The State Fair of Texas is underway at Fair Park. For nearly 65 years, Big Tex, the giant cowboy, has stood over the fair, greeting visitors. Here’s a history lesson.
Before he was Big Tex, he was Santa.
In 1949, he was the world’s largest Santa Claus in Kerens, about an hour south of Dallas.
Howell Brister had the idea -- the town wanted to help attract Christmas shoppers. So why not build a huge Santa? Practically everyone in the small town helped out -- welders, garment factory workers, even farmers. The farmers acted as models – their body dimensions helped shape Big Santa.
Big Santa was a big hit. Trains stopped to drop off shoppers. There was front-page newspaper coverage.
The next year, though, in 1950, the buzz died off a bit. So Brister drove across the state trying to sell it. He approached the State Fair. The fair bought Santa in 1951 for $750.
How did Santa get transformed into Big Tex?
The State Fair initially planned on just keeping him as Santa and putting him in Fair Park for the holidays. Then they thought: Let’s create a cowboy.
The fair brought in a guy named Jack Bridges to make Big Tex. Bridges was a very colorful, very quirky artist. He tinkered with the Santa frame – and gave Big Tex a bigger head and broader shoulders.
Bridges worked quickly – he apparently built the head in just three weeks.
Video: Big Tex through the years
Big Tex goes up for the first time in 1952 – the crowds go wild.
Crowds swarmed around the big guy. Kids posed for pictures. One kid dressed up as a cowboy, and posed like Big Tex, with his right hand waving and his left arm stretched out.
One thing, though. Big Tex looked a bit scary that first year. His nose was long and hooked. One of his eyes was shut, as if he was winking. So, like some Texans of a certain age, Big Tex got a nose job. And Bridges opened his eye.
He’d get lots of trims and nips and tucks through the years.
Video: Watch Big Tex bust a move!
Big Tex’s deep, distinctive voice
Big Tex learned to speak in 1953, his second year at the fair. A series of folks have provided his booming voice through the years.
Jim Lowe was the voice of Big Tex for almost 40 years and lots of people give him credit for developing the Big Tex personality.
Bill Bragg was the voice for about a decade, but he had a falling out with the fair soon after Big Tex burned down. The fair has kept the name of the current voice a secret.
2012: the year Big Tex changed forever
Big Tex burned down in 2012.
An electrical short in his wiring sparked the fire. The flames shot up his body, eating away his clothes and his face within minutes.
His charred frame stood for a couple of hours at Big Tex Circle. The scene was surreal. People were crying, staring, taking pictures. They eventually took him down – his charred steel skeleton was placed under a huge piece of canvas. And there was a police escort as he was taken away from Big Tex Circle.
Video: Watch Big Tex burn down
2013: The year Big Tex was rebuilt
The fair wanted him rebuilt in time for the 2013 fair and it wanted Big Tex built in Texas – and it wanted it to be a big secret.
Not many companies can do this type of work. But there’s a company near San Antonio – in Boerne – that builds giant set pieces for amusement parks – SRO Associates.
The company spent many months working on him – modeling him from old pictures and creating 3D images on computers.
The State Fair wanted his hand, arm and face movements more fluid, not as herky-jerky. SRO worked with a San Antonio-based company, Texas Scenic, to build his steel frame and program his movements.
His face, by the way, is made of silicone skin; it feels like raw chicken.
Video: Watch Big Tex get rebuilt
Why do we all make such a big deal about Big Tex?
He embodies Texas – he’s literally larger than life and that always appeals to Texans. He’s quite the character – this large, friendly rancher, a little sunburned from the sun, welcoming folks to the fair.
We consider him part of the family. Each year you venture to Fair Park and catch up with Big Tex. You grab a corny dog and you take a picture in front of him, it’s where memories are made.
Visit the State Fair of Texas online.
341: A State Fair documentary
"341" is a three-part miniseries about the people who participate in the State Fair of Texas. The first episode airs on KERA-TV on Sunday, Oct. 2 at 6:30 p.m.