Wednesday, March 20, 2002 Volume 67, Issue 112


 
 









 

Fiesta aims for former glory

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 Fiesta.


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 parking lot.


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
bigger scale.

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 Roy Cullen.

"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
beard-growing contest."

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
preparation.

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 reason.

"A.D. Bruce felt it got to be a little too raunchy, a little too sexy and the costumes a little too revealing," Saunders said.

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 University.

"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 the '90s."

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 people.

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 welcome.

"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.
 
 
 

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