Family of Big Tex artist remembers how it began

9/23/2013 9:45 AM
By Associated Press

DALLAS (AP) — Even a year after Big Tex burned down, it's tough for Elisabeth Bridges to think about what happened to the beloved icon that her grandfather built.

"I felt like one of our family had died," she said.

She cried.

"I was just really glad that my grandfather didn't get to see that."

In 1952, Jack Bridges created a gigantic cowboy that would welcome crowds to the State Fair of Texas.

Big Tex became a big hit.

Bridges, who died in 2001, gave the State Fair a treasured character that's now woven into the fabric of North Texas. Through the years, fairgoers would make it a point to stop and look up to admire the 52-foot-tall talking cowboy. When they got lost, they would meet at Big Tex.

The Dallas Morning News ( ) reports Big Tex would become the backdrop of countless family pictures — the backdrop of the State Fair, the backdrop of fall in Dallas.

Bridges was a colorful, quirky artist known for telling tall tales. He was Big Tex's caretaker, helping to install him and take him down at Fair Park each fall.

After Jack Bridges' creation went up in flames last October, the fair hired a Texas-based company to build the new Big Tex. Fair officials have remained tight-lipped about his reconstruction, but they say he will look similar when he is unveiled on Friday, the opening day of this year's fair.

"The artist is still Jack Bridges, in a way," the State Fair president, Errol McKoy, said soon after the fire. "His likeness will still be the same."

But it will be hard for Elisabeth Bridges.

"To me, it will be Big Tex and it will be the new Big Tex, but it won't ever be the Tex that Jack built," she said.

Before Big Tex debuted at Fair Park, he was the world's biggest Santa Claus in Kerens in Navarro County in 1949.

In 1951, the town sold Ol' Saint Nick to the State Fair for $750. Fair officials first thought about placing Santa in Fair Park for the holidays. Then they decided on a cowboy.

State Fair officials have long credited R.L. "Bob" Thornton, the State Fair president who later became Dallas mayor, with the Big Tex concept.

Thornton loved Dallas and was one of the city's greatest promoters, said his granddaughter, Mary Brinegar, president and CEO of the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden.

"He was quick to see opportunities, so I can only imagine his enthusiasm in first seeing the gigantic Santa Claus for sale," she said.

Big Tex's smiling face, Bridges once said, was vaguely inspired by the beloved character Old Man Texas, created by Dallas Morning News cartoonist John Knott, whose illustrations appeared in the newspaper for more than 50 years.

But Thornton wanted a younger cowboy.

The fair hired Bridges, a local artist and set designer.

Bridges once said that Tex's facial features were modeled after three people: "Me, Will Rogers and Doc Simmons, a rancher from Bell County. I took the worst features from all three of us."

He had three weeks to do the job. He worked frantically day and night.

Just weeks before the 1952 fair opened, The News caught up with a beret-wearing Bridges in his barn-sized studio as he worked on Tex's papier-mâché head and his steel, wood and chicken-wire frame.

The paint was still wet when Big Tex was installed at Fair Park.

At first, Big Tex looked kind of evil, said Nancy Wiley, the State Fair historian and retired spokeswoman. His nose was long and hooked. He winked — his right eye was shut.

So after the '52 fair, Bridges gave him a nose job and opened his eye. And he worked to give him a voice in time for the 1953 fair.

From then on, Bridges would have a lifelong connection to the tallest talkin' Texan.

"I made a paper doll, and I'm known all over the world just for that," Bridges said in 1962 during Big Tex's 10th anniversary.

Eventually, Bridges replaced his papier-mache head with fiberglass, something he often tinkered with.

"We were always asking him to watch what he was doing because he'd come home and all his eyebrows were singed off," said Elisabeth Bridges, 48, who says her grandfather inspired her to become an artist.

He even gave Big Tex a faint gold tooth in the '70s.

"Cowboys always get their teeth knocked out either in a bar or on a bucking bull," Bridges once told The News.

For a guy who was known for stretching the truth, the first report of Jack Bridges' death was the ultimate tall tale.

His death was announced prematurely in a letter to the editor in The News in the fall of 2000.

"Tell 'em the truth!" Bridges told The News soon after. "I can't stand up anymore. I've lost the sight in one eye. I had a hip replacement with 143 sutures, and it hurt like hell. But I'm not dead."

Six months later, in 2001, Bridges passed away. He was 91.

Last October, when Elisabeth Bridges heard that Big Tex was on fire, she raced over to Fair Park. At Big Tex Circle, she saw a boy about 5 or 6. He was in tears.

His mom explained that he had been crying in the car on the way to the fair because he knew that Big Tex had burned down.

Bridges showed him some pictures of Big Tex during happier times.

"Don't worry," she told him. "It will be OK. They will rebuild him."

He stopped crying.

"It's OK," he declared. "I'll ride the rides."

Elisabeth Bridges said: "It will be cool for that little boy to go to the fair this year and know that Big Tex is back."


Information from: The Dallas Morning News,

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