When the State Fair of Texas opens October 8th to run until the 24th, it will play host to close to three million people. It was not always like this. The fair was just a side show at first; the main attraction was horse racing. Dallas had 10,000 people in 1880, and when a town gets that big, it’s time to get the horse racing off the streets. Just too many kids and chickens. It’s doubtful that anyone around here 100 years ago would have had the financial gumption to put on a big fair if it weren’t for the fact that horse racing was such a sure-shot draw. Build a big fence around the track, leave a little extra space for exhibitors, haul in a few barrels of beer and you’ve got a fair. A little more extra space, and you’ve got a state fair.
That’s how it all got started. In the decades since, throngs of visitors to the State Fair of Texas have marveled at newfangled gadgets ranging from the sewing machine to the Saladmaster and have tapped their toes to the beat of master musicians from Sousa to Presley. There have been wild men (both in and out of public office), ostrich races, fan dancers and freaks. Every year there’s been a fair to remember.
Well, not every year. Fair Park was a military camp in 1917 and 1918. In 1935, it was closed to get ready for the Texas Centennial, and from 1942 to 1945, it was again set aside for the war effort. But those brief interludes of abstinence just made the cotton candy and pink lemonade taste that much better when the fair returned to life.
There was a significant difference of opinion as to where the first state fair should be held. Before 1886, Dallas had held a few county fairs, but they never amounted to much. Uncle Billy Miller had the only registered bull in the county in the 1870s, so that event was no contest. But by the mid-1880s, Dallas was ready for something bigger and better. The promoters of the county fair, who had been holding the event on vacant land near the present site of Baylor Hospital, got permission from the state Legislature to call their exhibition a state fair, then announced that it would be moved to permanent quarters along the T&P railroad tracks south of town. The local farm implement dealers, who constituted a powerful lobby in those days, went out to inspect the new site and were appalled. As chance would have it, the plow men went out after a heavy rain and were greeted by a gray-black quagmire.
It’s very difficult to impress cash-carrying farmers with the latest in plows, if both plow and mule are stuck in the mud, so the dealers bolted. They announced that the real state fair would be held on Uncle Jack Cole’s farm along the Texas Central railroad tracks near the present intersection of McKinney and Fitzhugh and that it would open the day before “that other” fair.
On October 25, 1886, the first Texas State Fair opened in North Dallas, and on October 26, 1886, the first Dallas State Fair opened in South Dallas. There were great similarities between the two. The focal point of each state fair was, of course, horse racing. The exhibits at each locale were about the same -sewing machines, quilts, embroidery, honey, jelly, reapers, thrashers and mowers, but the fair out north did have more plows. Both fairs had chariot races, and there was even a balloon ascension at each location. The Dallas State Fair had Professor Blakeley, a daredevil aeronaut, and the Texas State Fair featured Professor Brayton, who had gained world acclaim by crossing the English Channel in a hot-air balloon. Each balloonist tried to outperform the other with devil-may-care feats of daring, and before it was all over, both aeronauts were ascending from the respective grounds hanging by their legs from trapezes and blowing upside-down kisses to the terrified ladies below.
There were a few unique attractions. The Texas fair featured a taxidermic depiction of the events surrounding the death and burial of Cock Robin, featuring 100 stuffed birds of various denominations. The Dallas fair countered with an incredible fossil just discovered in Missouri that was said to have the wings of a beetle, the beak of an eagle, the horns of a rhino, the tail of a seal and the feet of an elephant.
As it turned out, the plow dealers had panicked needlessly. The promoters of the South Dallas fair laid a great maze of graveled drives, roads and display areas. The grounds were decorated with two carloads of cactus from the Sierra Blanca Mountains and 200 cedar trees. Planks were laid from Main Street to the fairgrounds so that the mules pulling the streetcars could enjoy sound footing. The next year, the two fairs combined at the South Dallas location, and the State Fair of Texas has been held there ever since.
