Jesse Mata is born and raised in San Antonio. He has been involved in Cornyation for over a decade and was recently crowned King Anchovy LV. His reign has been disturbed by COVID and Fiesta cancellation/rescheduling issues. However, he joins us to discuss his passion for Cornyation’s focus and charities supported.
Justin Hill: Hello and Bienvenido, San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonian, and keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you’ll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique, and the best-kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here. All right, welcome to Episode 21 of The Alamo Hour. Today’s guest is Jesse Mata. We had some technical difficulties, so we’re back on take two.
Jesse Mata: Welcome back.
Justin: Jesse works at USAA and more importantly for this episode, he’s King Anchovy 55 for Cornyation. Previously, he’s written scripts for Cornyation. He’s been involved for years. The Current said you’re one of the most influential people in 2015.
Jesse: Yes. I’ve been influential gay people, that’s an important caveat. [crosstalk]
Justin: Is that the thing?
Jesse: A pink asterisk.
Justin: I didn’t see that.
Jesse: Yes. Unless there’s another article I don’t know.
Justin: Well, I just saw most influential 2015 and saw you.
Jesse: Yes, that’s me.
Justin: You’ve had a lot of involvement in Cornyation, that’s where I met you. Cornyation has raised over $2 million. We’re going to spend some time talking about Cornyation. Jesse, so I do this with all the guests. We’ll do a top 10 list. It’s short. I asked one guy how he moved to San Antonio, he went on for seven minutes, so don’t do that. [laughs]
Jesse: No. That is not a very interesting story. It’s a tragic story. You have a sorrowful version of this podcast, we can [unintelligible 00:01:33] [laughter].
Justin: Well, now I don’t know if I want to ask. The first question I was going to ask is when did you move to San Antonio?
Jesse: I moved back to San Antonio. I grew up in San Antonio. I’m San Antonio native. My parents grew up in San Antonio as well. I have a long history here; my family does as well. I left in ’93 after I graduated from Health Careers and went off to Baylor University. Then I came back in 1997, four years later, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I had a degree, and started work and started my adult life back in San Antonio.
Justin: Okay, so you’ve lived here straight ever since?
Jesse: Yes, since September of 1997.
Justin: All right. What high school did you go to?
Jesse: Health Careers, phoenix, I’m phoenix rising from the ashes. That’s all. This’s [unintelligible 00:02:24] alma mater.
Justin: Next question, in your picture in The Current you had a dog, what’s the dog’s name?
Justin: What’s his name?
Jesse: I have a pug. Well, actually I have two dogs to be fair, not to give short [unintelligible 00:02:31]. The dog that was in the shoot was Gizmo, that’s our pug. Gizmo [unintelligible 00:02:40] is his full name, but it tells you everything you need to know about my literary preferences. He’s a great guy, curmudgeon, middle-aged.
Justin: Pug and what else?
Jesse: A pug and a Great Dane.
Justin: Oh, geez. They get along?
Jesse: I’m sorry.
Justin: Did they get along?
Jesse: They do get along. They’re best friends. At first, whenever we got Gizmo, he was maybe about this big, maybe fit in the palm of your hand. The Great Dane wanted nothing to do with him. He was not even as big as your snout. I’m sure the part of that calculus was she figured she might destroy him, [unintelligible 00:03:13]or tail, or what have you. Ever since then they’ve become closest friends. They snuggled together, they play together, what have you.
Justin: All right. What are your favorite hidden gems in the city? The kind of things that only us locals know but when you have a tourist friend come, you say, “You got to go check this thing out.”
Jesse: It’s so tough because, are there really any hidden gems left anymore with social media influencers and all that kind of stuff. I would say that the last hidden gems that I really enjoy is probably food. Look at me, obviously, I’m a fan of food. Places like Maria’s Cafe or Garcia’s Mexican Food to Go, those would have been my old answers, but those are hardly secrets anymore. It’s really those places; the mom and pop places, the small businesses. You build relationships with them over time. They recognize you, you’re on a first-name basis. That’s certainly part of the experience. Those are probably some of my favorite places, all food-related.
Justin: Well, we’ve had a lot of food answers, a Filipino restaurant on Culebra was two guests ago, Los Pinos.
Jesse: That is the secret. I want to know of that.
Justin: Have you ever been to Denman Estate Park? I think it’s what Ron Nurnberg. I’d never heard of it.
Jesse: Yes, yes. A very good friend of mine lived right on around the corner from that park, I think it’s called Mockingbird Estates or Mockingbird hHlls or something like that.
Justin: I’ve never heard of it.
Jesse: He and his husband lived there for a number of years in a couple of different houses there. It’s right behind KENS. This great old kind of like ‘60s and ‘70s foot level garden homey type thing. Denman park is gorgeous.
Justin: What about Jack White Trail? That’s another one that I’ve never heard of.
Jesse: I’ve never heard of that. Which one is that?
Justin: I don’t know. It’s over that Salado Creek. I haven’t been there.
Jesse: What kind of host are you? Don’t you want to ask follow-up questions?
