Most everybody can gel results when kindly encouraged but give me a man who can get there in spite of hell.
-Epigram, in Amon Carter’s office
Fads, fashions and fancy ideas were never quick to take hold in Texas. The unfamiliar brought on knee-jerk suspicion and whether the interloper was hula hoops or Hollywood hoopla, acceptance was grudgingly slow. Even the 1930’s Depression was tardy, most of all in Fort Worth, where that dark October of 1929 and the ensuing black days were viewed as other cities’ problems, not Cowtown’s. Amon’s city enjoyed a bright and booming economy, lubricated by the 1917 Ranger oil strike. Petroleum from a hundred miles west slid Fort Worth right into 1932 before the town became a Depression victim.
Even then. Fort Worth denied the Depression. It wasn’t happening. The Star-Telegram, which always had a wonderful aptitude for ignoring the obvious, suggested the Depression was illusory: The Depression wasn’t what everybody thought it was but only a momentary irritation, like a foot rash, and would clear up soon, probably in the next day or two. Men queued for bread and soup surely wouldn’t swallow that editorial theory. The foot rash itched all the more.
A preview of the economic psoriasis was seen in 1930 amid the petroleum-plenty good times. Pappy Waggoner called it a money stampede while in a front page editorial Amon Carter railed against the “… ridiculous spectacle brought on by idle gossip, unfounded rumors and a state of hysterior [sic]. “
It began shortly before closing time, three o’clock February 18, a Wednesday, at First National Bank, one of Fort Worth’s larger banks with stated deposits of $24, 139, 069. 37, and cash on hand of a million bucks and change. Minutes before doors were shuttered for the day, a thousand people arrived shouting for their money. Other depositors, and still more, rushed downtown until they filled the bank lobby and clogged streets. A classic bank run.
Panicked bank officials called in Sheriff Red Wright and a posse of deputies. A single Texas Ranger, Captain Tim Hick-man, arrived – there was, after all, only one mob. City police came (at least a dozen cops suggested they be given their deposited cash before the civilians became unruly). The crowd’s alarm was heightened by the failure two weeks earlier of Fort Worth’s Texas National Bank, which collapsed under a load of bad loans. At First National, the lawmen attempted to herd the people outside. The people refused to move, and clamored louder for their money. Reluctantly, the bank began paying out.
Amon knew none of this. He was home in bed, ill with the flu, ordered there by his friend and physician. Dr. Webb Walker. Now, Walker telephoned Amon and begged him to come to the bank. The publisher arrived at five o’clock with Pappy Waggoner. Councilman William Monnig joined them. The three men conferred with bank officials and devised a strategy. Displaying joyful confidence, a bank officer announced that First National would remain open all night if necessary to serve depositors. Cheers of relief.
Carter stepped onto a lobby table and began talking. Shouting for attention, Amon began calming the depositors.
’”I was in a sickbed, ” he declared, sniffing, “and I couldn’t believe this thing when I first heard it, and then I got up and here I am. This is the safest bank in the world and you’ll soon find out. It is paying off every dollar as fast as you are passing in your checks and for every dollar it is paying you it is taking in six more. Why, right now $2, 500, 000 is coming from the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas. “
As though hailed from the wings – okay, cue the money – a convoy of heavily armed men swept into the lobby and forced an aisle through the masses. The guards carried large United States paper currency pouches and smaller coin bags.
“See there!” shouted Amon. “What did I tell you! You can’t take your money out as fast as they can bring it in. Let’s boost for our city. Let’s not go mad like this. Let’s go home and in the morning your money will be right here for you. The organization I represent has a hundred thousand dollars here and I expect to leave it here.”
Carter called on the laconic Waggoner. Pappy was about to deliver his first public speech. The rancher explained his views in terms he understood:
“I have been a cowman… and have swung onto many a cow’s tail in a stampede, but this is the first stampede like this I ever saw… [Amon urged him to speak louder]… I am here to tell you this stampede is worse than cattle stampeding, and I want you to stop it and go on home. This bank has been in business for fifty years and will be in business long after we are gone. “
Pappy raised his right hand, vowing, “I hereby pledge to you every cent I own and possess in this world that you shall not lose a single dollar in this bank. I will sell every cow and every oil well if necessary to pay for any money you lose here. Go home, I tell you, go on home. “
Pappy, whose assets were ten times those of the bank, repeated his promise. Light cheering. The Press reported that Waggoner’s talk began “to turn the tide. ” The rancher personally escorted an elderly widow back to a cashier and rede-posited her five thousand dollars.
Monnig spoke, and businessman W. P. McLean, and several bank officers, all playing a theme of heavy confidence. Amon remounted the high table, over and over urging reasoned thought and action. He lectured on Fort Worth’s economic stability, its limitless financial future, how one day it would be a city of consequence. Just think, he shouted, Fort Worth already was the nation’s third-ranking air mail center!
Many depositors who early collected their cash had rushed to the U. S. Savings Department of the Post Office. Postmaster Billy Moore arrived with all the money – $21, 000 – and redeposited it with First National which demonstrated, he said, that the United States of America was not worried a single whit about the bank’s stability.
Amon’s pleadings, Pappy’s pledge, the bank officials’ confidence – all slowed withdrawals. However abated, the bank run continued. At 6: 30 Amon sent out for cheese sandwiches and hot dogs. He fed the multitudes. Two orchestras arrived from the nearby Hotel Texas. The musicians set up at opposite ends of the lobby and began playing “Singing in the Rain” and “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here. ” A few couples danced. Others sang along. Flasks of bootleg whiskey were passed around and lawmen nipped along with the crowd. Amon announced that depositors could use their bank passbooks for free admission into the Majestic Theater, and two hundred people rushed off to see William Boyd in Pathé’s all-talking Officer O’Brien.
Soon after, reported the Star-Telegram, Lynn Talley, governor of the Federal Reserve Bank, spoke, telling depositors that $6, 750, 000 had been transferred from Dallas to bolster First National’s reserves. “This bank will not fail, ” he promised. The newspaper said the bank run settled into a “sort of jollification” as people digested Talley’s words.