After Horse Racing
Even with no competing state fair across town, putting on the annual affair was still no financial bed of roses for the promoters. When the Legislature threatened to outlaw horse-race betting in the early 1900s, the fair promoters gave more than passing thought to forgetting the whole thing and selling the site to real estate developers. Then someone had the bright idea of selling the grounds to the City of Dallas, which would allow the promoters to pay some bills without losing the property. This unusual partnership has worked successfully for more than three quarters of a century, with the City of Dallas owning the fairgrounds, and the State Fair Association managing them.
In 1909, the Legislature did indeed outlaw horse-race betting, which caused a panic that made the plow dealers’ rump fair look like a mild overreaction. It was quickly decided that contests, in one form or another, must remain the highlight of the exhibition. “Betless” horse racing continued for awhile, but somehow lacked the necessary zing to survive. Besides that, the $5,000 to $10,000 a day in bookie fees that was lost when betting was outlawed seriously jaundiced the viewpoint of the fair promoters on the purely aesthetic values of horse racing.
In 1910. it was decided that the ideal way to get people’s minds off the missing chalkboards with bookies’ odds was to bring forth the thunderous hoofbeats of 40 grand stallions carrying masked knights who would “flatly dispute the death of chivalry.” Instead of impaling each other with lances, the bold knights competed to see who could spear the most rings suspended from posts while barreling down the old race track at breakneck speed. Buglers announced each event, and fair maidens were hired to toss ribbons to their favorite knight. Surrounding towns held preliminary events, sending local champions to the grand finale, but alas, the event did not become a national institution as was hoped.
The fair experimented with ostrich racing off and on, but the gangly two-toed creatures proved too unpredictable. The jockeys, who tagged along behind in light sulkies, encouraged the giant birds to move by making strange gurgling noises. When that effort proved unproductive, phase two involved the application of a whip on and about the head of the ostrich. At this point, the ostrich would either dart off at speeds approaching 40 miles per hour or would squat and gurgle.
For a while, rabbit races were very popular. These events did not pit hare against hare, but rather jackrabbit against greyhound. The jackrabbit was given a slight head start, and the one that could get farthest around the one-mile track before being overtaken by the hound was declared the winner. No rabbit ever made it all the way; three-fourths of a mile was the record, which meant that the winning rabbit enjoyed a rather hollow victory.
When motorized vehicles came into vogue, contests involving the automobile were viewed with great interest. In 1912, auto polo was considered the daredevil sport of the age. These contests pitted specially constructed autos, each staffed by a driver and a stick-wielding attendant. By 1915, the sport of the age had been replaced by speed racing, and a huge crowd turned out to watch the daring maneuvers of the great Barney Oldfield. In 1922 the crowd was stunned when the auto of another internationally known race driver Hipped over twice after crossing the finish line. The driver, who flew out the window of the vehicle as the car plunged into the retaining wall, was named Ben Gotoff.
In 1947, the fairgrounds were filled with excitement and expectation as 10,000 female contestants lined up in the stands of the Cotton Bowl, each praying that she would be named Queen for a Day by radio emcee Jack Bailey. Mrs. William C. Ver-non, the wife of a Navy veteran, was chosen because of the pitiable story she told about how badly the couple needed to have the top fixed on their leaky old convertible, barely edging out a semifinalist who needed help in getting the mice out of her kitchen. The winner was rewarded with a free trip to Galveston, four dozen roses, a silver fountain pen, a package of flour, a string of costume pearls, free dancing lessons and a lifetime supply of stationery.
One of the early contests that had an unexplainable attraction was the game of football. In 1915, the state universities from Texas and Oklahoma stunned the fair promoters by drawing more than 11,000 paying customers to an encounter staged on the infield oval of the race track, the largest crowd ever to see a football game in Texas. While it was generally agreed that this peculiar game was a fad that would no doubt fade, it was nice while it lasted, the promoters thought.
