Many are familiar with the prince of New Braunfels, Prince Carl of Solms. But in 1979, a different kind of royalty was living in New Braunfels.
Once a year in the neighboring city of San Antonio, a 10-day long festival called Fiesta honors the memory of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. The festival, which started in 1891, includes a royal court of a queen, a princess and 24 duchesses.
In 1979, Gay 40s club member Marcia McGlothlin was one of these 26 esteemed women. Thursday afternoon, McGlothlin took the stage in front of the Gay 40s club members to speak about her experience as a Fiesta duchess, surrounded by some of the elaborately decorated dresses and dress trains worn by fellow former duchesses.
As the 150 ladies ate chicken enchiladas and looked at Fiesta medals, McGlothlin recalled the Fiesta of 40 years ago while standing aside her own intricately beaded, deep forest green dress train, which was adorned in gold trimmings and magnificent crystal beading.
“About half of the duchesses are from San Antonio, while royal visitors come from out of town,” McGlothlin said. “My mother, Joyce Word Borchers, grew up in San Antonio. She was an in-town duchess in the 1953 Court of the Opera.”
On the other side of McGlothin was her mother’s train, a blue velvet piece featuring a stained glass cathedral window with designs of sequined plums, pears and grapes. A rhinestone cross at the center was decorated with Easter lilies swirling gracefully around in concentric patterns.
“In August of 1978, I was visited at home by an Order of the Alamo member,” McGlothlin said. “He handed me a formal letter inviting me to be in Fiesta 1979.”
McGlothlin had to fill out forms, listing three colors of dresses she’d like to wear and one she wouldn’t.
“At mother’s urging I chose strong colors — burgundy, dark green and dark blue. Mother told me these colors show up better under the bright stage lights,” McGlothlin said. “Mother told me in the blank of what not to wear to put ‘all pastels.’”
Formerly, coronations had been held at the Municipal Auditorial (today the Tobin Center) in San Antonio, McGlothlin said. After a fire destroyed a part of the building in 1979, her coronation was moved to the Convention Center Arena.
The theme of the 1979 court was “The Court of the Floating Kingdom,” with each dress depicting Japanese traditions, flowers, animals, religious rites or nature, she said.
“Preparations for each coronation begin one to two years ahead of time,” McGlothlin said. “Many people are involved in the details.”
After her formal selection to be a duchess, McGlothlin went to the San Antonio home of the “Mistress of the Robes,” who selects the dress colors and fabrics to be used for each woman, as well as her headdress and hand pieces.
“There we received the artist’s sketch of my dress and train,” McGlothlin said. “We learned they would be dark green and gold with scroll-like figures.”
Miss Betsy Tamez, aunt of Dr. Danny Tamez of New Braunfels, made McGlothlin’s dress, McGlothlin said.
“Many of the seams have a double border of rhinestones,” McGlothlin recalls of the dress. “Unfortunately, I no longer have my dress that was designed to look like an ancient Japanese bell.”
Upon moving many times, McGlothlin said the dress has become lost, but she still has the 10-foot train, which she uses annually as her Christmas tree skirt. Trains can weigh between 20 to 100 pounds, McGlothlin said.
“My headpiece was designed to look like the handle of the bell I carried,” McGlothlin said. “Both of these items were made by a talented childhood friend of my mother’s.”
McGlothlin recalls attending bow practice for six consecutive Saturdays prior to the April coronation, where she learned how to bow, stride gracefully with her 20-pound train and walk deliberately.
“I distinctly remember the instructor telling us to lean forward, and walk deliberately — otherwise we would look like we were pulling a dog sled,” McGlothlin said to laughter.
At her coronation, McGlothlin was introduced as the “Duchess of Early Ritual,” and was escorted by her childhood sweetheart (her husband of 40 years), Vol Forrest McGlothlin.
“As I walked across the stage, the emcee read, ‘No one knows the actual use of the ancient bronze bells which have been excavated in Japan, but those rich barbaric designs are interpreted in this gown of jade green velvet and gold lame, colorings reminiscent of ancient patina.”
On April 27, 1979, the day of the Battle of the Flowers parade — the longest running of the three Fiesta parades — McGlothlin remembers showing up early to get in position on floats.
“From a short distance away, a sniper began shooting a deadly burst of bullets,” McGlothlin said. “The sniper had parked his gun-loaded motorhome at the corner of Broadway and Grayson Streets.”
When the shooting began, the royal court was immediately pulled out of the parade, she said.
“”I was on my float with my train already stapled down. Suddenly I was yanked off the float and whisked back into the Jersey Lilly to wait out the horrible ordeal,” McGlothlin said sternly. “I did not get to ride in the parade I had long dreamed about. To add to my disappointment, it was my 22nd birthday.”
It’s been 40 years this month, McGlothlni said.
“My train stays rolled up in a closet most of the year,” she said. “Each December, I unroll it and use it as my Christmas tree skirt.”
It’s prettiest in the evening, when the Christmas lights glint off the beautiful stones, she said.
“My train, the headpiece, the bell and my pictures still conjure up vivid memories of a wonderful and fun time in my life,” McGlothlin said. “Thank you all for coming.”