At eight o’clock, the bands played “Home, Sweet Home” to an almost empty bank. Amon returned himself and his flu to bed. The bank remained open all night. Next morning, it announced that more cash was on deposit than before the bank run. A grand jury investigated the panic but reached no firm decision, although many people were convinced that Red anarchists were behind the bank run. Amon told his famous and influential friends that the aborted bank run proved Fort Worth was “financially able to take care of itself. ” No sir, Fort Worth was above such silly ideas as bank failures and Depressions.
Nineteen hundred and thirty-six was Texas’ centennial and the state was obliged to commemorate its one hundred years of greatness. Two years earlier, the legislature appointed a committee of civic stewards to determine how Texas would solemnize that century of well-being. The committee’s answer was an exposition, a statewide spectacular, heavy with products and farm produce and all the good things of Texas, well-larded by educational displays and cultural events. Amon was appointed to the elite body but did not participate in its debates, except to ask for funds with which to illustrate West Texas’ role in the state’s fortunes. A board of historians, created to advise the Centennial Commission how and where to spend three million dollars, rejected the claim on the grounds that West Texas “contains no history to commemorate. “
No history! shrieked the indignant Star-Telegram, ticking off the region’s contributions to Texana… fourteen major Spanish explorations… Isleta, oldest town in the state… oil, ranches, railroads, cowboys, cattle. The editorial even excavated the skeleton of a giant bison found in the Pleistocene gravel of the Panhandle to demonstrate the prehistoric importance to the state. The editor dispatched reporters into West Texas to begin a weekly series of stories on history out there. The series continued for more than a year.
Being ignored by historians was insult enough but piddling beside the committee’s next pronouncement: Dallas would be the site of the exposition.
Amon had not pushed Fort Worth on the commission. Like most everyone, he believed San Antonio and Houston, both directly involved in the state’s independence battle of 1836, were logical cities for the centennial celebration. Dallas, which didn’t even exist a century earlier, had no more claim on the birthday party than Fort Worth. Dallas, however, had cash. The city proposed to invest more seed money, and that, in the Depression, was incentive enough. Told of Dallas’ centennial coup, Amon set a record for consecutive gawddamns.
In June, 1935, a furious Amon Carter gathered his close friends to decide what must be done with Dallas. They agreed on a scheme of retribution in which Fort Worth would show its neighbor city “how the cow ate the cabbage” – Fort Worth would produce its own separate, unofficial centennial exposition! Amon always credited William Monnig with the original idea, but the impetus behind the Fort Worth exposition clearly was the publisher’s. No one else would have dared try it.
Earlier. Fort Worth, with its depressive non-Depression, had solicited and received some federal assistance, but more was needed. The planned bogus centennial created a new demand, and Will Rogers’ death in the summer of 1935 provided an approach. Fort Worth asked for a Public Works Administration grant to construct a combination coliseum and auditorium (with an unessential but impressive adjoining tower), to be named for Rogers. The idea caused the terrible-tongued Harold Ickes. FDR’s interior secretary and PWA director, to snap. “I can’t understand why a memorial to Will Rogers should be built in Fort Worth just because he was Carter’s friend. “
Amon’s coliseum/auditorium enterprise had a secondary purpose. It, and adjacent buildings, would house the annual livestock show after the centennial celebration. The Southwestern Exposition, Fat Stock Show and Rodeo grew out of the north Fort Worth stockyards, and since before 1900 had been a true state-wide event.
Site of the proposed centennial complex was a flat-topped, graveled hillock west of downtown across the Trinity River. Once the area was Camp Bowie, a World War I training facility. Earlier, it had been a horse ranch, then a grandiose residential development that failed in the panic of ’93. The Chisholm Trail passed nearby. The 135-acre tract, bought by the city for $150, 050, had a pair of period deed restrictions – no cemetary could be settled on the property and it could not be sold to Negroes. In 1935, the hill was bare of everything but scrub oaks and ebony-eyed sunflowers.
Amon flew to Washington to solicit PWA money for his project, which became known as “Amon’s Cowshed. “
Ickes, unimpressed, turned down Carter’s request. The acerbic Ickes wrote Amon of the denial, pointing out that he had approved a school building and a tuberculosis sanitarium for Fort Worth, both of which “clearly outranked a livestock pavilion as socially desirable projects. ” Amon fired a wire at Ickes, claiming, “You have knocked us in the creek for good. ” Naturally, he went over Ickes’ head to the White House.
Back in Washington, the publisher outlined Fort Worth’s program to Postmaster General James Farley. Farley presented Amon’s plan to FDR. He asked Carter to wait, and purposely left the door ajar.
Farley spoke loudly to the President: “Amon wants to build a cowshed. “
“Cowshed!” exclaimed Roosevelt.
The eavesdropping Carter rushed in, shouting, “Now, gawddamnit, it’s not a cowshed, it’s… “
Roosevelt and Farley convulsed in laughter.
Fort Worth officially resubmitted the project and Farley ultimately wired. “Your proposal received. Was always in favor of large cowsheds. ” Early in November 1935, Jesse Jones, director of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, wrote Carter, “Your cowshed has been approved by the administration. “
Amon telegraphed his thanks to FDR: “The cowshed has arrived. “
Plans for Fort Worth’s outlaw exposition moved along, largely in the inexperienced hands of the town’s women. They set out to create an enlightened production heavy with religion and high culture, a show with all the exciting theatrics of an elementary school pageant.
In the ladies defense, they knew no better, being amateurs at revenge on Dallas, and having very little with which to work. Dallas would immortalize the state with an exposition of empyreal refinement, of artsy craftsy, even fustian, enlightenment. The price tag was fifteen million dollars. The Fort Worth ladies, with a few thousand dollars, began to fashion a pale reflection of Dallas show, a religio-historic extravaganza replete with homemade parts – Boy Scouts painted as fierce Indians, a reproduction of frontier Fort Worth, jelly and baking competitions, food booths and a museum, the city symphony for uplifting mu-sicales and an amphitheater in which to present a dramatic gala featuring alternating church choirs.