The Texas-Oklahoma game was held in Dallas only on a sporadic basis until 1929, when Oklahoma was substituted at the last minute to take the place of a game against Texas that Vanderbilt canceled, and the series was never to fade again. The annual struggle between the Red and the Orange has become the centerfold of the book of success of the Texas State Fair. It is a guaranteed draw of 75,000 plus, which translates into 150,000 hot dogs and the biggest day of the year on the midway. It’s the wonderful world of Bobby Layne, Billy Vessels, Tommy McDonald, Harley Sewell, Jim Weatherall, James Saxton, ticket scalpers and drunks.
Fortunately for the State Fair Association, most of the evildoing takes place in downtown Dallas the night before the game, when hotels remove the furniture from their lobbies and board up the windows. During the Sixties, there were more arrests than there were police officers, giving rise to the advent of the one-way side-walk, a clever device designed to prevent head-on encounters, and to eventually fatigue the revelers into submission.
But Fair Park has had its share of the ’ action, particularly the Cotton Bowl. In ’ 1947, as Bobby Layne was leading the Longhorns to their eighth straight victory over the Sooners, the fans from north of the Red River decided they weren’t going to take it any more. In response to a questionable call by an official near the end of the first half, the Oklahoma fans bombarded the field with Coke bottles, sending the players of both teams to the center of the field where they cowered in fear of their lives. This led to a booming business in paper cups -glass containers were banned from the stadium forever.
For the most part, the officers of the law have had the worst of it, because there are always more drunks than there are policemen. After being zapped behind the head by a cushion thrown with the deftness of a Frisbee champion, the hapless officer can usually do little more than growl and grimace; no one ever confesses. But in 1949, for Officer R.S. Pierce, it was different. As Oklahoma fans chanted “We want a goal post,” 40 red-shirted youths snake-danced in the direction of the quarry. A small, red-haired youth was boosted to the crossbar, only to be yanked down by the seat of the pants by Pierce. Yielding to inexperience, the youngster took a swing at Pierce, whereupon the officer, in the true spirit of “one riot, one Ranger,” lifted his attacker off the ground with a mighty blow to the chin, and the uprising was over.
A primary purpose of an exhibition such as the state fair is, of course, to exhibit. Thousands of Texans saw their first automobile at the state fair, not to mention their first gas cooking stove, electric lamp, yo-yo, mechanical cotton picker, telephone, washing machine, lawn sprinkler, coffee percolator and TV. It was this last item, exhibited here in abundance in the late Forties, that changed the face of the fair forever. Everyone has seen everything now, on television. Though the exhibitors still manage to come up with an occasional eyecatcher – such as the Weed-eater and the microwave oven -people don’t go to the fair anymore expecting to see anything new.
In 1946, after a four-year drought on state fairs, people were desperate to see anything. More than 500,000 fair-goers stood in two block-long lines to see Elsie, the Borden cow, in her boudoir. Elsie, the Miss Piggy of the Forties, had been a pinup favorite of the GIs during the war, second in popularity only to Betty Grable. But after television, Elsie went into retirement, and the exhibitors began to seek out the fads and follies of the moment. Satan and Adolph, two goats who survived the atomic blast at Bikini, were big hits at the Health Museum, as were three radioactive frogs from Oak Ridge. The 1970 fair featured Futuro II, a baby-blue oval-shaped Fiberglas structure with oval windows and a 26-foot curved sofa that opened into a 33-foot bed. The 21st Century Corp. of Nashville, Tennessee, promised to massproduce these giant eggs, which were a sure bet to take over the housing market by 1980, for the nominal sum of $20,000 each.
There’s still plenty of action in the exhibit halls if you’d like to learn more about rack-and-pinion steering, get your glasses cleaned, be saved, rest and recuperate in a vibrating recliner, win a free trip to a new resort in Arkansas, play the organ, sign up to win a set of Encyclopedia Britannica or learn how to become wealthy by raising earthworms.
