Dallas, Texas would never want to be the Capital of Kitsch, yet where else on the planet can you get deep-fried bubble gum? This and other delicacies are to be had at the glorious (to the locals) State Fair of Texas, a beloved institution that sucks in 2,500,000 visitors a year, a crowd that has been described, perhaps cruelly, as containing “fifty kinds of Bubba.”
Probably the fair’s most visited attractions was Big Tex: a fifty-two foot tall animatronic cowboy statue who welcomed generations of proud Texans by waving his arm—never his most convincing feature—and issuing a hearty, “Howdy, folks!”
On my first visit to the State Fair in the 1950s, I scarcely gave Big Tex a second glance. I didn’t need to drive all the way to Dallas to see weird cowboys; my eight uncles, ranchers all, employed enough ranch hands that weirdness could be had on a visit to any one of their spreads. Instead, I bought a baby alligator, one of the millions who are purchased at fairs all over the country and subsequently flushed down toilets, providing the inspiration for the brilliant alligator patrol chapter in Thomas Pynchon’s novel “V”.
Last year, a short in one of his big boots burned Big Tex to a crisp, sparing only his sizable belt buckle. The voice of Big Tex for the last decade has been that of Bill Bragg, a retired sound engineer (he took over the job a year after Jim Lowe, the previous voice, passed away). Big Tex is now being rebuilt at a cost of $500,000.00, but to the shock and dismay of traditionalists—and practically all Texans are traditionalists, though it is sometimes not easy to locate the traditions they subscribe to—Mr. Bragg will no longer voice Big Tex.
None of the fair officials will comment on Mr. Bragg’s dismissal, although that Hollywood chestnut “creative differences” has been muttered. What exactly is “creative” about Big Tex waving his animatronic arm? Bill Bragg said his heart was broken, and thousands of his equally heartbroken fans are ready to give battle. But whom should they battle?
The 2013 Texas State Fair opens soon. It won’t have the folksy voice of Bill Bragg to welcome them. But at least I hear it still has the deep-fried bubble gum.
Some classics endure.