Frontier Fiesta was founded in 1939. The event was discontinued during the War years (WWII) and resumed in 1947 through 1959. The current Frontier Fiesta was re–started in 1991 and continues to today.
Dr. Kemmerer, second–in–command to UH President Oberholtzer, is particularly remembered as the founder and greatest champion of Frontier Fiesta. After the brief hiatus during the war, Dr. Kemmerer had pushed to get Fiesta back into full swing in 1946, with the event reaching National recognition in 1953. By that time, Frontier Fiesta was drawing huge crowds of up to 200,000 people, including celebrities such as James Garner, Humphrey Bogart, and more. It was taking weeks and months of students’ attention and raising significant funds for what LIFE Magazine called “the Greatest College Show on Earth” in 1958.
The student leaders behind Frontier Fiesta in the 1940’s and early 1950’s included Welcome Wilson (member of UH System Board of Regents), Johnny Goyen (past Houston City Councilman) and Jack Valenti (press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson and head of the Motion Picture Association of America). In 2008 the School of Communications was named for Jack Valenti, a former Frontier Fiesta Director and night editor of The Daily Cougar. One area high school student who participated was Kenny Rogers, he now brings fame to his hometown as a country and western singer.
The students’ spring obsession, Frontier Fiesta, continued in the late 1950’s with some additional administrative oversight. In the fall 1958 President Clanton Williams informed the students that they could spend only four weeks on the event and only full–time university students with at least a 2.0 GPA could participate. A multitude of variables had arisen in the end of the decade, and issues had caused the flamboyant carnival to come to a halt in 1959. The void left by Frontier Fiesta, which was not only a huge benefit for the University, but a tremendous economic benefit to the entire city of Houston, would be filled by the Fat Stock Show. This show eventually evolved into the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, which is presently one of the biggest attractions to the city.
With the suggestion of David Keith, the Vice President for Advancement, the planning of Frontier Fiesta would be started more than thirty years later in 1991. The revival of the event would take place in the spring of 1992 as a student and alumni event. With the help of enthusiastic alumni such as Rusty Hruska and Glenn Lilie. David Keith supplied the food, BBQ’ing on his own personal grill. Glenn Lilie sponsored labor from his personal company to get Fiesta City Built.
Frontier Fiesta was held behind the Baptist Student Ministries building in 1995–1996. In 1997 Fiesta was transferred to the southeast corner of University Blvd. and Calhoun, the current location of the Campus Recreation & Wellness Center (CRWC). The rugged, unpaved terrain provided a level of authenticity that was only unappreciated when it rained. A wooden pedestrian bridge with engraved name plates was built on the site to honor past Fiesta Chairmen. Part of the program expansion included a petting zoo, wagon rides and Little Wrangler Day which flourished as bus loads of elementary and middle school students would come to be entertained on Saturday of Fiesta weekend. The University started to participate with several colleges participating and hosting receptions during Fiesta.
In 2001 Frontier Fiesta moved to the west side of Robertson Stadium to make room for the construction of the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. Over time, the tailgating Pavilions were used during Fiesta and fall football games.
Despite the many changes in venue and themes and challenges over the years, Frontier Fiesta continues to be a cherished tradition at the University of Houston. Now, many years since the events inception, and 20 years since its revival in 1991, the University of Houston again invites the community to join in the celebration. Frontier Fiesta celebrates everything that makes the University of Houston important to the Houston community today. The talent and leadership ability of its students, the opportunity to educate Houston’s future leaders, and providing scholarship opportunities for deserving students are just a few ways that Fiesta gives back.