In the depths of the Great Depression, with unemployment high and consumer spending low, a number of cities and states across the US decided that hosting a world’s fair was just what the local economy needed. In 1936 this included Texas.
The Texas Centennial Exposition was a World’s Fair held at Fair Park in Dallas, Texas (USA) to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Texas’s independence from Mexico in 1836. More than 50 buildings …were constructed for the Exposition, which ran from June 6, 1936 to November 29, 1936. The exposition attracted 6,353,827 visitors, and cost around $25 million. The exposition was credited for buffering Dallas from the Great Depression, creating over 10,000 jobs and giving a $50 million boost to the local economy.
The Cavalcade of Texas, a historical pageant covering four centuries of Texas history, was one of the most popular attractions at the Exposition.
Here’s a three minute video clip of that pageant, part of the Gene Autry film mentioned below.
The Hall of Negro Life was another popular attraction and is believed to be the first recognition of African-American culture at a World’s Fair. The Texas Centennial Olympics held in the Cotton Bowl hosted the first integrated public athletic competition in the history of the South.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the exposition in a widely publicized event on June 12. Gene Autry’s film The Big Show was filmed on location and shows many of the buildings and events of the event.
…After a successful five-month run, the Texas Centennial Exposition was closed. The exhibits changed and reopened the following year as the Greater Texas & Pan-American Exposition. [Wiki]
You might think, given Texan’s tendency to brag about the “bigness” of everything in Texas, that the state would have tried to put on a spread to rival the huge fairs that came before, such as the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, or the Louisiana Purchase exposition in St. Louis in 1904. No, its pared-down size couldn’t compare to those behemoths. But what the Texans lacked in size they made up for in chutzpah and hype.
Most architecture at the fair was in the cutting-edge Art Deco style of the period.
But the statuary tended to try to imitate ancient art works…with a Texan Twist.
You’ve likely seen photos of the Winged Bulls that adorned temples in ancient Assyria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Well, the Texans didn’t have a winged bull. They had…the magnificent Winged WOOFUS.
The Woofus, a combination of six classic Texas animals, sits outside the Swine Building [on the Texas State Fair grounds] atop a 16-foot pedestal and was originally created for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition by sculptor Lawrence Tenney Stevens but disappeared shortly thereafter. It has a sheep’s head, a stallion’s neck, a hog’s body, turkey feathers and duck wings.
The “crowning” glory of the piece is a set of ten-foot wide Texas longhorns gilded with chromium with a crown perched between them and a Mexican blanket draped around his shoulders. The Woofus was returned home in September of 2003 thanks to the efforts of Friends of Fair Park and the State Fair of Texas. [Source]
But the legendary Woofus was almost lost to history!
The original Woofus was installed in Fair Park for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. It disappeared shortly thereafter — none of the Expo buildings or statuary was supposed to be permanent, except for the Hall of State.
But it arose out of the ashes in the 1990s, just like the fabled Phoenix.
The Woofus had been forgotten about for 60 years until the late 1990s, when Craig Holcomb, executive director of Friends of Fair Park, discovered some old photographs of it. He fell under the spell of the Woofus, and decided it must be restored to its rightful place.
But first, Holcomb needed some serious cash. To raise it, he created a silly event: The Woofus Dinner. Well-heeled Dallasites attended, woofing hello to each other and belting out a rousing version of “The Woofus Song.” So very un-Dallas, which is usually a stuffy, serious, and self-conscious place. Eventually, these dinners raised $50,000, enough to re-create and re-install the Woofus. [Source]
Check out the short clip below of the Woofus in its natural habitat.
Then there was the statue called “Spirit of the Centennial.”
Perhaps you have seen the famous painting by Botticelli of the “birth” of the goddess Venus, emerging out of a giant clamshell in the ocean.
There are no clamshells or ocean in the Dallas area. So the Centennial goddess emerged from… a cactus.
Then there is the matter of Davy Crockett.
When walking through the Great Hall, you’re greeted by a mural of the battle of the Alamo. Just try to find Davy Crockett. You’ll search indefinitely, scanning the scene for his signature backwoods garb. Then, you’ll give up.
Here’s what happened: Yale artist Eugene Savage was hired to oversee the murals in the Great Hall, which meant recreating the famous San Antonio battle as a visual narrative. But he wasn’t from the south. He didn’t know what Davy Crockett looked like, so he dug around until he found a picture to work off of.
What he scraped up showed the Alamo defender when he was serving as a congressman. For that reason, Savage painted Crockett into the battle scene wearing a very formal suit. [Source]
Like all world’s fairs before it, the Texas Centennial had a lively midway. (A little too lively for some local citizens.)
“There was a lot of nudity and girlie shows,” said Parsons. “It would shock us today.” At the time of its unveiling, he explains, Dallas was in the throes of financial disturbance. It was, like the rest of the country, shook up by the economic rattling of the Dust Bowl era.
