When tortillas flew, a Cornyation story

Classic rockers show up to concerts armed with lighters. For about 15 years, Cornyation fans came armed with tortillas.

Longtime Cornyation audience member Karlos Anzoategui remembers when the tortillas flew.

“Thank gosh there were no lettuce, tomatoes or beans!” he said laughing. “If you hadn’t been hit by a tortilla, you hadn’t started Fiesta!”

For about 15 years, Cornyation diehards upheld the tradition of showing up to the raunchy variety show to basically engage in one giant foo—er—tortilla fight.

“Some people would come with two packs of 20 or 30 tortillas. It was mad,” says Ray Chavez, longtime Cornyation organizer.

The zingy Fiesta event pokes fun at current events and issues, but also raises funds for the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, BEAT AIDS and Thrive Youth Center, an LGBTQ homeless shelter.

Cornyation has raised an estimated $2 million for these organizations as well for the Robert Rehm Scholarship, which helps college students majoring in theatre arts.

According to Cornyation’s website: The event started in 1951 by the San Antonio Little Theater and was held at the Arneson River Theatre during A Night In Old San Antonio (NIOSA). From the beginning, the show has poked fun of the crowning of the Fiesta queen, also known as Coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo.

Cornyation was removed from NIOSA in 1964, probably because the jabs were so harsh. A few years later, the show was dead for more than a decade. It was resuscitated in 1979, before dying again. And in 1982, Chavez and Bob Jolly brought it back for good. Since then, the event was been held at the Bonham Exchange, The Magik Theatre and Sunset Station — and is held now at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre.

In 1991, the legend was born.

Kinser (inside the taco) and Slangal pose with their taco costume in 1991. Courtesy Photo

Local artist Curt Slangal designed a costume in the shape of a taco for actress Ann Kinser, who was the Queen of the 100th Anniversary of Fiesta. The act was a parody of — and an homage to — Maria’s Tortillas, a NIOSA staple event even then.

A brief history: Maria Luisa Ochoa, housekeeper in the 1950s, sold homemade corn tortillas at NIOSA. The tortillas have become legendary and there’s always a long line for them.

The costume was of an overweight Spanish ballerina and was designed to fold into a taco. It was so heavy, it had to be placed on wheels. Kinser, who served on The Court of Outrageous Pretentiousness, portrayed the ballerina and would throw the tortillas into the audience as the costume lighted up.

“Flipping the tortillas . . . wasn’t enough so throwing the tortillas added to the movement of the design,” Slangal told The Tacoist. “It aroused the audience.”

Slangal didn’t think his creation would start such a tradition onto its own.

“It’s an amazing, crazy and fun part of Cornyation that everyone remembers,” Slangal said.

The next year, audience members took tortillas into their own hands. They would bring in red corn tortillas, some flour — whatever they could get their hands on.

However, the tradition stopped after a woman was hit in the head nearly 15 years after the tradition started. The show, which had been held at the Empire Theater for years, moved to Sunset Station because “The Lion King” production had commandeered the Empire stage, which shares the same building as the Majestic Theatre, to store its massive costumes.

Audience members would still try to bring tortillas into the event, Chavez said.

“We put a [human] tortilla detector at the door, it was like the airport,” he laughed.

When Cornyation returned to the Empire, the tradition was brought back for one more year before Chavez and the board decided in 2006 that it was time to retire the tortillas.

They didn’t want to get sued again. But also, the clean up was excessive.

Chavez remembers the tortillas being “practically knee high.”

Chavez also remembers during Cornyation’s tortilla era, how the aroma of burnt tortillas would linger during subsequent shows. Chavez said the Empire Theatre employees told him after Cornyation finished, the performances after would smell of a strange odor. It turns out the tortillas that were thrown had gotten stuck in the light fixtures in the mezzanine.

“Every time they used the stage lights, the tortillas would get even crispier and it would smell like burned tortillas,” he said chuckling.

Rest in peace, flying tortillas.

Cornyation is 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tuesday (April 25), Wednesday (April 26) and Thursday (April 27). The show is recommended for adults. Click here for tickets.

Cynthia Herrera

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