In this ‘You ask; We answer’ Rich asks, ‘Whatever happened to the “Bend Water Pageant?”‘
That pageant started back in 1933 with University of Oregon students doing canoe races on the Deschutes River. It quickly grew into a parade of river floats, live music, food, even an air show at one point. The main attraction was a pageant queen on a giant swan float. It lasted until about 1965. Popularity dropped off and it became too expensive to fund.
“There has been some talk of bring the event back to Bend. We are not sure it would take place in Mirror Pond because of some environmental concerns. Also the dredging of Mirror Pond needs to take place but there are conversations taking place of that going on,” says Courtney Linville with the Bend Chamber of Commerce.
Here is some background information on the pageant:
80 Years of Chamber Leadership: Bend Water Pageant
For many new residents, one of the first bits of Bend history that they hear about is the Bend Water Pageant. The very mention of the Water Pageant around long-time residents over the age of 60 elicits fond tales of giant swans, pageant queens and dancing waters on Mirror Pond. Many have even seen the swan image used in association with the city of Bend. For a festival that had its last run 41 years ago, it certainly occupies a central place in Bend’s collective memory.
Today, few people think about what went into making the Water Pageant such a unique, special piece of history. Occurring almost yearly from 1933 through 1965, the famed pageant was funded, planned, staffed and promoted in whole by the Bend Chamber of Commerce. A special Chamber committee called the Pageantarians oversaw and executed all of the details of the event.
The pageant began in 1933 when a group of University of Oregon students held a series of canoe races on the Deschutes River. After that, the pageant grew by leaps and bounds each year to span several days and include such varied events as singles bowling tournaments, mineral and rock shows, golf tournaments and soap box derbies. It had all the staples of a Bend hometown festival: live music, a barbeque, the pet parade and fireworks. More spectacular events like the Bend Stampede, the dancing water and light show, and even an air show at the Bend Airport attracted huge crowds. Of course, the feature event of the pageant was the nighttime river parade of floats down Mirror Pond. Floats often had varied themes such as “Life in 1847,” “Tropical Paradise,” and “The Space Age.” They each also had their own community sponsors. The main attraction during the water parade was the pageant queen who floated past the crowds on a giant illuminated swan, surrounded by her princesses, making her way majestically down the river through the glowing castle-like arch structure spanning the river. This water parade attracted tens of thousands of people.
With so many people coming to the Bend area just for the pageant, it is easy to see why the Chamber was willing to front the money for the project: The benefit to Central Oregon business was enormous. One look through the Chamber’s records shows another important aspect. The sponsor lists were extensive. Everyone from the big lumber mills and oil companies to nonprofit and service organizations sponsored a part of the event. Residents pitched in by purchasing commemorative buttons from the pageant queen contestants. Funding the pageant was truly a community effort.
The planning of the event fell to a large committee called the Pageantarians. This Chamber group oversaw everything from building floats and designing wardrobes for the pageant princesses, to hiring cooks for the barbeque and putting up decorations for the square dance, to fundraising and statewide promotions. The Pageantarians consisted of a number of subcommmittees handling each area of the festivities, such as the Barbeque Subcommittee, the Float Subcommittee, the Soap Box Derby Subcommittee, and so on. Each subcommittee was filled with dedicated Chamber members who often gave not only an enormous amount of time and skill to the project, but also backed the pageant with their own monetary donations. Such was the belief by the whole community that the Water Pageant benefited everyone in Central Oregon.
The focal point of the pageant was the queen and her court, which represented the pride of the whole community. The five final contestants chosen by school board members from around Central Oregon had to demonstrate poise, charm, good looks, scholarship and “other factors” as determined by the board. Once this “royal court” was chosen, the young ladies had a number of duties. They appeared at various city functions, dressed alike in outfits furnished by the Chamber. They also sold buttons in order to help fund the pageant. They even traveled around the state to places like Portland where they would meet with Chamber and VCB staff, appear on TV and radio programs, tour local businesses and – of course – promote Central Oregon wherever they went.
In the late 50s and early 60s, attendance at certain pageant events began to slow. Even as Bend’s population grew, the world was changing. The pageant now rarely made a profit. Residents and organizers were baffled, and came up with all sorts of ideas about why the pageant was becoming less popular. Some blamed easily accessible “flashy” entertainment on television, or the decline of traditional family-oriented rural neighborhoods. Others blamed increasing urbanization that resulted in city vacationers avoiding festivities that drew crowds. Whatever the reason, the days of Bend’s beloved Water Pageant came to an end in 1965.
From its humble beginnings in 1933 as little more than a canoe race down the Deschutes, to the full blown extravaganza it became in its later years, attracting crowds of many thousands, the Bend Chamber’s Water Pageant has left its mark forever on the history of Bend.
Special thanks to the Deschutes County Historical Society for their resources and support.