Backstage at the King William Fair

If all had gone according to plan, this entry would have led off the current issue of the Lavaca and Friends arts and entertainment newsletter:




But things did not go as planned, and the King William Fair — along with all of San Antonio’s annual Fiesta — was postponed until November. And probably everyone agrees that the use of the term ‘postponement’ is, at best, aspirational.


That leaves the organizers of the neighborhood’s biggest annual event in a sort of limbo. Will we indeed have a Fiesta in November? If so, will we really do it again the following April?


To better understand those questions, we need to understand more about the King William Fair itself.


We spoke with the Fair’s Director, Syeira Budd, to learn more. When the next Fair finally happens, it will be Syeira’s third as director. She has worked on the Fair for twelve years in total, working previously as one of the Fair coordinators.

The Fair has a long history


Each year thirty to forty thousand people attend the King William Fair

The Fair dates back a lot further than Syeira’s twelve years. It goes back to 1968, the same year that San Antonio hosted the HemisFair world’s fair and just a year after the King William Association (KWA) itself was founded.


The Fair started as a block party, Syeira tells us, but it expanded decade by decade until it covered fifteen blocks and became the mechanism for funding almost all of the KWA’s activities. This year would be the 53rd annual Fair — a streak with no previous cancellations or postponements.


It takes a lot of people to make the Fair happen


The Fair is a massive undertaking, involving a handful of paid staff, hundreds of vendors, and more than one thousand volunteers.


The KWA has five paid staff members who focus each year on organizing and preparing for the Fair. Syeira herself is a full-time employee. In addition, four Fair coordinators — Alicia Spence-Schlesinger, Danielle Griffin, Noah Peterson, and Kassi Tyson-Wright work part-time.


On top of those staffers, there is also a set of key volunteers that head up Fair ‘departments’. They are:


  • Annice Hill, the Fair Chair and also responsible for Food

  • Alan Cash and Bill Cogburn, responsible for Admissions

  • Chris and Nancy Price, responsible for Art and Craft

  • Philip Parsons, Eddie Romero, and Saúl Garza, responsible for Beverages

  • Angie Torres (San Antonio Coffee & Cordials Festival), responsible for Coffee Welcome Wagon

  • Coach Willie Hall (Brackenridge High School), responsible for Environmental

  • Jose Martinez, Jere Pace, Mission Trail Rotary Club, responsible for Kids Kingdom Activities

  • Stefani Job Spears, responsible for Kids Kingdom Art Tent

  • Mary Helen and Joe Mansbach, responsible for Logistics

  • Elizabeth Flynn, responsible for Operations

  • Pat Conroy, John Doski, Riza Morales, Ryan Orsinger, Diana “Skully” Schmelzer, Valeria Medina, responsible for Parade

  • John Hartman, responsible for Street Marking

  • Rose Kanusky, responsible for Transportation (street closures, traffic flow, parking restrictions)

  • Vanessa Rodriguez, responsible for a parade float built by Southtown kids and their families

  • Jim Palinkas and Mark Mueller, responsible for the food and beverage vendors in the St. Joseph's Society parking lot

  • Oil Barons of South Texas book club, responsible for sorting and distribution of books to kids along the parade route (books collected by Half Price Books)


These staffers and volunteers begin working on the Fair months and months in advance.

They are guided by a database of more than seven hundred individual tasks that have to be completed in order to get the Fair up and running. Each of those tasks has a deadline, and each is assigned to a person and a department.


The tasks range from the simple ….

Order 30,000 beer cups


… to the complex ….

Review and jury 300 Art and Craft vendor applications and select 200 artists to invite


The earliest tasks for an upcoming Fair begin almost immediately after the conclusion of the current Fair. There’s a scattering of deadlines over the next six or eight months, and, finally, deadlines hit daily during the last months before the Fair.


Syeira and the other KWA staffers have desks in the KWA offices just a block off South Alamo. The volunteer department heads work from home, but, as the Fair approaches, the entire team begins meeting frequently in the office.


And everyone is pointed toward the big day.


Things kick off with a parade


A big part of the Fair is the Parade, organized by Chief Parade Wrangler Alicia Spence-Schlesinger. In fact, the parade could probably stand on its own as a Fiesta event. Thousands of people line up along the route, which stretches from Brackenridge High School through the King William neighborhood and back. Residents along the route host parade parties for friends.


The Fair kicks off with a fun and quirky parade
Our pup, Micky, is fascinated by the parade's camels

The parade itself is an off-kilter, eccentric affair with everything from the usual high school marching band and automobiles carrying local office-holders to a cross-dressing Miss Southtown float and a camel or two.


In fact, the parade is sufficiently eccentric that the first thing you’ll see at the head of the parade is a pair of people carrying a big banner between them:


‘Our Parade does not necessarily reflect the views of the King William Association.'


