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Florida Day of the Dead: Keeping Fort Lauderdale weird | Video

A head-spinning whirl of sugar skulls and sombrero-ed skeletons, masked luchadores and marigolds, towering puppets, parents and kids in their best Frida Kahlo, the Florida Day of the Dead processional in downtown Fort Lauderdale is considered one of the Top 10 Día de los Muertos celebrations in America.

That would be the opinion of Raul de Molina, host of Univision’s “El Gordo y La Flaca,” who shared a list of his favorite Day of the Dead festivities with USA Today, as well as Afar magazine, which ranked Fort Lauderdale among its half-dozen “most spirited” celebrations in the U.S., and the global travel professionals at Tripping.com, who appreciated the attention paid to “traditional cultural elements.”

A few days before last year’s events, the influential New York-based hipster website Thrillist.com jumped onboard with a six-city compilation of “The Best Day of the Dead Celebrations in the United States.”

“Normally staid Fort Lauderdale rocks a baller parade for the Florida Day of the Dead,” the Thrillist scribe wrote.

Artist and puppeteer Jim Hammond, who leads the team that created Florida Day of the Dead in 2010, is pleased with the accolades, but the first two words of that sentence drive him crazy. Thanks to an expanding partnership with music venue Revolution Live and Live Nation Florida, he’s about to do something about it, with an expanded, two-day celebration this year.

But that’s just the beginning: Hammond believes the partnership has created a template and the infrastructure to put on more annual festivals in downtown Fort Lauderdale on the scale of Florida Day of the Dead.

“A lot of people expect this in Portland or Austin. A lot of people expect this in San Francisco. A lot of people expect this in New York. But South Florida, Fort Lauderdale specifically, is filled with incredibly creative people,” Hammond says. “With Florida Day of the Dead, we gave a lot of really creative people an opportunity.”

Family-friendly and free

Anticipated to draw more than a thousand participants (just show up and walk) and a thousand more onlookers, Florida Day of the Dead’s signature parade, the Skeleton Processional, gets going at Huizenga Plaza 6:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2. The parade, the family-friendly afterparty — filled with traditional music and dance, food and craft displays — and nearly all other related events are free.

Presented in partnership with the Mexican Consulate in Miami, the high bar that Hammond sets for the event’s authenticity demands year-round attention, locating musicians, crafting new puppets and masks, and creating the iconic Fort Lauderdale Historical Society display of ofrendas, deeply personal altars from the artist to the dead. Most of the people who curate individual elements of the event, including the art, music, dance and food are of Mexican heritage.

More than 250 volunteers take part in Florida Day of the Dead, which is preceded by months of free artmaking workshops.

Hollywood resident Sonia Matthews, a Colombian-born graphic designer and fashion designer who has created Florida Day of the Dead puppets and masks since its second year, says the event is more than a Mexican holiday.

“Fort Lauderdale has so many people from different Hispanic backgrounds. What Jim did is connect Americans and Hispanics. This is a very good way to bring us all together and learn from each other and our cultures. Festivities connect people. When we’re all together celebrating, people seem to connect better,” Matthews says.

For the past several months, Hammond has had a pop-up office at the Mexican consulate in Miami, where he’s conferred with Consul General Horacio Aarón Saavedra Archundia and his representatives, who have praised his dedication to the country’s culture and traditions of Día de los Muertos, a celebration of life through paying honor to the dead.

Florida Day of the Dead is one of the few festivals around the country that has always been held on Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, Nov. 2, resisting the convenience of celebrating on an adjacent weekend.

“The consul general always laughs when I talk about the ofrenda I make to my dogs,” Hammond says. “He said, ‘That’s so nontraditional. We would never do that in Mexico, but I love that.’ He loves it because it’s very Florida, it’s very American, but it’s still paying respect to the traditions while reflecting what’s in my heart.”

In the beginning

Florida Day of the Dead began humbly nine years ago with a $2,000 county grant and dozens of marchers walking from the patio at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale to Hammond’s old warehouse in FAT Village.

Hammond had just returned after several years as a designer on the touring production of “The Lion King.”

