Risque Texas

During his lifetime, Howard traveled widely thoughout Texas, visiting both large and small towns. The two largest cities in north Texas are Forth Worth and Dallas and Howard spent time in both of them. The cities are located next to each, but possess vastly different personalities and dynamics as Howard details in a letter to August Derleth dated July 3, 1933.

After returning from San Antonio, I spent a short time in Dallas and Fort Worth, and was again impressed — as always — by the contrast between the country to the east and the west of the latter named town. Fort Worth boasts that there “the West begins” and while this is not true geographically, it certainly is true politically and economically. Dallas is only thirty miles east of Fort Worth, yet the feeling of the city is definitely of East Texas, while the feeling of Fort Worth is definitely West Texas. Somewhere between the towns runs the semi-mythical, imaginary, yet immeasurably important line that divides East and West Texas. It is not suprizing, the contrast between the towns, after all. Dallas has always looked toward the rich black land farming country and pine woods of East Texas, to which she owns the greater part of her prosperity. Fort Worth, on the other hand, owes her growth and her very existence to the West; it was as a shipping point for cattle the town got its start; and Fort Worth as definitely looks westward as Dallas looks in the opposite direction. The highway between the towns is almost like the main street of a city, dotted with small towns, and lined with small, prosperous farms, in the most thickly settled part of the state (379 people to the square mile.) But leaving Fort Worth and going westward, abruptly one comes into open rolling country, thinly settled, made up of ranches and big farms, with towns few and far apart. Of all these northern cities, I like Fort Worth best, though for color and historical glamor none of them can compare to San Antonio and other towns of the south.

As Brian recently noted, Texas just celebrated its 175th anniversary.  In 1936, Texas was getting geared up to celebrate its centennial. After the battles at the Alamo and the decisive win at San Jacinto, Texas became an independent nation in 1836, and ultimately joined the United States in 1845 as the 28th state in the union.

If Fate had dealt Howard a better hand in the summer of 1936 and his mother had managed to rally one more time, Howard might have taken notice of the state sanctioned Texas Centennial Exposition, which opened in Dallas on June 6, 1936 — just five days before he died. A competing event, the unofficial Frontier Centennial Exposition, opened in Fort Worth about six weeks later on July 18. Both events ran well into November. Being a proud Texan, I can easily see Howard attending one or both of the dueling celebrations, though he might have found the Fort Worth with its heavy western theme more interesting. And given his penchant for writing about scantily clad ladies, he probably would have taken in the western themed show hosted by Sally Rand.

The chief architect of the event was Amon Carter, a Fort Worth newspaper publisher and city booster. He brought in Broadway showman Billy Rose to be the promoter and director of the extravaganza. In order to provide contrast the staid affair in Dallas, the pair decided to go with a more entertainment oriented theme for Fort Worth’s celebration. Rose convinced Carter that Sally Rand could provide the type of draw they were looking for to bring in big crowds. However, her reputation preceded her, prompting outrage by some people and curiosity by many others — her “Nude Ranch” was a far cry from a “Dude Ranch.”

Ms. Rand was a burlesque dancer who hated being called a stripper. During the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair she was arrested four times in one day for a Lady Godiva act she performed on horseback in the city streets to bring attention to Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch at the fair. The charges were dropped because authorities could not actually prove that she was nude, and she insisted she was not. Perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not, the Chicago World’s Fair was one of the very few that actually made a profit during that time.

Though she had no way of knowing it, Ms. Rand soon became part of the heated rivalry between Fort Worth and its more sophisticated neighbor, Dallas, with its edifying affair celebrating the centennial of the birth of Texas. Carter and Rose were up against a formidable foe — the Dallas exhibition, was well funded and heavily advertised. Being a shrewd promoter, Rose created a billboard that read “Go Elsewhere For Education, Come to Fort Worth For Entertainment.” Rose spread the word of the competing exposition by putting up thousands of these billboards across several neighboring states featuring the slogan, along with scantily clad young women cavorting about in a western setting. The advertisements had their desired effect; even roping people so intrigued by the billboards they’d change a road trip itinerary to pay a visit to Fort Worth. One such person was Ernest Hemingway, who after seeing the roadside signs, deviated from his route from Wyoming to Memphis and made a beeline for the Nude Ranch.