And that’s a big part of what makes the parade fun.


"There were approximately100 entries last year," Syeira reports, "including Sandra Cisneros featured on the Discovery School’s float, Vincent Huizar as our Grand Marshal featured with San Antonio Bike Share’s entry, San Antonio Conservation Society as our Honor Guard, the Mermaid Society of Texas, La Tuna, and many more."


The crowd shows up early to get the best spots along the parade route, both inside and outside the official Fair grounds (the admission gates and ticket booths open at 8:00 AM, to accommodate them). The parade kicks off at 9:00 AM, marking the official start of the Fair.



Streets are lined with food, drinks, art, and crafts


The heart of the Fair is the hundreds of vendors that line the streets of the King William neighborhood — food vendors, beverage vendors, and art and craft vendors.


Wandering through the Fair, you’ll have a choice of lots of food items, including tacos, gorditas, roasted corn, turkey legs, funnel cakes, pizza, sausage, corn dogs, hot dogs, cheese steaks, reubens, chili, pretzels, fries, pulled pork, fish and chips, brisket, burgers, ice cream, shaved ice, fruit cups, jambalaya, quesadillas, nachos, wings, cookies, kettle corn, cotton candy, shrimp, and paletas — to name a few.


And you’ll see booths with the work of artists, both local artists and artists who have traveled from West Virginia, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Mexico -- even Peru . You'll see artists working in glass, wood, clay, oils, water colors, fabric; artists producing sculptures, paintings, jewelry, ceramics, and artisan foods.


In total, the Fair hosts sixty-five food and beverage vendors and over two hundred art and craft vendors, spread across the neighborhood.


Entertainment is everywhere


Scattered throughout the Fair are performance locations — stages that feature musicians and other performers throughout the day. Still more entertainers roam through the streets.

In total, the Fair hosts about fifty entertainers each year.


Entertainers include Bett Butler and Joël Dilley (World Jazz), Azul Barrientos (Mexican Folk), Tennessee Valley Authority (Bluegrass), The Soul Stick Q (a cappella), Los Nahuatlatos (Chicano Roots), Children’s Ballet of San Antonio (Ballet Performance) and The Astonishing Mr. Pitts (Vaudevillian Magic).


For the most part these are local performers, with additional artists from the South Texas region.


The Fair has a special area -- the Kids Kingdom -- located along the river and dedicated (obviously) to kids. The Kids Kingdom offers games, arts and crafts, and kid-friendly entertainment, like the Magik Theatre.


Residents love it and hate it


Southtown residents look at the Fair from at least two perspectives.


For most, it’s an opportunity to celebrate and party — a final burst of Fiesta spirit at the end of the annual city-wide celebration. Some 'ground-zero' residents host parties for friends and family, providing food, drinks, and a home base in the midst of the party chaos.


For others, especially those living in the fifteen blocks that are closed down, the Fair can be a massive inconvenience. Parking and traffic become a headache. Residents in ground zero can feel trapped, unable to even get a car out of a garage. Some of them, Syeira tells us, just leave town for a few days.


“I won't lie,” Syeira says. “It is an absolute challenge to shut down fifteen residential blocks and impede access for people who need to get to and from their homes. So it's a very tricky logistical dance that we do, but we achieve it every year through lots of communication.


“We publish a special Fiesta edition of the King William Association newsletter, and we snail mail that to every household in the neighborhood in early April, usually. And that has all the information you need as a resident, everything from the fun stuff, like what food you're going to be able to eat and what bands you're going to listen to. But also the really practical, unglamorous stuff, like here's where all the street barricades are going up, here are restricted traffic hours, here's the traffic flow, here's a map of how it all works. So we provide kind of a timeline and maps of how the operations and the logistics impact their experience in the Fair zone as a resident or in the neighborhood as a resident.


“And then we also send out a separate letter directly to each Fair zone resident, with a couple of complimentary admission wristbands for their patience and understanding. And that letter gets sent out also in early April to all the residents who live in the Fair zone. Again, just reiterating all of the practical information about how the street closures work, how the traffic flow works, why we do what we do. So we really just try to communicate the why, the how, the when, and the what.”


The Fiesta Commission makes it easier


The King William Fair is an official Fiesta event, which, according to Syeira, greatly simplifies things.


There are a lot of nitty-gritty tasks involved in putting together an event like this that get handled by the umbrella Fiesta Commission. Ordinarily, for example, shutting down streets in a neighborhood is a laborious and time-consuming process that involves getting signatures from residents along those streets and then applying to the City.


