Thursday, May 30, 2024 May 30, 2024
74° F Dallas, TX

Poor Under-recognized, Unheralded Fair Park

What happens to Dallas’ art deco gem during the 11 months when the State Fair isn’t in town?
photography by Scott Womack

Thirty-five years in Dallas and my experience of Fair Park had been limited to opera performances at the Music Hall; occasional formal events in the austere, chilly Hall of State; some museum visits. On those trips, the fairgrounds always looked sad and empty, especially along the midway and the great assemblage of art deco architecture and design from the Texas Centennial Exposition. In 1986, the State Fair grounds were designated a national landmark, but until recently the long pool, the buildings, and statuary had been crumbling. Many of the original works of art had been shoddily constructed and were supposed to last not much beyond the 1936 Exposition. The vast spaces reminded me of one of Giorgio de Chirico’s “metaphysical” paintings, with few signs of human life.

“You haven’t been to the State Fair?” some incredulous friends asked me, three years ago. They decided to put an end to that. Off we went on the opening night. “The grease is freshest then,” they said, “and the food will taste better.” I consulted with a favorite student—a brilliant, peppy SMU sorority girl (size zero)—about the food. She said, “Here’s what I eat, and in what order.” Her meal began with a turkey leg, and then wove through a list that had a rationale that I have long since forgotten. The corny dog, the tater tots, the doughnuts, the funnel cakes, the whole shebang. “Do you just nibble on these things?” I asked skeptically. “Certainly not. I eat everything.” That girl has great metabolism.

So I went to the Fair. I ate the fabled corny dog (never again) and had samples of everything else. I got a bit queasy. It took the next 11 months, and extra Lipitor, to get over my first culinary experience there.

This year I returned. And now I know why North Texans of every age, race, class, gender, and size gravitate to the Fair each October to ride the rides and play the games on the midway, eat the food, and see the cars and the livestock. Here on the midway and throughout the park is something for everyone. Here is all of Dallas.

I watched the merrymakers one hot October afternoon. I saw the fabulous show of trained birds (who knew?) at the Band Shell. I won a kewpie doll. I passed up the chance to have the chicken-fried bacon. Unlike my former student, I have my limits. Speaking of bacon: as I wandered through one of the animal barns, I saw an 1,100-pound hog sprawled out comfortably in mud and straw, dozing away. Next to me was one of the several groups of North Dallas Orthodox Jews I saw that day at the Fair: women wearing long, modest dresses and sheytls (wigs), leading gaggles of small children like so many ducklings. I said to one mother, “There’s nothing you can eat here,” as we gazed at the hog. No matter. She had brought her own provisions.

photography by Scott Womack

Why should such a resource lie fallow the remainder of the year, when so much else in Dallas (the AT&T Performing Arts Center, the restaurants in Uptown, even the Shops at Legacy in Plano) is buzzing along cheerfully? Can we have festivities year-round? A Texas Star, as I learned the Ferris wheel is called, for all seasons?

It turns out that we can, and do (well, maybe not a 12-month Texas Star), although the life of Fair Park has been under-recognized and unheralded in our city. The Cotton Bowl (the game) has left the Cotton Bowl (the stadium), and the Dallas Opera has found more elegant downtown digs, but the Dallas Summer Musicals will stay at the old Music Hall. What I had overlooked—when I used to look out over the empty landscape of the 1936 Exposition buildings—was the park’s periphery. We have the museums: Nature & Science (with its lovely new butterfly building), African American, and Women’s. Activity in the middle may be somewhat scant, and the water doesn’t always splash in the fountain, but life bustles around the sides.

Like the other museums on the fairgrounds, the Museum of Nature & Science thrives. Paradoxically, with the announcement of the gift of $50 million from the children of Margot and Ross Perot for the construction of a new facility at Victory (opening in 2013), the older buildings are getting a renewal of interest. According to the director, Nicole Small, the museum gets a little more than 500,000 visitors annually.

photography by Scott Womack
Small is a cheerleader, but she’s nothing compared to Carol Reed and Craig Holcomb. Reed heads the marketing firm employed by the Friends of Fair Park, of which Holcomb is the president. They are gung-ho about the park. Reed wants to make it “the place for grand festivals” and says that two things it has going for it are size and accessibility. (DART is sure to learn from the overcrowding debacle that unfolded on the day of the Texas-Oklahoma contest.) More important, you can have a big block party without shutting down streets and disturbing the fabric of urban life, as you would have to if you held an event downtown.

Reed lights up when she talks about other events already in place or in planning: the Dog Bowl and Fair Park Fourth (both one-day parties capable of expansion); Fair Park Holiday; a Christmas show that she wants to expand; and the upcoming Lone Star State Festival (March 26 and 27), which will benefit Goodwill Industries and will feature Texas music, plus the usual assortment of arts and crafts, food, and activities for kids.

Fair Park already sponsors a modest assortment of other things: CityArts, which will move from the Arts District, and various flea markets and antiques fairs throughout the year. Over the past two decades, the Friends of Fair Park has helped to raise more than $120 million for capital improvements and to begin to dispel the fears of a lot of timid North Dallasites that the surrounding neighborhood is perilous.

Anyone of a certain age or temperament can recall with a sigh the end of Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 MGM classic, Meet Me in St. Louis, when Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Margaret O’Brien, and the rest of the cast gather before the glittering lights of the 1904 World’s Fair and realize that there’s no reason to move to New York. They look up and know they’ve got everything right there in St. Louis, where the lights are shining and you can dance the hootchy-kootchy.

The AT&T Performing Arts Center symbolizes what has happened in the United States since the creation of Lincoln Center a half century ago. The world’s eyes have turned to Dallas. Will those eyes look on our own Fair Park in the same way? If Craig Holcomb has his way, the answer will be yes. “I want Fair Park to be like Central Park on a Sunday afternoon,” he says, “all kinds of activities from roller-blading to museums to quiet places for contemplation.” 
Well, we have built it. Now, will they come? Can we dance the hootchy-kootchy here? Will you be my tootsy-wootsy?

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