“DID JOHN the Baptist die a needless death?” That was the rhetorical cry of a 1972 freak-show barker announcing an incredible breakthrough in medical science that had proven that the human body could live without a head. Inside, through the clever use of mirrors, lovely Lola floated in a glass pool sustained by what appeared to be rubber tubes protruding from her neck.
It’s even getting hard to come up with something new in freak shows because the state fair has at one time or another exhibited virtually every deformity with which humanity has been afflicted. There have been two-headed women (we now know they were Siamese twins), four-legged chickens and six-legged cows. There was the wild man of Borneo and the alligator girl, and the fattest, skinniest, tallest, shortest man/woman who ever lived. And in 1897, there was even an 80,000-pound whale that had been pickled for preservative purposes, but that nevertheless had such an odor as to create a recession in the snack-food business.
Snake-charmers and fortunetellers were quite popular during the early days, but had begun to fade by the Twenties. The fortunetellers complained that superstition just wasn’t what it once was and that there appeared to be a growing indifference toward the future. Before long, the crystal-ball gazers had disappeared altogether, replaced by a generation of weight-guessers.
Strange and mysterious people from other lands have always been popular, especially if they were newsworthy. After Admiral Dewey’s conquest at Manila, people lined up to see the Igorrots, Philippine “headhunters” from the island of Luzon. According to the barker, the Igorrots were a remarkable race of people. The men didn’t grow beards until they were past 80, and even at that age they could cart around 500-pound loads with the slightest effort. The 1966 fair featured Vietnam Village, with a simulated rice paddy, underground tunnels, booby traps, thatch huts -even a dead Viet Cong sniper draped in a tree.
For a long time, cowboys and Indians were cinch draws. When the two fairs opened in 1886, Apache chief Geronimo had just surrendered a few weeks earlier, whereupon he was immediately deported to Florida so that he wouldn’t be tempted to sneak off again into the Chiracahua Mountains. Many Dallasites had expected to encounter Geronimo and his fellow Indians upon crossing the Trinity River, so they weren’t about to pass up an opportunity to see their first real live Indian. They were not disappointed, for each of the two fairs had its own tribe, the Modocs to the north and the Comanches to the south.
In 1900, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders of the World favored the state fair with its presence. Cody was a cowboy only in the generic sense, in the minds of those students of the West who classified all participants as either cowboys or Indians. Cody’s accomplishments were much exaggerated by the dime novelists of the day, but ironically, it is fashionable today to ridicule the legendary scout and to picture him as a buffoon, which he was not. Though it didn’t take a super shot to kill buffaloes, Cody was an excellent marksman.
If Cody had stayed out of show business, his image probably would have survived untarnished, but his Wild West dramatizations were admittedly a bit much. To jazz up his Dallas visit, Cody added a re-creation of the charge up San Juan Hill, which he advertised as “an addition to a previously complete and perfect entertainment.” The show featured , Apache Indians in hideous war paint, brandishing tomahawks and shrieking bloodcurdling yells. First, the Indians attacked a wagon train but were thwarted in the nick of time by Bill and a handful of cowboys. Later in the show, the same In- . dians attacked a settler’s cabin and still later the Deadwood Stage, but on both occasions they befell the same fate that was meted out to them at the wagon train. Between Indian raids, Miss Phoebe Ann Mo-zee, known on the circuit as Annie Oakley, blasted clay pigeons with a shotgun.
In 1915, Jess Willard, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, starred in the 101 Ranch Wild West Show at the fair, Willard billed himself as a Kansas cowboy, which was a slight exaggeration, but for that matter, it was also an exaggeration for him to call himself a boxer. After losing to such forgettables as Gunboat Smith and Bearcat McMahon, Willard beat Jack Johnson for the title in the famous fight in the sun in Cuba in which it appeared to most observers that Johnson wasn’t trying his best. At any rate, it was a rare occasion for Dallas to see a heavyweight champ, and he pleased the crowd by sparring and doing a few rope tricks.
