, there will be about 45 puppets and 1000 skeletons. He created seven “super giant” puppets at 15 to 19 ft. tall, which requires seven operators each. They will have about 35 standard giant puppets ranging from nine to 12 ft. tall, as well a hundreds of other masks, banners and decorative objects .
“During the entire month of October the puppets go to over 25 events from Palm Beach to Homestead for pop up exhibitions, community events and free workshops. During the main event on Wednesday Nov. 2, the best place to see them is along the Riverwalk at 6:30 p.m. sharp. It’s a photographers dream!” said Hammond.
They have had 220 volunteers working with them to prepare the event, but they can always use more. To volunteer as a puppeteer during the parade, meet them at Huizenga Plaza, at 32 E. Las Olas Blvd. at 5 p.m. on Nov. 2. They will train you to be a puppeteer.
When asked how he got into puppetry, he said, “I’ve been a puppeteer since my earliest memory. I would tell stories as a kid using sticks and stones and found objects as the characters. My dioramas in 3rd grade had moving puppets on rods so they could be animated. I even had a small puppet company in elementary school where I would create puppet shows each summer in our backyard.”
He was inspired by the likes of Jim Henson, Shari Lewis and Captain Kangaroo.
“My first professional puppet gig was at 17 when I was hired by an amusement park in the Adirondacks called the Great Escape where I performed up to 21 shows a day over four years,” he said.
“As I matured as an artist, [the people I have connected with] most are often the unnamed craftsmen who created relics and icons of ancient peoples. This year, [my wife] Shelly and I traveled to Teotihuacan and Tula, [and elsewhere] in Mexico. Currently, that wealth of imagery drives my creativity,” said Hammond.
He added, “Another huge inspiration to me every day in the studio are my design collaborators. For a fourth year, my lead puppet designers are Sonia Matthews and Ronni Gerstel with David Goboff as head puppet engineer. They take my initial concepts and plans so much further than I ever dream initially. Any artist who can find that collaborative team to expand their initial dreams into reality will expand beyond their vision ten-fold.”
At this year’s Day of the Dead, they are adding two gallery shows, one showcasing photographic highlights from their first six years in Gallery 31 at Broward College/FAU and the second at New River Inn at the Fort Lauderdale Historical Center showcasing skeleton painter Heather Calderon. Both shows are open 4 to 8 p.m. during the event and are free. Also, on the Huizenga Plaza at 4:30 p.m., Fushu Daiko will be performing a concert connected to Japanese Ghost Festival and at 5:30 p.m., the Mexican American Council will bring their Youth Mariachi School and traditional Dancing Horses to do a performance that will lead into the Processional that begins at 6:30 p.m.
Day of the Dead is held Nov. 2 from 4 to 10 p.m. Admission is free. The celebration starts at 4 p.m. in Huizenga Plaza on Las Olas Boulevard where people can make masks and puppets, watch traditional live music and dance performances, and more. Officials from the Ft. Lauderdale City Commission and the Consulate General of Mexico will formally welcome participants at 6 p.m. At 6:30 pm, Hammond will lead the “Skeleton Processional, filled with puppets, skeletons, Mariachi musicians, revelers and more along the Fort Lauderdale Riverwalk towards SW 3 Avenue, and ending at the Folklorico Stage and Muertos Street Festival. Food trucks, traditional dance, interactive street performers, low riders, and original indie arts & crafts will be available in the surrounding area and in America’s Backyard nightclub. For more information, visit www.dayofthedeadflorida.com.
When not making puppets, Hammond and his wife of 23 years spend time with their four-legged kids Costello and Presley, renovating their 70+ year old antique Ft. Lauderdale home or doing some traveling.