Amon gawddamned the dullness of it all. and resolved to find a remedy.
In late drinking hours at the Fort Worth Club, the men pledged to hire a consultant for the ladies. Soon after the women mailed Valentines promoting the celebration (“Prairie schooner to limousine, Sunbonnet to crepe de Chine; Texas history, watch it grow, at Fort Worth’s Centennial show”), Amon contacted Rufus LeMaire, MGM’s casting director and a former Fort Worthian. By coincidence, LeMaire knew of a producer in need of a project. Billy Rose.
William Samuel Rosenberg was thirty-seven – but fibbed and claimed thirty-five – when he went to work for Fort Worth. He was an extraordinary figure in American theater life, ranking somewhere below the Barnums and Ziegfelds he emulated, but affecting the style of the stage as did no other man between the middle 1930’s and post-war years. Quality was not Rose’s genius; bigness was. Like DeMille of the movies. Rose created glossy, oversized pageantry as eye-stunning as it was mediocre. Billy Rose had a brilliance for overwhelming the senses of a popcorn and lemonade audience and the shows he devised for Fort Worth in 1936 were perfect for their time and place. In 1936, Rose was not a theater immortal, was in fact little known beyond a few blocks of Broadway where sniggering bystanders called him “Mr. Brice, ” referring to his famous wife, Fanny, the Ziegfeld musical comedy star. He had been a world shorthand champion and Bernard Baruch’s secretary and was a songwriter of minor acclaim. He produced the thinly plotted but entertaining Jumbo for Broadway, a circus opus starring Jimmy Durante. His Casinode Paree and Music Hall, a pair of New York cabarets, were briefly popular. As the year began, Rose was desperate, even neurotic, to shed the “”Mr. Brice” title, and in Fort Worth, he moved out of his wife’s shadow.
In retrospect, the unauthorized centennial was the consequence of timing and personalities: Roses desperation to become something other than Fanny Brice’s husband; Amon Carter, sizzling with a classic snit against Dallas: John Murray Anderson, peaking in his abilities as a director; Albert Johnson and Raoul Pene Du Bois, still in their twenties, reaching for perfection and fame in stage design and costuming; Dana Suesse, only twenty-one, rising to be one of the few successful female songwriters; Paul Whiteman, establishing himself as a legendary mixer of symphony and jazz, and shrewd, petite and naked Sally Rand, who would make feather fans and rubber bubbles the standard for staged nudism. As those components gathered, James Reston, an Associated Press columnist, reported. “Never has Broadway been so interested in a project outside of New York. “
“I’m going to put on a show the like of which has never been seen by the human eye. This Fort Worth show will bring 5, 000, 000 visitors down here. It should gross $2, 000, 000… No, no… it’ll be a five million dollar show. We’ll give them a bold ball of fire. Let Dallas, at the central centennial, educate the people. We’ll entertain them in Fort Worth. We’ll have a ’Lonely Hearts Ball’ weekly where all lonesome women can come and find a partner in a drawing. In years to come there’ll be kids telling one another that their grandma and grandpa were thrown together by fate and fell in love at the Fort Worth Frontier Centennial. I’ll get Shirley Temple, Mae West, Guy Lom-bardo, Jack Benny. I’ll get 1, 000 beautiful girls for the Frontier Follies. I’ll have a Texas Pageant to be called ’The Fall of the Frontier’… ’The Battle of San Jacin-to’… or some other Texas name [starring, one reporter presumed, a resurrected Santa Anna leading the entire Mexican Army]. I’ll have 2, 000 Indians and 1, 000 cowboys, and guess who wins? I’ll have a chorus line of 500 pretty girls. I’ll have an open-air dance floor for 3, 000 dancers, and singing waiters. Dallas has all that historical stuff so we don’t have to worry about that. We can just show the people a good time. I plan to drive Dallas nuts. Every time Dallas says something about its exposition. I’ll give ’em Shirley Temple. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. This’ll make Jumbo look like a peep show. “
Rose promised to import Jumbo, utilizing “900 extras and truckloads of circus animals. ’” He announced a theater-restaurant seating forty-five hundred persons and a faithful recreation of an old-time saloon with a dozen two-hundred-pound beauties dancing atop a splendiferous bar.
Reporters decided what they had on their hands was a fat little raving madman.
Standing a pot-bellied five-foot-two. Rose looked like an overweight urchin (John Nance Garner, the vice-president, called Billy a “pursley-gutted little feller”’). He had sudden, excited movements, with a hopscotching kind of walk and flinging hands; smoked endlessly, though he never bought cigarettes. He merely reached into the pocket of the nearest smoker and filched his tobacco ration. Within days, he was addicted to Dr Pepper, then distributed only in Texas, a drink with a reputation for relieving constipation because everyone believed its secret formula began with prune juice (it didn’t). Rose’s nighttime lifestyle had given him the complexion of a fungus. He looked sickly, reporters thought, until they tried to match his twenty-hour days and field the ideas popping from his eight-story mind.
Billy scrapped the ladies” centennial program (he said their museum would have looked like “hell and a bunch of spinach”), and relegated them to positions as treeplanters, greeters and scrap-book keepers. Within days, he was auditioning girls for chorus line positions. One aspiring dancer, far under the minimum height, tapdanced for Rose. Rose advised the girl – Mary Martin from nearby Weatherford – to go home and get married and forget show business.
A week after his thunderbolt introduction to Fort Worth, Rose was back in New York to assemble a professional staff, hire real chorus girls and entertainers, close Jumbo, and, incidentally, try to figure out just what kind of centennial he would produce. He arrived almost hidden under an Amon Carter cowboy hat and flashing a gold-plated sheriffs badge. Billy swaggered bowlegged into the Hippodrome and said “Hidy” to Jumbo’s cast. Standing on Rosie the elephant’s footstool. Billy addressed the company, “My friends, I am now a Texan. I commute between this great city which we have here and Texas, a state they have given me as a plaything. “
By mid-April, two thousand men toiled at the centennial site, rushing to meet a June opening date. Flitting among the laborers was the quixotic Rose, shouting, bumming cigarettes, spilling Dr Pepper, directing construction from pencil sketches marked by Albert Johnson back in New York. Rose still had only the slightest notion of what his million dollar show would be.
