Brandon Pittman stood in the side yard of his small apartment complex with his legs apart and arms raised above his head as though being frisked for contraband.
“I’m arrested by art,” Pittman said, wearing a skin-tight, bright yellow bodysuit and a smile under his face mask. His friend and colleague Mauro De La Tierra emerged from behind him, applying red spray paint on the suit to mimic muscle and bone.
Meanwhile, the finishing touches on papier-mache reptilian heads are applied and bright green spray paint dries on large boards that will serve as the backdrop for an intricate waltz that will be part of their comedic skit planned for this week.
It was a confusing scene for passersby.
Similar acts of artistry, though the components were entirely unique, played out across San Antonio in recent weeks in preparation for the return of Cornyation, Fiesta’s “raunchiest” event with a purpose.
What started in 1951 as a costumed satire of the formal Coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo — which drew inspiration from the lavish pageantry of English royalty — has grown into one of the most prominent LGBTQ events in the city. It’s three nights and six shows of rapid-fire skits that poke fun at, well, pretty much everything. It’s recommended for adults only.
Each skit team has its own “royal” references, for instance, Pittman’s team is “Bridgette of the House of Ortiz: Duchess of Mass Extinction representing Toxxxic Positivity.”
Abortion, sex scandals, local politicians, the media, religion — it’s all fair game, said Ray Chavez, longtime Cornyation director and coordinator.
“I don’t even know what they’re going to do until they do it,” said Chavez, a key member of the small team that revived Cornyation in 1983 after it was kicked out of NIOSA for being “too modern,” according to a letter sent to organizers from the San Antonio Conservation Society.
For the first time ever, this year King Anchovy — who is crowned each year to preside over the festivities and doesn’t always identify as a man — will be joined onstage Wednesday night (at the 7 p.m. show) by this year’s Rey Feo (Augustine Cortez Jr.) and King Antonio (Barton Tinsley Simpson), who are aligned with the same pageantry that Cornyation mocks.
“We’re gonna have three kings on the stage — all we need now is Jesus Christ,” Chavez said.
Some tickets for the shows — Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. — are still available online or at the Majestic/Charline McCombs Empire Theatre box office. An additional irony is that Fiesta’s official Coronation will take place, as it usually does, Wednesday night at the Majestic Theatre, which shares its stage wall with the Empire.
Like most events tied to Fiesta, Cornyation has been on a two-year hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic — which, despite the tragedies therein, is also not safe from mockery. There is a line somewhere: Chavez draws it at his discretion.
“I don’t tell them what to do, I tell them what they cannot do,” he said. “We’ve got letters and stuff that people sent in that say we were very rude and that was a horrible thing to say about so-and-so. … We don’t mean to offend anyone, but it happens.”
Patrons can expect the show to go on at the Empire Theatre — in all its glitter and drag glory — just as it did pre-pandemic, save for a mask requirement when not seated or drinking (in accordance with the theater’s rules). There will also be some extra security to prevent non-cast or crew members from joining often rowdy dressing room antics.
“We’re going to try to run a real tight ship,” Chavez said. “We’re not going to have any extra guests backstage and we’re making sure that everyone [onstage and backstage] is vaccinated.”
Proceeds from the show and other associated fundraisers — typically $200,000 in previous years — will be donated to the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, BEAT AIDS, Thrive Youth Center and the Robert Rehm Scholarship — created by the Cornyation board of directors — for students pursuing theater arts in college.
Jesse Mata was named King Anchovy LV (55) in 2020, making his reign (accidentally) the longest due to the pandemic. Mata’s “Court of Resilient? Magnificence” was chosen to reflect the uncertainty of the time — and again, poke fun. (That question mark is not a typo.)
“I think everybody involved in Fiesta is excited about the fact that we can do something in a real way with everybody really participating again,” Mata said. All of Fiesta was canceled in 2020, and a shorter, scaled-down version in 2021 did not feature Cornyation. But Mata and his team kept selling pandemic medals that raised a few thousand dollars to maintain scholarships.
“Not only do we have a two-year delay, but we also have a much earlier Fiesta,” he said. Fiesta usually starts later in the month of April. “We’re doing everything that we can to both raise awareness to drive ticket sales and then also to develop alternative channels of revenue.”
This year he’s is hosting an art auction through Cornyation’s Instagram page that will close at midnight on Thursday after the final show.
“Try to outbid me,” said Mata, an avid art collector who said he has participated in Cornyation in some way for 18 years. “We’re just ready to have fun, encourage the audience to have fun with us and ultimately to make the biggest difference possible we can for the charities.”
The roughly two-hour show will host 12 different skits (up to four minutes each) and two other entertainment acts with a 15-minute intermission. Two hosts, typically seated off to the side, provide rhymes, puns and barbs as they carry the show’s narrative from one skit to the next. This year’s hosts are Mindy Miller Hill (King Anchovy LIV) and Payton Kane.
The content of the Cornyation show may not be suitable for every member of a family, but “Cornyation is a family affair,” Mata said. “It’s organic, it is loving, it is troubled. … When we reach out to people, or when people come to us to become a part of the organization, it’s always with that mind: Who’s going to be a good part of this family? Who’s going to help us grow? Who’s going to want to sustain it?”
While some teams have been contributing skits for decades, with various cast and crew members joining in and dropping out, others are brand new.
This will be Pittman’s first year in the show — and his first time attending Cornyation.
As a multidisciplinary artist, talk show host and overall collaborator, Pittman seems to be a perfect fit for the Cornyation family.
Mata reached out to Pittman in September last year to see if he’d be interested in designing a skit. Pittman said he jumped at the chance and brought various artists and collaborators along.
“This will give us a chance to do all kinds of weird stuff,” he said. The team’s three-minute skit is loosely based on a shorter performance he’s given in the past.
“We didn’t want to go with anything that was too of-the-moment … or ripped-from-the-headlines, which I know that’s kind of what Cornyation is known for,” he said. “This is our first year so we kind of wanted to do something a little more evergreen … climate change is gonna be around for a little while. Let’s do something that mocks that.”
We wouldn’t want to spoil the plot, but just know that it involves bicycle safety lights, Velcro, tape, a wedding veil and humanity.
“Pretty much all of our problems in the world are related to wealth distribution and mismanagement — power structures that don’t serve the majority of humanity and also stifle us in terms of our evolution,” Pittman said.
While there are more than 150 people involved in producing Cornyation, Chavez said it’s the audience that makes it happen.
“It is a total pleasure and it’s such an honor to stand up there on that stage and look out at the audience and realize all of you [are] San Antonio supporters that make this thing happen,” he said. “Thank you, San Antonio. … Let’s all break our legs.”
Disclosure: Iris Dimmick has participated as a cast member in previous Cornyations — and had an absolute blast.