Saturday, February 3, 2001

Making a Spectacle

by Mo Palmer

Note: At the bottom is video footage showing the hotel in 1916.

When Albuquerque's bigwigs needed historical grounding for a gala,
they didn't worry—they invented it

Palmer is an oral historian and photoarchivist at the Albuquerque Museum.

To learn more about the Montezuma Ball, see these books and articles:
✜ "Early Albuquerque, A Photographic History, 1870-1918." Byron Johnson and Bob Dauner (The Albuquerque Museum and Albuquerque Journal, 1981).
✜ "Ben-Hur Wallace, The Life of General Lew Wallace," Irving McKee (University of California Press, 1947).
✜ "The Way We Were: A Newspaper History of Popular Culture in Albuquerque, 1925-1940," Mo Palmer (Honors thesis, University of New Mexico, 1987).
✜ "Albuquerque: A Narrative History," Marc Simmons (University of New Mexico Press, 1982).
✜ "The Fair God, Or, Last of the 'Tzins, A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico," Lew Wallace (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1898).
✜ Archival newspapers, including the Albuquerque Journal, Albuquerque Journal Democrat and Albuquerque Morning Journal.

Albuquerque revived a revered tradition last November—the venerated Montezuma Ball, a proud charity bash with a 60-year history.

Or so legend would have us believe.

Turns out it began as a "spectacorama"—one of those costumed, historically shaky, campy, kitschy and fun occasions, like Pasadena's annual spoof of the Rose Bowl Parade, called the Doo Dah Parade. (If you'd like to see it, go to and type in "Doo Dah.")

Most people don't sign a Declaration of Independence, live in the White House, or invent the Internet. But formal history mainly focuses on the folks who affect world events, so there is a gap between our knowledge of the famous few and the anonymous rest of us. If you want to know what ordinary people did, thought, saw, bought and wore&mash;the things that fill daily life—then you need to read newspapers.

Small towns, as ours was in the 1900s, don't have much breaking news. Every event is a big deal, everybody gets involved, and, luckily, small papers perpetuate the ballyhoo. We can recover distant voices at the library, where old papers beam you back to another century. Today, I want to share with you what I heard there.

Balls, pageants, parades, pomp, secret societies and all kinds of circumstance were popular around the turn of the century, giving people an opportunity to dress "to the nines" and walk around in front of each other. To formally dedicate its new gem, the Alvarado Hotel, in 1902, and to celebrate the annual New Mexico Territorial Fair, Albuquerque invented a tradition that combined all this and more.

New Mexico Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace is best-known for writing "Ben-Hur," a heroic tale of Christ and Charlton Heston. Wallace researched his epic by reading every book on Judeo-Christian history in the Library of Congress, and in the process, became a believer. He wrote much of the book in our state, and I hear of many houses that contain a room wherein he wrote a chapter. If the stories are true, the novel would be four times longer than it is and would resemble the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It's like all those houses that were stagecoach stops on the old Camino Real—if there really were that many, a long run for the stagecoach must have been two blocks a day.

"Ben Hur" was not Wallace's first endeavor. Fascinated by William H. Prescott's three-volume history of Mexico, Wallace learned Spanish to read Bernal Diaz's equivalent work. In 1873, he published "The Fair God, Or, Last of the 'Tzins, A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico." It was a smash, selling 217,000 copies, no small number for the times.

"The Fair God" is about Montezuma, Cortes and Alvarado. It teems with loyalty, betrayal, adventure, romance, beautiful women, and 586 ponderous pages. The original Montezuma Ball was derived from this historical romance, tenuously connected to our city by the name "Alvarado."

Now pay attention, this is confusing. Pedro De Alvarado was with Cortes during the Mexican conquest, and may have had brief custody of Montezuma. Hernando de Alvarado was a captain in Coronado's New Mexican expedition and was the first Spaniard to sight the Pueblo of Acoma.

The Hotel Alvarado was named for Hernando, not Pedro. But never mind which Alvarado is connected to Albuquerque and which to Montezuma. When inventing tradition, you can take historical and literary license.

