Big Tex Needed A New Body. But Did He Really Need a New Voice, Too?

In the wake of the burning of its beloved icon last year, there's one thing about the State Fair of Texas that we now certainly know to be true: People around these parts take Big Tex, that familiar cowboy who wears those size 70 boots and cheerfully welcomes visitors to the State Fair each year, pretty damn seriously.

No, everything might not actually be bigger in Texas. But the mythology and perceptions of super-sized animatronic amusement park characters? That sure is.

And it's true for everything Big Tex-related, really. His clothes, his look and, yes, even his voice, are all major points of contention among the State Fair of Texas faithful — and this year more than ever before, as Tex undergoes a much-publicized remodel and re-branding effort.

Truth is, yes, there is something special going on with Tex's voice. His slow, Texan drawl and “Howdy Folks!” catchphrase does more than simply welcome State Fair of Texas attendees to Fair Park. His voice comforts these crowds, too.

Credit local voice actor Bill Bragg for that. Starting in 2002 and continuing through the end of last year's fair, Bragg helmed Tex's vocal booth — and with glee, at that. The guy loved his job endlessly.

But, after a public firing in the spring of last year, Bragg, for the first time in a decade, won't be handling this year's vocal duties. And, until the gates of the fair open tomorrow morning, his replacement remains a mystery.

Much as Bragg wishes he was still the voice of Big Tex — and boy does he — that position has now passed him by, seemingly for good.

* * * * *

It's important to remember that Big Tex has undergone changes before.

In fact, Tex wasn't even a cowboy at all in the beginning. At first, he was nothing more than a marketing gimmick paid for by the Kerens Chamber of Commerce.

In 1949, businessmen in Kerens — which was incorporated in 1881 after the Texas & St. Railway built a narrow gauge line through Navarro County — decided that their downtown commercial district could use a bit of a boost and decided to construct the world’s largest Santa Claus to attract holiday shoppers to Main Street.

But, in 1951, after the sheen began to wear off the behemoth Kris Kringle, the chamber decided to sell his metal bones. And they found a willing buyer in State Fair president and former Dallas mayor R.L. Thornton.

That year, Thornton, in one of the shrewder business deals since Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan, managed to purchase what would eventually become Tex's skeleton for a mere $750.

He then enlisted Dallas artist and stage designer Jack Bridges to convert St. Nick into something more suitable for the fair. And, by opening day 1952, Big Tex had taken up his spot as the fair’s ambassador. For that first season, Tex was simply a passive ambassador; he had not yet been gifted with the ability to speak. That would change in 1953, when Tex would be upgraded with a number of cosmetic improvements: His nose was made a bit less prominent; his scandalous, lascivious wink was removed; and the addition of an electronic voice box to his display became permanent.

That year, Tex's first greeting to State Fair attendees was uttered by a local ex-disc jockey named Al Jones. Jones time as Tex was short lived; he quickly surrendered his post to WRR legend Jim Lowe, who took over the role in 1954.

Lowe would the one to truly bring life to Big Tex: He would inhabit the role for a total of 39 years, with but a few breaks, between 1954 and 1998.

Together, Lowe and Big Tex would play a vital role in the most harrowing day of the fair's history on October 21, 1979. That day — the last of that year's fair — the “Swiss Sky Ride” malfunctioned, sending the ride's gondolas hurtling to the ground from 85 feet in the air. One man was killed in the accident, one was left paralyzed and 17 others were injured in the collapse. Those who remained on the ride were terrified, but they were soon comforted by a familiar voice, as one of the riders — NPR's John Burnett — would later remember on the network's All Things Considered: “The ride stopped, they evacuated the fairgrounds, and we hung up there for an hour. Then the reassuring voice of Big Tex, actually a Dallas radio announcer, intoned, 'Do not attempt to exit your cable car. Wait for the cherrypicker.' And we did. And we were safe.”

Tex got new steel insides and gained the ability to wave and swivel his head in a 1997 makeover. Lowe would retire just a year later in 1998, leaving his post to Dan Alexander. But Alexander's time with Tex would prove almost as brief as Jones', ending when he and his family moved to Arizona following the fair's 2000 edition.

After Alexander’s departure the fair held a massive talent search to find a new, permanent voice. Bragg, a local voice actor and founder of the National Museum of Communications, finished second in that contest.

“I started doing voice-overs for [the fair's] telephone answering service,” recalls Bragg. “I took care of all of that for them, and then when they had the big ridiculous talent search, they had people from all over the United States and Canada, about 500 [people], and we all auditioned out at the Cotton Bowl, because they had a sound system that sounded very much like Big Tex.”

Bragg and another man, Sonny Ray Stolz, were eventually the only competitors left.

“It got down to two of us, so we kept auditioning and they would bring me out a script to say, and part of it was in Spanish,” Bragg says. “At that time, I hadn't learned Spanish, so I just ignored it.”

Finally, fair officials decided they needed to hear Bragg at least attempt the Spanish portion of the scripts.

“They said, 'Do it, no matter what,' so I did — and I probably frightened every Mexican person within five miles of the Cotton Bowl,” Bragg says. “To make a long story short, the other guy got the job.”

Stolz may have won, but he wouldn't be long for the job either. Complaining of low pay and poor working conditions, he quit in November of 2001, leaving the job the same year he got it.