Justin: Well, I’m getting good information, and if you had listened to that episode that maybe you’d have learned.
Jesse: That’s true., that’s true. My cousin [unintelligible 00:05:13] Cave. I’ve never been there but–
Justin: Is that in San Antonio?
Jesse: Yes, in the Alamo Heights Northwood areas.
Justin: They just opened it up two years ago for the first time in a long time. I read about it.
Jesse: Officially. Yes.
Justin: Apparently, on Incarnate Word’s campus, there’s the origin of the San Antonio river you can look down in a hole and see it.
Jesse: Right. The Blue Hole.
Justin: Well, you’ve got it all figured out.
Jesse: There’s another one of those on the strip, but that’s a difference thing.
Justin: All right. Well, that’s good for the next question. Favorite Cornyation moment?
Jesse: Favorite Cornyation moment? I got food poisoning once during Cornyation. For a personal Cornyation moment, I had a bad subway. There used to be a subway in the theater. I ended up getting sick immediately before we went on the first show on a Thursday night. It continued to be ill throughout the evening. In fact, immediately before the last performance and then immediately after I came offstage. I was in the Ferrari Crown club. I was in the bathroom committing atrocities. I will say Angela Rubin was an angel. She brought me little ice chips and a cup, and sat me in a little recliner backstage and I was okay. The show must go on, right? [unintelligible 00:06:33] puke on stage.
Justin: That’s a real trooper.
Jesse: Yes, that’s the achievement.
Justin: I’m sure that leads to other things, but we’ll get there later. Are you a reader, which you already covered so this is perfect question, and if so, what do you read now?
Did we freeze?
Jesse: Sorry, Justin. I’m sorry. Can you repeat that question?
Justin: Are you a reader? If so, what are you reading now?
Jesse: I am normally a reader. I think this pandemic has thrown me for a loop. Most of what I’ve been doing lately has been gardening. Anything that I’ve been reading has been about how to best compost your plant, good soil, and how to fertilize and when to harvest your vegetables, and fruits.
Justin: Any Howard Garrett books?
Justin: Any Howard Garrett books like The Dirt Doctor.
Jesse: No, that’s another source for me to look at.
Justin: I’m a big fan of Howard Garrett. He’s our organic guy. He’s all about the soil.
Jesse: Oh, nice, nice. I’ve done a lot of Texas gardener type reading for things that do well locally. I’ve also found the local shops like Evergreen Garden or Rainbow Garden are awesome. It speaks to the power of a relationship with local business. They’ve been excellent tutors or guides, in terms of how to set up gardens and the right products to buy and the right things to take into consideration so just a plug for them. Normally, I am a reader. Some of my favorite authors like Gore Vidal, a lot of his nonfiction stuff, and his fiction stuff. Lincoln is probably one of my favorite books of all time.
Justin: Just some light reading.
Jesse: It’s not big. It sounds bad. It sounds dense and thick and all that kind of stuff. Especially those narrative fictional biographies, it’s not child reads like a soap opera. It’s really intriguing and it provides a little fictionalized color to the events of the day. I also like Frank Herbert, sci-fi, The Dune series, and that sort of stuff I really get into. It’s a varied palette but honestly, I’ve just been wanting to get my hands in the dirt for the past couple of months.
Justin: My yard is a certified monarch habitat and Rainbow Garden helped me set that up.
Justin: Anything else that you’re big involved in like Cornyation outside of your job in Cornyation?
Jesse: Over the years, I’ve been involved and interested in different organizations and chipped in behind the scenes or just in different ways. I volunteered some with the Southwest School of Art for a number of years. You could probably hear my pug whining back there in the background. That was a great experience. I’m hugely into art in terms of not only visual art, musical art, being a patron, being a supporter, being a collector, just in any way that I can get involved in a local art scene. My involvement with the Southwest school was fantastic. It was a real learning experience for me. I got to meet some fantastic people. I’m really thankful to have Michael Westheimer, a good friend of mine and Ellen Wolf for bringing me into that Southwest School family. It was a fantastic experience. Other organizations, I’ve worked with Thrive a little bit behind the scenes, kind of in their salad days or their early stages when they were kind of thinking about how to become a nonprofit entity and really bring a board on, and all that kind of stuff. That was a really rewarding experience, to be able to get to know Sandra Whitley and Chelsea Berkowitz and a lot of the different folks who were invested in Thrive and really helped build the foundation for the success that it is today. Those have probably been my principal involvements.
I mean, Cornyation frankly, takes so much out of you for five or six months out of the year that it’s like I’m going to coast for the next couple of months before I have to start planning exercise for next year.
Justin: How many years have you been involved with Cornyation?
Jesse: With Cornyation, 18 years. Pretty soon after I moved back to San Antonio– oh, I’m sorry, I misspoke earlier. It was ‘99, not ‘97, I apologize for that. Oh, no, I was right, it’s ‘97. ‘99 is when I started working at USA but in those first couple of years, after I moved back, I found that even in just the four years I’ve been gone, the city has changed pretty significantly. I mean, it seemed like there- it was on kind of the beginning of the upswing that saw us through the 2000s and the twenty-teens up until now in parallel with Austin’s rapid growth at the same time.
