There’s a very special space to be found within the city limits of the Old Pueblo, nestled in amongst houses and stables in a neighborhood just south of the Rillito River, that is home to the limitless possibilities of the imagination and the creative power of kindness. The view from the street reveals little of what lies beyond, but within its bounds lies an imaginal oasis, a wellspring of magical potential awaiting all hearts and minds that are open and ready to receive….a true Tucson treasure called Valley of the Moon!
The Moon was made manifest by a gentle, visionary soul by the name of George Phar Legler who carried it forward with the kind of great love and devotion that only a believer like himself could give to such an endeavor as this until his death in the early 70’s. It’s no mere attraction or theme park, and those seeking the packaged flash and bang of the kind sold at such commercial ventures for the cost of a pricey ticket would not find them there. What you will find though is something far more valuable and enduring. Valley of the Moon challenges us to look within ourselves for the pictures, the stories, the adventure we typically seek today from a video screen. It offers us a return to the in-the-flesh experience of theatre and storytelling arts of our not-so-distant cultural past, stimulating and inspiring us to be and to give the best of who we are. Today that faerie fire first stoked by Legler is kept alive by a ragtag handful of dreamers and doers who are sustained by their faith in our faculties of imagination and kindness to make this world a better place.
Not long after Valley of the Moon had very graciously hosted our Spring Circus fundraiser for the Procession of Little Angels, I arranged for a rendezvous on the astral plane with gnome chieftain Angus McDoogal to learn the lore of Legler, which he masterfully spun in gold for me.
All photos courtesy of Missa Cherie except portrait of GPL.
jhon: Tell us of George Legler and the origins of Valley of the Moon.
Angus: (thick Scottish accent, so roll your “r”s as you read along) Who is George Legler? You mean you don’t know already? Well. Do you believe in magic? George Legler, he had a dream. A dream of a land of magic and imagination, a place of health and healing, where everyone could always go and be a part of it….all built in the name of kindness. George was the kindest man we ever knew. He was known as the Mountain Gnome, and he settled in Arizona in the 1920’s.
George Legler built Valley of the Moon out of 200 tons of stone hauled up from nearby washes, scrap metal donated from friends, and Sears and Roebuck mail-order concrete. He spent 20 years a-buildin’ and 40 years giving away Valley of the Moon as a form of entertainment for children and families, and all of it always with the theme of kindness to all. Because that’s what old George really believed, that kindness to all was the golden key to happiness. Isn’t that a wonderful thing?
Who talks about kindness these days? Well, George did, and he believed in it with all his heart. He also believed that happiness was given, and not sold. In fact, old George was fond of sayin’, “everywhere ya go, it’s 5 cents and 10 cents a head…what family can afford that???”. So George was worried about money a long time ago, and he believed that true happiness could only be given away. He also believed that if you want to change your luck, be kind to a stranger….another reason why he never charged anyone anything for coming to Valley of the Moon.
Lastly, he believed that over one half of one’s health was thought. That might seem a simple thing that even a child knows these days, but in the 1920’s, he was a bit of a kook for thinkin’ that the mind and the body had anything to do with each other! And in fact, Valley of the Moon, printed right on its sign it said ”Tucson’s Picture of the Third Dimension and Mental Health Center”. Years before the doctors were using those words, “mental health”, George built a mental health center, a place of health and healing, because he believed that kindness and happiness were key to living a peaceful, healthy life.
You might ask, “what would cause a man to be inspired to do such a thing? Well, right about the time George founded Valley of the Moon, he went to visit a little girl. And sad to say she was dying of the consumption….tuberculosis, they call it now. So George went to visit and pay his respects to this girl like everyone else did, but he didn’t like the view outside her window, which was nothing. George came back and he built her a little rock mountain, and a washtub lake, and he filled it with real plants and live fish, and the mountain had a reservoir at the top that mum could fill with a bucket of water so that all day long the trickle stream would roll down the side, moving across the mountain. And little trails were built up the side with tiny little ladders for little itty bitty faerie feet….’cause that’s what George was doin’ ya know; buildin’ a place for the faerie folk to come. George’s mother believed in faeries, and so George did his whole life. And so he built this little faerie home right outside the girl’s window. A place where she could play….in her mind.
