Amy Stone Sheds Light on the Bizarre History of Cornyation

H.M. Jeanie Pancakes as Queen of the Leather Scene, accompanied by Sterling Houston and John Dimler, 1982. (Photo courtesy of the Institute of Texan Cultures)

Originally published in the San Antonio Current.

For many San Antonians, Fiesta is simply something that “happens” each year — a sprawling, expensive, messy celebration that lures tourists into downtown, dumps confetti all over the place and inspires folks to get dolled up in candy-colored garb to gawk at bedazzled “royalty” passing by on parade floats. Impossibly heavy beaded trains, tricked-out cowboy boots, paper flower crowns, jingling Fiesta medals and competitive fundraising are all part of an unusual equation that’s evolved right along with San Antonio itself. Whether you eagerly anticipate or actively dread Fiesta, chances are you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the age-old tradition that sprang from the first-ever Battle of Flowers Parade back in 1891, when participants famously “pelted each other with blossoms” in a procession honoring the heroes of the Alamo and Battle of San Jacinto.

Created in 1909 with the sole purpose of crowning a “Queen of San Antonio,” the notoriously elite Coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo unwittingly inspired Fiesta’s most irreverent tradition more than half a century ago. After attending Coronation in 1950, San Antonio Little Theatre director Bob Salek devised a concept to satirize the glitzy debutante pageant, complete with bizarrely named duchesses and outlandish “gowns” designed to be worn but once. That same year, the San Antonio Conservation Society invited SALT (now The Playhouse) to provide entertainment for their then-new Fiesta event, A Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA). Serendipitously, Cornyation was born at the Arneson River Theatre, where the Empress of the Cracked Salad Bowl was crowned by King Anchovy I in 1951. In the decades that followed, Cornyation has seen wild ups and downs — morphing with changing times and broadening its focus (from high society to politics and beyond), while always employing satire as a medium for pointed commentary.

Enter Amy Stone: a Southern California native who’s lived all over the U.S. and moved to Texas 10 years ago for a job at Trinity University, where she currently teaches sociology and anthropology as well as classes on gender and sexuality (including one titled Transgender Transgressions, in which students are tasked with creating a drag persona and attending a drag show). In 2009, while working on her book Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, Stone attended Cornyation for the first time and was impressed by both the diversity of the crowd (a mixture that included heterosexual couples, Latino gay men, dressed-up senior citizens, black lesbian couples and suburbanites) and the campy farce itself, which mocked “everything from from reality television to national politics to a raid on a Texas Mormon compound to San Antonio tourism.”

Mary Byall as the Empress of the More-the-Marrier, 1963. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Byall)

Certifiably hooked, Stone started digging into the history of Cornyation in 2012 as something of a “pet project” — one that led to two years of research (conducted in photography archives, online historical databases, homes and a treasure-filled closet at The Playhouse), not to mention Stone becoming a stage hand and a Cornyation duchess. Initially focused on the early years, Stone’s project slowly but surely developed into a full-blown history of Cornyation, exploring everything from the designers and duchesses to the scriptwriters and specific content of the show. Five years in the making, Stone’s hotly anticipated Trinity University Press book, Cornyation: San Antonio’s Outrageous Fiesta Tradition, presents her many findings in a format that’s part scrapbook, part crash course. Brought to life through 40-plus interviews, excerpts from scripts and more than 100 photos that date as far back as the 1950s, the book offers a fascinating look at Fiesta’s development into a more inclusive “party with a purpose” and Cornyation’s transformation from a “Fiesta for the little people” to a major fundraiser that’s donated more than $2 million to local HIV/AIDS charities.

Closely tied to Stone’s forthcoming book investigating the involvement of LGBT communities in citywide festivals, Cornyation is at the center of one of the San Antonio Book Festival’s most intriguing offerings — a panel discussion (moderated by former Current and Out In SA editor Elaine Wolff) between Stone and two Cornyation mainstays: designer/performer John McBurney and emcee Rick Frederick (Free, 11am-noon Sat, Apr. 8, Southwest School of Art, McAllister Building–Studio, 300 Augusta St.). Save the date for Cornyation 2017: Apr. 25-27 at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre.

Elaine Honigblum as the Vice-Empress of Vice, 1959. (Photo courtesy of the Institute of Texan Cultures)

Did your research for this book start right after you attended Cornyation for the first time? It didn’t really start until 2012, to be honest … Nobody knew anything about the earlier years and I was curious about what I could find out there … I was able to find almost 20 people who were involved in the ’50s and ’60s. There were regular audience members, designers, duchesses, women who were in it. I would bring a stack of pictures when I interviewed them [and] we would look through them and see who they remembered and if they were in them … They had a lot to say about the designers … the content of the show, how it changed over time — incredibly insightful interviews.

