In 1936, Texas celebrated 100 years of independence with the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas and true to Texas form, the event was one of the biggest world’s fair events in history. This year, on its eightieth anniversary, we look back at the epic celebration that helped our state weather the Great Depression and set the world’s eyes upon Texas
By Jonathan Spindel
Photography: Archival Images
The Texas Centennial Exposition’s Pavillions at Fair Park in Dallas are a window to the past, to a courageously ambitious project to spur economic growth during the depths of the Great Depression. In a display of Texas-sized confidence, the Centennial Exposition planners sought to celebrate Texas’s independence as a state with a celebration the world would remember. Indeed, the event was a spectacular success, and its legacy remains as testament to the Texas spirit of ambition, strength, and modern grandeur.
To understand the scale of the then-unprecedented Centennial Exposition, visualize that in 1936, half of Texas’s residents lived on farms or in towns of less than 2,500 people.. Texas wasn’t yet the economic powerhouse it would soon become. Amidst a backdrop of economic difficulty, the Centennial Exposition marked an important contrast between the realities and the aspirations of Texans during the depression era. World War II ahead wasn’t even a thought, so with the Centennial Exposition, the Emerald City of Dallas, attracted Texans and Americans near and far like a dazzling beacon, where they became inspired by what the state could one day become, and indeed, has come to be.
By the numbers, the Texas Centennial Exposition was an event for the history books. More than six million people attended the expo, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. More than 50 buildings were erected for the event, many of which remain today as notable examples of Art Deco architecture gaining mainstream acceptance by then. The event cost a reported $25 million, yet created over ten thousand jobs and contributed a staggering $50 million to the local economy. Thus, the Texas Centennial Exposition is credited with buffering Dallas from the latter days of the Great Depression.
Dallas’s beloved Fair Park, an expansive, then-178 acre landscape, hosted the expo, and in turn was graced with some of the era’s most impressive feats of architecture, including the monumental Hall of State. According to press accounts at the time and Texas State Historical Association, the fair was an unprecedented happening that lingers in memory to many to this day.
The vastness of the Centennial’s endeavor offered something for everyone. The Cavalcade of Texas, a historical pageant covering four centuries of Texas history, was one of the most popular attractions at the Exposition. 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. Universal Studios produced a newsreel of preparations for the Centennial beauty pageant, which shows models attempting to fit into life-sized cutouts of the Texas Centennial Committee’s concept of the “perfect figure.”
The celebrated Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth, adapted and directed by Orson Welles with an all-black cast, was featured August 13–23 in the new band shell and 5,000-seat open-air amphitheater. The production was one of the most talked-about features of the exposition and drew large, enthusiastic audiences. For many it was their first opportunity to see a professional dramatic performance by African American actors. Integrated seating was a unique experience for theatergoers in Dallas at the time.
The publicity machined churned out stories surrounding President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visit to the exposition in a widely publicized event and Gene Autry‘s film The Big Show was filmed on location and shows many of the buildings and events of the event.
The Centennial Exposition required a massive publicity effort, but the promotion department was stymied by a lack of photographs. Never before had the state been photographed for advertising purposes. The Centennial Exposition hired Polly Smith to travel the state and tell the story of Texas through photos.
After a successful five-month run, the Texas Centennial Exposition was closed and would remain a precursor of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York that would usher in a different world forever and the Centennial’s exhibits changed and reopened the following year as the Greater Texas & Pan-American Exposition to include the state’s Spanish neighbors to the south.
About 60% of the buildings remain standing today, thanks largely in 1986 at the Centennial’s 50th anniversary, with the founding of the Friends of Fair Park to preserve the structures. In fact, the Fair Park Texas Centennial Buildings were designated a National Historic Landmark in the same year.
This year, eighty years after it’s monumental success, let us all pay tribute to our state’s ambitious forebears by visiting the historic Fair Park, and perhaps sharing the story of the Centennial Exposition with the younger generation of Texans. Let us also embody that inspiration as we head forward into the future, and raise a spirited cheer to the next one hundred years of Texas pride.