Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Edgar Roman
The Rose Bowl. The Cotton Bowl. The Sugar Bowl. The Sun Bowl. The first three are still big moneymakers and attract hundreds of thousands to their festivities. The Sun Bowl, though, has suffered in popularity in past decades. Such was not the case, however, in the 1930s.
In 1934, Dr. Brice Schuller suggested that the Kiwanis Club sponsor an all-star football game as a fund-raiser to build a press box in El Paso High School’s R.R. Jones Stadium. Shuller also believed the game would give El Paso some recognition. The Kiwanis agreed to back the idea, and Schuller planned a New Year’s Day game between El Paso High School and Ranger High School from East Texas.
The event did not have a name, so the Kiwanis Club sponsored a name contest with two tickets to the game as the prize. Dr. C. M. Hendricks, a physician, won the tickets for suggesting the name “Sun Bowl.” At this time, Hendricks came up with the idea of making the event into an annual college football game.
The Kiwanis were joined by the Lions, Rotary, Optimist and the 20-30 clubs, all whom designated a director and created the Sun Carnival Association. By 1936, the second Sun Bowl game became a reality, this time featuring Hardin Simmons University and New Mexico State University football teams instead of high school squads. This Sun Bowl also included a parade and a queen, and soon these events, along with a college game, became known as the Sun Carnival.
The first Sun Carnival parade was held in 1936, a few hours before the Sun Bowl game on New Year’s Day, a tradition that continued until 1978 when the parade was moved to Thanksgiving Day. The theme of the parade was “Pageant of History” and featured hundreds of participants, including bands and floats.
Almost 100,000 people lined the streets of El Paso to view the four-mile long parade. Marshall Hail, writing in the El Paso Herald Post, said “A Mardi Gras spirit prevailed everywhere. Crowds were in a holiday mood.” President Lazaro Cardenas of Mexico even sent his 90-piece band to play in the parade.
The Sun Carnival Parade of 1936 gave El Paso national publicity. The Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas presented a film of the parade a few days after the event, and the film was later shown in theaters across the country.
Newspaper articles indicate that the 1936 Sun Bowl lured many visitors to El Paso. People from Mexico City came by train and airplane to attend the game, and hotels were booked to capacity. The Chamber of Commerce and the Sun Carnival Association even made arrangements to provide visitors with rooms in private homes.
During the 1930s, Sun Bowl Queen were chosen based on the number of tickets sold by their sponsoring organization. Ruth Staten, the first Sun Bowl Queen, won the contest after the Junior League of El Paso sold the most Sun Bowl Tickets in 1936. Under this system, contestants and their sponsors were encouraged to work hard for the Sun Carnival. People were able to support their candidate by purchasing tickets from their sponsor.
Over the years, the Sun Carnival has undergone many changes. The Thanksgiving Day parade is now shorter than its predecessors, few out-of-town groups participate and the live parade must compete with larger, national parades on television. The method of choosing the Sun Carnival Queen has changed several times, and today, judges who are known only to a select few officials, observe contestants during all Sun Bowl festivities before naming the winner.
The Sun Bowl game has been televised since 1967, but the number of people watching the game has declined. Two controversial name changes made in recent years have contributed to the Bowl’s lack of identity. In 1986, the Sun Bowl became the John Hancock Sun Bowl, and in 1989, it became the John Hancock Bowl, to reflect the event’s corporate sponsor.
Many El Pasoans complained about the name changes. In a recent interview, William Latham, 1961-62 Sun Carnival President, said, “I myself was a purist and wanted to keep the bowl’s original name, but it costs money to play post-season football, and [the money] has to come from somewhere.”
The winter carnival is once again the Sun Bowl now that John Hancock has ended its sponsorship. At press time, the Sun Bowl Association was actively searching for a new corporate sponsor.
So what began as a small, local fund-raiser some 60 years ago is now a nationally televised bowl game, with festivities lasting several weeks – but the future is uncertain. Perhaps El Pasoans will never again feel the excitement of 1936 Sun Carnival, for television replaces for many the desire to attend activities like games and parades. The good news is that the Sun Bowl has its name back, and plans are underway for the 1995-96 event.