When I moved back to town, and especially after I got started to work, it was kind of like that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs thing. I found a house, I found a job and then I wanted to figure out [unintelligible 00:11:43] is it I can get [unintelligible 00:11:48] or what are ways that I can get to know people. I had always loved Fiesta as a kid. I think it was April of 2000 was the first time I got back into Fiesta in a big way. Joined the commission to get my revere pin and all that crap. Then, I was introduced to Cornyation and some friends had been and recommended that I go.
For a couple of years, I went and was just blown away, it was riotous. I’d never seen something like that in person before. I mean, the closest had been, I forget what the hell it’s called the [unintelligible 00:12:20], I think it’s called Sing. It’s like this big tradition where all the organization [unintelligible 00:12:25] put on little skits, kind of like Cornyation except not funny.
Justin: Very G rated.
Jesse: Yes, very G rated. Cornyation was a completely different experience for me, not only was it the kind of humor that I would have- that I appreciate but it was also smart. It had political opinions, it had insider references that you sort of had to be in the know or had to at least follow news or what have you to understand. That really, really struck a nerve with me and got me back into Fiesta in a big way.
Justin: Have you been working with Cornyation ever since?
Jesse: Yes. I went for a couple of years and then I was standing outside in line with my then-partner. One of my acquaintances from work, whom I’ve met very recently named Rob Gonzalez, he saw us in line as we were waiting to go in. He was the scriptwriter for Cornyation and his partner at the time also did some skits. We were talking with him and he was just making conversation. We indicated that, “Hey, we’d both love to help out in Cornyation some way.” He said, okay, “I’m going to hold you to that.” Then, the very next year, we got roped into a skit with Elaine Wolfe’s brother, Matt Wolf and Steven Warner, and some other folks.
We helped design the choreography, we helped build the costumes. 2003, it was the Duchess of Your Ever-Widening Ass. It was when Krispy Kreme came to town and the duchess was this beautifully adorned, kind of Star Wars, The Phantom Menace looking donut queen with these giant-like inner tube things that have been painted to look like donuts for her hair. That was my first year. All I was doing was handing off props and street clothes and I was just nervous as shit.
Justin: Who was Anchovy that year?
Justin: Who was the Anchovy that year?
Jesse: Lif Shitz, I don’t remember, it’s been so long ago. I was so new to it. I didn’t know who Anchovy was from anybody else, from the [unintelligible 00:14:40] sister.
Justin: Do you like corn?
Jesse: I love corn, sure.
Jesse: I don’t eat it all that much because it’s kind of empty calories. Sorry, corn producers.
Justin: What’s your favorite fiesta event outside of Cornyation?
Jesse: This is tough because it’s been so many years since I’ve been able to do any Fiesta events, but I like the Mercado. My family used to go there. My friends Mindy Hill and I will go on occasion alone. Actually, almost every year around Cornyation, that Wednesday of Cornyation, we’ll usually make time to get under the Mercado, but King William Fair. Of course, I love King William Fair and that one I can actually do because I’ve recovered enough after the shows. I haven’t done NIOSA in 18 years, 19 years.
Justin: What about Arts Fair?
Jesse: Sure, yes. The Fiesta Arts Fair is fantastic.
Justin: I think that’s my favorite event.
Jesse: Well, that is normally the weekend before Cornyation. There’s essentially no way I can go because it’s usually I’m working on the script or hot gluing something with glitter and Styrofoam or whatever.
Justin: As Anchovy, you’ll have to go hold court and go to all those things, won’t you?
Jesse: I will. That’s actually the benefit to me of being Anchovy, so I can finally do some Fiesta stuff.
Justin: Who would you like to see of all the San Antonio people get on stage at Cornyation one year?
Jesse: I mean, so most notable people, most politicians or what have you want to be on stage so it’s not like you have to– it’s not like you have to work real hard to invite them, right? They’ll find a way backstage. I don’t know.
Jesse: Oh, Jesus no. It will be like me going into his temple, either way, it’s going to smell like pork skins, that skin’s going to boil. Who else would I like to see on stage? Popovich, I’d love to see Popovich on stage.
Justin: That’s a good one.
Jesse: Did you freeze?
Justin: No. Can you hear me now?
Jesse: There you go.
Justin: No, Popovich is a good one. Popovich is on my wish list for my show, which I’m sure I’ll never get him but I’m going to keep trying.
Jesse: We’ll never get him either, it’s all right. It’s a pipe dream.
Justin: Okay, let’s talk about it. What is Cornyation? What is the background?
Jesse: Well, so Cornyation originally was folks who worked in and around the San Antonio little theater, local designers, hairdressers, actors, whomever. Folks that are in the theater community came together to put on a pageant and it was held in Arneson River Theater. It was a very irreverent celebration, much like it is today and lampooning the cultural topics of the day, things like the development of the interstate system or the Kennedy family being so large and Catholic. Things that you wouldn’t necessarily make fun of now or maybe not at the exact same way, but it was the same kind of thing.
