First Queen of the Bands
By Louis B Homer South Bureau
TRINIDAD’S first Queen of the Bands, Esther Theodore, had ascended the throne in 1959 in the midst of controversy over the disparity in prize money paid at the Dimanche Gras show.
Ironically, the calypso finalists in this year’s competition threatened to boycott the event over the failure to increase the top prize to $1 million.
The Carnival Queen was then a beauty pageant and received several thousand dollars in prize money.
The Calypso King prize was a mere $50. Out of the disparity came the restructuring of the show by removing the Carnival Queen segment and replacing it with the judging of a Queen of the Bands.
It was against this background Theodore emerged as the first ever Queen of the Bands.
But after participating in Carnival for ten years, she renounced her involvement, claiming, “Playing mas or participating in Carnival is contrary to God’s laws as set out in the Bible.”
Before the queen show was removed, in 1955 Angela Graham won the contest and received $7,500 as prize money, while Spoiler, the winning calypsonian, received just $50.
It was seen as a case of discrimination. Some expressed the view that Carnival queens came from the elite class and no black girl was ever allowed to enter the competition.
There were calls for the queen show to be removed from the Dimanche Gras and a queen selected from among members of the bands.
The matter was brought to the attention of the then-chief minister, Dr Eric Williams, who, after considering the complaints, announced that the government was going to play a direct part in the Dimanche Gras show by setting up a Carnival Development Committee, the CDC, and the government would give financial assistance to increase the prize money.
The year 1959 was when changes came in the Carnival competition. The contestants came from several mas bands in Trinidad.
Theodore, a San Fernandian, won the competition with her portrayal of “Empress Alexander”, wife of Nicholas II of Russia.
She was a member of Clemy George’s southern presentation named Festival of Moscow.
George, a veteran bandleader, on achieving victory, said, “Winning the competition was no surprise to me. The moment Esther stepped on stage I knew she would win.”
In 1962, she was crowned Queen of the Bands for a second time when she portrayed “The Glory of the Pharaohs” in Mack Copeland’s band.
The prize included a trip to the Waldorf Astoria in New York, a prize donated by Hilton Hotel as part of its promotion drive for the newly built Trinidad Hilton hotel.
Of that trip, Theodore said, “When I went on the trip I became an ambassador for Trinidad and Tobago in the field of Carnival. It was the first time Carnival was played in New York. I had to visit several places to introduce Carnival as a tourist attraction. One of the finest places I visited was St Nicholas Arena.”
The costume she wore on that occasion was described as a masterpiece. It was designed to fit a regal figure with a train 16 yards long and embroidered with symbols of Egyptian royalty and lotus flowers representing the “sun dance”.
There were also sacred emblems of the hawk, cobras and papyrus writings.
Her supporters were shocked when, shortly after her return from that trip, Theodore denounced Carnival and all that it had done for her.
She gave her supporters her reason by declaring, “What is glorious in the eyes of a young person soon becomes the subject of re-examination in later life.”
Declaring that she was not the first to denounce Carnival, Theodore said, “There were others before me. It is a pity I did not do it before.”
Theodore’s career as a mas player started when her younger brother, Henry, read in the newspapers that the government was taking over Carnival celebrations and that bigger and better prizes would be offered.
“He told me, you know you could make a nice costume and win the competition,” said Theodore.
“Later on I was approached by Clemy George to play in his band. Clemy brought the design, but I had to make several adjustments to suit local conditions. I entered the competition in San Fernando and came first. After that, I had to make other appearances before I could qualify for entrance in the Dimanche Gras show in Port of Spain. At that competition I defeated Petronilla Augustin and became the first Queen of the Bands.”
She recalled, “Even at that time I was doing something against my will. Flashes of my father’s resentment to Carnival came to me and suddenly there were no feelings of joy or anticipation. I was neither excited nor nervous on the night of the show at which I became the first Queen of the Bands.”
Theodore was born on Mucurapo Street, San Fernando, where her father ran a retail store.
“On that street I witnessed many immoral and illegal activities. My father had protected me from those activities. The family was not allowed to play mas, but my brother was a wire bender and I used to help him make costumes.”
She added, “Even at primary school the teachers recognised my artistic ability and encouraged me to help in making Carnival costumes for school competitions.”
“Throughout my life,” Theodore said, “I was forced to do things I did not want to do, but as an obedient person I did it to please my superiors. After playing mas for several years, I decided to settle down and engage in judging at Carnival competitions. The end of the journey came while presiding as a judge. I suddenly became ill and in the middle of judging I was forced to leave the stage and return home. Since that event I gave up everything to do with Carnival and gave my life entirely to God,” said Theodore.
She died in 1967.