Author Jerry Flemmons described the scene at Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch this way: “Each girl wore boots and hat, a green bandana, skirtlet, tights, and the brand ‘SR’ rubber-stamped on each fleshy thigh. The ‘show’ consisted of girls lounging on swings and beach chairs. Some played with a beach ball. Others shot bows and arrows. One or two sat on horses.”

After getting off to a shaky start, the Fort Worth locals quickly warmed up to Ms. Rand. Soon she was throwing out ceremonial first pitches at citywide baseball games, speaking to service clubs and PTA meetings, buying memberships for the civic music season, traveling on behalf of the centennial celebration, and even gaving a pep talk to the TCU football team. (I’m guessing they were inspired enough to win the game.) In appreciation of her efforts, the city proudly declared November 6, 1936 as “Sally Rand Day” where she was praised for her “graciousness and consummate artistry” and officially thanked for bringing “culture and progress” to the city.

In addition to the attractive Sally Rand and her girls, there were a number of other exciting attractions at the exposition as outlined at the Handbook of Texas website:

The Texas Frontier Centennial, Fort Worth’s special observance of the Texas Centennial, was planned to portray the culture and atmosphere of the old frontier. It was sponsored by Amon G. Carter and a board of control and financed by a local bond drive. Billy Rose of New York was employed to stage the entertainment. The spectacle covered 162 acres and cost $5 million. The Old West lived again in Frontier Village, in which Sunset Trail was lined withlivery stables, general stores, an old church, and other buildings typical of the 1870s to 1890s. A railroad train with wood-burning locomotive and wooden coaches demonstrated transportation of the same period. Exhibits included Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, Jumbo (a musical circus), the Pioneer Palace (a restaurant and dance hall for presentation of burlesque shows and square dances), and a replica of Will Rogers’s den on his Santa Monica, California, ranch. The West Texas Chamber of Commerce exhibit presented modern West Texas. The most publicized part of the celebration was Casa Manana, “the House of Tomorrow,” in which seats and tables to accommodate 3,500 spectators faced a revolving stage on which Billy Rose presented his musical show. The musical show’s theme was the historical development shown in four world’s fairs: the St. Louis Fair of 1904, the Paris Fair of 1925, the Chicago Fair of 1934, and the Texas Centennial of 1936. So popular was the celebration that it was presented again in 1937.

In addition to her Nude Ranch, Ms. Rand performed a “Ballet Divertissement” in exposition’s showcase, Casa Manana. She alternated between balloons and fans for a certain amount of discretion. She always said, “The Rand is quicker than the eye” in explaining how she managed to keep audiences from seeing anything she didn’t want seen. In many ways she was more of an illusionist than a burlesque performer. One Texan, George Lester, has fond memories of the Frontier Centennial Exposition:

The year was 1936 and I was ten. We traveled out west in one car to meet our two brothers that lived in Wink, Texas. In the car were the other three brothers (including me), two sisters, one with a baby and my dad making the arduous trip long before the days of air-conditioning.

I remember the highlight of the trip as our stop in Ft. Worth where we spent the night and took in the Casa Manana show at the fairgrounds.

My dad and my adult brother decided see the Billy Rose production called Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch. It was very mild by today’s standards compared to what you now see on television. My brother Sam was only a year older than me, so our dad gave us money for the rides while they went to see the show.

We chose to start with the Ferris wheel. On our first ascent we discovered something the producers of the event had overlooked. From high above we could look down onto the roofless show below and see all the scantily clad ladies. We kept riding until we ran out of money. I don’t think we ever told our dad why we liked the Ferris wheel so much.

Author and popular syndicated newspaper columnist Damon Runyon summed up the event this way: “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.” Surely the exposition was a sight to see, depicting life and civilization on the Texas frontier, complete with a rodeo, exhibits on railroads, music and entertainment, with Sally Rand and a little burlesque thrown in for good measure.