It was meant to be a way to poke fun at the establishments. Frankly, it was kind of like a clash of cultures, right? You had it in the middle of NIOSA, in the middle of the establishment Fiesta, this sort of very irreverent thumb in your eye events that was going on. That’s an official part of the event, part of the larger NIOSA event. As you can imagine, over time, tensions build in that kind of situation. I think ultimately, there was a situation involving nudity on stage that I think provided a pretty welcome excuse for Cornyation to be booted out of NIOSA.
Amy Stone, Dr. Amy Stone over at Trinity wrote a fantastic book about Cornyation and the detailed history of it. I mean, she got access to the old program, some adult scripts, original films and photos, and stuff. It’s just a fantastic book that’s available through Trinity University Press. I’d recommend that for anybody who has any interest in the deep detailed history of Cornyation.
Many years pass and then it’s revived kind of in a halting form at The Via Fontana Ballroom, which isn’t a tremendous success, but then it eventually finds its way back to various iterations in the 80s at the Beethoven Hall, The Magic Theater, also to the Bonham Exchange, the ballroom at the Bonham Exchange in the upstairs area. Eventually finds its way to the Empire Theater, where it is today, where it’s run for the past, what? 18 or 19 years, with the exception of the year that we got fucked by The Lion King. The Lion King came and took over everything, that whole majestic empire complex. We held our event at Sunset Station.
Justin: Is that right?
Jesse: Yes, we did. As you can imagine, it was not the ideal venue, especially when we had Trains, freight trains coming through in the middle of the show. We had a torrential downpour during one of the performances. No dressing rooms, no backstage area. That was awesome.
Jesse: Was that ’07, ’08, ’09?
Justin: That was ’05.
Justin: Because I remember one time the Lion King came through here, but part of Cornyation was also poking fun at the coronation and the Fiesta royalty, right?
Jesse: Sure, yes. That was really the skit behind how the pageant was structured. The original pageant was the order of the cracks salad bowl. Every skit was a component of the salad. You had the lettuce and you had the tomatoes, and the onions, and the whatever. The last thing on the salad is the anchovy. The anchovy’s on top. Not my salad, but somebody’s salads, especially in the ‘50s.
You have a system where each skit is a duchess or a queen, or a vice [unintelligible 00:21:04] or what have you, all laying forth entertainment, 14 Anchovy for that year. In that way we poke fun at the– What words does one use? The rigorous traditions. The pomposity of all of that coronation stuff.
It’s funny, because over the years I think people outside of Cornyation have tried to flog this idea of a rivalry between Cornyation or coronation, that Cornyation has some kind of ill will, when it’s like, it couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re running our own show and in fact on Wednesday night on the late show, you see a whole [inaudible 00:21:48]. Take of that, what you will.
Justin: You said on Wednesday night you see the whole what?
Jesse: I said on Wednesday nights at the late performance, you see a whole lot of tuxes and gowns in our audience.
Justin: From after one of the other?
Jesse: Yes. Sometimes in the early show when they just can’t endure the coronation anymore, and it’s like they come over for a cocktail or something for the show.
Justin: I’ve only been to the late Thursday shows, and it’s always just been like a little blurry.
Jesse: That’s [inaudible 00:22:20]. The whole who likes what shows. Because everybody goes for the Thursday night, late tickets, that’s immediate sellout. You’ve got to be there. You’ve got to see and be seen. Honestly, the Wednesday night late show, probably one of the better shows in terms of preparedness and scenery not being broken, and people not being broken at the end of the show.
Then also the Tuesday early show, a lot of people go because it’s like the dress rehearsal. Anything can happen and it usually does. From mics failings to lots of different stuff.
Justin: I wanted to talk to you about that. Every skit has a group that has been behind that skit, it seems like years. How was that broke out and how are those created?
Jesse: I like to think of it in terms of how in New Orleans and other places that celebrate Mardi Gras, you got cruise. The family that forms around any given Cornyation skit functions like just a very small crew. There’s 10 to 15 people involved. Ultimately, you can only put 10 people on stage, but generally, you have other people who help you with your music, or with your costumes or with your props or what have you.
Each of these little groups of people becomes a little Cornyation family. Generally, it’s the same people, who come back year after year. Although sometimes a designer will decide that they don’t want to do it anymore, and either someone within their group will decide that they want to take over, and continue building on that tradition. Sometimes a group will cycle out and then a new entrant will come in.
Part of what I’ve tried to do over the years is try to continuously infuse new folks into the Cornyation mix, because I don’t want us to become drunk on the smell of our own farts. Let’s get some diverse voices. Let’s get some diverse experiences and backgrounds, in order to help us keep with the times, in order to appeal to as wide, uninformed audience as we can.
There is some of that change over time, 10 or 20% maybe every year, new folks coming in, but then you also have that huge core of families. Then, the amalgam of all that is the larger Cornyation family. I think the commonality among all of those folks is that, obviously, we know we’re all volunteers, we don’t get into this to get rich or famous. We all want to tell stories and make people laugh.