Spectators have usually turned out in large numbers to see famous people, even non-cowboys and non-Indians. John Philip Sousa was an exception. He was paid $7,000 in 1895 to perform for the whole 16 days of the fair, but by the second week, he had trouble getting together a quorum. William Jennings Bryan followed four years later and drew rave reviews for his silver-tonguedness. Bryan appeared before 15,000 people on Democratic National Carnival Day as one of a long stream of scheduled orators. The crowd grew so restless waiting for his turn that Bryan had to intersperse a few thousand well-chosen words during the morning to maintain order.
The first president of the United States to visit the state fair was William Howard Taft, in 1909. The 300-pound president was easy to see, which was a good thing because no one could hear him beyond the sixth row of the crowd. Taft was extremely hoarse from an endless series of whistle-stop speeches along the way.
“It’s always a mistake at state fairs to think that the lungs of a man are to be compared with those of a prize bull,” said Taft, at least according to reports from the first six rows. No one seemed particularly disappointed over not being able to hear him because it was thought that Taft, being a Republican, couldn’t have had much of importance to impart anyway. After returning to Washington, Taft did little of a memorable nature, except to supervise the planting of 3,000 cherry trees in the national capital. Apparently, he failed to capture any votes on his Dallas visit, even from the first six rows, for in his bid for reelection, he garnered only eight of 521 electoral votes.
A tragic event occurred during President Taft’s visit. Dallas had no experience in protecting presidents. The Texas National Guard was called in to help with the effort, but it was apparent that many of the young guardsmen were edgy about the assignment. About five minutes before the president was scheduled to arrive at the fairgrounds, Louis Reichenstein, a deputy county clerk, asked one of the guardsmen tor permission to cross the street so that he would not miss his streetcar. The guardsman responded by striking Reichenstein on the shoulder with the butt of his rifle, and when Reichenstein protested the guardsman’s heavy-handed tactics, the soldier ran him through with a bayonet, wounding him fatally.
Food and Drink
“Made in the shade, and stirred with a spade.” That was the pitch of the milkshake man, who in 1886 mixed horse-trough-sized batches of the delicious new beverage. A lot of people don’t go to the fair to see anything; they go there to eat. Were it not for fairs, the advancement of junk food would still be in the Dark Ages. One fair alone – the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 -gave the world the ice cream cone, the hamburger and iced tea.
The Texas State Fair has not been negligent in its obligation to showcase newly discovered delicacies. Mrs. Isabel Lusk, better-known to fair-goers as “Apple Annie,” introduced the candied apple at the Texas State Fair. In 1927, Sammy Bert introduced the snow cone to visitors of the Texas fair. It was such a hit that he patented and sold Bert’s Electric Automatic Snow Cone Machines to booth-operators all across the country. But if the Texas State Fair had an official junk food, it would have to be the corny dog, introduced in the Forties by Neil and Carl Fletcher. To many people, the simple wiener on a stick dipped in Fletcher’s secret batter is the fair.
Selling food at the fair used to be the primary method of fund raising for local charitable organizations. In 1890 you could buy a “square meal” from the Catholic Orphanage for 25￠. In 1895 the Ladies of the Girls’ Cooperative Home sold fried chicken to pay off the mortgage on a local home for working girls. By 1910, there were so many local churches lined up at the fair trying to outcook one another that the lane they were on became known as Smoky Row. There was even a booth operated by the Women of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the old days, a clever and tenacious fair-goer could spend the whole day eating quite well without forking over a single dime. You could get free chili, cottage cheese, cookies, hot biscuits and butter, sausage -it was all a matter of know-how and timing. On a regular schedule, the food booth-operators doled out free treats and generally didn’t complain when the line became a circle. During the 1936 Texas Centennial, the Texas Angora Raisers Association gave away free goat-meat sandwiches accompanied by a cool glass of goat’s milk. Maybe it wasn’t to everyone’s liking, but to those who were out of work, it was a refreshing change from potato soup. Today there’s still some free food available, but not enough to subsist on. Most fair-goers seem to prefer to spend the day munching on Fletcher’s corny dogs, Jack’s French fries, corn on the cob and Belgian waffles.
