Image from The Rotarian.
Last year, on October 19, the State Fair of Texas opened for its final weekend of the 2012 season. The morning started out like any other. Big Tex, the giant 52 foot cowboy, stood at the fair’s entrance, greeting patrons with his grotesquely giant face and southern drawl, “Howwwwdy Y’aaaall!” The ever-friendly Big Tex had much to celebrate this year; it was his 60th birthday, but little did he know it would be his last. At around 10:30am flames engulfed the giant cowboy’s body. Twenty minutes later, when firefighters managed to subdue the flames, a burnt metal framework was all that remained. A few days later, these remains were somberly hauled from the fairgrounds. According to officials, the fire originated in Big Tex’s right boot and quickly spread, devouring his entire body.
Big Tex gesticulating to fair patrons in the last years of his life. Photo courtesy of Ann Serrano.
Big Tex still gesticulating while being ravaged by flames in 2012. From Wikimedia Commons.
While many have seen the photos of Big Tex’s gory surmise—photographs and videos of his last moments quickly spread online—many who gawked never had the chance to know him. Where did he come from? What was he like in his younger years? This post describes the life of Big Tex, from his humble beginnings to his tragic demise.
Big Tex as Santa Claus in Kerens, Texas. From Dallas Business Journal.
Big Tex came into existence in 1949 not as a cowboy, but as a pink-cheeked Santa Claus in the small Texas town of Kerens, located in the northeast part of the state. A year later, Dallas resident R. L. Thornton saw Tex and purchased him from the Kerens Chamber of Commerce for a mere $750 with plans of using him in the State Fair’s Christmas celebration. It was decided, however, that the four-story tall Santa had greater potential–he could be a cowboy! Artist Jack Bridges was hired to transform the small town Santa into the legendary Big Tex. The transformation involved some facial reconstructive surgery—Santa’s pink cheeks and winking eyeball had to go—and a new outfit. Big Tex’s original ensemble, created with real material and provided by Lee, cost $2,200 at the time and did not include the cowboy’s signature 75-gallon cowboy hat. Instead, during his first year at the fair, Big Tex opted for a sombrero. Not a fan of changing clothes, Tex generally wore the same outfit three to four seasons before getting refitted. At the time of his death, Big Tex was outfitted in a Dickie’s workshirt and Dickie’s belt buckle.
Big Tex in 1956. From Wikimedia Commons.
During Big Tex’s first year at the State Fair, he was quite shy. Standing before the entrance, he spoke not a word the entire season. It wasn’t until 1953 that Tex warmed up and began to greet fair patrons. After, according to an Austin American Statesman article from 1953, “months of research, 300 pounds of electronic and mechanical equipment and eight weeks of work,” Jack Bridges (the same artist who worked on the original transformation) succeeded in giving Tex the ability to waggle his jaw and speak. But who would voice him? Jim Lowe Jr. was the first voice of Big Tex. A radio DJ and announcer, he took the job in 1953 and continued speaking for Big Tex (whose script is never recorded, but read live for 12 hours a day, everyday) for the next 47 years until 1999. Since 2002, Tex has been voiced by Bill Bragg, whose website features recordings of the giant cowboy.
For 60 years Big Tex stood at the entrance of the Texas State Fair looming over all who entered the fair grounds. Throughout these decades he has become a state-wide celebrity and a fixture in the memories of many children and adults alike.
Distraught at the passing of beloved Big Tex? Plans are already in the works for Big Tex 2.0. Construction for the new Tex is expected begin this month, and hoped to be completed before the fair’s 2013 season.
Allen, Austin F. “Howdy Folks! Ya’ll Come!” Rotarian,
Febraury 1958, 8.
Briggs, Olin. “Big Tex: verteran cowboy who began as Santa Claus.” Dallas Times Herald, October 17, 1974.
Carlisle, Candace. “Big Tex asks for a handout, issues holiday greeting.” Dallas Business Journal, December 27, 2012. http://www.bizjournals.com/dallas/news/2012/12/27/big-tex-asks-for-a-handout-issues.html
Greene A. C. “Birth of Big Tex.” Dallas Morning News, October 14, 1983.
Obituaries; jim lowe jr.; radio announcer, voice of big tex. 2000. Los Angeles Times, Jun 05, 2000.
“ ‘Tex’ to Talk at State Fair This Year,” Austin American Statesman, September 27, 1953.
Tolbert, Frank X. “50-Footer ‘Tex’ Readied for Fair.” Dallas News, September 21, 1952.