We all want to support the community in some way or the other, either because we’ve been through these situations personally, or because we know people who have suffered from HIV AIDS, or from youth homelessness or from any of the other myriad missions that our charities addressed. There’s that common drive. I think it helps us weather some bullshit and adversity, in order to get the project done and to help make a difference.
Justin: It always reminds me like a raunchy version of Esther Follies in Austin, where you’re hitting on current topics. A lot of local stuff, a lot of national stuff. It’s funny you said, “We don’t want to get drunk on our own farts.” I’ve been to shows where I think, “Oh, that’s hilarious.”
I’ve been to shows where I think, “Oh, that’s funny to them. To the people on stage, that’s funny, but I don’t know what’s going on.” You see that mix among the groups. Another thing that’s always been something I don’t understand. The tickets seem impossible to get, some seem allocated, the tables are already spoken for. How does all that work?
Jesse: I will go into excruciating detail with you, so that there are no misunderstandings. There are no like pre-sale blocks of the regular tickets, orchestra, balcony or mezzanine. Those are just sold as normal. We do have allocations of premium seating, like the tables up front. Those are generally on a wait-list that graduates year to year.
You have much in the same way as the people who were in the show. You’ve got long-term sponsors who’ve given very generously over the years. They will take the first right of refusal. We also have wait lists, so that we always have much in the same way as the crew, we’d have new blood coming in to help support the show. Those are the tables. We have boxes that are handled in the same way. Then, we have the [inaudible 00:26:46] fantastic job of managing that block of seats.
Other than those premium seats that we sell ahead of time with special bonuses like medals or what have you, everything else is first come first serve. That’s why you have that lottery system at The Majestic. That’s why you have folks who wait in line at the commission, because they know that the best way to get those tickets is for the hour that they’re available for in-person sale, before they go on sale for through Ticketmaster and through the various online retail–
Justin: It’s got to be one of the hardest tickets to get for any Fiesta event.
Jesse: This is a very common myth. It’s like we talked about earlier about some people have their preferences for certain shows. The Thursday night late show sells out right away. Then Thursday early. Then Wednesday early and then Tuesday early. There are almost always going to be seats available on Tuesday and Wednesday late. They might be mez, they might be balcony, but you might be able to find some back orchestra. The reality is that as much of a party, a citywide party as Fiesta is, we’re still talking about school nights.
Tuesday night and Wednesday night, most people don’t have Thursday off or any of that. Most of people if they have a day off, it’s going to be Friday. Of course the biggest demand is going to be for Friday.
Justin: The late show’s late. It’s like 10:00 o’clock, right?
Jesse: It’s ten o’clock, yes. You’re getting out of there like, “Where do we get it those? How many clear out the theater on Thursday?” It’s like 1:00 in the morning by the time we’re totally set and done. There are always going to be tickets. It just might be on a Tuesday, Wednesday late. Which again, some of the better shows, because you’ve got the prep and people haven’t quite fallen apart over the run of the show.
Justin: How would you describe backstage?
Jesse: It depends on the eye of the beholder. For me I don’t get to see much of backstage anymore, because I’m usually either at the back of the house at the soundboard, watching what’s going on or hosting or doing whatever the hell I’m doing for the show. Back in the day when I was a performer in a skit, and which I would say most of the people are backstage, it’s a party, right?
It’s a fun time. It’s a time to be able to hang out with your friends. It’s a time to be able to get to know different people from different skits. Something that we talked about earlier, Tuesday early being a dress rehearsal. That’s very much the case. These folks haven’t really hung out or seen each other probably since the last Cornyation.
The groups, certainly within the groups people tend to hang out or maybe a couple of groups at a time. A lot of times, it’s like a family reunion/summer camp/party that you’re throwing for all of San Antonio. It’s very much ruckus, high energy party approach, lots of drinking, which of course we always have let temper like, “We’ve got a show to put on. You got to remember your jazz squares.” It can be a pretty, pretty vibrant party atmosphere.
Justin: I met Jody and Steve at Fiesta Arts Fair. This was the year they were king and queen. That was my first–
Jesse: They were both king.
Justin: Yes, yes. king, king. Yes. That was my first time to ever meet Jody or Steve. We became fast friends real quick. They bring me to Cornyation. I’m backstage Thursday for the early show and sat up front for the late show. I had no idea what to expect and I had just the greatest time.
Jesse: What’s the craziest thing you saw backstage?
Justin: Oh, just the no inhibitions. Everybody was fully uninhibited, from substances, to nudity, to everyone was friends. It was just this really cool feeling of everybody likes each other here and there was no ego to it. There was no putting on a show. Everybody just wanted to have a good time and hug each other. It was just a great time.
Jesse: It’s a total equalizer. I personally don’t think- I don’t feel like I’ve endured any kind of ego or attitude from anybody. I think everybody is very down to earth and very just ready to be a part of it.
Justin: Yes, no names. I did see an elected official get escorted out one time back there. Then a different elected official who had called me a name in the newspaper. we met backstage one time and he had no idea I was the guy he had called names in the newspaper. I laughed about it, but I wanted him to know hey, I’m that guy you just called X, Y and Z.