Gluttony is not the only sin that has been practiced openly at the fair. In 1951, State Representative Doyle Willis Sr. of Fort Worth swore that there were more gambling devices on the state fair midway than in Reno, Nevada. Bingo was said to be the most heinous, followed closely by a game in which people put money on the number of the hole into which a little mouse was believed most likely to enter, the bettor hoping to win a slab of bacon or a pair of nylon hose.
A big hassle ensued over what ought to be prohibited in the way of midway games, and it was decided that any game that did not involve skill was taboo. The bingo operators immediately changed the name of their game to skillo, but this did not fool the clever duo of City Manager Charles Ford and Police Chief Carl Hann-son. On the Monday morning after Willis’ expose, Ford walked down the midway pointing out the games that would have to be closed, and by the time he got to Pennsylvania Avenue, he had ordered the closure of 44 of the 45 games. The only game escaping Ford’s righteous indignation was the African Dip, where black youths were dumped into a vat of water when skilled contestants struck a target with a baseball.
The following Friday, after a vigorous lobbying effort by the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, about half of the games were allowed to reopen and have remained open ever since. Local officials are on sound ground in permitting the current midway operations to function, for they certainly do not involve gambling. Trying to toss a 4-inch ball through a 3-inch hole and attempting to knock over a 400-pound milk bottle with a baseball made of straw could not be called games of chance by any stretch of the imagination.
Taking a bundle of cash to the fair is risky business, even if you never set foot on the midway. In the old days, pickpockets from all over the country gathered there to ride the train back and forth between downtown and the fairgrounds. The pickpockets made the transition from train to streetcar with ease. Then when people started driving their autos to the fair, parking lot pilfering became the rage of the underworld.
The spectators aren’t the only victims of thievery. In 1964 a live 105-millimeter howitzer was stolen from a military exhibit. In 1967 Dino the Sinclair dinosaur lost three green 18-inch toes with blue toe-nails. Two years later, East Texas oil millionaire Tom Patten went by to see the 126-carat diamond ring that he had loaned for exhibit at the Women’s Building only to discover that it had vanished. But the ultimate affront occurred in 1970: someone stole Big Tex’s shirt. In response to an urgent plea for help, the H.D. Lee Company of Kansas City, Missouri, made a replacement for Tex’s size 96 chest, flew it to Dallas and rushed it to the fairgrounds in a Wells Fargo armored car.
Another popular sin, lust, was once one of the fair’s main attractions. In the late Forties, Dallas was still known as a dollar town, meaning that the strip-show barkers could entice spectators to pay a buck to see the same show here that was only bringing four bits in Oklahoma City. There were so many “girlie shows” in the 1890s that it was rare to find a female visitor on the midway. Every few years, the local preachers would get together and lead a clean-up drive, and occasionally the fair promoters would get caught up in the spirit. The 1906 fair was advertised as being “completely free of immorality and wickedness,” but the dancing darlings were not to remain wallflowers for long.
Gypsy Rose Lee played the fair in 1946, but her show was a rip-off. Gypsy had become so civilized that she appeared on a program with Tommy Dorsey at the State Fair Auditorium and showed about as much skin as a Sunset High School majorette. Sally Rand followed in ’49, sporting a costume designed by Christian Dior, and the queen of the ostrich plume put on a show each hour from noon to midnight, but like Gypsy, she was too big a name to risk trouble with the law. It was the obscure shows that had to feature a little something extra to draw a crowd, where the teen-agers from Sulphur Springs and Pilot Point could really get an eyeful.