“One of the many benefits that we gain from being part of the Fiesta Commission,” Syeira told us, “is that they work on our behalf with the city of San Antonio or with any of the other entities that need to be coordinated to produce a Fiesta street closure ordinance that goes through all the proper city channels.


“And so the King William Fair street closure request and parking restriction requests are part of that larger Fiesta ordinance and I just make sure to work with the Fiesta Commission every year to update our requests on which streets we want to close and the hours, et cetera. And those get rolled into that larger Fiesta ordinance that the city council then votes on and presto, it's done.”


The Commission also assists the Fair — and other official events — with big picture issues. Things like COVID-19.


“To have something like COVID 19 come along and effectively cancel or postpone our event” Syeira says, “and all of the headaches that I would have had to deal with, or just the logistical nightmare that it would have been to figure out if we should hold the King William Fair or cancel it or postpone it or how to handle everything. But the fact that we're part of the Fiesta commission and the Fiesta Commission works so closely with the City of San Antonio and the Mayor's office to make a smart decision early enough in the game.


“And to support all of the participating member organizations in this huge, unprecedented shift. You know, it just made me so all the more grateful to be part of a larger organization that, helps us produce and manage and react to unforeseen circumstances. So, I don't even want to think about if I wasn't part of the Fiesta commission on this one.”


Finances


The Fair generates about ninety percent of the money the KWA requires each year to fulfill its mission.


That mission includes everything from tree planting and sidewalk repairs to grants that support community organizations and SAISD schools. The KWA also sponsors such things as Concerts in the Park and lecture series.


Each year it costs about $1 million to produce the Fair, but the Fair generates a profit of more than $300,000.


The Fair generates revenues in three ways:


  • Admissions Between 30,000 and 40,000 people attend the Fair each year, and admission fees produce a good portion of the Fair’s revenues.

  • Sponsorships Sponsors -- like H-E-B, Valero, Silver Eagle Distributors (distributors of Bud Light and other beer brands), UPS, Blue Star Arts Complex, Rosario's, King William Realty, Beethoven Maennerchor, C.H. Guenther and Son, and Frost Bank -- provide a mix of dollars, services, and goods to sustain the Fair.

  • Booth rentals. All Fair vendors -- food, beverage, art and craft -- pay a fee for their space.

  • Food and beverage sales Food and beverage vendors don’t handle cash. Instead, tickets are sold by the Fair at a dozen or so locations throughout the Fair zone, and those tickets are the only ‘legal tender’ at food and beverage booths. The majority of the price of each ticket goes to the vendor that collects it, but the Fair keeps a piece, too.


Organizers saw the postponement coming


Friday, March 13, was an unlucky day.


That’s the day that the Fiesta Commission and the Mayor announced that Fiesta would be postponed until November, although it didn’t come as a complete surprise to Syeira and her team.


By the time of the postponement, preparations for the Fair were in a pretty advanced state. Vendors and entertainers were already signed up. Sponsors were in place. Service and infrastructure contracts were nailed down. “We were getting ready to publish our Fiesta edition newsletter and getting started on designing the content and layout of our brochure,” Syeira said.


But where she could, Syeira was already slowing things down.


“I’d say the first couple weeks of March, I felt like I was pumping the brakes on certain things, because I knew that there was a real likelihood of Fiesta being canceled or postponed. Just looking around at what was happening at other events like Coachella and South by Southwest, we knew that was a likelihood.


"So I will say that I did hold off a little bit on making any big expenditures if I could. I would pump the brakes on spending lots of money, like we would usually do in March, to get things ready. I tried to do that as much as I could, and that fortunately worked out to our advantage this time. But what a really bizarre place to be in because you're both barreling forward at a breakneck speed, but also, being very cautious with how you're planning everything.”


Organizers look toward November


“How we're approaching the postponement as a Fair team and as Fair staff is that we're essentially not working anymore on the Fair at all until August. That's when we will resume our planning for the November Fair as well as begin our planning for the April, 2021 Fair.


“So we have just effectively enacted a pause on all planning because so many things are up in the air. And I honestly feel like it would be foolish for me to try to predict how things are going to be until we get closer to August. And then when August rolls around, hopefully we'll also know that April's a real possibility as well.


“That's when we would really launch into full blown planning for April. And, also producing for November. And so our tactic at that point will be to kill two birds with one stone. And just to prepare for both of them at the same time.


“But I will say again, I’m really grateful for the Fiesta Commission because that's the entity who's working closely with the city to determine the feasibility of November happening. I’ll go to a couple more meetings with them probably before the end of the summer, and we'll just stay on top of all the developments and see how that goes.


“It really is kind of like being frozen in time. Like everything that we had done up until mid March, is still usable and valid. And those are the plans we're operating on for November… we will literally just hit a resume button in August and move forward, and that's what I'm hoping for.”

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