Billy took a suite in the Worth Hotel, but worked out of an office in the nearby Sinclair Building where he held court and audiences. He installed a wide desk and behind it. an elevated chair that pedes-talized him like a minikin magistrate above those who stood before the Rosian bar. Amon’s secretary, Katrine Deakins, thought Billy on his lofty throne “looked like a knot on a dead stump. “
Rose was asked to complete in less than two months what Dallas, ten thousand workers and fifteen million dollars were doing in a year. Not that an absence of final plans blunted publicity.
Eleven thousand billboards were erected over nine states. They showed near-nude girls gamboling in a western motif, and the slogan: GO ELSEWHERE FOR EDUCATION, COME TO FORT WORTH FOR ENTERTAINMENT. That ipse dixit, appearing in various renditions, was the Fiesta’s battle cry. The phrase rankled Dallas.
Newsmen were intrigued by the array of characters flowing through Rose’s office: four-foot-three-inch John Fox, once Buster Brown for a shoe company. Seven-foot-four-inch Dave Ballard, a schoolboy from Commerce, Texas. Seventy-five-year-old Josie DeMott Robinson, a bareback rider who had worked for P. T. Barnum. A strong woman who bent nails between her fingers. Gozo, the mind-reading dog. Tiny Kliney, once arrested in New York for sliding on a wire from a hotel roof to a theater. Joe Peanuts and his Simian Gigolos, a sixteen-piece, all-monkey band. There was a man who looked and dressed like Abe Lincoln and a real Russian count who spoke no English, an aviatrix who flew upside down, a parachutist who leaped from balloons, a rancher with a four-thousand-pound six-foot-two-inch-tall steer.
Through the Star-Telegram, Rose issued a call for “whittlers, snuff-dippers, crackbox philosophers, old couples, ox-wagons and ox-drivers, town half-wits, the village drunk, etc. ” to populate Sunset Trail, main street of the frontier section.
A promoter came with a frog circus, and still another peddled a human spine spiked with Indian arrows.
C. J. Maxwell, a Fort Worth man. entered clutching a leather briefcase. He unsnapped the case and dumped onto Billy’s desk a live wriggling snake. Rose hopped up on his high chair, screaming, “Get that thing the hell out of here!” The snake, which had two perfectly formed heads, each of which could be fed separately, was trained to eat from Maxwell’s hand and follow him like a loving pet. Despite Rose’s initial terror, he recognized a sterling exhibit. He hired the snake.
What had Amon wrought?
By mid-June, casts were assembled and in rehearsal. The professional showgirls arrived from New York and immediately asked to see cowboys. One chorine strolled to a nearby drugstore and inquired of a clerk, “Which way’s the village?” Indians poured in by the tribe. Within days, Navajos were feuding with the Sioux, the Hopis with the Apaches and Comanches with everybody. Reporters caught Navajo braves doing the family wash. Local archers beat the Indians in a bow and arrow contest. The Indians struck The Last Frontier because the script called for them to enter single file. They could not, they protested, because there were six chiefs among them and each chief had to lead. Rose handed down a Solomon decision: “Make them all chiefs, irrespectable whether they are or not. ” Every Indian on the grounds was pronounced a chief. Rehearsals continued.
John Murray Anderson arrived to direct the Casa Mariana show. At fifty, a widower. Anderson was a polished gentleman, a Canadian educated in Europe. He had straight, combed-back hair and a long unsmiling face, and a tongue that blistered. Two men could not have been more ill-matched than the sophisticated Anderson and the Bronx-bred Rose, but they were perfect for the stage. Rose dreamed; Anderson made dreams real.
Neither especially liked the other. Once Billy big-shotted his wealth at Anderson, shouting, “I have a fistful of money. What do you have?”
“I, ” replied Anderson quietly, “have one friend. “
Erudite and cosmopolitan, as proven by his Ziegfeld extravaganzas on Broadway, Anderson nevertheless had a tinselled beery eye for pomp and pageantry. He knew what sold on stage. His directing style was one of sarcasm and nettled wit. In Fort Worth, he assembled casts to see what he had. Not much, he muttered, and warned. “We have too many of you wretched showgirls and if a single one of you makes a sound, you’ll be thrown out. “
As rehearsals progressed, fascinated reporters spent leisure hours hanging around with the Broadwayites, watching Anderson yell. “You halfwit with the cigar, ” Murray lashed at one actor. “Project what little voice you have out here, not into the wings. “
“God only knows where that small mind of yours wanders. ” he hurled at an out-of-step chorine.
Anderson never called cast members or acquaintances by their names but invented chimerical titles for them. His Fort Worth chorus girls were given such aliases as Dry Ice and Child Frightener, Goo-Goo. Fuzzy, The Cobra, Birthday Cake and Eyebrows, Chigger, Cigar and Spaghetti. Anderson’s names for Rose were The Mad Emperor and The Mad Hater. He called Amon – perhaps he sensed Amon’s dislike of familiarity from the hired hands – simply and unimaginatively. The Big Chief.
The strange nicknames came from behavioral or physical quirks and none was more obvious or lasting than Stuttering Sam – for Mary Louise Dowell, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Fort Worth’s police chief. Mary Louise first came to Rose seeking a chorus line job for her sister. Rose hired both girls. Mary was six feet tall, possessed of perfect legs, a pert face and bright red hair. She had unaffected stage presence and carriage and a smile that beamed even into the nickel seats. She was a model showgirl, except for the stutter.
Stuttering Sam became the focal point of Casa Manana, in both 1936 and 1937, then Rose transported her to Broadway as centerpiece for his Diamond Horseshoes. Mary Louise Dowell immediately became New York’s most celebrated showgirl.