For the teen-agers, the trick was to look old, which meant wearing a plaid jacket. It was also important to hit the fair on the right day. Public School Day and Future Farmers Day were definitely out because there were so many parents, teachers and cops watching the action. American Legion Day was a natural, and so was East Texas Day. The youngsters without plaid jackets could do little more than stand in front of the fun house and watch a few skirts blow up or engage in a little “inadvertent” bumping in the mirror maze.
“America, here is Texas” marked the opening of the fairest fair ever: the 1936 Texas Centennial. Those four words were uttered by Secretary of Commerce Daniel C. Roper, FDR’s personal emissary, into a microphone at the entrance to the fairgrounds, then transmitted around the world by telegraph and cable. The message made the trip in two minutes and five seconds, a world’s record, and returned to electronically snip the ribbon to open the gates. The message should have wound up in Houston or San Antonio because that’s where the Centennial should have been. Houston had San Jacinto, and San Antonio had the Alamo, but Dallas-which didn’t even exist in 1836 when Sam Houston caught Santa Anna napping -had R.L. Thornton, who charmed the centennial commission with his country-boy cajoling. Dallas also had more money -or at least was less reticent about turning loose of it, agreeing to put up nearly $10 million in cash and property to get the ball rolling.
Counting what the exhibitors spent, the Texas Centennial was a $25-million birthday party. In 1936 most of the buildings at Fair Park were 25 to 30 years old, ancient by Dallas’ standards. The Centennial promoters, with help from the New Deal’s WPA, rebuilt Fair Park virtually in its entirety in what was described as a “semi-modern style with a Mexican flair,” but which is recognized today as one of America’s greatest accumulations of art deco architecture. The health, art and natural history museums were new, and so was the aquarium. General Motors took over the State Fair Auditorium and hired Jan Gar-ber to play comforting music while people gawked at the new Chevys and chatted with Chief Pontiac. Anybody who was anybody had a big exhibit -even the federal government, which had a whole building. A 300-foot stage was built in front of the race track grandstand for the “Cavalcade of Texas,” a dramatization of Texas history all the way back to Cabeza de Vaca, who reported that the Texas Gulf Coast would never go over as a tourist attraction as long as the Karankawa Indians insisted on eating the tourists.
Meanwhile, Amon Carter, publisher of the Fort Worth Star- Telegram and patron saint of the City of Fort Worth, was on the verge of apoplexy. For the most part, the citizens of Fort Worth have been good sports about Dallas having the state fair and have enjoyed it as much as the Dallas-ites. Fort Worth has often held minor celebrations to coincide with the fair, taking advantage of the spectator fallout. In 1890 Fort Worth put on “The Last Days of Pompeii” and advertised that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was itself worth the 30-mile train trip. But the decision to hold the Centennial in Dallas was one that Amon Carter had not anticipated and could not stomach. As far as Carter was concerned, the only thing that Dallas had that Fort Worth didn’t was a real city 30 miles away.
Carter retaliated by announcing that Fort Worth would have its own Centennial. He hired Broadway producer Billy Rose, described by Carter as “the most ingenious little cuss that I know of,” to stage the spectacle for a fee of $1,000 a day for 100 days. The Frontier Centennial would have Casa Manana, the largest café-theater in the world; Jumbo, a combination circus/Broadway musical; Paul White-man and his band; Shirley Temple; a Wild West review; drinking; gambling; and a two-headed snake.
All the advertisements touting the Dallas Centennial emphasized the educational value of the exhibition, and Carter decided to take advantage of this apparent blunder. All the ads for the Fort Worth Centennial boldly proclaimed that “the only educational exhibit on the grounds was Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch.” A neon sign, said to be the largest west of Times Square, was constructed across the street from the entrance of the fairgrounds in Dallas, that read, “FORT WORTH, 45 MINUTES TO WHOOPEE.”