In fact, George would say, “every day she can climb that mountain in her imagination.” And when George said “imagination”, he said it with a capital “I”. Because he believed that imagination was so important in health and healing. And the mother, the father and the doctor of the little girl were so impressed with that little fantasy world that George built for the girl that he started building them for anyone who was sick; they’d all call up George, and he’d build them little fantasy faerie worlds outside their windows. He did that for about three years building them for anyone who would ask, until finally one day, about 1923, he just decided, “why isn’t there just a place for people to go? why do I have to wait for someone to be sick?” And thus Valley of the Moon was born.
He started digging things out with a mule team, hauling in rocks. And he’d accept help from anybody; George didn’t do it alone, no. His son helped him, volunteers in the neighborhood, and any passing hobo on the train could get a place to stay at Valley of the Moon as long as they was willing to work for George’s mission of brotherhood and kindness. George wouldn’t accept money from anyone for staying there, no….but he would feed you, keep you there, and in fact he shared his little house, George’s first house on the property was about six foot by six foot, just a little wooden thing, nothin’ a’tall . Hmm, one of those passing hobos burned it down accidentally, knocked over a little lanternl. And that’s when George finally moved in to the caves, but i suppose it was fate that made that fire so, because in those caves was where he truly became the Mountain Gnome. And today the Enchanted Garden, if you go through it, that’s George’s window box, ’cause George’s bed was right up inside the cave looking out into the Faerie Queen’s Palace, and the Faerie Town Hall, all of it at the heart of Valley of the Moon.
Angus: Well right away people wanted to visit, so the first few years was people bringing their picnic lunches and just sitting out there enjoying the works that George did. His first guided tour was in 1932. It was very much a Spiritualist quest….George was a Spiritualist. They were people who believed that angels, ghosts, gnomes, faeries, were all manifestations of the same otherworldly force; the same force that theories of electromagnetism were about to prove. Wonderful new science, that electromagnetism.
jhon: So I know that toward the end of his life, as he got on in age it became more difficult for him physically to carry on the work, to maintain the property and to manifest that vision. What happened then?
Angus: By 1967, George was tired. And he laid down, and he closed the gates of Valley of the Moon for what he thought was forever. The years rolled by, and Valley of the Moon went to weed, things were broken, stolen….it looked like the light of Valley of the Moon was going to go out for good.
But the magic seed that George had planted just hadn’t sprouted yet. And then one day it did -at Catalina High School, of all places- that one friend told another friend about the strange dream they’d had, and wondered if it was real. And the one told the other, “no, that’s a real place, we used to go there, Valley of the Moon, when we were little”. And six friends all took time to jump the fence into Valley of the Moon. And when they met the old man, they knew who they were talking to. George gave them a two and a half hour tour that day. And after that, those kids started pulling weeds and fixing the place up, and with a little bit of help from their parents and a few years, they founded the Valley of the Moon Restoration Association, and they reopened the tours. George tried, he did, for about a year he was able to tell stories. But as his health failed him and even George couldn’t tell his stories anymore, those kids kept the light going and started doing the stories for him.
And eventually George gave those kids the Valley of the Moon. Can you imagine that, giving away your home, the place you’ve lived since 1920? And in 1975, gave it to those kids who were taking care of it for him. And those kids took care of George; they fed him, they made sure he had a good place to sleep, when he got sick they moved him into a trailer and then later they moved him into an apartment, and lastly when finally he was too sick, they moved him to Pasada del Sol, a nursing home, which he died at in 1982. But before he died a reporter asked him about how old George felt about all the changes those kids were making at Valley of the Moon. And he only said three words: “It’s theirs now.”
Isn’t that amazing? To have something like that, your home, your whole life, an art project…it was so many things to George, a vision, a mission, and he gives it away. And he didn’t ask very much in return for it actually at all; you’d think he might’ve had a list of demands, things to make sure that they do and don’t do….nope, all he wanted was for it to be about the kids, and closed on Halloween. And we’ve always respected that, because George felt the magic of the world was too strong to be at Valley of the Moon on that very special night.
jhon: From then until now, how has that lineage kept going? From these teens in the 70’s that took over Valley of the Moon when George was still living until today, how has that continuity been maintained?