Mary minded her stammer not at all. and her naturalness charmed cynical New Yorkers. James Montgomery Flagg painted her. She dated show business leading men. Columnists Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell publicized her stuttering quips (“Where did you get that mink coat?” a Stork Club habitue asked Mary Louise. “I found it on the s-s-s-s-sub-way. ” replied Stuttering Sam). Once she was introduced to movie titan Jesse Lasky. Trying to say hello, Mary Louise stammered. “Hel-hel-hel-hell.. ’. I’m glad to meet you. “
Lasky was startled, but answered. “Hell. I’m glad to meet you, too. “
Stuttering Sam fascinated Flagg and columnists, and others like Doug Fairbanks Sr. and Jack LaRue. with her tales of Texas. “T-T-Texas is God’s c-c-country, ” she would brag, explaining the processes of milking cows, feeding chickens, frying steak and picking pecans. She complained because Toots Shor didn’t serve cornbread and buttermilk in his restaurant. Shor affectionately called Sam his “crum-bum doll.”
Mary Louise’s showgirl career, though, was secondary to her first ambition. She wanted to be a writer. She became a columnist for the Star-Telegram, bylined “Stuttering Sam. ” The columns pattered on about Broadway and its characters, of her adventures in the big city, of other Texans displaced in New York.
Abruptly, in 1942. Stuttering Sam quit show business and took her typewriter to Hollywood, to Warner Brothers where she was hired as a scenarist. There was talk of a film on her life but nothing came of the idea. Two years later. Sam left Hollywood without writing success.
June passed. Enter July. Still no Fort Worth Frontier Centennial. Amon was fidgety, anxious for the exposition he had promised. Dallas’ centennial was doing big business. Critics praised the Dallas show, lauding its edifying exhibits. Visitors said they enjoyed most the General Motors building in which Jan Garber’s orchestra played beside a crank shaft spinning seventeen hundred times a minute, and the Chrysler exhibit with its organ and harp concerts. Eddie Barr, a Dallas columnist, sneaked a look at Fort Worth’s uncompleted showgrounds and declared. “It probably will be mediocre and cheap. “
Fort Worth responded by erecting the world’s second largest sign opposite the main entrance of Dallas’ exposition. The green and red neon sign was one hundred and thirty feet long, sixty feet high and its message blinked day and night: WILD & WHOO-PEE 45 MINUTES WEST, FORT WORTH FRONTIER. Fort Worth was spelled out in green neon letters seventeen and one-half feet tall. The sign was second in size only to a chewing gum display overlooking Times Square. Dallas began scurrying around for non-educational exhibits.
Fort Worth concluded its statewide beauty contest to select Texas Sweetheart Number One. Billy Rose revealed that a bright new Hollywood star, Clark Gable, would judge the competition, but like most Rosian announcements, it never happened. Rose, Anderson and Amon culled the entries, awarding the crown to Miss Faye Cotton, a Borger waitress. She was five feet six inches tall, weighed one hundred and twenty pounds, had gray eyes and a 35-24 1/2-35 figure. Cotton told reporters she read the Bible each day and her hobbies were dancing and shooting. The Star-Telegram commented that the beauty queen had “less personal vanity than a Salvation Army settlement worker. ” She immediately entered the hospital for a tonsillectomy.
The Dallas Morning News chided Fort Worth for not choosing a sweetheart of higher social standing than that of a waitress. The Star-Telegram angrily defended the selection with an editorial praising motherhood in West Texas. Meanwhile, Amon searched for celebrities to open the Fiesta. He wanted FDR. The President declined, but promised to furnish his vice-president, Cactus Jack Garner. Texas Governor James Allred would come, and Texas Senator Tom Connally, Texas Attorney General William Mc-Graw, former governor Pat Neff, and American Airlines president C. R. Smith. Elliott Roosevelt agreed to stand in for his father. FDR came to Fort Worth in early July to visit Elliott at his Dutch Branch Ranch west of town. Amon escorted the President on a tour of the centennial grounds and suggested a way for Roosevelt to participate without actually being there.
The Fort Worth Frontier Centennial officially opened July 18. Twenty-five thousand spectators crowded the entrance to Sunset Trail where dedication ceremonies were held. Amon entered the grounds driving a Wells Fargo stagecoach. He was dressed in his cowboy costume and whooped and yippeed for March of Time newsreel cameras. Amon fired his pistols for the newsreel and admitted, “Yes, Dallas does have something Fort Worth doesn’t have – a real city thirty miles away. “
FDR was in his yacht, the Sewanna, fishing in the Bay of Fundy off Cape Sable, Nova Scotia. At 3: 30 p. m.. Fort Worth time, he punched a button, sending an electrical impulse to a Maine relay station, which beamed a wave on across the United States to Texas, to Fort Worth, to the entrance of Sunset Trail where it electronically snipped a lasso.
That day Dallas newspapers announced that two million people already had attended the Texas Centennial. Dallas also held a bizarre ceremony, apparently to blunt publicity in Fort Worth. In mid-afternoon, Violet Hilton was married to James Moore, a slide trombone player, on the fifty-yard line of the Cotton Bowl. Five thousand people paid twenty-five cents each to attend the wedding. It was a simple, dignified ceremony. The bride wore white, as did her Siamese twin sister, Daisy.
There was little Dallas could do to lessen the Fort Worth fanfare. One thousand newspapermen, including the best-known New York columnists and critics, were present for the opening. Amon had invited them, furnished transportation, food and booze to get them there. Already there was a crashing crescendo of words flowing to the nation.
