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Yearly Satirical Gridiron Show Tackles COVID-19

Dancing at University Hospital.PNG
Roseann García
Michael Quintanilla dancing with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, center, and County Judge Nelson Wolff, left, and to the immediate right of the Mayor, County Commissioner Kevin Wolff and City Councilman Manny Pelaez and University Health hospital staff of doctors, nurses and more

San Antonio’s annual Gridiron Show will be available to watch online next weekend. With a name like Gridiron, it may sound like it’s about football, but the only tackling that’s done is metaphorical, and the only injuries are to politicians’ egos.

Former Express-News Fashion Editor and gadabout Michael Quintanilla is always a part of the show. He said that unlike football, nothing about Gridiron is serious.

“It's like a farcical show, it's local journalists from all platforms, and we put on a show that pokes fun of local and national politics and pop culture,” he said. “We sell tickets and we raise scholarship money that is given to the local chapter of Society of Professional Journalists.”

Dancing at VIA.PNG
Photo by Roseann García
Michael Quintanilla dancing with City Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran at her district’s VIA bus center.

He said the show has no political biases; everyone is in the crosshairs.

“Everyone is fair game. You better believe it!” he laughed. “And we have so much material to work with every year.”

The Gridiron Show is usually seen at a packed house with big sound and lights, and a lot of shared space. Not this year. Four performances will be available online over three days.

Quintanilla is an over-the-top character who has an outfit for every celebration: one alive with color and glitter and another that reflects his San Antonio upbringing. Every year, he produces a video for Gridiron featuring local politicians doing something they don’t normally do.

“This will be the seventh year of dancing with local leaders and personalities and celebrities in town,” he said.

He convinces politicians to do what many might find unthinkable — dancing — in front of cameras.

“In the beginning, it was like, 'You want me to do what?’ And I said, ‘We're going to dance!’ ‘I don't I don't know how to dance.’ ‘Sure, you know how to dance. I will teach you,'” he laughed.

Quintanilla has a technique for getting the politicians to loosen up, and it doesn’t involve tequila. He advises them this:

“Just put on your sunglasses and hide behind them and just shake your hips. It'll be so easy and so much fun!” Quintanilla said. “We've danced for seven years and seven dance videos and it's been wonderful.”

But this is, after all, 2020, and Quintanilla said the pandemic has changed everything.

“That was the challenge this year in that, how are we going to do the video because of the pandemic, social distancing and people wanting to stay at home?” he asked.

Weirdly, instead of downscaling, they went big.

“What I really wanted to do this year was to shine the spotlight on our front liners and essential workers and first responders because they were the ones that were there all these many months ago helping keep San Antonio strong and safe,” he said.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg participated again this year and remembers the shoot at University Hospital.

“I think it was Manny Palaez and Quintanilla's idea together to get our frontline health workers in the courtyard to do a giant line dance,” he said.

This year’s video features two songs: The first is a song by local band The Krayolas, extolling the virtues of America’s blue collar workers.

Michael Quintanilla dancing with Centro Ambassador essential workers
Photo by Roseann García
Michael Quintanilla dancing with Centro Ambassador essential workers

“They have a wonderful song called 'Working People,' which is so perfect for this because these are working people. No matter what, they have to work,” Quintanilla said.

Quintanilla and his production team assembled all these working people in the place where their work, and in a sense, their lives are on the line.

“At University Hospital we gathered 70 individuals from all backgrounds to dance with. I can't tell you how awesome it was,” he said. “We danced with these elected officials and health care providers and other essential workers from infectious disease specialists and doctors, respiratory therapists, nurses, pediatric care specialists, surgical techs, trauma staff, clinical workers, X-ray technicians, custodial workers, a UT health faculty, the university health staff.”

In case you were wondering, yes — they were socially distanced and face-masked throughout. Quintanilla said that some of those participating had their moves down, and some needed instruction.

“I taught them how to do hip-hop moves. You should see. Judge (Nelson) Wolff in this. He is like, so fantastic. He cracks me up!” he said.

But this is where Quintanilla is reminded of the tragedy of this situation — COVID-19. He spent a lot o f time talking to health care workers.

“They know that the second, another wave is coming, and they're preparing for it,” he said. “But for that time that we were there in the garden, at the hospital, outside dancing, it was sheer joy.”

For the second song, they looked toward Flaco Jimenez.

Dancing at the Food Bank.PNG
Photo by Roseann García
City Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda leads the dancing at the San Antonio Food Bank

“We asked Flaco if we could use a great song of his on the accordion with his friend Max Baca. And he said, absolutely!” Quintanilla said.

The Gridiron project has proceeded in epic scale, with a few bigwigs, but mainly common folks.

“These are all essential workers. First responders, including restaurant workers. I dance with teachers and the principal and custodial staff at Harris Middle School at Southwest General with Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia. We had 67 medical staff also dancing there,” he said.

Mayor Nirenberg contrasted this year’s video with those in the past.

“This has become a fun tradition for us and previous years were funny to watch. But I think this year's video, probably the best way to describe it is just an outpouring of joy,” he said.

Quintanilla got emotional thinking about this year’s experience.

“It's also been one of the most memorable moments for everyone and certainly for me. I will never, ever,” he said, his voice cracking “…ever forget this.”

And so COVID-19 causes yet another change in tradition, but in this instance, one that may not be so bad.

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Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii