Over the “Moon”

Douglas TowneMarch 1, 2016
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For almost 30 years, the biggest annual event in Phoenix was a nationally heralded high school pageant called the Masque of the Yellow Moon.

Ninety years ago, fireworks burst over a football field beneath a full moon in Phoenix, capping off a procession of marching bands, choral groups, and costumed dancers performing to a narrated story among dramatic sets and herds of horses and cattle.

This was the typical scene at the Masque of the Yellow Moon, a nationally heralded high school pageant unrivaled in spectacle (it debuted 41 years before the first Super Bowl) that had its last hurrah in 1955 but is still spoken of in revered tones by octogenarians whose participation marked a pivotal teenage moment.

“The best description of the Masque I heard was that it was like a Super Bowl halftime show but without the football game,” says Marshall Shore, who blogs and promotes Phoenix-history-related events as The Hip Historian.

The annual homegrown spectacle, which enjoyed national acclaim in Reader’s Digest and Life magazine, was not a sensation by accident – from the beginning, it was designed to compete with major events like Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade.

In 1926, the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce decided to create a flower festival to promote their young city. In tune with the Roaring ‘20s, the initial concept was super-sized into a week-long gala featuring band concerts, costume balls and flower displays. The festival’s climax was a huge pageant staged by thousands of students from Phoenix Union High School and Phoenix Junior College (now just Phoenix College).

The pageant was called the Masque of the Yellow Moon, after a Native American tradition of pausing to give thanks for prosperity and good promise during the full moon in spring. Sharlot Hall, who had been appointed Arizona’s Territorial Historian in 1909, wrote and directed the first production, which was performed at Phoenix’s El Zaribah Shrine Auditorium.

The popular festival became an annual event, adopting the Masque of the Yellow Moon as its moniker. Each year a different theme was celebrated, including Spanish conquistadors, Native American folklore, and Arizona’s resources and history. Phoenix Union High School produced the Masque. Cordelia Perkins, the school’s art teacher, became the director and organized the Masque – which was performed annually except for a six-year hiatus during World War II – until 1954.

Her many duties included designing and supervising the construction of costumes and sets, and organizing the performances of the speech, drama, athletic, R.O.T.C. and agriculture departments. By the 1930s, the performance included a whopping 3,000 participants. “The organization that it took to put that together was incredible,” Betty Callahan, a four-time participant, reflects.

The art teacher was a dynamo with a unique talent for involving faculty, students, and parents. “Perkins was a short, heavyset lady who was very nice, but very strict,” Gen Kriner, who performed in four pageants, recalls. “We didn’t goof off, as we knew she meant business.”

Perkins held only one complete trial run. “The groups practiced in separate locations, and then she put it together and it really worked. Perkins was amazing,” Callahan says. The result was a cavalcade of music, dance and theater, which climaxed when the festival’s queen was escorted to her throne.

The Masque was the hottest ticket in Phoenix, easily selling out Phoenix Union’s 10,500-seat Montgomery Stadium when the city’s population was less than 50,000. More than 2,000 people were turned away at the gate in 1937, the same year camels were brought from Hollywood for the performance.

More than 60 years later, participants’ memories of the festival are vivid. “The Masque had a huge impact in our lives,” Peggie Evans Folz, who participated in three pageants, exclaims. “Performing in it was like a rite of passage. My costume senior year was a blossoming flower made out of purple satin, almost like a formal dress. I loved being in the spotlight, leading my section out to perform.”

Others shared her exhilaration. “After countless after-school rehearsals, we were so excited to enter the packed stadium,” Kriner says. “But everyone was really nervous too, hoping they wouldn’t screw up.”

Not all Masque costumes, however, are remembered fondly. “One year we wore white pants and shirts, and a thing over it that was white with a gold fringe that the kids called toilet seat covers,” Barbara James recalls with a laugh.

Performance at the 1936 Masque of the Yellow MoonStudents created stunning sets for the production. “I was so impressed with the giant backdrops across the back of the field,” James adds. “One looked like snowy mountains. They were built in layers so that the ‘skiers’ went down the mountain using roller skates hidden from view.”

Another inspiring aspect of the Masque is that, in a city with segregated schools, restaurants and hotels, the pageant was an integrated event. Black students from Carver High School first participated when the festival was relaunched in 1949, and became part of the royal entourage. That same year, students from Phoenix Indian School joined the revelry.

But problems were on the horizon by the time Perkins retired and Virginia Duncan, the North Phoenix High School drama instructor, took over as Masque director in 1954. What once was a Phoenix Union High School and Phoenix Junior College production now included six other Phoenix high schools, and became even more challenging logistically. Participation had grown to an almost unmanageable 4,000 students.

Although no one knew it in 1955, the final show was the 24th Masque, fittingly titled “Dawn, Noon, and Sunset.” The production featured an old desert prospector reliving his memories, who, reflecting the times, declared, “They need lots of it [uranium] so’s they can blow one another up.”

The pageant officially died that fall. “Without a mourner in sight, the Masque of the Yellow Moon expired last night. The consensus of the Phoenix High School and College District board of trustees: The darn thing is just more trouble than it’s worth. Reaction of various school people assembled in the audience to the demise of the annual school-system play production: A sigh of relief,” noted an Arizona Republic article.

There were also larger social forces at play. Phoenix was growing and television was becoming popular. Consumers had closer, more accessible entertainment options.

Still, there were complaints from schools about ending the production. “I remember it being a big disappointment when the Masque was canceled,” Callahan says. “The problem was the newcomers [to Phoenix] didn’t have the history and pride we had; the Masque wasn’t important to them.”

Subsequently, one limited reprisal was performed at Civic Plaza in 1995, featuring Phoenix Union High School alumni and television personality Steve Allen and high school students. The occasion honored the original Masque and celebrated the school district’s 100-year anniversary.

Despite its long absence, the Masque remains an irreplaceable part of growing up in Phoenix to many who participated in it. “High school was the pinnacle for me, and the Masque was the highlight,” Callahan says. “I’m proud to say I performed in it all four years. Being selected as a freshman was quite the honor. The Masque was a huge deal for the Phoenix area; no one else did anything like it.”

Sunny SuiteSunny Suite
Star power made Phoenix’s most illustrious festival even brighter in 1952. That year, the Masque of the Yellow Moon premiered the “Valley of the Sun Suite,” written by famed composer Ferde Grofé, who conducted the high school orchestra in its performance. “Those 500 band members did a wonderful job,” Grofé told the Arizona Republic.

Grofé, who wrote the “Grand Canyon Suite” in 1931, had been commissioned by Arizona Governor Howard Pyle to write a score honoring the 50th Anniversary of the National Reclamation Act. The resulting composition had four movements: “Valley of the Ditches,” “Dam Builders,” “Masque of the Yellow Moon” and “Golden Jubilee.”

While composing the suite in Phoenix, Grofé charmed the locals with his piano prowess, regaling the Phoenix Press Club with swing and blues tunes from his days as a saloon player in San Francisco’s rowdy Barbary Coast in the 1900s.

Since its debut, the “Valley of the Sun Suite” has been performed only on rare occasions, including in 1992 by the Phoenix Symphony with the composer’s son in attendance.