An American Airlines plane was chartered for the New Yorkers. Billy Rose met the plane, outfitted in one of Amon’s cowboy rigs, with spurs, oversized hat and boots. Two guns hung on his hips. Billy quick-drew his pistols, aimed them at the newspapermen and shouted, ’”Bang, bang. You’re dead. ” Lucius Beebe, the columnist, wrote that Rose looked like “an East Side kid playing cowboy. ” The Star-Telegram reported that the critics also were greeted by “four pickaninnies in candy-striped suits carrying a banner, Welcome Fourth Estate, ’ while Blackie’s Bluejackets struck up ’The Eyes of Texas. ’ “
That evening Amon primed the writers with champagne and chili at his Shady Oak Farm, then sent them to Casa Mariana for a special press preview. The preview was preceded by an hour-long, eighty-five station national broadcast on the NBC network, originating at WBAP. WBAP announcers handled the microphones, and Harold Hough was anchorman. He lamented that Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch would not be presented adequately, adding, “But after all, we do not have television. “
Preachy as ever, the Star-Telegram urged Fort Worth’s citizens to “get into the Fiesta Spirit, ” and lectured women on proper dress for shows – “Do not wear freakish costumes like slacks, overalls or beach pajamas. ” The newspaper, “as a public service for our non-Texas visitors, ” printed a lexicon of western terms (“Chouse: to stir up cattle more than is good for them”). It reported on reactions beyond its borders: “Fort Worth stole the show last night when WLW, the world’s most popular radio station, saluted Texas from Cincinnati. It (Fort Worth] was the first Texas city mentioned and received four mentions to Dallas’ two.”
Casa Mariana’s press preview was an uncompromised success and stories about the centennial blanketed America. Burns Mantle wrote, “For valor, valor touched with profligacy, I give you Fort Worth, even if it suspects all Scotch drinkers are sissies. ” Robert Garland of the New York World Telegram gushed, “So gargantuan… so fantastic… so incredible. They have merged the dreams of Buffalo Bill and Broadway Billy. I like the imagination of it. the what-the-hell-do-we-care of its 2 million dollar whoopee. ” Ward Morehouse, the New York Sun’s drama critic, suggested a Casa Manana be built in Central Park. Beebe thought the show was “thrilling… a dream come true” but went on to call Texans “scram-my, ” mostly because a drunken cowboy tried to sell him a twenty-two hundred-acre ranch.
Damon Runyon, writing for the Hearst newspapers, was most expansive: “Broadway and the wild west are jointly producing what probably is the biggest and most original show ever seen in the United States. If you took the Polo Grounds and converted it into a cafe and then added the best Ziegfeld scenic effects, you might get something approximating Casa Manana.”
After the show, critics interviewed Billy, who claimed his thousand dollar a day fee was too low. “I’m worth much more than that. ” he bragged.
“What will you do when you’re through here?” he was asked.
“I’ll get one of those little Balkan wars and go on tour with it.”
Next evening, and for every evening thereafter, at least four thousand people filled Casa Mariana. The crowd often was mixed tux and overalls, gowns and print dresses, but nobody cared. They came, ate the $1. 75 dinner and sighed as Everett Marshall sang to Faye Cotton. Marshall and Cotton were central to the show’s plot, so tenuous as to be missed if a patron blinked.
Billy’s advertising was not subtle:
… Not only a day but a Decade in Advance of its Time… The Largest Theater-Cafe ever Constructed… Tables and Chairs for 4, 500 Amusement Lovers… A Gargantuan-Revolving-Reciprocating Stage… Three and a Half Times Larger than that of Radio City Music Hall… Two 450 h. p. Motors Required to Operate this Liviathan [sic] of Rostrums, with its 4, 264, 000 Pounds of Actual Deadweight plus a Lovely Freight of 250 Eye-Bedeviling Coryphees Over a Pool of Limpid Crystal containing 617, 000 Gallons of Real Water… SPECTACLE and SONG, DANCE, AND COMEDY… Past Peradventure, the BIGGEST SHOW EVER PRODUCED.
Beside that modest announcement was an artist’s conception of Casa Manana, showing ten nude girls splashing in 617, 000 gallons of real water.
The Cavalcade of World Fairs was little more than an excuse for huge sets. Marshall and Cotton portrayed a couple who honeymooned at the St. Louis World Fair and liked it so well they went on to fairs in Paris, Chicago, and, of course, Fort Worth, wandering among the chorus girls and stars. Ann Pennington danced as Little Egypt (she “cootchied” so violently on opening night, wrote Jack Gordon, that her beads broke and bounced into front row soup bowls). Sally Rand was featured as a “Ballet Divertisement” in the Chicago scenes, alternating her fans and balloons. The latter were five feet in diameter, colored light blue, cost twenty-five dollars each and were made by Goodyear. She lost a couple of them to tacky Texas night breezes and thereafter used the balloons only on perfectly calm evenings.
Marshall sang “The Night Is Young and You’re So Beautiful” to Faye Cotton, who wore a five thousand-dollar, forty-pound gold lame gown designed by New York jewelers Whiting and Davis. The song, which became the unofficial anthem for the centennial, was dashed off in Billys Worth Hotel suite by Rose and Dana Suesse, who were stuck for a big number in the St. Louis segment. By early 1937, the melody was high on the hit parade. The Marshall/Cotton scene, Paris’ Eiffel Tower glitteringly outlined with five thousand lights, Ann Pennington emerging from a papier maché ” 100-gallon hat” – all brought applause. Nothing, however, compared with the final scene when the mammoth stage rolled back. In that final tableau, the entire cast assembled as eighty-five fountains exploded with colored water, the six flags under which Texas served paraded and waved, and Marshall sang “Lone Star” as gondoliers poled across the lagoon. The spectacle was so awesome nobody ever wondered why Venetian-type boatmen appeared in a western scene.
Amon boasted he saw Casa Manana sixty times.
Not everyone was enchanted by the centennial. Albert Johnson entered a cafe for breakfast, and a waitress, hearing his accent, asked, “You one of them New York actor people?” He admitted he was. She frowned. The waitress served the meal, and Johnson called after her, “Say, I asked for buttered toast. “
“Butter it yourself, ” snapped the woman, “yore arm ain’t broken. “
It was not only Texas’ natural suspicion of outsiders, but Rose’s abrupt manner, and his ideas, which in the end had very little to do with Texas history, that created the problems. A veterans” group complained Rose refused to give them space for their weapons display. The women, pushed into the background, weren’t content with their trash cleanup campaign, sponsorship of Centennial Clubs in schools and the restoration of a log cabin. They publicly condemned the scantily clad cowgirl symbol on billboards and lamented the absence of a church in the reconstructed frontier town. A Miss Shelton suggested doing away with saloons and adding Fort Worth’s symphony orchestra and an opera “each fortnight. “
Preachers, both collectively and singly, went after Billy Rose’s sinful hide. Much of the debate centered on the centennial’s advertising for Casa Mariana, which depicted bare-breasted but nipple-less girls splashing in the theater’s lagoon. And mostly it was the Baptists – Southern Baptists are unequalled in their zeal for public morality – who decried the shamefulness of it all.