The Midway wasn’t the connected alleyway of erected tents and games that we now recognize. It was filled with semi-permanent structures, and those buildings housed more than just a ring toss. They were also go-tos for gambling, booze, strippers and other activities that repelled good, traditional southern morals.
Occasionally residents would complain, demanding that police run interference, which they did. But the area would quietly and quickly reopen. “It was making money in the middle of the Depression,” explains Parsons. “So that’s what was selling.” The Midway didn’t get fully cleaned up until the ’50s or ’60s. [Source]
Besides booze, the Fair did have an “official drink,” bottled locally, in Ft. Worth.
There was indeed a “Negro Hall” at the Centennial, which might give the illusion that the event was not segregated. This is indeed an illusion. Texas at the time was rabidly racist, and even their State Fair was off limits to African Americans except one day a year. In some years. In 1899, colored folks were allowed on ONE DAY to attend the fair, “Colored People’s Day.” When, I have no doubt, white people stayed away. This continued until 1910, when it was eliminated. It was re-inaugurated in 1936 for the Centennial, and dubbed “Negro Achievement Day.”
Regarding that Negro Hall:
Reflecting the racism of the period, the centennial’s organizers had tried to block construction of an African-American exhibit. Only federal assistance enabled the Hall of Negro Life to be built, and even then, officials planted large shrubs that obscured the building from casual passers-by. As soon as the centennial was over, the planners of the Pan-American Exposition, scheduled for 1937, had the hall torn down, claiming it didn’t fit their theme. [Source]
HALL OF NEGRO LIFE. The Hall of Negro Life at the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936 in Dallas was funded by the federal government at the urging of the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce and other black groups. …
The building faced north next to the Globe Theatre and just east of the General Motors exhibit. A large seal sculpted by Raoul Josset over the door depicted a figure with broken chains. The lobby displayed four murals of black history in Texas painted by Aaron Douglas. The hall housed six exhibit groups: education, progress in curtailing diseases among African Americans, agriculture, mechanic arts, business and industry, and art. A music collection in the art section recognized performers and composers and played music on a Victrola. The Harmon Foundation of New York City lent a $75,000 collection of black painting, sculpture, and graphic art to the exposition. …
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia contributed to the hall; exposition visitors received such pamphlets as W. E. B. Dubois’s What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas, Charles E. Hall’s Progress of the Negro in Texas, and Alonzo J. Aden’s Educational Tour through the Hall of Negro Life. A 2,000-seat outdoor amphitheater at the hall presented daily music and drama by black performers. A “Little Harlem” concession, consisting of a restaurant, dining rooms, and a dance pavilion, operated north of the east wing. Probably more than 400,000 visitors, an estimated 60 percent of them white, entered the hall. [Source]
If you would have visited the Negro Hall, you would have seen examples of the art work of one of the most famous African American artists of the time, Aaron Douglas. His gorgeous four-part mural included the two sections below, “Into Bondage” and “Aspiration.”
(Look closely at what appear to be leaves rising up from the bottom of the picture. They are actually hands bound by chains…)
You might recognize the style even if you’ve never heard his name before—Douglas’s artwork was the inspiration for much of the “look” of the 2009 Disney movie “Princess and the Frog.”
Douglas’s murals were so impressive that numerous cantankerous white folks were heard scoffing when they came into the Negro Hall that no “nigger” could possibly have created such obviously great modern art. The exhibitors finally had to install a plaque nearby that dogmatically announced that the works had been painted by a Negro artist from New York.
Yes, “Old Man Texas” with his own mural made it pretty clear that the pinnacle of Texan history, being celebrated at the fair, was the Anglo-Saxon family.
Many famous visitors came to the fair. There was FDR, who was in his first term as President.
There was the tallest man alive (who was also the tallest fully-documented human ever in existence!), Robert Wadlow. (You can read a brief bio of him in an earlier entry in this blog.) He’s shown below with the Sons of the Pioneers, the music group who often appeared in movies with Roy Rogers.
And there was one visitor lots of little girls likely took home with them.
There were demonstrations of the amazing new “television” that would have to wait until after WW2 to be launched as a nation-wide craze.
But what was everyone’s favorite part of the Centennial?
Despite the multi-million dollar structures, air conditioning demos, works of art and other newfangled additions to the space, when people left the Centennial Exposition one thing was on everyone’s tongues, according to historical pollsters: the lights.
Positioned behind the Hall of State were 24 searchlights scaffolding into a crowned fan shape. “They all moved and were different colors,” says Parsons. “It sounds gaudy, but people loved it.” The lights, he goes on to tell, were visible up to 20 miles away.
Considering most of the people who were visiting the fairgrounds were coming from rural farming communities with no electricity, the inspiring nature of those far-reaching beams makes a lot of sense. [Source]