Angus: An unbroken chain from one volunteer to another, one family to another, thousands of people over the years have put in time and effort to keep Valley of the Moon alive. It could never be said to have been the project of a single person. Valley of the Moon has always been a community effort. But George must have credit for that magical spark of keeping it alive. We live in but a pale shadow of the real magic that Valley of the Moon was in its heyday.
jhon: And what do you think it is, particularly that inspired all these young people and still does today about Valley of the Moon? What is it that galvanizes that kind of energy that people would be so attracted to it and wanting to help without any kind of ordinary reward in return?
Angus: I think the first thing that attracts the children is that its a place where they can stretch their imagination. And what keeps them there is when they find out that they can do that in the name of kindness. That’s quite a revelation, that they can work for kindness, work to help build a better world, a nicer place to live, a better community for themselves. Every child I think just kind of sees it instinctively.
Angus: Well, it all ties in with George’s ideas of mental health. You know, at a time when sick people were put in sanitariums and asylums, there were no “health centers”; the idea of being proactive about your health was very far away in medicine. But George knew it though. He knew you had to take positive steps to help yourself, and to help others. George’s mother, actually, was a very depressed woman and killed herself when he was about eight or nine years old. She actually jumped off a train on her way to a sanitarium, where she did not want to be. And although i never heard that George had said these words, I can’t help but think that Valley of the Moon would have been a wonderful place for his mother to have been able to live.
jhon: What is different about the kind of activity that goes on at Valley of the Moon today? What has evolved over the years?
Angus: In George’s day it was all about George, he was mostly the entertainment. Later he’d have kids from the neighborhood who’d become his faeries, elves, and gnomes for his tours , but George was still the master storyteller. Once George became too sick, it fell to the families, to the kids, their parents, to pick up the mantle of Zogog and become the Great Wizard, or become Faerie Princess or the Troll, and all the magical creatures that George had spent so much time talking about. So we still continue on in George’s vein of fantasy storytelling, all of it done with Valley of the Moon as the constant backdrop. And we do some new things which George didn’t do, we do some movies, and we do some concerts, and we do things like weddings and parties. And it is a fun place just to go, just to share in the community, because it is truly a community effort to keep Valley of the Moon alive.
Angus: Mmm. Night-time’s when all the magic’s turned on. If you’ve ever heard of or seen faerie-lights, well, it’s much easier to see the faerie lights at night. In the daytime the sun’s a wee bit too bright. So if you really want to go faerie-spotting, the best time to go is at night, when all the magic and the color of the lights is turned on.
jhon: And it’s a great aid to the imagination.
Angus: Oh, yes; Valley of the Moon at night is an otherworldly place indeed. It is a bit like the difference between the moon in the sky in the daytime and the moon in the sky at night. In the daytime it’s a very pale shell, but, at night, it glows, it takes over the whole sky, and your imagination.
jhon: Do you think that imagination has perhaps even greater value today for young people than it did even in George’s time?
Angus: I think that as we face any challenge in any time, imagination is a key part in finding good solutions, and that often when we fail to find solutions to problems, it is simply for lack of imagination to dream up a better way. What old Angus wants to make sure happens at Valley of the Moon is that kids do stretch that imagination when the t.v. and the video game is off.
jhon: And this brings up an important point, because i think lots of people would regard elements of fantasy -sprites and faeries and whatnot, magic- as being frivolous and having no real value, just so much child’s play and not really having a place in the practical world. What would you say to that?
Angus: Hmm, child’s play is about as practical as it gets. Although if you don’t see child’s play as practical I guess you don’t see the point of Valley of the Moon. Maybe you should go to a shoe shop, or a parking lot.
jhon:(laughing) I agree. Can you tell me in what ways the youth are involved today? What are they doing there, where do they come from, how is it that they find their way to Valley of the Moon?
Angus: The children have always been the bulk of the help at Valley of the Moon. In fact they may make up as much as 75% of all the volunteers who help with the shows. They are our main actors, which helps us a lot because our two main fundraisers are both shows. And the kids are the ones who actually spend the time, months of practicing and getting ready to produce things like the Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, and the ongoing Haunted Ruins that we do at every Halloween. The kids, they come from all over; they learn about it in school, they read about it in the paper, they hear about it from their drama teachers, it just depends, but they come from all walks. That’s one of the things Angus likes most about all the kids coming out to Valley of the Moon, is that there’s so many of them that might even go to the same school but might never talk to each other if they didn’t know each other from Valley of the Moon. So I think in that way it crosses lots of boundaries with kids, and helps them to meet people that they might not ordinarily come to.
jhon: Have you ever heard anything from any of these youth after they’ve had their experiences helping to make the magic at Valley of the Moon that it’s helped to inform their life-choices in some way; maybe they get involved in theatre or something like this. Have you heard that kind of feedback?
Angus: Oh, definitely, they get involved in all kinds of theatre, lighting or production, or they just use it as something to build confidence because it’s something where they can be in charge. Being a tour guide and giving tours, you’re in charge of forty people, and that’s actually quite an impressive thing to put on a resume for a 15 or a 16 year old. So they do learn quite a few things out at Valley of the Moon: all the things related to show production and fundraising, as well as taking care of Valley of the Moon, and in fact some kids become extra-sensitive to some things, such as tending to plants, and to the artwork, and even to the animals at Valley of the Moon.
jhon: So maybe you could take us on kind of an imaginary guided tour of Valley of the Moon right now and describe what people would see there.
Angus: Well, you always waited at Valley of the Moon at the front benches for your tour guide to come for you. You need a guide at Valley of the Moon, because there are many uneven steps and paths that go up and down without warning. Some steps were built for giants, and other steps were built for wee little gnomes. And also you’ve got to watch your head everywhere you go, there’s branches, there’s all kinds of things, there’s plants with stickers, you never know, so stay on the path!
The first thing you’ll see as we travel on our way is Magic Carpet Land, which is something new at Valley of the Moon. The volunteers have been busy at work bringing in these four magical statues: the Gnome Home, the Magic Carpet Castle, the Old Stump -Angus’ favorite, and not just ’cause he’s old- and lastly the Spider’s Web. Valley of the Moon’s always had a spider, but it’s never had a web til today, and isn’t that a wonderful thing?
As you move deeper into Valley of the Moon, you’ll come across the wide open meadow in front of the Wizard’s Tower. In George’s day he called it “the Eerie Tower”. And up at the top would be one of those old crank phonographs playing spooky music like “Flight of the Valkyries”, and two hundred hand-lit lanterns would be set up all across the bottom. Two hundred lanterns; it used to take George over two hours to turn the lights on in the old days when he did his shows, before electricity came to Valley of the Moon.
And as you pass in, past the Wizard’s Tower, you’ll come upon the Shrine of Peace; and it’s here usually that you’ll stop, and a faerie princess will appear. And she will teach you a lesson about kindness to all, and the silver tongue of truth she would talk about.
And further in still to Valley of the Moon, you’ll go up under the tower, and then down into Pennyland, where the magic pennies are. You see, the Penny Faeries, they love pennies, and every time a penny falls in Pennyland, they charm it, and it becomes a magic penny. So if you take one penny from Pennyland, that’s your good luck penny, and in fact, it’s usually the first penny you see. But if you take two pennies from Pennyland, that would be bad luck, and i cannot guarantee what would happen to you if you took two!
Then it’s on to the Valley of the Serpent, past the last thing that George actually built; the kids call him “Jake the Snake” these days, but he was the Magic Serpent for Old George.
Then it’s underneath the Magic Wizard’s Tower and up into the Rabbit Hole, through the cave rooms, and then lastly, into the Enchanted Garden….the heart of Valley of the Moon, where the Faerie Queen’s Palace is, and the Faerie Town Hall, too. It’s the place you’re most likely to see a faerie anywhere at Valley of the Moon. And as you head through the Garden, it takes you up under the Dragon’s Teeth -beware of the Dragon’s Teeth, they protect us from ogres, trolls and anyone over five foot seven, so watch your head.
And lastly we’ll take us back through Magic Carpet Land once again and back out into the “real world”, so be sure to watch yourself as you step across the line between the magic world and the real world.
There you have it, all ye revelers in the realms of the fantastic. So what are you waiting for? Have a look at their website to keep informed on the happenings on the calendar page or to learn how to get involved behind-the-scenes and to offer your support, give their page a like on Facebook, and get yourselves down to the great Valley of the Moon! A-ZE-O!