Frontier Fiesta Interview and Follow-Up Conversation
Interviewer: Well Welcome Mr. Wilson, let’s start with life before UH, where were you born?
Mr. Wilson: I was born in St. Angelo, Texas and I grew up in Corpus Christie, Texas and Brownsville Texas and I was in Brownsville during my high school years and it was during World War II 1940 – 1946 and it was a very interesting time, if anybody was 17 1/2 they were gone in the service, so all the jobs were held by 15 year olds and 16 year olds and 17 years olds. I was a newscaster on the local radio station as a matter of fact, so it was a very interesting time.
Interviewer: Okay and then what high school, did you graduate from high school in Brownsville
Mr. Wilson: In Brownsville High School in 1944.
Interviewer: Okay so what brought you to the University of Houston?
Mr. Wilson: Well I had registered for the draft, it was to report on September 17th 1945 World War II was still going on and Harry Truman dropped 2 atom bombs in August so the war was over in a week, my orders were cancelled so I didn’t go, so I signed up for a second year in Brownsville Junior College and completed that in the Spring of 46 and I came to Houston because of my father. Nobody had ever heard of the University of Houston in Brownsville, Texas. The University of Houston was 18 years old and I was 18 years old but my father felt like that if he could get his boys, my brother Jack and me into Houston then that could give us a leg up in what he thought was gonna be the biggest most important business City in America. In those days Metropolitan Houston had 500,000 people; today they have 6 1/2 million people in Metropolitan Houston.
Mr. Wilson: So he was certainly right on Houston, and I will never forget when he dropped us off at Trailer Village, he said boys I have paid your first semester’s tuition, I have paid your first month’s rent on this house trailer $10.00, and he said here is $50.00 each. Then he said whenever you boys need anything I want you to call me up on the telephone, you need something just call me up and I will explain how you can get by without it, and we never heard from him financially again, nor did we expect to. I got a job selling advertising for the daily Cougar, we performed in night club acts, and did comedy acts in night clubs in Houston, we did just find.
Interviewer: Okay, and so expanding on that your time at U of H what college were you in, any activities what was the major?
Mr. Wilson: I was studying pre-law, whatever that means, so I was taking mainly business courses at the College of Business and then my wife decided that I either marry her or she was going to somebody else, so I said I will go ahead and get a Bachelor’s degree and go to law school later, you know how that is, I got my Bachelor’s degree and never got back to law, which is alright, so I received a Bachelor’s Degree and had to go double time in the summer, in order to complete enough hours to graduate.
Interviewer: Okay, and then once you graduated after that what career did you?
Mr. Wilson: Well I got married the day I graduated to my first wife, who also by the way is my only wife and I went into Government service, I served first at the University of Houston for about 8 or 9 months and then I got called into the Korean War, I was a Naval Officer in Japan. And then when I came back I got a job working at the City Hall for about 3 years as an Assistant to the Mayor, and then Dwight Eisenhower appointed me to a Federal position, so I served 5 years in the Federal Government in the Executive Office of the President. So I spent the first 12 years of my career into Government Service and then I returned to Houston to enter business, I was a real estate developer, my first project was Jamaica Beach in Galveston.
Interviewer: Wow okay, and so then let’s go now to Frontier Fiesta, take us back, what was the creation, how did it start, can you take us there?
Mr. Wilson: Frontier Fiesta was started before World War II in 1940 they had frontier fiesta it was a very modest enterprise, 1941 they had frontier fiesta and then because of World War II they suspended anything, suspended frontier fiesta and that was characteristic of World War II, we were serious, every person in America was fighting the war in one way or the other, it’s not like today where we have 1% of our people over there fighting for us and we don’t even inconvenience ourselves and we think we are doing our part when we applaud when a Veteran walks in or something, anyway it was a different time, everybody had their shoulder to the wheel, everybody was sacrificing for the war and so forth, so where was I.
Interviewer: I guess frontier stopped because of World War II.
Mr. Wilson: Okay, so in 1946 in the Spring a guy named Johnny Goyen was running for President of the student body, so Johnny campaigned on a platform that he was going to bring back frontier fiesta and so Johnny won the election, Johnny by the way went on to become the Mayor Pro Tem for Houston for 22 years and he was my business partner in Jamaica Beach and other things, we owned banks together and other things. So Johnny got busy when in September and started organizing frontier fiesta for the following spring, the spring of 47 and we had no rules, we had no plan, we just did it, but it was a huge success. We recreated a whole Western City and what we did is we would build store fronts made out of slabs they are called, what it is it the pine tree when they cut, when they started making timber out of pine tree they cut off the bark and it’s about this thick and they used to throw those away, the slabs they call them, so we went around every saw mill picking up slabs and we made fronts for about 23 store fronts and then behind it we rented tents that would be behind and they had all the characteristics of a western town and the plan is, unlike today frontier fiesta everybody wore Western clothes.
Mr. Wilson: I was so stunned when I went to frontier fiesta for the first time here, when it was brought back because everybody was in shorts and all kinds of informal clothes and in those days everybody wore Western wear at the frontier fiesta. Jack and I were asked to sing in the Cavalier Theatre, like I have a photograph here of my brother and I singing, that’s me standing, that’s him with the beard at the piano, incredible we were able to talk a Ford Dealer in Houston into giving us a brand new Ford automobile for whoever won the beard contest and it got us all kinds of publicity and we were all by the way very promotion organized and so first frontier fiesta, Jack Valenti who was also my partner and friend was made President of the motion picture association of America, he got a Hollywood starlet to fly to Houston and be the honorary queen of frontier fiesta, and what made it remarkable is with so few resources what we were able to do. Getting an automobile donated, building a whole sitting and all the rest of it.
Interviewer: And so let’s start with some people there, tell us a bit more if you can about Mr. Jack Valenti, is that correct, so what was his contribution or his part in frontier fiesta?
Well Valenti had been there in 1940 and 1941, he joined the service in 1942 in the air force and he ended up flying in Europe for 45 missions or something like that. So he was involved in the first 2 years but he graduated in the spring of 46 so he was not involved in 47, he had gone off in the Spring of 46 to the Harvard Business School, so he was not there during that school year. Afterward after a year he came back and was involved in other things, he did help us get the movie stars 47, 48, 49 50 etc. and by the way I’m so proud that our School of Communication is named after Jack Valenti.
Interviewer: Yes, definitely and another name that comes to mind, you know we have an award now in frontier fiesta for the best student organization or really Greek organization wins and that’s called the Joe Koppel, who was Mr. Joe Koppel?
Mr. Wilson: Joe Koppel was killed during World War II and he was the first Chairman of frontier fiesta in, I think it was 1940 and he was killed during World War II during the very early part of the war I don’t know what part of what service he was in.
Interviewer: Any other names that come to mind that haven’t been spoken about.
Mr. Wilson: Well there was a guy named Bill Spar, Bill Spar was Chairman of frontier fiesta in 1948 and I was Business Manager of frontier fiesta, my activities in College always had to do with money. And I was business manager of the newspaper, I was business manager of the Houstonian, the year book, business manager of frontier fiesta, business manager of the Village News but it was always related to making money and that sort of thing but Spar was a great Chairman, he had taken over from a guy named Harold Goodman, who later by way was a billionaire, had been elected Chairman, I believe it was for the 1948 frontier fiesta, but he transferred from the University of Houston to the University of Texas, so then he resigned and then Bill Spar was selected to replace him, but Goodman we called him Buba, his wife died just the other day, he died about 10 years ago but Buba was a great guy. Back in about 1950 he started an air conditioning distribution business, not at first in Houston but he distributed wind air conditioners for home and it was a very small operation, small business etc. and then one thing led to another and over time it became the Goodman Company and they owned Amana appliances and everything you can imagine.
Interviewer: Okay, any other names that you can think of, off the top of your head?
Mr. Wilson: Well Chief Metro was much involved, he was a faculty member, I forget what Chief taught, he was a favorite and very much involved, Dr. Williamson was the, not the Dean of Men but the equivalent in those days. Remember in those days we had no fraternities and sororities, in those days we didn’t have a Dean of Men we had a Director of Students or something like that, and by the way the University of Houston in those days was making it up as they went along. In other words there were no rules and we went from 3,500 students in the spring to 10,500 in the fall of 1946, we had 3 buildings on campus plus cazillion temporary military wooden buildings where all the classes were taught or most of the classes were taught.
Interviewer: Wow so if it was not of the Greek organizations how did you all organize for the different shows you know like the unions, what was the organization.
Mr. Wilson: There were organizations that had shows and we had organization they just were not Greek organizations. And I think the APO had the union and the Cavalier was a club on campus and they had a show and Jack and I sang in, and the Cavaliers later became some fraternity.
Interviewer: Okay then I understand, also tell us about this fiesta parade, a lot of us don’t know that fiesta had a parade even, what was that.
Mr. Wilson: Well like I said, we weren’t very good at doing a lot of stuff but we were good at promoting, so we talked the City of Houston in having a parade, letting us have a parade down Main Street. And we got flatbed trucks and had the girls dress up in their dancing costumes and so forth and the men in their beards and whatever and we had a parade, I think we did that for 2 or 3 years as I recall.
Interviewer: Tell us more about the beard growing contest, what was it?
Mr. Wilson: Well it was remarkable, my brother always tried to win but every time at the last day, somebody that we have never seen before would show up with a beard out to here and I remember one guy that won it I believe 2 years, he had a real skinny face, so the fact that his beard was out to here would indicate it had to grow a lot, but anyway Jack never won the automobile, but I would say we had at least 1000 people who entered the beard contest.
Interviewer: And you said won an automobile, was that the first place prize.
Mr. Wilson: Yes, best all round beard, we also had the ugliest beard, we had not the scraggliest but anyway we had about 3 or 4 categories.
Interviewer: Wow that must have been an undertaking trying to get all that judged, organized and arranged. What else happened in those glory days of frontier fiesta that we maybe not do anymore that just stood out, what’s the difference what else?
Mr. Wilson: Well fiesta city itself was built over near the woods, near Cullen and was on a part of the campus that was not developed, like I said we had 3 buildings, one of which has since been torn down, the recreation building. But that was one dramatic difference is that we built a city and so forth which is one of the problems that frontier fiesta developed. It got to where 10 years later in the spring semester frontier fiesta dominated everything on campus. It was hard to get students to go classes, because they had frontier fiesta meetings or they were building a stage or whatever and finally when the President, Dr. General Bruce who was a 3 star general before he became President, he banned it because it was interfering too much with people’s studies and I was amused about that, I didn’t go to class a lot myself I must add, and my trick would always be to go 3, 4 weeks before I showed up for class the first time, and when I got there I would sit at the front row and asked a million questions or whatever and I remember a Professor once say, Mr. Wilson it’s not going to work this time, it’s not going to work, you can’t come in here having skipped.
So the other day I was making a speech somewhere and I made the comment that’s why I became Chairman of the Board of Regents at the Houston, I use to like to pop into a class once in a while just to see what’s happening, infrequently but I like to just come in and pop in just to see what’s happening, and I said now that I think about it that was pretty much my policy as a student as well.
Interviewer: Right, right, right so location was one of those things that changed so what else do you remember that was something a little bit different because we do, we have kept the beard growing contest, we of course do the variety shows, was there this cook-off aspect that we do now.
Mr. Wilson: No cook off.
Interviewer: No cook off.
Mr. Wilson: And cook offs were invented later so we didn’t have them in those days but I think that adds a lot.
Interviewer: Oh definitely.
