The four-month run of The Frontier Centennial, Fort Worth’s answer to the official celebration of Texas independence in Dallas, came to an end on Nov. 14, 1936.
The first prominent Texan to suggest a grand party for Texas’ hundredth birthday was former governor Jim Hogg in 1900. Other individuals and organizations repeated the call during the decades that followed even as the deepening Depression forced the state government to tighten its purse strings.
Despite the hard times and critics who felt there were worthier ways to spend the money, the decision was made to go ahead with a centennial exposition in 1936. On the strength of a $7.8 million cash commitment and the permanent State Fair site, Dallas beat out Houston and San Antonio for the honor of hosting the event.
With the financial support of the Texas legislature and U.S. Congress, which kicked in five million dollars each, the centennial committee built 50 new buildings from the ground up, many in the eye-catching style known as Art Deco. Almost a score of those architectural wonders may still be seen today at the State Fair.
The centerpiece of the Centennial Exposition was the “Cavalcade of Texas,” a pageant presenting 400 years of Texas history on an epic scale with a costumed cast that numbered in hundreds. To their credit, the Dallas sponsors also did something that the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 dared not. They acknowledged the existence and recognized the role of blacks with the “Hall of Negro Life.”
When it was all said and done, the resources expended on The Centennial Exposition proved to be a wise investment. Ten thousand jobs were created and the well-attended event wound up giving the Dallas economy a badly needed $50 million shot in the arm.
From the moment Big D was awarded the Centennial Exposition, Amon Carter was beside himself with envy and anger. No town in Texas or anywhere else ever had a bigger booster than the newspaper publisher and oil millionaire with a fifth-grade education, who believed with all his heart that the sun rose and set on Fort Worth.
Carter’s hatred of the rival to his east knew no bounds. On those rare occasions when business compelled his presence in Dallas at the noon hour, he brought his lunch in a paper bag rather than buy a meal.
Carter was not about to sit on his hands and let Dallas hog the limelight in 1936. So he dreamed up the Texas Frontier Centennial described in the current edition of the Handbook of Texas as Cow Town’s “special observance of the Texas Centennial…planned to portray the culture and atmosphere of the old frontier.” That is a nice way of saying that Carter’s unauthorized festivities were more about his romanticized view of the old Southwest than what happened in the land of the Lone Star before and after the Battle of San Jacinto.
He sought to bring the Old West back to life with the Frontier Village, which had livery stables, general stores, a clapboard church and a railroad train with a wood-burning locomotive and wooden coaches. And even though it must have looked strangely out of place, he included a replica of the den at the California ranch of humorist Will Rogers, his close friend killed in a plane crash the previous year.
Contrary to Carter’s expectations, Casa Manana or “The House of Tomorrow” was the unqualified hit of the Frontier Centennial. A huge theater-in-the-round with enough tables and chairs to accommodate 3,500 guests, it was originally built for Billy Rose’s “Jumbo” but stuck around to become a Fort Worth landmark.
Carter had never heard of scandalous Sally Rand until Rose, the famous Broadway producer, assured reporters at his first press conference that his “show would have neither nudity or smut.” He went on to stress, “We don’t need any fans or bubble dances at the Texas Frontier Centennial.”
But after Rose reluctantly admitted Rand had been the biggest attraction at the recent World’s Fair in Chicago, his employer told him she was precisely what they needed. Carter put up thousands of billboards across the country with the slogan “Go elsewhere for education. Come to Fort Worth entertainment,” and a larger-than-life photo of scantily clad young “cowgirls” from Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch.
Males of every age and description waited in long lines to ogle Rand, a master of illusion, do her world-renown thing with her fans while her supporting cast tossed beach balls back and forth or watched from horseback. Tame by modern standards, to be sure, but undeniably titillating for those prudish times.
However, the rave reviews were reserved for Casa Manana. Damon Runyon, author and New York columnist, wrote, “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 café, you might get something approximating Casa Manana.”
Amon Carter lost the attendance battle with his Frontier maverick drawing slightly less than one million paying customers to the Dallas Exposition’s six million plus. But he had achieved what he set out to do – help his hometown step out of Big D’s shadow.
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