1940 Chickens’ Ball – A Few Details

The first known revival of the Barbary Coast’s Chickens’ Ball was presented in 1938 at San Francisco State College. Howard Demeke, then a student, sang in a barbershop quartet that year, and soon thereafter become a teacher at Central School.

It was a day of good fortune when Mr. Demeke brought this idea to the PTA at San Carlos. No ordinary community could have made such a production become the tradition it is today. It took people like Kathryn Miller, Eleanor Lane, Dorothy Lily, Beverly Wheeler, Leapy Greenlee, Newell Sharkey and many others who were bursting with ideas and full of devotion. They gave their time, and energy unaware that the solid foundation they were laying for an infant amateur show would enable it to expand and grow so that eventually it would make more history than its predecessor.

With these extraordinary people leading the way there soon followed willing workers in such great numbers that it is impossible to list them all. A few who got the ball of community spirit rolling were the Penaats, the Webers, the Seelys, the Buttons, the Kents, the Hallawells, the Forbes’, the Coles, Jack Kemp, Roy Nott and hundreds more who have put their energies into the Ball, both on stage and in the wings.

The only lack of authenticity in the San Carlos production is in the type of persons performing and the calibre of the audience. There aren’t too many gold miners and bawdy girls left in San Carlos so we must make do with more pedestrian citizens. Of course we’re not saying that spectators or entertainers are lacking in the spirit – or “spirits” – of the Good Old Days, but like the silence surrounding the Barbary Coast’s ghosts, some of the more interesting stories regarding back-stage antics will probably never make publication.

Kathryn Miller was the General Chairman for the first production and Howard Demeke was Production Manager. Gil Hallawell was Master of Ceremonies. Originally, as now, the Ball was held at Central School, then the only school in San Carlos.

One of the many clever ideas begun in 1940 and continued to this day was Spider Kelly’s Bar, where soft drinks only are sold. That first year the bar was operated by Bill Panaat as “Spider”, with Mrs. Penaat assisting as his red-headed moll. Striving for authenticity, the bar boasted a brass rail, borrowed from the old Devonshire Country Club. There was sawdust on the floor and the back curtain was hand-made of strung beads made from the seeds of local eucalyptus trees. Grocery baskets were borrowed from Safeway to carry the drinks up and down the aisles in order to accommodate the thirsty crowd.

All materials from the first Chickens’ Ball were donated, borrowed or hand made. Each performer paid for his costume and the clubs financed their own props. Rehearsals for the program were kept so secret that no one knew what the show would contain until the night of the Ball. It is said to this day that the tradition of secrecy is so strong that newspaper reporters are unable to get any information from the participants prior to the opening of the show.

Programs for the 1940 Ball were cut from sheets of wallpaper. The mimeographed covers featured an outlined chicken which the school children colored in.

The dedication of the first production read: “Dedicated to the City of San Carlos in the hope that we have in a small way contributed towards the unification of a lasting community fellowship.”

First prize for skits was awarded to the Masonic Club for their Original Floradora Sextet, which was directed by Gertrude Rishel. Other organizations participating in the competition were the Carlosians, the Athletic Club, the Lions’ Club, the Junior Matrons, the Civic Bridge Club, the San Carlos Players and the Community Club.

Source: 1970 Reflections, emphasis added.

Editors Note: Both the Lions’ Club and the Junior Matrons have a skit competing in the 2012 Chickens’ Ball.

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