A black and white picture of a group of people in costumes

Founded in the 1950s, Cornyation celebrates Fiesta by taking jabs at its traditions, including the annual Coronation of the Queen of The Order of the Alamo. Photo courtesy Institute of Texan Cultures.

This spring, the infectious spirit and vibrancy of Fiesta returns to the streets, theaters, and event spaces of downtown San Antonio. The annual extravaganza has become such a popular tradition in the Alamo City, it’s estimated around 2.5 million attend its Mardi Gras–like parades, celebrations, parties, and countless other events.

Now in its 132nd year, the 10-day event, which gets underway April 20, was first conceived as a commemorative parade to honor the memory of the heroes of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto. Today, it’s described as “a party with a purpose,” raising millions of dollars for a wide range of charities.

Not surprisingly, Fiesta has evolved into an expansive spectacle that embraces and celebrates people of all walks of life (not just the fallen heroes of the Alamo). In fact, Cornyation (first dubbed “Corny-ation” by its founders)—a lively, glittery, confetti-ed extravaganza that mocks the more formal traditions of Fiesta as well as the ongoing political events of the state and the country—has become one of the most popular events.

Often described as an “inclusive” party with a purpose, Cornyation—titled “The Court of Chaotic Wisdom” this year—will be performed in Charline McCombs Empire Theater, which seats up to 5,000 spectators.

Established in 1951 by Little Theater director Joe Salek and businessman and patron Russell Hill Rogers, the show initially looked like the official Coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo (literal coronations of local “royalty”) while mocking some of the earnest aspects of the tradition, explains Amy L. Stone, Ph.D., professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University and the author of Cornyation: San Antonio’s Outrageous Fiesta Tradition (Maverick Books, 2017) and Queen Carnival: Festivals & Mardi Gras in the South (NYU Press, 2022).

“It got political real fast in the ’50s, poking fun and satirizing the state’s politics,” Stone says. “It was more camp and vaudeville while borrowing a lot from gay culture.”

Cornyation was canceled in 1964 after an onstage mishap (let’s just say the incident involved a lost diaper), but then the show was revived in 1981. Today, over 150 performers participate in its variety of skits with hundreds of volunteers helping with production, costumes, and other aspects of the show. Each year, King Anchovy—described as San Antonio’s leading jester—is selected to reign over the nightly festivities of rapid-fire skits, which range from sharp political satires to whimsical song-and-dance routines.

For both performers and audience members, Cornyation has become a highly anticipated affair. Jesse Mata’s history and involvement with the show and Fiesta spans most of his lifetime: He started to attend Fiesta events, such as the King William Fair and the Taste of New Orleans, when he was a child growing up in San Antonio. In the late ’90s, he returned to the city after going to college at Baylor University and started to volunteer for the Cornyation. At first, Mata helped with production, building props, then choreography, and later writing the script. Eventually, he even took over the role of King Anchovy, and now serves as a board member and a writer of the show. This year will be his 19th Cornyation.

“Since it’s a satire of current events, I try to wait a few weeks before the show to write the script,” Mata says. “It becomes a dynamic living document during the course of the six shows because we want it to be as fresh as possible.”

This April, with the Texas Legislature deep into its session and with many controversial bills being debated on the floors of the Senate and House chambers, the show promises to be particularly lively and entertaining. “As news breaks, we edit and add material,” he explains.

Since Cornyation was established, it has generated a twofold benefit for the greater San Antonio community: raising funds for charities—such as San Antonio AIDS Foundation, Black Effort Against the Threat (BEAT) of AIDS, the Thrive Youth Center (the LGBTQ homeless youth shelter), and scholarship recipients from local high schools—and enlivening the overall community spirit of Fiesta and the city. As Stone explains, it’s the one time of year where the spotlight is illuminated on gay people, and this part of San Antonio’s population is celebrated and embraced in a public sort of way.

“Cornyation shows a lot of the appreciation of the gay and lesbian people and what they bring to our city,” Stone says.

“We are a diverse community, we are an accepting community,” adds Mata. “The Cornyation has been happening since 1952, long before gay culture became its own thing. It says a lot about the city of San Antonio and our community. The show is definitely for everyone.”

Tickets for Cornyation are available at the box office of Charline McCombs Empire Theatre or through Ticketmaster. There are six performances, April 25–27 at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. each evening. Mature audiences (ages 18 and older only). Tickets begin at $15.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story had that Cornyation was canceled in 1954 and revived in 1971. The event was kicked out of Fiesta in 1964 and revived in 1981. The story has been updated with the correct information. We sincerely regret the error.

The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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