A committee of Baptists investigated the fiesta’s immorality and reported that all ingredients for public corruption certainly were there – nude advertising with suggestive words and phrases, half-naked showgirls, booze and slot machines. One Baptist minister, S. H. Frazier, told city council members of the “nude women above the water” and asked the tantalizing question, “Are we going to show visitors the old days only as drinking, gambling and carousing?” The Reverend Mister Frazier added, “If I had the money, I would rent a concession stand and preach, morning, noon and night, and distribute religious material out there. “
Methodists joined the protest, denouncing Billy Rose from the pulpits. Fort Worth’s General Ministers Association voted a resolution condemning the fiesta’s advertising and general lack of religious orientation. A delegation was dispatched to confront Rose. Billy later commented, “They were all nice, except one, and he looked like he had 60 yards of rope under his hat to hang me. ” The meeting changed nothing. Privately, Rose was elated with the preachers’ attack. It was better publicity than he could contrive and the ministers’ catalog of centennial wickedness showed customers exactly where to look for what they wanted.
Strangely silent during the preacher uprising was that most enthusiastic sin stomper of all – J. Frank Norris. The show’s iniquitous facade seemed to have been made in Heaven as a Norris target, but he stayed out of the controversy. In fact, he attended a performance of Casa Manana in late Autumn, commenting, “My hat is off to Amon Carter and his associates. They’ve done a real job. ” Curious words for a man who once lambasted Sunday picture shows. Norris did not jump on the exposition because he had made a deal with Amon.
Shortly before opening, Amon telephoned the Baptist leader.
“You going out of town this summer?” asked Amon.
“I might. Why do you ask?”
“We’ve got this centennial show and some nude girls, and we’re going to sell liquor… “
“I see. Well, I’ve been intending to hold some revivals. I guess I could start them early, ” suggested Norris.
“You do that, ” agreed Amon.
Norris traveled more than twenty-seven thousand miles in distant states saving souls under big tents and did not return to Fort Worth until late September, long after folks discovered the wickedness was largely pulpit-made.
There was of course nudity: thirty-six unadorned breasts in Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch. Sally, the fan and bubble dancer, performed in Casa Manana but owned and produced the Nude Ranch. Variety reported Sally netted a thousand dollars weekly from her nudes. That sin should pay so well provoked Baptist preachers to even more bombastic outrage.
The Very Reverend Joe Scheumack commanded that city councilmen “see to it that those girls put on clothes or that the show is closed. “
Had he seen the show?
“1 have not, ” he replied indignantly. “I just saw the statues out front. They are an open violation of the law in themselves. “
Hitting his stride, Reverend Scheumack said the Nude Ranch “is a contamination of the centennial and flagrant violation of this state’s penal code. I think they’re about as low as they can get. Such things have a tendency to corrupt the morals of people. “
Folks anxious to debauch their morals rushed to see the objects of Scheumack’s harangue. The nude business got better.
Sally Rand was one of the most successful strippers in history, though she disdained the term and in fact never undressed on stage – she danced naked but hidden behind fans or balloons and bathed in a baby blue light. Nobody ever saw anything she didn’t want them to see, thus her wisecrack, “The Rand is quicker than the eye. “
Sally was hired at Amon’s suggestion. During his first press conference, Rose promised his production would have “neither nudity nor smut. Only once had the public responded to smut. We don’t need any fans or bubble dances at the Texas Frontier Centennial and we won’t have them. “
Curious, Amon asked about the smut the public had once responded to.
“At the Century of Progress in Chicago, ” said Billy. “Sally Rand had a nude act. “
“Pulled em in, did she?”
“Let’s get her. “
Sally’s Nude Ranch was billed as the “only education exhibit on the grounds” and cost two bits, a bargain. Out front were replicas of classic Greek and Roman statues with bared plaster breasts irking Reverend Scheumack. Patrons entered through a recreated ranch house front porch, on which sat Adolph, King of the Nudists. He was seventy-four and wore a long black beard. He dressed in a Roman tunic.
Inside were the thirty-six breasts belonging to eighteen pretty girls. They wore cowboy boots and hats, green bandanas, skirtlets and tights. Only breasts showed. Sally branded each girl with a rubber-stamped “SR. ” The “show” consisted of the girls lounging on swings and beach chairs. Some played with a beach ball. Others shot bows and arrows. One or two sat on horses. A floor-to-ceiling wire screen separated breasts from viewers. Jack Gordon, the Fort Worth Press entertainment columnist, described the girls as “goona-goona. ” There was a “kick-off” room to extract another quarter from spectators. Inside was Florence dressed in an organdy gown. A maid helped Florence undress, removing even the black step-ins, and enter her milk bath. Florence bathed in milk twenty-five times a day.
Dallas, meanwhile, got the message. It opened Streets of Paris, a semi-nude show. The Press reported that the half-nudes were “built like stevedores. “
Sally Rand was never what people thought she was. She arrived driving a chocolate-colored Lincoln touring sedan and done up in a sunbonnet and calico granny dress. For the next three months she was the best publicity campaign of the centennial.
She threw out the first ball opening Softball season and speaking to the crowd, removed only her sunbonnet, but promised, “You’ll see more of me. ” She spoke to every service club in town. “I am an exponent of truth in advertising and consequently 1 stick to the bare facts when selling my merchandise, ” she told Ki-wanis members. “I’m in the same business as you, ” Sally explained to an advertising club. “Selling white space. “
She spoke to PTA groups. She traveled to Dallas and Waco and Wichita Falls, boosting the Fiesta. She bought fifty memberships for the civic music season. She donated time and money to underprivileged kids. In tight shorts, hair braided, Sally gave a pep talk to TCU’s Horned Frog football team. She was photographed in the kitchen of her rented home, baking a cake. Sally directed traffic at high noon in downtown Fort Worth. Her grandmother, Mollie Grove, came to visit, and Sally threw a tea party for the old lady. Reporters sat around with show business’ best nude act talking of crochet patterns and lemon chiffon pie recipes.
