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FEATURE: $500,000 needed to save Tucson landmark

Tucsonan Ann Marie Heithaus vividly remembers her first visit to the Valley of the Moon more than 30 years ago.

She and her Brownie Girl Scouts troop were dazzled by a fairy princess, glimpsed a gnome or two and were on their way to meet the mighty wizard Zoggog in his tower.

“I remember walking down the dark, dark staircase, ” she said of the chamber beneath the Cathedral Room, “and my imagination just taking me away.”

Now Heithaus has joined other Valley of the Moon devotees to keep alive the magical wonderland that has delighted hundreds of thousands of visitors for 85 years.

Valley of the Moon needs help. Lots of help. Perhaps about $500,000, spokesman Charlie Spillar said.

The public is invited to share memories and ideas and volunteer to “Save the Moon” from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday at the landmark, 2544 E. Allen Road, northeast of East Prince Road and North Tucson Boulevard.

The George Phar Legler Society, named after the man who built Valley of the Moon in the 1920s, will conduct a final tour of the Enchanted Garden before it is closed to the public.

“I think about the uniqueness of Tucson and that phrase, ‘That’s such a Tucson thing,’ ” said Sue DeArmond, secretary of the Prince Tucson Neighborhood Association. “Valley of the Moon is one of those Tucson things.

“We’ve lived here 30 years. My children went to Valley of the Moon, my grandchildren have been there. It’s a Tucson tradition.”

Many historic parts of Valley of the Moon, known colloquially as “the Moon,” are already cordoned off.

“The tower floor is rotten,” said Spillar, who first visited the Moon about five months ago and jumped in to help. “It’s in bad shape.”

The same goes for the rickety troll bridge, the wobbly-staired rabbit hole and the Caves of Terror, all of which are closed to the public.

That may be the fate for the park’s entire 2 1/2 acres packed with grottos, Hobbit homes, rock domes and the wizard’s tower.

For years, the Moon has been hanging by a thread, charging only for two of its events: its spring show and zombie-filled Halloween tours.

“George always used to say ‘Happiness is given, not sold,’ ” Spillar said, explaining the lack of admission.

That may bring smiles, but it doesn’t pay to keep the park in top shape.

“We’re really in danger,” said Legler Society President Randy Van Nostrand, on the Moon’s board for 12 years, president for three.

“This is not a joke,” he said. “This is not a campaign. We need big money or big artists or a lot of volunteers. If people who used to love the Moon don’t start stepping forward, we’re not going to last.”

Help has trickled in with a $25,000 donation from a source who wants to remain anonymous and a professional planning team provided by the city agency PRO Neighborhoods.

The team includes an architect, a landscape architect, a planner, a professor and an engineer. It will meet sometime in February.

The meeting will serve to decide what the Moon’s future will hold, if there is one.

Loren Trujillo is one of many who hope there will be a future. He fell into the Tucson tradition in 1994, when, as a fourth-grader, he was invited to a birthday party at the Moon.

“It was more than just little kids,” said Trujillo, 24. “It was quite the age group, and I don’t think anybody didn’t like it.

“It’s your own little fantasy land, its own little oasis. You don’t even feel like you’re in Tucson when you’re there.”

Rebecca Ruopp, the planner on the Moon’s team of professionals, had a similar experience.

“I got sucked in,” Ruopp said of the first time she visited the site – recently to prepare for the planning effort.

“It was like another world. When you leave, you have to ask if you were really there,” she said. “It’s almost like a dream. It’s detached from everyday life and allows the imagination to go wild.”

Alyssa Moyes, 15, who will star as the fairy princess on Saturday, took her imagination one step further when she joined the children’s acting troupe about five years ago.

“I would be totally crushed if Valley of the Moon closed,” she said.

Moyes loves the Moon so much that she is the youth representative of the Legler Society. Her 13-year-old brother is with the acting troupe and her dad is a member of the society.

“It’s like a bonding experience for parents and their kids,” said Spillar, 65. “Parents seem to be able to drift back in childhood. It brings out the children in all of us.”

Valley of the Moon is a family tradition for U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who joined the “Save the Moon” effort as an honorary preservation co-chairman. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords also co-chairs the effort.

Grijalva hopes the Moon will be fixed up soon so his 10-month-old granddaughter can experience it.

“It’s a rite of passage,” said Grijalva press secretary Natalie Luna, adding that Grijalva’s three daughters went there some 20 years ago.

“He wants his granddaughter to start her Valley of the Moon education and pass it on to her children,” Luna said.

Part of the Moon’s appeal is its use of imagination, something lacking in a world of instant gratification and MTV, said Legler Society board member Eric Heithaus, who is married to Ann Marie.

“Unlike what society puts out there, the Moon is very special and real, definitely something you can never buy at Wal-Mart,” he said.

Heithaus’ band, Black Man Clay, has performed at the Moon.

“How valuable is it to Tucson to have a place where a family can go for free and spend the afternoon?” he asked. “How could we lose such a great thing that’s in our midst?”

Ann Marie Heithaus said the Valley of the Moon gives kids something as valuable as magic.

It “gives kids that empowerment,” she said, “that one man could create all this, that if you put your mind to it you can create a whole world. That’s a really important lesson for a child to learn.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 17, 2008, issue of the Tucson Citizen.

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