Mr. Wilson: The Chancellor and I went to a show about 2 years ago and I was so gratified, she and I walked in, the show was about started, it was about 200 people in the audience on folding chairs and they had a tent and when they saw her they jumped to their feet and gave her a 5 minute standing ovation, what a thrill that was for me because I hired her and I couldn’t be more proud of the job she has done, she has electrified this campus.
Interviewer: Yes definitely. So we talked about fiesta in a general sense but a bit more personal, could you describe to us those feelings and those emotions you had for your first frontier fiesta and what it looked like, just how it was to be there, you first frontier fiesta how did you feel.
Mr. Wilson: Well it was very exciting, my brother and I decided that we could make some money if we produced a prorgam for frontier fiesta, and our view was that we were going to prepare the program, sell advertising and make a lot of money personally, so a guy named Whitmore Printing Company, he said what you guys need to do is you need to sell signatures, he said charge people a dollar to get their signature in the frontier fiesta program, he said that will finance your enterprise. So based on is idea, we signed a contract, my brother and I personally for $800.00, we didn’t have $8.00 at the time to produce this program, well it turned out that people were unwilling to pay $1.00 to get their signature, so we ended up with about 25 signatures, then we tried to sell ads, so then now it’s published and money spent and we tried to sell the magazine, the programs at 25c each and that was gonna bail us out. So the first night or 2 of frontier fiesta we were going all over frontier fiesta selling programs and we were doing fairly well but not nearly enough to bail us out, so the Dean, Dr. Williamson called us in and the Business Manager of frontier fiesta was there and he said that, Dr. Williamson said that it’s really unfair for you and your brother to keep all this profit from the program and we think that’s not the intention and the spirit and we said, what do you propose and he said we propose that you turn that whole operation over to frontier fiesta and let them keep the profit and so forth. It was hard to keep a straight face but I said, we are happy to do that, the next day we took 100 programs and we took them to every show and we said you sell these programs and you put the money in your pocket. Then we went back and said we sold 100 to this show, and 100 to that show and whatever and of course instead of selling them, they took them and whatever and in a week when it was all over, nobody could tell if the program made any money or not. Anyway it was years before I admitted that to Johhny Goyen who was the Chairman that year for frontier fiesta and by the way that year the frontier fiesta had a loss of $800.00 but we learnt something about private enterprise.
Interviewer: Definitely and this was during the years when frontier fiesta was a week, correct?
Mr. Wilson: May have been 5 days.
Interviewer: And that was like at the place of like a Spring Break am I to understand that correctly, like it was not a spring break but classes were still going on.
Mr. Wilson: Yes, but we didn’t have spring break when I was in College, that was invented later. (laughs) Although classes were going on just very few people were going to class, but it was in April as I recall, maybe the second week in April something like that, but it was an exciting time, in that everybody was involved, you had 30, 40 people in every show and it must have been 10 or 12 shows and then there was a general store and all kinds of other enterprises.
Interviewer: Right and again another more personal question for you Mr. Wilson, what did frontier fiesta meant to you personally?
Mr. Wilson: Well I always thought it was a great trainer of students, it’s a private enterprise, it was an entrepreneurial exercise and you build your facility, you organize the show, somebody put on the show, you spend a million hours or whatever and you charge people to come in, so I thought it was great for student spirit and it was a great experience.
Interviewer: Okay, and what would you say is the essence of frontier fiesta, no matter the year, no matter the time, what are some things or one thing for that matter, what is the essence of frontier fiesta, what just cannot change, what is it what is the essence of frontier?
Mr. Wilson: Well I don’t know exactly how to answer that but I think they got the right idea when they brought back frontier fiesta for the first time 10 years ago or whatever it was, I supported them financially a little bit and became a member of their support committee or whatever, but I think it’s keeping the enterprise going, it is the enthusiasm of the shows, that is the essence in my, because the students produce the whole show, they act in them, perform in them and so forth and in those days by the way, very strict rules about no dirty jokes, no profanity and no drinking. It was illegal in Texas to drink on a College campus, on a University campus, and I’m not saying that it didn’t happen but I didn’t drink at all in those days because I wasn’t interested but let me tell you, behind the stage there was plenty of drinking going on.