C. L. Richhart was assigned by Jim Record to write an in-depth story on Sally. Rich went to her dressing room, knocked and was summoned inside where he found Sally, naked, lying on her stomach reading the Bible.
Sally stretched, rolled over, and shyly covered her mons veneris with Psalms 35: 17.
Of the seventeen thousand stories appearing around Texas on Fort Worth’s centennial, half featured Sally Rand. Her pictures appeared 947 times in Texas newspapers during her ninety-day stay in Fort Worth. Sally was such an accomplished attention-getter that Jack Gordon predicted “when the city storm sewer opens, there will be a picture of Sally Rand crawling through it. “
November 6 was declared Sally Rand Day in Tarrant County. The stripper who dared inflict bare breasts on Fort Worth was cited for her “graciousness and consummate artistry” and publicly thanked for bringing “culture and progress to Tarrant County. “
Fort Worth was wide open during the centennial. Illegal liquor was served everywhere because Amon had made a deal with the state’s Liquor Control Board, the agency charged with enforcing Texas’ harsh drinking laws. Officers agreed to go blind while Fort Worth, usually asleep by nine o’clock, swung until dawn. People danced at Casa Manana to Paul Whiteman’s music until three a. m., then swarmed into such dine, dance and drink emporiums as the Crown, the State and the Buccaneer. NBC engineers built a complete control room in the Ringside Club from which Whiteman broadcast his weekly coast-to-coast radio program. The band had to maneuver around a craps game that went on for three months without interruption. Musicians from the Whiteman and Joe Venuti bands jammed through breakfast at the State. The Humming Bird, a club in the black neighborhood of Como, played such performers as Fats Waller, and set aside one table for white customers. Dante’s Inferno, on the west side, featured female impersonators and was frequented by Casa Mariana’s male dancers, many of whom were gay. It became the thing to do to go to the Inferno and “watch the queers dance. “
Two million people came to the centennial party. They played through the grounds, ate ten cent banana splits and fifteen cent ham sandwiches, toured the recreated living room of Will Rogers’ Santa Monica home. Folks entered the grounds beneath a neon “Howdy Stranger” sign and through a log stockade gate, finding immediately the few educational displays, placed there, said Rose, “so the people can see them and then go have fun. ” At night, the grounds were bathed in an eerie pink neon light (Rose, anguished by the peculiar color, announced it had been devised purposely to give women a “peaches and cream complexion”).
Amon haunted the shows, mother-henning everything. He often narrated The Last Frontier. He strutted in an Indian headdress. He sang “I’m in Love with a Handlebar Mustache” in the Pioneer Palace. Aubrey Kennedy, identified in the Star-Telegram as “an early silent film producer, ” met with Amon, then announced the pending production of an eight-reel movie. The plot was about a boy wanting to “build an exposition to bring millions of people to Texas to thrill to the beautiful plains and scenic loveliness. The elaborate entertainment, including a girl show, causes a strait-laced Texas pioneer father to stand in the way of a romance between his daughter and the boy, but when the father sees the pioneer village street, he is reminded of his youth and allows the boy and girl to marry. ” Kennedy said Hoot Gibson would star. The movie, thankfully, was never made.
Paul Whiteman was declared a Texas colonel and given chaps labeled “Mr. PW” by Amon. The orchestra leader bought a white horse named “Popcorn, ” adopted western dress and never again in his life strayed far from Fort Worth and Amon Carter. Whiteman played host to visiting orchestra leaders, including Wayne King, the Waltz King, whose wife, Dorothy, was born in Fort Worth. King explained his musical title: “We are called the Waltz King because we happen to play dreamy music over the radio on the theory that a relaxed mood makes women buy face cream. “
Billboard announced that other Casa Mananas would be built in Miami, Cleveland, Atlanta and Havana. Chorus girls judged a knock-knock joke contest for the Press. John Search-The-Enemy, a seventy-three-year-old Sioux medicine man, died in August. Mrs. Search-The-Enemy, a daughter, Agness Tootoo, and a friend, Bear-Save-Life, accompanied the body to South Dakota for burial. Death was attributed to a gastro-intes-tinal malfunction brought on by eating raw beef kidneys. Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch business was diluted by the opening of “Beauty and the Beasts, featuring Mademoiselle Laurene NeVell, intrepid Eve daring the ferocious onslaught of seven blood lusting Nubian Lions. ” Three monkeys escaped from the Monkey Mountain and pounced on the blood lusting lions, scaring the toothless old cats into several days of non-onslaught. The monkeys also rang the bell in the church tower, drank beer in the Pioneer Palace, and dived into Florence’s milk bath. Gordon reported that a seventy-five-year-old West Texas rancher paid his two bits and entered the Nude Ranch at 3: 30 one August afternoon, and did not emerge until 8: 30 that night, apparently none the worse for wear. Three coeds working in the Nude Ranch were recognized and notified by their college they could not return in the fall.
The two-headed snake died August 14, presumably done in by the heat.
It was that way for four months until chilly weather forced a closing on November 15. Billy Rose spent the entire million dollars and more, and investors lost everything. Nobody seemed to care.
Fort Worth prospered. Beer sales were up seventy-five percent, soft drinks by thirty percent. Barbers cut forty percent more hair and grocery stores sold thirty percent more food. The Depression that Fort Worth didn’t have had been blunted.
For what it was and where it was, Fort Worth’s Frontier Centennial may have been the most successful exposition in history, and memorable for everyone. When Damon Runyon reviewed the 1939 New York World Fair, his appraisal was: “No hits, no runs, no Carters. “
Most everybody can gel results when kindly encouraged but give me a man who can get there in spite of hell.