So you would just find a name and start chasing them down? We started with old newspapers … Cornyation was covered every year in the papers, even in the ’50s and ’60s. So whenever someone’s name was mentioned — I had a team of two students — they looked for obituaries for that person, marriage announcements … And then we tried to find them and see if they might still be alive and around. We found them through the [phone book]. These are people in their 70s and 80s — they aren’t going to have an email address — you have to call them on the phone.

Seems like there are so many wormholes you could fall through. Oh, yeah. Actually, one of my biggest breakthroughs [was discovering] The Playhouse had a closet … So we decided to look through it, and we found the old scripts from the ’50s and ’60s. That day when we found all the old scripts, I found an old scriptwriter, and she said, “Yeah, in the ’60s somebody asked me to send my script to them.” So I thought someone must have been collecting them … It’s not like a copy of Gone with the Wind … These are original things written by people in San Antonio. Sure enough, they had all the years except one or two … And that was a huge find, because that’s when I really got into the content of the show. The newspapers would only report so much, and what they would report was pretty daring, but [the scripts] also had the full cast list and names of all the designers … So I was able to go on and look them all up — and that’s a wormhole. I just wanted to get a sense of how many of them were WWII vets, how many of them were from san Antonio — just to be able to talk about them as a group. Some of them had even moved to New York and been a dancer or actor for a period of time as a young man, and then they are back in San Antonio in their 30s and 40s doing this very campy kind of thing.

Anne Thompson as the Empress of the Court of Cosmetic Subterfuge, 1953. (Photo courtesy of The Playhouse and San Antonio Public Library Texana Collection)

And you learned all of that from
Yes, [and] from the obituaries [which] described where they had been. I knew that most of them were unmarried. The old phone directories used to have your occupation next to your name, so I could figure out what their occupations were and when they were designers … and who lived together in the same house — many of them were roommates.

What sparked Cornyation’s departure from exclusively mocking Coronation? I only have theories, because it’s hard to find anyone who was [there]. Although I did find someone who was one of the really early designers, he was in his last stages of life [and] his memory … was very limited. But he did talk about a “changing of the guard” in the late ’50s. It started to get really racy in 1958 — it was the Court of Outer Space — being a little bawdy, a little tongue-and-cheek, a lot of double entendre, a lot of slightly sexy jokes. It got much more focused on local politics and national politics in the late 1950s. And that’s where you see it starting to change, where it becomes more explicit, the costuming becomes a little bit more vulgar. It just becomes more out there … What I do know is that Chips Utley wrote that [1958] script, and it sort of set the tone for [shows that were] increasingly critical of the establishment in San Antonio. There were a lot of things going on in city politics, seedy things … But he was actually focused on the Conservation Society.

Terry Behalf as the Duchess of Herman’s Happiness, 1996. (Photo by Al Rendon)

The governing entity of NIOSA. Yeah, they mainly made fun of the Cold War and the House Un-American Activities Committee, anything like that. They made fun of some of that McCarthyism … They threw in jokes that were very campy, very graphic — things like Christine Jorgensen’s sex change … I think most of this was because the scriptwriter changed. And then after Chips Utley moved to Turkey — he was teaching English somewhere — a bunch of people started to write it [and] it rotated between them. Some of them made it much tamer, some made it racier. I talked to one scriptwriter who said they tried to do a much tamer script and the Cornyation board changed it to be racier.

Was that the beginning of the end of Cornyation being part of NIOSA? Sort of. They didn’t really get kicked out until 1965. But apparently the Conservation Society started [reviewing the scripts] every year, and you can see some places in the script were crossed out, either for time or editing. They found it harder to try to edit the costuming … A lot of ad-libbing was happening in the show as well, and I think that is when they really started to find it problematic, and kicked it out in ’65 … They said it was too vulgar and not funny.

Do you know anything specific that went over the edge? It’s hard to figure out why they got kicked out when they did. One of the stories floating around is that the Empress of the More-the-Marrier (1963) was making fun of the Kennedys and she was pregnant. She was actually pregnant … That was very controversial at the time — you didn’t have pregnant women on the stage. And [another story] is that one of her attendants had a little glittery bikini on and it fell off on stage. They had a lot of wardrobe malfunctions, because wardrobe was put together with pins and staples.

And there were actually kids there? There were actually kids there … so they said, “OK, that’s about enough.” But it puzzled me when I was doing this research because they weren’t kicked out for another year-and-a-half. That was the precipitating event in 1963, so why did the Conservation Society wait a year-and-a-half?

Maybe they needed the money. Maybe. They got a good amount of money from it. I think another thing that probably played a role was that there was a drag show in the 1960s.

That’s the one you mention as being at a gay and lesbian bar? That was in May of 1963 at Paul’s Grove, which was often called the Country. So I think that might have played [a part], though I heard that some members of the Conservation Society actually went.