“He couldn't take it any longer,” Bragg says. “He couldn't take their attitude, the way they treated him. And he made a big deal out of it. When Sonny told it like it was and walked out on them, they called me up and said 'OK, you're it” — wham! — and slammed down the phone.”

And that's how Bragg got the job he had been chasing — and the the job he'd do everything in his power not to lose.

* * * * *

Perhaps it's fitting that the booth that holds Big Tex's announcer is known as the doghouse. Because, both literally and figuratively, the doghouse is exactly where Bragg found himself on October 19 of last year.

That morning, flames started to shoot up from Big Tex's ostrich-skin footwear, before eventually consuming the rest of Tex's Dickies-branded casual workwear.By the time the fire was extinguished, all that remained was Tex's belt buckle, sleeves and hands. His face was completely gone, melted off by the blazing heat. Faulty wiring was reportedly the cause.

News of the fire spread quickly, presented in a tone befitting the death of a head of state. Breathless reports led local news broadcasts. Print stories read like tongue-in-cheek obituaries.

Bragg popped up more than a few times in this coverage. A familiar face (if not voice), members of the media were quick seek him out for comment on what the flames meant in the grand scheme of things.

Far as Bragg can tell, although he hardly recognized as much then, his availability to the press was what would do him in on this day, too. Sue Gooding, his boss in the State Fair of Texas's PR department, wasn't too pleased to see his face plastered all over the news, he says.

“They walked right past her and came over and started talking to me,” Bragg says. “Everybody in town knew me, y'know? I'd worked at all the stations and everything. That upset her.”

After the interviews, Gooding told Bragg to gather his stuff and go home. The contract that made his role as Big Tex's voice was set to expire at the end of the 2012 fair. At the time, he expected that he would simply sign a new contract in the spring, just as he always did.

“I thought they were talking about the [just the last day],” Bragg says. “There was nothing left to do, y'know? Tex was gone, and all the stuff was gone. There was nothing for me to do, and I thought fine, 'I won't come back, but, at the same time, we'll renew the contract.'”

That wouldn't be the case, though, as Bragg found out in March.

“When it came to contract time, [Gooding] says 'OK, it's my first year to be in charge of you. First thing, you're gonna take down your website. Second thing, you’re gonna get off Linkedin. Third thing, you're going to get off Facebook,'” Bragg recalls. “Anytime I said anything, anywhere, I would have to get it cleared through her. I did my best to cooperate with her. Finally, it just got to where I said 'I can't do this. I'm not going to do that.' And then she just says, 'You're fired.'”

As the news of Bragg's split with the fair spread, his fans — and he had picked up quite a few during his 11 years being Big Tex — took to social media and change.org to call for his reinstatement and Gooding's removal.

For his part, Bragg has egged on his supporters. Even now, he consistently reposts Facebook messages of support and courts media attention whenever he can.

Losing Big Tex has clearly left Bragg and his fans feeling lost — something that Gooding thinks was inevitable.

“No one likes change,” she says when asked to comment on Bragg's firing. “Sometimes, change is forced upon you. People have an opinion one way or the other, and they base that opinion on what they know. Big Tex is a larger-than-life character. He's had great voices over the years. But things change, and times change.”

* * * * *

It didn't take long for Gooding to try to spin Bragg's departure as a good thing. The fair's promised new, rebuilt Big Tex (as finally debuted to the public just this morning), deserved a new voice, too, she argued.

Still, though the fair would quickly raise almost half a million dollars to make up the difference between Tex's $155,000 insurance value and his $600,000 estimated rebuilding cost and show off the rebuilding process in a computer animation of the replacement icon's head released in April, Gooding and her team mostly managed to keep all details about the bigger, faster, stronger Tex under wraps in the lead up to this year's fair.

Same goes for Tex's new voice: Until tomorrow, when the new voice of Big Tex is debuted as the fair's gates open for the 127th time, no one — save for Gooding and a select few others — knows the identity of the voice.

She does acknowledge, though, that a total of 111 applicants sent the State Fair of Texas the requested recorded audition script after its call for submissions went out. And the new voice, she also concedes, was decided upon in June.

Beyond that, the only information that's been made available to the public is that the person behind the new voice is from North Texas and that, despite some strong public sentiment, it will not be popular local musician and KXT DJ Paul Slavens.

That Slavens tried out at all is testament to the enduring lure of the role, though.

“It's a hard gig,” Slavens says of the role. “It's a difficult gig. You have to be at the fair all of the time. But it was one of those once in a lifetime opportunities that I just felt like I had to just have a go at.”

Or as Gooding puts it: “We're in Texas, and everything in Texas gets taken more seriously.”

“He'd been for generations,” she adds of Big Tex. “Whatever the reason, he had been here long enough that he had become a family member [for fair attendees].”

The new Big Tex will almost certainly become a revered figure sooner or later, too. Sure, for the first couple of years, he may be like that weird guy who just married into the family. But, with time, fair attendees will probably learn to love him just the same.

Much as Bragg might try to argue differently, the same is most likely of Tex's new voice.

And, hey, if not, at least the fair now has an at-the-ready exit strategy in place: an all too convenient accident, that, if nothing else, it's surefire was for an old icon to drum up some new publicity.

The new Voice of Big Tex will be unveiled on the opening day of State Fair of Texas on Friday, September 27.

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