Jesse: Elected officials are mixed bag for me. You have to have this well, that’s saying a mouthful. We have this weird relationship. These are the people that effectively we should be securing on stage, that we should be holding to account, and we do. Many skits have and continue to. Certainly, I worry about the relationship with having folks backstage and honestly having folks on stage too. I think that it can hinder our ability to have a sharp focus for our satirical lens, but [unintelligible 00:32:03]
Justin: It also gives a great opportunity for people to do dumb things on their own. The year that Kevin Wolf got on stage making fun of his own DWI. Honestly, talk about tone death, and making light of a really serious situation. I couldn’t believe that was going on. For Cornyation, I think that’s a gold moment, like this guy’s doing this on his own. We’re not making fun of him. It was very strange, I thought, but it’s that kind of environment where people– There’s a feeling of everything goes here.
Jesse: Yes, there’s definitely I feel and you know, the interesting part about that relationship is that, of course, it’s a very well attended event, all kinds of folks come to watch. More than likely, we will end up having at least once in every performance, someone in the audience being skewered on stage. For me, that’s one of the best parts of the show. I have the biggest smile when that’s going on because frankly, if you can sit in the audience, you can smile, you can laugh at yourself. That’s a sign of a mature individual. That’s a sign of somebody who has the thickness of skin that’s necessary for it.
Justin: I feel like I was at the production when Ivy Taylor was there, when the nondiscrimination ordinance stuff was going on. I remember that being- I thought was somewhat uncomfortable, but she was smiling, having fun. What have been some of your favorite skits like you thought, “Man, this one really hit this issue really well. We really knocked it out of the park on this.”
Jesse: My favorite Cornyation designers. I have favorites for different things. I think John McBurney does amazing costumes, amazing looks, amazing makeup. Visually, his stuff has always blown me away. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of his skits in the past, like the flea market. The flea market passed as the counterfeit Louis Vuitton persons. All of this folks came out in these giant purse get ups, everyone was a different kind of a coin purse or whatever. Then all danced together.
He also did one where there was like a tea. It was a some kind of a pageant. It was some Miss America Pageant controversy, but every state, he had the food item of that state in a giant headdress. Miss Kentucky had like a three-foot tall bucket of chicken. Miss Idaho had like a five-foot wide potato. It was just one of the wildest things I’ve seen. I appreciate John for the visuals. In terms of the overall skits, Chris Solder blows me away. I don’t know if you know Chris, he’s a visual artist.
He’s a department head at the Southwest School of Art. Accomplished artists, he shown all over the world. He has been a designer in Cornyation for many years. He and his husband Rick Frederick, work together and put on some just amazing, amazing skits. Chris did one on gun control a few years back, where there was like an ammo sexual came out with like a giant- what do you call like an anthropomorphic pistol with a giant-
Justin: I do remember that, yes.
Jesse: Just the funniest stuff, right? His visuals, his use of music, his use of narrative, really, it’s just powerful. It’s gut-punching every time. It’s usually towards the end of the show. I have the privilege of watching just backstage or wherever I happen to be. Man, his stuffs brought me to tears honestly, just because it’s like the poetic, so powerful.
Justin: Each skit group has a court name, if I recall?
Jesse: It changes from year to year. It depends upon the topic that they’re doing. They’re styled as representing and it’s some sarcastic way of referring to your topic. The Duchess of whatever the title of your court is, and then it goes from there. The royals in the first half of the show are duchesses. Then, after, they are queens and then, Vice Empress and Emperor of Theather.
Justin: How many different groups are there?
Jesse: It depends from year to year. We have, of course, the skits. We have some type of a drag or musical entertainment. It’s not a gay show, by the way. I feel like I have to throw that remark in there on Ray Chavez’s behalf. But 14, 15 skits from year to year, because of course, the king has their own. Then, we’ve had dance tickets in the past as well. We had ballet folks come, we had Baile Folklorico last year.
Justin: Yes, I remember that.
Jesse: It’s just beautiful, we’ve had some great skits.
Justin: Are you the voice over? Okay, we froze up a little bit. Are you the voice over? Jesse, have you been–
Jesse: In the beginning of the show, yes.
Justin: Yes. Okay. I was going to ask you this last year. I didn’t see the drag queens. They usually have a big part in the show. I didn’t see them last year.
Jesse: What are you talking about, the Pointer Sisters?
Jesse: Like I said earlier, we have skits that have participated in the show over the years. Then, every once in a while, a skit will just go off and do their own thing or just grow out of the show. Then, you have folks to come in and take over after them. Like I said, the Baile Folklorico last year, the Folklorico group that came and performed [unintelligible 00:37:31] for the thing. They really just totally blew the audience away. You’ll continue to see that evolve.
