Interactive play in ancient cave a real Halloween experience

By Amy Fredette

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Spiders, fairies and creatures dot the landscape along Allen Road. But they're not trick-or-treating or haunting the neighborhood.

They're characters in an interactive play at local wonderland, Valley of the Moon.

Built in the 1920s by the late George Phar Legler, Valley of the Moon is a year-round fantasy land that combines mysticism with sparks of vivid imagination. It is also the location for this year's Halloween extravaganza called "Dead Moon Rising."

The two and a half acre property located near the corner of Tucson Boulevard and Allen Road, features odd-shaped structures constructed from concrete, chicken wire and jagged pieces of river rock. The crude materials, collected by Legler himself through a Sears mail-order catalogue and from the banks of the Santa Cruz River, were fashioned to form cave-like dwellings, ponds and an amphitheater.

Legler lived alone for a large part of his life at Valley of the Moon until he was forced into a nursing home where he died at 98. Legler, who was postal carrier by day, spent his whole life entertaining children with stories and magic.

Since Legler's death, electricity has taken the place of the candles and coal-oil lanterns that once lit the way for him and his guests.

Sprinkled with natural desert vegetation, underground tunnels and fish ponds filled with koi, Valley of the Moon has been attracting visitors since its doors opened in 1932.

"My love of theater drew me here," says Randy Van Nostrand, director and co-writer of the Haunted Ruins Halloween fundraiser titled "Dead Moon Rising."

Van Nostrand says that last year's Halloween production attracted over 70 volunteers. This year, about 36 people responded to the open audition.

"Early on I was a little concerned about the lack of actors, but I think we more than made up for (the lack of participants) with the quality of acting," he says.

"Dead Moon Rising" is a walk-through play, where viewers get to interact with actors. It features a cast of volunteers ranging in ages from 5 to 40.

The story is about two teenagers who are searching for their friend Robin, who is trapped inside the dead moon. Robin has been missing since the last Halloween tour took place, and it is up to the characters to rescue their friend before it is too late.

Tour guides with flashlights illuminate the way for visitors on the 35-minute trek across winding paths, across a wooden bridge, through Penny Land, up through a life-size rabbit hole and into the Enchanted Garden.

Actors are decked out in detailed homemade costumes which resemble a wizard, trolls, a hunchback, a fairy and other fantastic creatures.

"It brings out the childlike imagination and fantasy that is latent in all of us," says Jeff Summers, assistant director, stage manager and co-writer for this year's play.

An important aspect of Valley of the Moon productions are the values and lessons that children can absorb through the different dialogues between characters.

Legler believed that if people can learn friendly attitudes as children, then they would prosper as happy adults, said Shari Murphy, public relations director.

"A lot of the kids we help are the volunteers," Van Nostrand says. "They learn teamwork."

Jessica Letarte, 14, has learned the art of cooperation as the result of a lifelong history at Valley of the Moon. A participant in the annual productions for nearly her whole life, Letarte was first brought to the Valley at age five months, by her mother, Sharie, who is a member of the George Phar Legler Society.

The society is consists of people who are committed to maintaining the philosophy and architectural precedences instituted by Legler. Legler believed that the golden key to happiness is kindness to all living things, including animals and people who are ugly or old, Murphy said.

"It's like a second home to me," Letarte says. "I have met a lot of my friends out here."

Members of the society work hard to ensure that visitors, especially the children, have a positive and memorable time while at Valley of the Moon.

"Children should be able to experience something that's not scary," Letarte says.

Chain link fencing protects the registered historical site from mischief, an event that once caused the destruction of some of Legler's hard work.

During the 1960s, vandals wreaked havoc on the property, smashing decorative mirrors and glass and reducing concrete gnome statues to dust. Legler lived alone at the time. He is survived by three children, but none of them lived on the property because of strained family relations, Murphy said.

Before the unfortunate occurrence, Legler had allowed the public onto his property to come and listen to stories and watch magic shows. However, the vandalism left him disenchanted and he chose to live as a recluse.

Legler was rediscovered in 1971 by a group of Catalina High School students who as children had witnessed magic shows performed by Legler.

They convinced Legler, who was then 86 and living on a diet of condensed milk and vitamins, to reopen his place to the public.

About two years later, the Valley of the Moon Restoration Society was formed. In 1978, Legler drew up a gift deed that willed his property to the since-named George Phar Legler Society.

The Society offers two fundraising events each year, which in addition to donations, are its only means of survival.

"The shows evolved out of a

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