Was there an era when the costumes were a bit more tailored? In the ’90s, you see some really [elaborate] costumes. There were some from the ’60s when the designers got very competitive with one another, and they would have these long trains that they would put on the duchesses and queens … But in the beginning, they always kind of prided themselves on [costumes] being made cheaply. It was part of how they were satirizing the Coronation … Many [costumes] were kind of piled together from whatever was in the San Antonio Little Theater — right before the show … But some of them you could tell they spent a lot of time. [In the costume for Miss Red Light], they have this very provocative jeweling going on. She has teeth blacked out, she has cigarettes in her wig, and this jeweled cowboy hat … that was pretty daring for 1960.

So when did drag kick in? Drag didn’t become a consistent part of the show until the 1990s. There were some rumors that designers in the later 1960s tried to sneak into the shows as duchesses [but] I can’t verify that it actually happened … It wasn’t until the 1990s, the beginning of the Pointless Sisters … Even in the 1980s, when it was at the Bonham Exchange, they didn’t have a lot of drag.

Did you encounter any unexpected discoveries along the way? One of my favorite surprises was finding video footage of Cornyation from the 1960s, [through] the son of Mary Byall. He had this picture laid out for me when I went to visit him [and] said, “My dad was really into home movies and … I know they filmed Cornyation of ’63.” We went digging — well, he did the digging — and he kept giving me boxes of reels and 8mm stuff. I watched a lot of Christmases and birthdays and … We finally found it one day, and transferred it digitally.

Gretchen Shoopman as Empress of the Song of No Way, 1987. (Photo by Michael Mehl)

So when you were a duchess, what was your name? I was the Queen of Historical Hysteria one year … it was based on the controversy over the Telemundo building. The judge that said they had to tear it down — I was the judge.

What do you know about the origins of throwing tortillas at Cornyation? And what put an end to it? The empress in 1991 was a huge taco that unfolded and she threw tortillas to the audience, and they threw the tortillas back at her. In 2005, an audience member was hit in the head with something hard and sued Cornyation. That was the end of the flying tortillas!

Did you find anything interesting about the crowds? Is it typically just a strange cross-section of San Antonio? It is a very strange cross-section of San Antonio. And there are a lot of LGBT people who go, especially on Thursday nights. There’s a reputation for certain nights. When I was in the show, I’d be told, “Well this night is straight night,” and “This night is known as the rowdy night,” which had a reputation for things going off the chain — the costumes are falling apart, everyone is drunk, everyone is tired, everyone is dramatic at that point.

How do you imagine folks from outside San Antonio will appreciate this book? Do you see it going over well in other markets? Well, I have an article coming out in the Gay & Lesbian Review. And they were very receptive to it. They all can’t believe that this is going on in San Antonio — that’s the response I get the most often.

Can you give me an overview of what the larger project entails? The larger project is very sociological and academic — a four-city study of LGBT involvement in city festivals. I’m not studying Pride — I’m studying the festivals put on by different cities: Fiesta here and in Santa Fe, and Mardis Gras in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama. I knew nothing about Mardis Gras, just what we see about the French Quarter — that’s not Mardi Gras at all. It is a really interesting set of public and private rituals. There are these gay and lesbian masked balls … The mayor comes, the school superintendent comes. They put on these tableaux, and it turns into a big dance party … They have royalty — a king and a queen, or two kings … There’s a huge community presence during festival time … I interviewed over 100 people between the four cities. I’m trying to [bring] all of my data together into a coherent story.

Cari Hill as Vice-Empress of the Court of Outrageous Pretentiousness, 1991. (Photo by Al Rendon)

Within San Antonio, will you branch out from Cornyation? I’ve talked to people involved in Project Fiesta and the Fiesta Hat Party. I’ve looked [at] things like Pride Center having a parade float, the King William Parade … and some of the queer traditions during Fiesta — like meeting at the Menger Hotel. Gay men have been doing that since the 1940s. There used to be a bar inside the Menger Hotel called the Roosevelt Bar, after Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. That was known as a gay hotspot during Fiesta, where you could meet your friends from out of town. And what’s wild is that the Coronation crowd is on the balcony of the Menger. And there are all these rumors that [the famous Fiesta saying] came from this gay night in front of the Menger … Who knew what they had under their dresses? Their hairstylists did! And they would scream, “Show me your shoes!”

That does not surprise me at all. I don’t know if any of that is true, but the rumor is really interesting. I’ve heard it in different iterations from different people.

Do you have a title for the next book? I want to call it Queer Citizens of Carnival City, which I think is a great title.

That’s beautiful. Because I’m really talking about it as a way of belonging to the city. Saying, “We’re part of the city. Our culture is important. We contribute something as queer people who live here. We’re not going to hide during festival time. We’re going to claim our own space and our own traditions.”


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