“I was looking for a better sense of community, more connection to the grassroots of what art is about,” says Hammond, a resident of Fort Lauderdale with wife Shelly since 1995.

Surrounded by a group of artists, graphic designers and musicians who shared themes of death and spirituality, Hammond and friends started looking for a Día de los Muertos celebration in South Florida to help with. Finding none existed, they started their own.

One of those artists was Ronni Gerstel, a professional puppeteer who has known Hammond for two decades and has made the drive from her home near Boynton Beach to work with Hammond since the first year for Florida Day of the Dead.

“I love Jim. I love everything he stands for, his open mind to new ideas, his bringing the community together,” Gerstel says, while working on a giant papier-mache head in Hammond’s cramped workshop in Fort Lauderdale’s Edgewood neighborhood. “There’s not much of that happening near me. It’s getting better, but I think Jim’s a pioneer in community events.”

A couple of years after Florida Day of the Dead got going, at the FAT Village Art Walk, Hammond struck up a friendship with Jeff John, a partner in Damn Good Hospitality, owner and operator of the Himmarshee Village complex that includes Revolution Live, America’s Backyard and Stache Drinking Den and Coffee Bar. As Hammond expressed the need for more space for his festival, John stepped in, and for the past few years the Skeleton Processional has snaked its way along the New River to a family-friendly block party in the street outside Revolution Live.

But the two men kept talking — Hammond the artist and “dollmaker,” and John the well-connected entrepreneur who presides over a music venue that showcases everything from hardcore hip-hop to rockabilly guitarist the Rev. Horton Heat — and they discovered a shared interest in creating something bigger, a community-building Day of the Dead celebration that may come to define the city in the national consciousness.

“When Jim and I got together, we had a vision of growing this into a larger, multiple-day event, a large downtown festival, with music and food, a traditional cultural event, a celebration of life,” John says while seated in Hammond’s workshop.

Night of the Dead

The partners will take the most obvious step in that direction at this year’s celebration when they roll the Day of the Dead theme into a second day, with Night of the Dead, winking at tradition with a concert on Saturday, Nov. 3, by Dark Star Orchestra and Galactic, two nationally touring bands inspired by the Grateful Dead. South Florida’s Bobby Lee Rodgers Trio and Crazy Fingers also will perform.

But that’s not all: The men hope to capitalize on the national reputation of Florida Day of the Dead to keep expanding it, perhaps creating a weeklong event that would be a destination for travelers across the U.S. and Mexico.

“We want to create stuff to give the city an identity,” John says.

The duo say credit for the success of Florida Day of the Dead must be shared with several people, including Mayor Dean Trantalis; Sharisse Pessar, Live Nation's senior VP of talent for Florida and the talent booker for Revolution Live; and Genia Duncan Ellis of Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale.

Hammond and John believe the inspiration and infrastructure that produces Florida Day of the Dead can be used to create other major downtown Fort Lauderdale festivals in the area between Riverwalk and Revolution Live. First on the drawing board are a Mardi Gras festival and an LGBTQ event, each with its own processional.

Many midsize cities spend thousands of dollars researching and flying officials to Texas to figure out how to replicate the “keep Austin weird” vibe back home, says Hammond, pointing out that it’s impossible to re-create something so organic. Why not replicate the organic success of Florida Day of the Dead instead, he says?

“What Jeff and his team and what my team create are authentic experiences that are focused on the most important thing about humanity, and that is culture. Culture is what links us. Culture is what brings people together,” Hammond says.

Florida Day of the Dead: The ninth annual Florida Day of the Dead celebration begins 6:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2, with the Skeleton Processional from Huizenga Plaza, 32 E. Las Olas Blvd., in Fort Lauderdale, to a family-friendly block party in the 100 block of Southwest Third Avenue in Himmarshee Village, where live music, food and craft vendors will be available until 11 p.m. More music is scheduled at America’s Backyard and Stache until 1 a.m. Admission to all Florida Day of the Dead events is free. Go to FloridaDayOfTheDead.com.

Night of the Dead: The inaugural all-ages Night of the Dead concert with Dark Star Orchestra, Galactic and the Bobby Lee Rodgers Trio begins 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $34.50, VIP $81. Go to JoinTheRevolution.net.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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