Unlike Santa Anna, the promoters of the Dallas Centennial were not caught napping. Though little had been said about it, there was an abundance of whoopee along the midway. In fact, there was so much of it that local preachers referred to the Dallas exhibition as the Texas Sintennial.
There were two kinds of sex at the Dallas Centennial: pure and adulterated. The clean sex was contributed by the Rangerettes, a platoon of lovely young ladies whose mission in life was to get their pictures taken in a manner well-calculated to promote the Centennial. Wearing cute but modest little cowboy suits and 10-gal-lon hats, the Rangerettes were photographed in poses ranging from Brahma bull-riding to cavorting with the swans in the Fair Park lagoon. The coarser variety was provided inside the “Streets of Paris” and the “Streets of All Nations,” by such unclad luminaries as Corinne the Apple Dancer, Rosie the Rope Spinner, Lady Godiva, Paris Peggy and Mona Leslie. These women of the world caused scores of spectators to vow to leave the cotton fields forever in pursuit of bright lights and fancy ladies.
Dallas city officials were much more tolerant than were their counterparts 15 years later who made such a fuss over the bingo concession. Police Chief R.L. Jones said that it would be poor sportsmanship to shut down the slot machines at the Centennial because all the operators had legally binding contracts with the Centennial association. The Texas Rangers did feel that the roulette wheels on the second floor of the Streets of Paris were a bit too much and raided one of the evening sessions, advising the 200 or so socially prominent Dallasites to “beat it.”
Meanwhile, back at the nude ranch, Billy Rose, Amon Carter’s 5-foot, 2-inch leprechaun, was having problems. Carter had wanted to open June 6, the same day as the Dallas Centennial, but after getting such a late start, that was impossible. By the time the Fort Worth show opened, Dallas had counted nearly two million visitors. On July 18, the day the Fort Worth affair finally opened, the Dallas leaders thought it would be prudent to stage something a little extra so their crowd would not be tempted to stray into Carter’s pasture. At the Cotton Bowl, 4,500 spectators witnessed the wedding of Violet Hilton, attended by her maid of honor, Daisy Hilton, Violet’s Siamese twin.
Though Miss Rand and her fellow ranch hands seemed to be having no trouble with the Texas heat, everyone else in Fort ! Worth was. R.L. Thornton and the other farsighted promoters of the Dallas fair had thought of this and had air-conditioned 29 of the buildings on the grounds. Not only were the people of Dallas undeterred by the heat, they went out to Fair Park to cool off. Not so in Fort Worth, where the spectators were lucky to find a circulating fan. By the fourth day, the opening time for the fair had been changed from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., except on weekends, and Jumbo had been whacked from two-and-a-half hours to an hour.
Dallas had expected 10 million people and got six; Fort Worth was shooting for five million and got two. But no one cared. The impact that these affairs had on the Dallas/Fort Worth area could not be measured in terms of people or dollars; the impact was on the frame of mind. If all these people could spend all this money on so much foolishness, then we might make it through this Depression after all. Maybe happy days are here again, they thought.
Texas has another big birthday coming up, its 150th in 1986. Coincidentally, the Texas Sesquicentennial will fall on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the State Fair of Texas. The Fair Park segment of the bond election last August provided $18 million to spruce up the fairgrounds, but that’s only the first step toward a sesquicentennial celebration. The City of Dallas, the State Fair Association and the local Sesquicentennial Committee first have to agree on what they want to do and then get the State Sesquicentennial Commission to sanction it. (At this point, it looks like the fair will be extended from its customary 17 days to a two-month-long celebration).
The bond money will be spent on pavingstreets that have been only patched up forthe last 30 years, improving the parking facilities and restoring some of the buildings. In the meantime, the planners hadbetter get cracking. The day before theTexas Centennial opened, 10,000 workmen were racing against the clock to makethe deadline. This wouldn’t seem so bad,were it not that planning for the 1936 eventbegan in 1924.