Cowtown Yoostabes: Fertilizer, Feathers, and the Fifth Ward (Part 1)

This recent aerial photo shows two local landmarks: Casa Manana and Farrington Field. That building just south of Casa is the REAL School Gardens complex.

This aerial photo below shows that area in 1952. See the C-shaped footprint where the REAL School Gardens complex is today? On that site yoostabe the original Casa Manana. In 1952 that footprint was all that remained of the four-thousand-seat cafe-amphitheater, which was a centerpiece of the Fort Worth Frontier Centennial of 1936. The centennial’s 162-acre complex of buildings and midway had been built on land that the city had bought from the estate of Major Khleber Miller Van Zandt. Originally meant to be a simple pioneer days celebration arranged by local volunteer women, the celebration—thanks to the hand-shaking, arm-twisting, and check-writing of Star-Telegram publisher and Fort Worth head cheerleader Amon Carter—kept growing and by-Gawd and by-gollying until it celebrated a derned sight more than pioneer days. I give you exhibit A—exotic dancer Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch:

You see, not content to rely on local volunteers, Carter had imported New York nightclub owner and Broadway producer Billy Rose (husband unto Fanny Brice) to be straw boss of the centennial’s entertainment. Rose’s remuneration: one thousand dollars a day for one hundred days. (That’s a per diem of $16,000 in today’s dollars.) On a more personal level Fort Worth’s extravaganza was, of course, Amon Carter’s attempt to out-Dallas Dallas, which was hosting the official Texas centennial celebration at Fair Park.

On July 18, 1936,  it was showtime in Cowtown. And who better to formally open the Fort Worth Frontier Centennial than the leader of the free world? President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Who at the time was on a Navy cruiser. Off the coast of Maine. Nonetheless, FDR pressed the key of a wireless transmitter on the cruiser and by radio and telegraph cut a lariat stretched across the entrance to the centennial celebration complex 1,500 miles away.

After visitors were inside the vast grounds, they saw plenty of displays of Texas history and pioneer handicrafts all right, but they also saw such spectacles as Rose’s musical circus extravaganza “Jumbo,” a steam locomotive, and burlesque dancers. Wild animals, big engines, and near-naked women: Are these not the three keys to the success of any cultural event?

The centerpiece of all that real estate was Casa Manana, the cafe-amphitheater where Rose staged his “Frontier Follies” show, which starred Sally Rand et al. and Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. Amon Carter claimed to have seen the show sixty times.

The song “The Night Is Young And You’re So Beautiful” was introduced at Casa Manana and became the unofficial theme song of the centennial celebration.

The Casa building, designed by architect Joseph Pelich, featured a revolving stage 130 feet in diameter that appeared to float in a lagoon. There were canals, drawbridges, fountains, pools.

The Fort Worth Frontier Centennial was perhaps the grandest wingding Cowtown had thrown since the Texas Spring Palace exhibition of 1889-1890. What had begun modestly with plans for Boy Scouts to simulate Indians by wearing feathers had evolved into Sally Rand and her Nude Ranchers wearing feathers. Somehow it all worked: During the summer of 1936 the centennial drew almost one million people.

So, in 1937 the Fort Worth Frontier Centennial did an encore, and Casa would see even more mananas: It stayed open through the 1939 season. Then the stage went dark. The Casa Manana building was demolished in 1942. In 1958 the second Casa Manana, a geodesic theater-in-the-round, opened just a few yards north of its predecessor.

Cowtown Yoostabes: Fertilizer, Feathers, and the Fifth Ward (Part 2)

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