IT WAS A BUSY NIGHT during Fiesta, the annual ten-day urban festival in San Antonio, Texas. Children fidgeted and adults downed the last of their longneck beers as they waited for the show to begin. The sweeping Arneson River Theatre, pressed against the edge of the river itself, was in the middle of the annual festival known as the Night in Old San Antonio (niosa). The San Antonio River separated the audience from the stage, and the steep staircase allowed the audience to tower over the performers. Audience members clutched the thin, broadsheet programs, which proclaimed this event in April 1951 to be the inaugural performance of the Cornyation of the Order of the A-corn.
Joe Salek, the director of the San Antonio Little Theatre (SALT), came onto the stage and announced himself as the Lord High Chef. In the first show, the Lord High Chef proclaimed:
Ladies and gentleman, we are gathered together this evening to witness a Conclave of Royalty. I, the Lord High Chef, have summoned from the far corners of the Earth … Regal Sa-Lady Ingredients, and am prepared to mix (with the aid of my assistants) a combination tossed salad the like of which has never been seen before and probably never again! The culmination of this culinary artistry will be the Crowning of the Salad, The Empress, Herself, by King Anchovy I. Whether you realize it or not you are sitting on the rim of a huge wooden bowl that is … slightly cracked.
And cracked it was. Audience members laughed as women paraded down the stairs in various attire, announced by the Lord High Chef as the Duchess of Parsley and Onions and accompanied by flowery language about cooking. King Anchovy I, businessman Howard Bumbaugh, crowned Amy Freeman Lee, a local artist, as Empress. Audience members howled at the new form of entertainment. A positive review of the first Cornyation in The Light remarked at the cleverness of the script and the humor of Queen Amy Freeman Lee, who ignored the entertainment on her behalf onstage by reading the funny papers, filing her nails, and playing canasta.
Many contemporary San Antonio natives would describe Cornyation as a hilariously campy political satire, a veritable Beach Blanket Babylon performed every spring for six shows as a major fundraiser for HIV/AIDS and other causes. Long before the contemporary iteration of the show, Cornyation was performed in the 1950s and 1960s for an audience of thousands. From 1951 to 1964, its duchesses paraded down the steps of the Arneson River Theatre in downtown San Antonio to raise money for a community theater company, performing as part of niosa, a family-oriented Fiesta event, to an audience of children, military men, and students, among others. During these early years, Cornyation played an important role in transforming Fiesta.
Fiesta San Antonio originated in 1891 as a commemoration of the Alamo, with a parade sponsored by upper-class women from the elite circles of Anglo society who thought of themselves as guardians of high-class culture and who, along with their male counterparts, ran almost all of the major events in San Antonio. When Fiesta began, many of the events were exclusive, and the royalty of Fiesta was dominated by debutantes from the families of social elites. In the 1950s Cornyation played an important part in the democratization of Fiesta. Drawing on language of democracy and inclusiveness, its directors and scriptwriters positioned the show as an event for the “little people.” One of the most important ways that Cornyation has made Fiesta more inclusive is in its presentation of gay art and culture, among other subgroups.
In its early years Cornyation satirized one of the oldest events in Fiesta San Antonio, the Coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo, an elaborately staged presentation of 24 debutantes in highly ornate gowns and trains as duchesses who attend the newly crowned queen. With merry courts like the Court of Broken Traditions and the Court of Cosmetic Subterfuge, the satire spoofed the pomp and circumstance of the coronation. The Court of the Glorified Barnyard is an excellent example of a style of satire used in Cornyation. The Prologue of the Glorified Barnyard noted in the program that, “As the strains of the great orchestra fade, the lord high agrarian magnanimously summons the share croppers to render homage to royalty.” King Anchovy arrived on “Ye Old Irrigation Ditch,” and the duchesses included four “Country Duchesses” followed by four “In-Town Queens.” The finale was “her horrendous highness, vice-empress of scarecrows and guardian of the throne and yards,” and of course “her corn-fed imperial majesty.” The term “corn-fed” signified both being plump and being provincial or unsophisticated. This theme was a not-so-gentle mocking of royalty that contrasted high society with the sharecroppers and stressed the poverty and rural nature of the “little people.” This contrast between the Lord High Agrarian (the master of ceremonies, who symbolizes elite culture) and the sharecroppers (the performers and audience) emphasized the race and class hierarchies between San Antonio Anglo elites and the rest of the city.
Cornyation was the brainchild of artistic gay men at the center of the art and theater world in the early 1950s. Although its directors, designers, and duchesses were not exclusively gay men and lesbians, most designers and directors, along with a few scriptwriters and female duchesses, were. Men involved in traditionally gay occupations, such as window dressers and hairdressers, designed many of the Cornyation costumes. They used gay humor or a “campy” style to design the costumes and the show. Scripts from this time demonstrate the frequent use of double entendre and obscure theater references that may have been coded language for gay and lesbian observers in the know. The show worked in references to gay culture through nods to divas, Greek culture, and Alfred Kinsey. In 1954 one of the duchesses wore an outfit that was split between a woman’s dress and a man’s suit, representing the “big switch”—an allusion to Christine Jorgensen, whose sex change was in the news. This campy style was part of a growing gay visibility in San Antonio during the Cold War. The show became even more overtly gay in the early 1960s as a younger group of gay designers began working on it.