Interviewer: Okay and so it’s interesting that you mentioned the frontier fiesta had its revival, it did come back you said it was General Bruce who kind of put it to rest for a while there, there are people today who say, not because that Chancellor Khator would do it or such but because of monetary reasons or infrastructure or location reasons, that frontier fiesta may be suspended or stopped again, or traditions die down or fade away, what would you say to those who say frontier fiesta could be one of those, it’s like any tradition it could just stop, what would you say to those who say that?
Mr. Wilson: I think that would be short sighted, we are sitting in Melcher Hall, Melhcer Hall was named after LeRoy Melcher the founder of Utotem, which was a convenient store before we had convenient stores, it went back to the early 1930’s and LeRoy made a lot of money and he gave us, I forget what it was, $25M or something and we built this building. When he was alive Leroy would call me on the phone and he would say Welcome we gotta bring back frontier fiesta, promise me that you will help me bring back frontier fiesta and this is when he was 50, so the point is it had an impact on him like it did on me and I think that needs to continue.
Interviewer: Is there anything else that you can think of about frontier fiesta that you wanna speak on or any great show or any of the celebrities that came through, what was your favorite part of favorite memory, I know there are so many but what is one that just stays with you or sticks to your memory of frontier fiesta, favorite part.
Mr. Wilson: I would say it was the shows, I’ll never forget that first year my brother and I were frantically trying to sell programs in order to bail ourselves out, so we were singing at the Cavalier Theater so we had a deal with them that whenever we could we would just walk in and they would stop the show and we would perform and then they would start the show up back again and so we only performed, they had say 5 shows a night and we may be performed 3 times because we were busy trying to sell programs but I remember at the Cavalier Theater one time, my brother and I had act and it was always well received, there would be solid strong applause after every number and so forth, we only knew 4 numbers by the way and never learned a new one. So one time it was a hell’s a popping kind of show, so one of the Cavaliers had a monkey, so right in the middle of our song he brings out this monkey on stage and the monkey is doing stuff and of course every eye is on the monkey. So Jack and I finish our song and nobody applauds and maybe 3 seconds later the audience realize we stop singing and they start applauding, so anyway we ended our part of the show right there, no we played one more number and then did not come back the rest of the time but we didn’t want to be competing with some monkey for the attention of the audience.
Interviewer: Yes, Mr. Wilson if you could just finish this statement, frontier fiesta is?
Mr. Wilson: Frontier fiesta is an opportunity for students to learn organization, to learn how to meet deadlines, to learn how to be a success in life and it’s an opportunity to build student spirit and it’s an on campus opportunity and we in my view the University needs on campus activities and now that we have 8000 students living on campus I think frontier fiesta will grow and thrive.
Interviewer: Thank you, thank you Mr. Wilson.
Question: Back in your day when we used to have the siren that ring at noon on Friday or whatever you were responsible for all that, explain how that fit.
Mr. Wilson: Well my job at City Hall, I was Director of what was called Civil Defense as an Assistant to the Mayor and the the Director of Civil Defense coordinates the Police Department and the Fire Department and the welfare Department and coordinates all the City forces for emergencies including natural disasters and so we put in sirens in most public schools, we had about 75 of them around Houston, so I decided that every Friday at noon we would test the sirens just to remind people that they were there. So every Friday at noon the sirens would go off for about 30 seconds and then the Cold War had been over 10 years before they finally stopped the sirens.
Question: I mean you might remember this Debbie, growing up in Houston you remember those sirens and you know you hear emergency broadcast system and every now and again on KUHF or on Chanel 13 this was a constant you just knew, in fact some people could set their clocks by that because we never used to always have clocks that work that well.