We’ve added different kinds of acts in entertainment, we’ve added musical acts for intermission in the past. That’s how Alison Alonzo got involved with Cornyation a few years ago, and now she’s a firmly established designer. In fact, she won our Spirit Award trophy last year for her Fred’s fish fry, Ursula the Sea Witch number about Fred’s not being a drug front. That’s another thing every year, we have a Spirit Award that’s conveyed by the winner of the prior year to a skit from the current year that best espouses the spirit of Cornyation overall, however that group defines it.
Whether it’s friendliness, whether it’s just a fantastic skit, whatever the characteristics are that that team chooses to judge with, they hand it off. It’s a like a blessing, it’s a big moment. Then it’s like a curse because you have to take this big eight foot goddamn trophy home. When we won it a couple of years ago, I had to call an Uber XL.
This is when Uber was like for [unintelligible 00:38:39] in the city. We had an underground pirate, Uber suburban, taking us home with this thing. If you win it, you take it home, and then you got to add a layer to the trophy, and then you hand it off to the next person next year. That’s just another one of the little back background traditions that people don’t know about.
Justin: One of my favorite things about Fiesta is every Fiesta event is a big fundraiser for something and I think the important thing about Fiesta Cornyation is that it’s a fundraise for what used to be just the San Antonio area AIDS Foundation and now that’s grown.
Jesse: Yes, since I came on board with Cornyation a long time ago, the beneficiaries have changed from year to year. They’ve all been centered around the mission of HIV/AIDS organizations and community support for the LGBT+ community. Currently, the last time we gave out funds, it was the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, the black effort against the threat of AIDS beat AIDS, and also The Thrive Youth Center who we’ve had a relationship with for a number of years.
We try to give donations that are either meant for them. They’re all kind of like unrestricted gifts, but they’re meant for the normal kind of operating routines of these organizations, all of them provide a compelling value case in terms of the value they returned to the community for the charitable dollar. Thrive in particular has grown just explosively over the past few years to provide directed services to LGBT homeless youth in the Bexar County area. Also, we do give scholarships for theater arts students from the area who are pursuing four-year degrees at various institutions of higher learning. Those are four-year renewable scholarship as well. We had a standard set of $5,000. That was potentially a $20,000 scholarship for four years. Last year, we also had a great year. We were also able to double that amount. Each of those renewing scholars and the new scholar got $10,000 instead.
Justin: How much is the average amount raised per year?
Jesse: Back in the early 2000s, it was probably around $100,000, now it’s a little over $200,000 a year. Between $200,000 or $210,000.
Justin: That’s great. How’s that broke down from sponsors and ticket sales?
Jesse: It’s almost all ticket sales.
Justin: Is that right?
Jesse: The sponsor will sponsor the skit, and so that offsets production costs for the individual skits, whether it’s costumes or props or what have you, and then the excess from the skin goes into the kitty for the overall Cornyation. Most of what drives our donations is ticket sales. You alluded to earlier the tables that we sell every year, well, each one of those tables is over $1,000 and we have 36 tables over the run of the show. That shows you that we’re able to generate a huge amount of revenue from those kind of specialized ticket sales. Whether it’s the tables or the boxes, or the Corny angels.
Justin: As King Anchovy, what is your role in Cornyation for the year that you’re Anchovy?
Jesse: We try not to be prescriptive with it. Every year we get together, we try to think of who is giving back to the community, who’s established a track record of helping in some way. Whatever that way it is, that they’ve made a name for themselves that they’ve established themselves as someone who’s a supporter of the community. This year I was not my choice. It was someone else’s, but whoever it is that we picked for that particular year. we try not to be prescriptive about what they have to do or don’t have to do. They make their Anchovy ship their own.
You have somebody like Charlie Beaton horn who has a very personal connection with the mission of our charitable organizations and so made it an effort to get out into the public space, do interviews, do media, visit the charities. Try to promote their work as much as possible, to get familiar with it himself and promoted among his peer group. Mindy Miller Hill, last year, she did LLS Woman of the Year in honor of her father who passed. We already knew she would just take on the mission and really just bite into it, and really make as much of it as she could.
Much as expected, that was exactly what she did. Getting deeply familiar with the charities, with their individual missions, with the specific way they delivered services promoting all of that through her vast social media channels or network and stuff like that. Each Anchovy brings their own flavor to that year in terms of how they gain charities, how public they want to be in terms of out into the community, what have you. Really, a lot of it is trying to expand Cornyation to new audiences as well. Like I mentioned earlier, we want new people in the cast and crew, we want new people in the audience as well. It’s part of a continuing cycle of trying to reach new audiences, reach new eyes and ears, and try to bring as many people into that Cornyation tradition as possible.
Justin: What was your plan in taking up the specter of King Anchovy? Were you going to be in the community working certain things?
Jesse: It was more of promoting specific goals for specific organizations which was just about to get kicked off right when the shutdowns of COVID started. We actually had to cancel visits to different charities that week before there was an official shut down, because many of us saw what was coming. That is the plan whenever we have coordination again, I will probably still be in the chair at that time, be the longest-serving Anchovy. The plan is to engage with the Thrive Youth Center Safe, beat aids and try to figure out what are the specific goals they have for the year or for the next couple of years.
