The city’s biggest party has a past
By Julie Catalano :: Photography courtesy of Fiesta San Antonio Commission
It all started in 1891, when a group of ladies led by Ellen Maury Slayden, wife of congressman James L. Slayden, decided that a good way to honor the heroes of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto would be to hold a parade. The enterprising group decorated horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, rudimentary floats and their own children in flower themes, circling Alamo Plaza while pelting one another with blooms. The Battle of Flowers parade was born.
The event was such a hit that early San Antonians did what modern-day San Antonians are still doing — they expanded it. Soon there was a carnival, parties, pretend royalty, food, fairs and dancing in the streets. Sound familiar?
Now eleven days long and more than 100 events strong, the city’s biggest blowout marks its 125th anniversary from April 14-24, 2016. (Although there haven’t been 125 actual Fiestas — from 1942-45 the event was suspended but efforts remained in place to make sure it continued after WWII.)
By 1896 the first Fiesta Queen was chosen, but it was three years before the queen got a jeweled crown, a gift from Russian immigrant and jeweler Eli Hertzberg.
In 1909, transplanted Virginian John Baron Carrington, executive secretary of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, founded the Order of the Alamo, an all-male organization in charge of the official queen’s revamped and upgraded coronation. Her court consists of a princess, 12 in-town duchesses and another dozen from out of town. Queens serve for only one year, the exception being Alamo patron Clara Driscoll who held on to her crown for three years (1904-06) before the rule was changed.
The queen’s coronation is still considered the most dazzling Fiesta event, thanks to over-the-top gowns boasting thousands of jewels, beads, sequins, feathers and more, worn by the court in an eye-popping spectacle held amid the equally splendorous surroundings of the Majestic Theatre. Over the years, the courts have carried such evocative themes as the Court of Resplendent Arts, Court of Millennial Grandeur and Court of Captivating Islands, with dresses, music and staging to match the fantasy.
The enterprising Carrington continued his mission of promoting and expanding Fiesta by founding the Texas Cavaliers in 1926, primarily to honor the fallen heroes of the Alamo, but also to select perennial figurehead King Antonio from its ranks. Prior to that, early kings of Fiesta were chosen by businesses and organizations — King Selamat (tamales spelled backwards), King Omala (Alamo spelled backwards), King Cotton, Zeus and Rex. The first King Antonio, Sterling Clinton Burke, was crowned in 1927 in the first investiture ceremony which is still held in front of the Alamo on the first Saturday of Fiesta.
Rey Feo (“Ugly King”) first appeared on the scene in 1947, a symbolic “People’s King” that has its roots in Spanish medieval times when ordinary people selected one of their own. Rey Feo became an official part of Fiesta in 1980 and rides in all the parades with other royalty. Official royalty has also grown and diversified, and now includes Miss Fiesta San Antonio, the Queen of Soul, the Charro Queen and the Reina de la Feria de las Flores, who debuted in 1947 with the first Rey Feo.
With all this pomp and circumstance, it was inevitable that an irreverent take on the royal hoopla would emerge. The highly cheeky, adult-themed Cornyation dates back to 1951, skewering upper crust Fiesta royalty, local “celebrities” and politicians. It is one of the Fiesta’s hottest tickets.
Fun and frolic aside, the spirit of giving also has an enduring legacy, with millions raised for community outreach, charitable foundations, school programs, arts and sports activities, scholarships and other worthy causes. Since 1959, the Fiesta® San Antonio Commission has coordinated the massive annual undertaking, now grown to 100 nonprofit organizations and more than 75,000 volunteers, helping to generate an economic impact on the city in excess of $250 million a year.
It’s a long way from those first flower bombs at the Battle of Flowers parade, now the second largest day parade in the country (the Tournament of Roses is first), but the landmark spectacle considered to be the founding event of Fiesta is still run entirely by women volunteers — just one of the many beloved traditions of a magnificent party that will continue its rich and colorful history as long as there’s a San Antonio.
For Fiesta event calendar and ticket information, www.fiesta-sa.org, 210.227.5191. For historical information, the San Antonio Public Library 6th Floor Texana/Genealogy Department has archived copies of Fiesta programs, Coronation Ball invitations, complete listings of Fiesta royalty and more, www.mysapl.org, 210.207.2500.