Fiesta aims for former
By Ed De La Garza
Daily Cougar Staff
This is the fifth in a series of stories
meant to highlight certain individuals, dates and events in UH history
as the University prepares to
celebrate its 75th anniversary April 10.
This week, we look at one of the biggest events on the UH calendar: Frontier
Brian Viney/The Daily Cougar
Frontier Fiesta dancers rehearse
for their performance in the University Center Underground World Affairs
Lounge on Monday night. Fiesta
begins Thursday in the Robertson Stadium
Just two years before it found its permanent
home along Cullen Boulevard, the University looked for something that could
ease its transition
from a junior college to a four-year institution.
What it found was a spring event that served not only to increase student
involvement, but also to
recruit high school seniors.
The first Frontier Fiesta was held in 1941
along Wheeler Street. Then, its organizers had no idea that it would come
to be called the "greatest
college show on Earth" by Life magazine.
"Attracting students was very important,"
Class of '45 alumnus Charles Saunders said. "Joe Koppel (the first Fiesta
chairman) did a
tremendous job of organizing the student
body and handling publicity."
In its initial stages, Fiesta was little
more than an excuse for college students to intermingle with students from
San Jacinto High School and
Stephen F. Austin High School. It was
interrupted by World War II, but a student's campaign for student body
president helped resurrect it on a
In 1946, Johnny Goyen ran with the promise
of bringing Fiesta back. When he won, he began the arduous task of organizing
the groups that
would participate in building Fiesta City,
an actual town with an Old West theme, complete with a town charter signed
by UH benefactor and
then-UH Board of Regents Chairman Hugh
"Almost every club got out there," Class
of '51 alumnus Jack Wilson said. "We didn't have recognized fraternities
in those days, but (groups)
would team up and put on a show together.
But there was some criticism that it was taking a lot of time from studies."
With each passing year, the buildings'
fronts would grow more elaborate, with actual stages built to house the
various shows, follies and skits.
It even began to attract Hollywood stars
who clamored to an event catered to the younger crowd.
"Its growth was incredible," Class of '50
alumnus Welcome Wilson said. "We talked a Ford dealership into giving away
a free car for the
With an attendance of more than 100,000,
Fiesta began to take months of preparation and construction. It may have
begun to take too much
Saying he was concerned about the time
Fiesta took away from studies and a lack of funds to continue the event
on such a large scale,
then-UH President Gen. A.D. Bruce canceled
Frontier Fiesta in 1960. But the retired Army general may have had another
"A.D. Bruce felt it got to be a little
too raunchy, a little too sexy and the costumes a little too revealing,"
The event lay dormant for more than 30
years, until alumni and the Athletics Department attempted to revive the
once-dead UH tradition. In
1992, Fiesta returned to campus with little
more than a few hundred participants.
But the idea behind its resurrection remained
the same as its initial intent: to create a bond between students and the
"The basic idea was to try and bring back
a tradition," Vice President for Student Affairs Elwyn C. Lee said. "Those
are things that help make a
good institution. Someone who went to
the University in the '50s can have something in common with someone from
Since its comeback, Fiesta has continued
to grow. Though it drew less than 1,000 attendees in the early to mid-1990s,
last year's event touted
an attendance figure of more than 30,000
But it hasn't been all wine and roses for
Fiesta. In its heyday, the event's Old West theme led to some stereotyping
of ethnic groups at a time
when the University was a predominantly
white institution. And to some students, the thought of reviving a tradition
they felt glorified an ugly
past led to protests and vigils.
"You get a small group that reads up on
the history of the event and people will be understandably upset," Lee
said. "But you don't forever shy
away from a place because of its past.
Fiesta is not limited by some of the things that went on in the past. Just
like the University, it is a more
open and diverse thing."
2002 Fiesta chairwoman Beth Kungel says
she has made an effort to increase diversity and participation from a broader
range of students, as
well as making certain all groups feel
"Groups that have been hesitant in the
past are participating this year," Kungel said. "That's something that
in previous years has not
necessarily existed — as far as an open
invitation. Hopefully, five years down the road, Fiesta will be incredibly
inclusive and exactly
representative of the University."
Kungel said this year's event, which begins
Thursday and runs through Saturday in the Robertson Stadium parking lot,
is something students
can make into their own tradition.
"We have such a diverse student population
that any event like Fiesta, where you can do something that's indicative
of your culture and feel
proud of that would be the best thing
for the University," Kungel said.