The MOntezuma Ball was a festival celebrating Montezuma's return "to his own" (New Mexico), based on the "leading events in the invasion of Mexico," as interpreted by Wallace. Since Colonel Alvarado (Pedro, that is) imprisoned the Aztec emperor, it was only fitting that Montezuma be "entertained upon his return by the Colonel at his elegant new hotel."

The planned pageant would rival annual celebrations of other states, such as the "Veiled Prophets" of St. Louis and the "Servants of the Silver Serpent" in Denver.

Characters included Montezuma, Queen Tecalco (the name of a never-located Mexican pueblo), and an elaborate entourage. Her Highness, Miss Mabel Hunt, was elected by popular vote and did double duty as Carnival Queen.

A.H. Barkley, "master decorator" of Kansas City, came to design the floral parade and the royal floats, using more than 9,000 pink and white paper chrysanthemums. The queenly float was enthusiastically described, but Montezuma's float and his identity were carefully guarded secrets> Mrs. Somers, "famous costumer of Denver," was on hand to do the royal attire.

Rumors abounded — three Asian elephants to pull the kingly coach, eight milk-white Shetland ponies to carry the empress. We think the ponies showed, but the elephants didn't And it's a terrible thing to be stood up by elephants.

There were tantalizing hints and allegations — the emperor's float would include "a touch of green. The practical Barklay brought additional paper flowers to sell to occupants of the 30 beflowered vehicles he demanded for the parade. The Elks Lodge, in charge of arrangements, was granted exclusive rights to sell teeny pieces of paper for "Confetti Night." Tickets were five bucks per couple and $2.50 for each "extra"—dateless aunts, sisters, and widows.

And to think that the moon in a spirit of cooperation, would perform a total eclipse — at the very moment of the Grand March! Luna, Queen of the Night, would "hide her face from the burning glory of the emperor. Like, totally awesome.

The long anticipated day arrived. The floral parade exceeded all expectations, as did the descriptive floral prose. Queen Tecalco's float was 13 feet high. Montezuma rode into town seated upon a great papier-maché eagle, his identity, Clark Kent-like, still hidden from the adoring throngs.

At long last, MOntezuma went into a telephone booth (metaphorically speaking) and emerged as none other than . . . Sheriff Thomas Hubbell, ending weeks of suspenseful speculation.

As the day darkened and the pink Sandias faded to black, a great electric searchlight spread its beam across the desert skies (thank heavens, since the moon was in a blackout).

The Alvarado's dining room was cleared for dancing, the monarchs' thrones awaited. Designed by Herman Schweizer, curator of the Harvey Collections, seats for the royal rumps were covered with Indian rugs. Authentic Spanish shawls fluttered on the overhead canopy, while Spanish swords and Indian weapons provided elegant, if oxymoronic appointments.

The Grand March commenced. Montezuma, in purple, gold and green raiment, accompanied by his court, awaited the entrance of his lady. Queen Tecalco and her many maidens were draped in blue and yellow silk and velvet gowns — mid=1600s Catherine I-style gowns, for some reason.

Programmed dancing began and a "delicious plate supper" was served at midnight. Revelry spilled into the wee hours. The first of what became the annual Montezuma Ball was a huge success, remembered until at least 1903, when Montezuma didn't show up.

Probably owing to that, newspaper reports tell us, the second ball "lacked the picturesqueness" of the first. But the mighty warrior returned in 1904, matching "the romantic description given by General Wallace."

That year's emperor (Colonel W. H. Greer) almost didn't arrive due to rain and washed-out roads. A valiant overland drive got him here in time to be resplendent and bejeweled in royal red and green.

Queen Tecalco's litter was borne by "slaves." Whaz-hiz-name Alvarado was trailed by a bevy of Aztec maidens, to "half-Oriental music," whatever that was.

After that, Montezuma never returned. Subsequent balls were thematic and could be called the "Minus Montezuma Ball." The theme for the 1907 ball was Japan, with Japanese maidens, a tearoom, hundreds of Japanese lanterns and dragons who leered at ladies from a pagoda beside the hotel's fountain. The basis for this teahouse of the October moon remains obscure, unless it honored Teddy Roosevelt, who had won the 1906 Nobel Prize for positive meddling in the Russo-Japanese War.