Mr. Wilson: You gotta recognize that in those years people didn’t worry about traffic, they didn’t worry about the economy they worried about nuclear attack and for good reason.
Question: Oh when we were back in Cuba as school kids we learnt duck and cover and how to get under our desks.
Like that would have helped us (laughs), saved you.
Question: Well they told us it would save us and we believed it.
I mean we all thought so then and we did think so, put your head down, cover your head. And if you have a mattress around put that mattress on you.
And in reality if they had send a nuclear war head out here in Houston we probably would not have survived then.
Mr. Wilson: Here is the thing, there are always survivors, there are always survivors so the question is, are you gonna survive or not and for example in those days we had the atom bomb to deal with, the atom bomb going off on Main and Kappel Street downtown would have relatively little effect seven miles away, so there was much of Houston that would not have been destroyed by an atom attack but that was probably we would have to fight because people would say, oh my God if a nuclear attack occurs its all over, we would all be dead so no use preparing for it and that was wrong because there are always survivors and even in Hiroshima and Nakisaki.
Why didn’t they send us their survivors so we would all know what to do next?
I think the other part of it that was really important is that it gave people a sense of security, just like you say the regularity of the sirens going off, when you feel secure and you feel like you are doing something that’s going to help you, it gives people a sense of confidence and you certainly don’t want the public to be panicking.
Mr. Wilson: One thing that we did that I, we gave a name tag to every child in school, they had a name tag so they could be identified if they were killed and that’s scary when you think about it.
Well you guys have no idea what a powerful person this is right here, I mean I have known him for so many years and historically, so many levels you know Houston but also Federal what we are talking this guy has such important information and then he just knew how to, I think it was your promotion and selling, you were always with the right people at the right time or you created them to be the right people you made them.
Mr. Wilson: I was always a smoozer, if that’s the right word, a suck up somebody called it, but I always knew how to develop a relationship with important people an so when I was, I knew Eisenhower when I was 27 years old, so I was always promoting myself.
Interviewer: I have a picture I’m gonna send you of Eisenhower because you know we are bringing back the Cullen Rifles, I have a picture of the Cullen Rifle team with Eisenhower. I already sent out the invitation to the Board of Regents so that they can get it out to you because you know I’m not supposed to pitch to you guys but Sept. 27th we are gonna have it 9:00 o’clock in the morning we are gonna have it at the center. We are gonna bring in the Marksman Unit from San Antonio Fort in Houston and Lilly Robinson brought the money and we are going to bring back Cullen Rifles. They have already had their patch approved.
Mr. Wilson: Oh no kidding.
Question: At the Pentagon and so it’s all set and we are gonna have competitive rifle team on campus again.
Mr. Wilson: That’s great!
Interviewer: Now did you know the Cullen Rifles at all when.
Mr. Wilson: Yes but I had long since graduated, RTC came along in the 50’s I recall but I was out of College but I was Vice President so I was always there.
Interviewer: Now the Cullen Rifles are not only an NCAA competition but they are also an Olympic competition and there was also a point in the University of Houston history where we had Olympians and All Americans from this Cullen Rifle team and then we had problems with Vietnam and nobody wanted to..
Mr. Wilson: Let me tell you a story in about 47 in the fall I met HR Cullen for the first time they were having a Board of Regency meeting on campus, so I always being a smoozer I was able to meet him and whatever so I went home that night, I was working and bringing in money and my brother Jack was the house wife and he cooked and did all that kinda stuff so we didn’t have any money to speak of, so that night we were having beans so we are sitting there eating in the trailer 67 and I said, you know I met the Chairman of the Board of Regents today, you know I could be Chairman of the Board of Regents and if I work it right and whatever, and my brother thought so little of the idea that he didn’t even look up from his beans (laughs)
Interviewer: I love it, your memory and your sharing, we always appreciate it, let’s get a picture, we could get you all in a picture.
We are really honored to have you.