Thrive, in particular, one of their goals is to purchase and establish a residential facility of their own in a home, some space near downtown. There are some limitations to the services that they can provide in their current facilities within Haven for Hope. The ability to serve younger San Antonio or younger residents of Bexar County who are also homeless that’s a critical gap that they will be able to fulfill once they have their own solo facility, but that’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of money to find that property, et cetera. That was going to be one of the Hallmark projects to highlight. Hopefully, it will be.
Justin: Who picks kKing Anchovy? You said you were one of the voters, is there a board?
Jesse: There’s a board of directors for Cornyation. Generally, it’s Ray Chavez, Tom Mackenzie and myself, some other folks. We just throw around names for people who have shown in some way in the community. I will say if you come around asking, that’s probably not a good way to become Anchovy. I’ve got my thoughts and who some good anchovies will be and other folks do too. We sit down and talk with it, and we make our call.
Justin: How would you describe Ray Chavez as it relates to coordination?
Jesse: Like the paterfamilias, like the head of the household. I’ve learned so much from him over the years. He’s a great friend, he’s a great mentor. He’s forgotten more than I’ll know about coordination. He’s fantastic. Obviously, he’s seen Cornyation from the vey earliest days through today. He’s got that historical context, but he also has 10 ways to solve a problem ready to go. It’s like there’s nothing he’s never seen before. Maybe with the possible exception of the pandemic. He’s a great person to go to if you have a challenge, a design challenge, a theatrical challenge, what have you. He knows everybody in the city too, so that’s helpful.
Justin: Well, what do you have to say for people that have heard of Cornyation and that’s something different, what’s your pitch to them to come out and check it out for the first time when we reopen and when it’s able to be attended?
Jesse: Try something new. I think Fiesta- so much of Fiesta is like arduous. Fiesta is a challenge. You go, “Okay, we’re going to get out there and we’re going to do a 95-degree heat, and we’re going to pay $10 for a beer god damn it.” It doesn’t have to be that. Fiesta can be a pleasant, air-conditioned entertaining experience. I would say that it’s refreshing. It’s like nothing else you’ll see during Fiesta, and worst-case scenario your ticket proceeds will go to some very worthy charities. You won’t come home wringing your shirt with sweat.
Justin: Wow, I love it and that’s what I always tell people. It’s unlike anything else at Fiesta and it also is nice to sit and watch as opposed to slog along Market Street watching the parade.
Jesse: Only a 25% chance of a beer being thrown in your face.
Justin: I’ve had none on my face, but I have had one dumped in my lap. That was probably my own fault. All right, Jesse. Thank you so much for doing this. I want to start exposing some of the Fiesta events, because it’s fun to remember what we’re missing right now and they’re going to be back. They’re just not here yet. Cornyation’s fantastic. The charities that are benefited by this, you’ve got to think some of those. This is their biggest fundraiser of the year is my guess for some of them. They’re hurting right now.
Jesse: Yes, absolutely. We’ve tried to do our best to promote the charities throughout the lead up to Fiesta and during what would have been Fiesta this year. We hosted a watch party for for Cornyation for a couple of years ago online and encouraged donations. It’s something that we continue to discuss as a board, like how can we continue to support our beneficiaries as much as possible in a time where there’s so much uncertainty over– Certainly, the charities are in during the uncertainty we as an event are, but everybody who contributes to Cornyation, whether it’s a cast member, crew, members, sponsors. All of those folks are experiencing the same challenges as well. From top to bottom, it’s an existential challenge in terms of how we execute Cornyation and how we continue to support our beneficiaries. It’s a question we continue to address and as we get closer to November and there are some decisions made about events for this year, we’ll be in touch with everybody who’s a stakeholder to Cornyation people who’ve already purchased tables, et cetera, and figure out where to go from here.
Justin: Well, as it comes back, I expect San Antonio will turn out in bigger numbers for this next Fiesta because I think people will be chomping at the bit to get back to it.
Jesse: There’s going to be pent up demand absolutely. I’m looking forward to it.
Justin: Yes, that’s probably going to be the name of one of your skits.
Jesse: Pent up demand? Yes, exactly [unintelligible 00:49:46] not answering questions for four minutes.
Justin: That’s right. All right, Jesse. Thank you so much for doing this. I look forward to your reign as King Anchovy and I look forward to Cornyation.
Jesse: Thank you very much. I appreciate your interest and your support. We’ll see in the audience.
Justin: All right, thank you very much, Jesse. I appreciate it. That’s going to do it for this episode of The Alamo Hour. My guest’s wish list continues. Coach Pop, I think one day you’re going to do it. Shay Serrano, Patty Mills, there’s lots of great people we want to talk to. We want to expose the city to what they have to say, as well as what we’re going to hope is going to be an ongoing series on Fiesta and what we’re missing at the current time. Thanks for joining us.We’ll see you next time.
Announcer: Thanks for joining us on this episode of The Alamo Hour. You are what makes the city so great. We hope you join us next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our podcast. Check us out on Facebook @facebook.com/alamohour or our website alamohour.com. Until next time, Viva San Antonio.
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