With President Taft, 1909 was a very good year. Was this when the 300-pound politician got stuck in the hotel bathtub? If so, he escaped in time to attend a banquet in support of New Mexico's statehood efforts. As he emerged from dinner, lovely ladies begged him to come to the ballroom. The gracious president led the grand march, as the Alvarado's bubbling fountain played water music to Indian teepees surrounding it.

"Robin Hood Park" was created with palms, greenery, tamarack branches, and Navajo rugs. Herman Schweizer always decorated his hotel with priceless artifacts from the Indian Room. One shudders to think of satin slippers tripping the light fantastic on irreplaceable handcrufted rugs.

By 1914, young people attended the ball to timidly test the new dances — as dawn dawned, they dared to dance the Castle Center, create by Vernon and Irene Castle, the era's Arthur and Catherine Murray. The orchestra had that "lure of syncopation" so shocking to decent society.

The influential Ladies Home Journal asked, "Does jazz put the sin in syncopation?" A society reporter actually witnessed "hug me closer" dancing.

Before the country went to the dancing dogs, World War I intervened. The hall and the fair were suspended in 1917 as a horrified world faced the "war to end all wars." The New Mexico State Fair remained dormant until the late '30s, when it opened at the new fairgrounds at Central and San Pedro.

The ball was periodically reinvented through World War II, then endured a long dark spell until last November, when it was held at the Sheraton Old Town and benefited the Women's Resource Center.

As for the original extravaganza, a sorrowful gathering toasted the Alvarado Hotel's long live and service to Albuquerque and mourned its impending demise. Despite community efforts to save it, the Alvarado was demolished in 1970. It is still sorely missed.

I guess the moral of this story is don't believe everything you hear. Some facts turn out to be folklore. And don't knock down walls without determining what history they hold within. Some things only come around once.

Originally published in The Albuquerque Tribune, February 3, 2001.
The Tribune articles are used with the permission of Scripps Howard.

The missing photos:
(Photo of costumed men on horseback,
credit: "The Albuquerque Museum, gift of Mrs. Benjamin Osuna")
To inaugurate what became the annual Montezuma Ball, a group of American Indians rode their horses in a parade past the Alvarado Hotel in this 1902 photograph. Under the fanciful invention of author and then-Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace, the ball was an over-the-top celebration of Montezuma and his presumed "return" to New Mexico.

(The Albuquerque Museum, gift of Mrs. Benjamin Osuna)
Horse-drawn carts decorated with paper flowers were among the entries in the first Montezuma Ball parade.

(The Albuquerque Museum, Center for Southwest Research Collection)
This 1903 photo shows the since-demolished Alvarado Hotel at First Street and Central Avenue. The hotel was the city's social gathering place and site of the annual Montezuma Ball

End of Mo's article; beginning of addendum.

Here is some Library of Congress footage of Theodore Roosevelt at the Alvarado Hotel in 1916. New Mexico had been a state since January 1912. The video is silent until the end voiceover that it was presented by the Library of Congress. Those are their notes below, too. —Sandra

TR is cordially received on October 23, 1916 in Albuquerque, N.M. where he speaks on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, and attacks President Wilson's Mexican policies. There are long shots of TR being greeted in the courtyard of the Alvarado Hotel; TR walks with a group of men that includes former Rough Rider George Curry, appointed territorial Governor of New Mexico (1907-1911) by TR, and a U.S. Representative (1912-1913); Curry is the tall man in a dark suit and light hat. TR acknowledges an Indian woman and child sitting by a fountain in the courtyard of the hotel and gives the woman some money. A parade on Central Avenue is held in honor of TR; there are views of a marching band, a mounted escort that includes twelve former Rough Riders, and decorated cars carrying dignitaries; distance and camera angle make positive identification of TR in this sequence impossible. From a narrow platform erected in front of the Alvarado Hotel, TR gives his speech; the seated man behind him is Senator Albert B. Fall, one of New Mexico's first senators (1912-1921) and later to be Secretary of the Interior under Harding (1921-1923). Last sequence of TR waving from car, walking with several men through a crowd, and standing in a car, may be unrelated footage.