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Texas Centennial Exposition, Dallas, 1936

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Gene Autry in "The Big Show"

Be sure to read more about The Big Show at the Official Gene Autry website.

The Big Show was a "B" western movie made in 1936 by Republic Pictures. It starred singing cowboy star Gene Autry and his horse Champion.Most of the picture was filmed at the Texas Centennial Expostion in Dallas. It was produced by Mark V. Wright and written by Dorrell and Stuart McGowan. In addition to Autry, who played both a fictitious movie star named Tom Ford as well as Ford's stunt double, the movie featured Smiley Burnette, Kay Hughes, and Sally Payne. A singing group, the Sons of the Pioneers, which included future Autry rival Roy Rogers, were also in the movie, backing up Autry on several numbers.

Anyone watching this movie who is familiar with Fair Park will immediately recognize several buildings that are still there. The movie also shows many structures that have since been demolished, such as the Ford Motor Company exhibit building, the Gulf Oil Radio Studios, and the Texas Rangers Headquarters. Scenes from the Cavalcade of Texas, in which Autry and the actual Cavalcade cast appear, are also in the movie. Modern-day viewers may be amazed at how large the sets were. One scene from the movie features the SMU Marching Band and entertainer Sally Rand (of fan dance fame). There is also an exciting scene in which Autry and some "Texas Rangers" on horseback chase some bad guys around the lagoon.

The Centennial Exposition scenes for The Big Show were shot during the last two weeks of September 1936. When Republic Pictures Associate Producer Armand Schaefer arrived in Dallas on Sunday, September 13, the newspapers reported that Gene Autry was already in town. The following day auditions were held at Dallas' "Little Theater" to cast some small parts in the movie. One of the handful of locals chosen was Georgia Carroll, who had modeled for the "Spirit of the Centennial" statue sculpted by Raoul Josset and Jose Martin. Others chosen, reported the Dallas Times Herald, were "LaNeyl Brown of Dallas, Lawrence Walker of Austin, Della Mae Foster of Greenville, Jane Lugenbuhl of Beaumont...and Dorothy Howe of Dallas." Dallasites Monetta Darnell, Helen May, Karlton Keedy, Vaughn Williams, and Jack Stice were also scheduled to audition but the paper did not report whether they were picked for movie. Paul Gerard of Fort Worth and Albert Terry of Amarillo were two others on the audition list.

Filming for The Big Show commenced on Tuesday, September 15 on the "Court of Honor" in front of the Texas Hall of State but had to be halted due to rain. That evening, at a show in the GM Auditorium (the State Fair Music Hall), Texas Governor Allred presented Autry, actors Andy Devine and Henry Armetta, and Republic Pictures President Hebert Yates with honorary commissions in the Texas Rangers. In the movie, a representative of the Governor presents Tom Ford, the character played by Autry, with such a commission. Whether the real event inspired the movie version or the other way around is uncertain.

The scene in which "Tom Ford" is mobbed by a group of female fans outside the Texas Hall of State probably features some of the local women mentioned above.

On Wednesday, September 16, scenes were shot on the Exposition grounds that depict Texas Rangers on horseback blocking the gates to prevent the escape of robbers. Chase scenes around the lagoon were also filmed.

On Saturday, September 19, at the 4 p.m. matinee, Gene Autry appeared in the "Cavalcade of Texas," for a scene that appears in The Big Show, in which the cowboy actor sings to his horse, Champion. One of the members of the audience that day was the Governor of Florida, in town to visit the Exposition.

The opening and closing scenes of The Big Show were probably filmed in Hollywood.

The Big Show may be a little hokey by any standards but for a rare glimpse of the Centennial Exposition while it was underway, this movie is a "must-see." It is now available on VHS and DVD. I bought a copy, which included 8 other old westerns (starring Autry, Roy Rogers, and Tex Ritter) for about $6 in Walmart!

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