Drag, camp, and cross-dressing operated as the most identifiable and widely used signifiers of homosexuality during the Cold War period, particularly in the South. Camp is a contradictory art form: sophisticated in its use of double entendre and coded language but also common and vulgar. Gay designers and scriptwriters could simultaneously satirize politics with this low humor while relying upon the audience’s appreciation for their sophisticated artistry. Camp allowed Cornyation’s designers to criticize elite culture and city politics while avoiding public censure and censorship.
One of their key contributions was the use of aesthetic and humorous campy costuming for the young women who performed in the show. Although drag became an important part of the show during its revival in the 1990s, the Cornyation duchesses were always women, not cross-dressing men. Male designers dressed women up like drag queens in order to mock high-society debutantes. Camp “came out” in these scenes by imitating the “coming out” of debutantes. The gowns were often created at the last minute and made out of everyday objects. For the Court of Allergies, the empress’ train was “embellished with coffee cans, carrots, and an allergy cookbook, was bordered with peanuts in the shell, which members of her entourage cracked and ate during the performance.” Pictures of duchesses from the 1953 Court of Cosmetic Subterfuge show that many outfits were comical and hastily put together out of random items, such as buckets, cardboard, cotton balls, and tinfoil. Edith Speert, the Duchess of Kissproof Lipstick, wore a tinfoil hat that resembled the tip of a lipstick. Nancy Hendrix, the Queen of Mascara, carried a large broom with “Maybelline” written on it. Empress Anne Thompson was described in a 1953 newspaper item as wearing “an ensemble of trailing yellow tarleton [fabric] and cellophane, and her … skirt held a built-in dressing table with jars and bottles balanced on top. She applied makeup as she advanced down the aisle.”
In the early 1960s Cornyation was at the height of its popularity, with more than 7,000 people attending the shows each year. By the mid to late ’60s, the Sexual Revolution was in full swing. The designers, duchesses, and scriptwriters were becoming increasingly brazen as the show began to satirize not just the debutante pageantry of the Coronation but also city and national politics more broadly. The satirical turn in Cornyation began in 1958 with the Court of Outer Space, a pageant that mocked local city elites, along with the Cold War and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Most of the satires were focused on city policies and scandals. These included send-ups of city services featuring queens of potholes, stoplights, and water services. One of the most irreverent shows was the 1960 “Court of Broken Traditions” (“You Make ’Em, We Break ‘Em”). The King Anchovy that year was visited by such luminaries as “Miss Chamberpot of Commerce, representing the tradition of progress.” The Duchess of the Policemen’s Ball mocked a San Antonio police sex scandal calling herself “the favorite guest of all police men,” who “makes them forget duty toward crime and sin.” In this show, no one in the San Antonio political scene or among the social elites escaped mockery.
In the 1960s the costumes and humor became increasingly campy and vulgar, to the delight of audiences and the dismay of the Conservation Society. One of the most controversial performances featured the Empress of the More-the-Marrier of the 1963 Court of Civil and Uncivil Projects. The Empress Mary Byall mocked the Kennedy family’s prolific nature by parading down the Arneson Theatre stairs visibly pregnant and sporting a train with red-headed dolls on it. The scriptwriter described Byall as a “lusty do it yourself beauty/ And she’s labored long and hard with a fantastic sense of duty./ She’s against any kind of control/ And those tax deductions will put Uncle Sam in the hole.” Byall broke social rules about pregnant women being visible on the stage and screen, in addition to making witty jokes about contraception and childbirth.
This brazenness extended to activities after Fiesta. The show fit into a growing gay and lesbian world that was pushing the boundaries of Cold War visibility. In 1963 there was a Cornyation drag show out at the Country, a gay bar in the rural area north of San Antonio, that featured men in drag and duchesses from the Fiesta show. Carolyn Weathers, a young Anglo lesbian, recalls acting as the master of ceremonies at a drag show performed at Paul’s Grove on May 5, 1963, just after the main Cornyation event. Weathers recalls that “It was a thunderous success. In my diary entry for that date I say the first show was great, and the second show was hysterical—and we were all potted [from drinking Lone Star beer].”
This show may have contributed to the demise of Cornyation. After attempts to rein in the vulgarity of the show, the Conservation Society disinvited Cornyation to Night in Old San Antonio a few months before the 1965 Fiesta. After being kicked out of niosa for being too vulgar and inappropriate for children, it was performed only twice again, in 1965 and 1979.
In 1982 the event was enthusiastically revived by Ray Chavez and Bob Jolly, two former Cornyation designers, in the ballroom of the Bonham Exchange, a gay bar in downtown San Antonio. In the 1990s, Cornyation became a fundraiser for nonprofit organizations with a focus on hiv/aids and other health service organizations. By 2015, which marked the show’s fiftieth anniversary, it had donated almost 1.5 million dollars to San Antonio charities.
Amy L. Stone, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University, is the author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box and Cornyation: San Antonio’s Outrageous Fiesta Tradition.