Hurst — There once was a “small, roaring cow town” called Fort Worth.
But that was before Amon G. Carter came to town in 1905. Full of optimism and ideas, Carter saw how much more Fort Worth could become—and set out to make it happen. It’s possible that in the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, no city in America had a booster more boisterous, fun, and famous than Amon Gee.
He was a poor kid from the scrub country northwest of Fort Worth. By his 30s, he was running the newspaper and plenty else in the city he loved most. He brought the first airplane to Fort Worth, and opened its first radio station, WBAP. He was famous (and we think it’s true) for always taking a sack lunch with him on visits to Dallas, lest he accidentally drop a dime into Big D’s economy.
In 1938, the man drove a stagecoach down Wall Street, for Pete’s sake, with TCU’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Davey O’Brien waving from inside. He made his short-brimmed “Shady Oak” Stetson hat an iconic piece of Texas swag for decades of celebrities, from movie stars to the Prince of Wales. Get the idea?
Dave Lieber, popular speaker, author, and beloved “Watchdog” columnist first for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and now for the Dallas Morning News (busting the chops of scammers and corporations on behalf of regular folks) has written his very first play.
AMON! The Ultimate Texan, a world premiere opening in May at Artisan Center Theater in Hurst, is a labor of love sprung from a long-running obsession with Carter that began when Manhattan-raised Lieber came to Fort Worth in the early 1990s. The one-man show stars Kelvin Dilks as Carter, and is directed by Connie Sanchez.
Nowadays, even residents of The Fort may recognize the ubiquitous Carter name (TCU plays in Amon G. Carter Stadium, rodeo visitors pass through the Amon G. Carter Exhibits Hall, and art types enjoy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art) but know little about the man.
Lieber aims to fix that.
TheaterJones caught up with him for a lively phone chat about Fort Worth history, and Carter’s colorful place therein.
TheaterJones: So, Amon Carter, Sr. I hardly know where to start. He was Mister Fort Worth, the man who built the city we know today. He ran the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was one of the area’s earliest radio and TV pioneers. He was instrumental in making North Texas an aviation hub and a center of the oil and gas business. He left art works and money to create one of Fort Worth’s best museums. I thought he was still alive when I was a little girl, because I heard him talked about so much. Actually, he died in 1955, when I was four, but he was still a living, breathing presence in the city as I grew up. For those who don’t know him, just who was he to this part of Texas?
Dave Lieber: I think he was our Alexander Hamilton, our most consequential figure who’s been forgotten. He shaped the city in a way that no other person I know of did, except maybe Robert Moses in New York. And he had a 50-year run.
What’s really cool is that he ran everything: radio, TV, politics, social life, charitable endeavors. He was so powerful you didn’t want to cross him—and he was one of the greatest marketers who ever lived.
He had a public persona, but what impression did you get of the “real” Carter in your research?
I went to the TCU library and read hundreds of his letters. He was a very erudite man, though he only had an eighth-grade education, and he could write very well—flowery and demonstrative in his language. He spent most of his days sucking up to powerful people. He used the Star-Telegram photographers so much they told him he needed to hire a private photographer. He’d invite [celebrities and big-wigs] to his Shady Oak farm, put them on a horse, have their picture taken—and then he’d print twenty copies of the photo and mail them to that person and everyone else. He would use the photos the same way he used the custom-made Shady Oak hat, a gift that was like getting a Texas knighthood.
His name is on every second building in Fort Worth, it seems.
I was surprised to learn there is a mountain top in Big Bend National Park named for him, too: Amon Carter Peak.
I don’t want you to tell all your good stories from the play, but give us one or two. I love the report of him driving TCU’s winning quarterback up Wall Street in a Wild West stagecoach.
I don’t think that one got into the play—but it’s in the companion book coming out along with it. That’s the problem, there’s so much stuff it’s overwhelming. In the play, I had to leave out Pappy O’Daniel and Ma and Pa Ferguson, and Jim Wright, lots of the political stuff, though it’s in the book.
First of all, the World War II story is so dramatic—when his son was taken prisoner [for more than two years] in World War II, Carter lost it. He had the Air Force flying reconnaissance planes over the POW camp taking pictures, and he called FDR every moment he could. [Carter Junior survived his captivity and became a Fort Worth philanthropist himself.]
And then there’s the story about Broadway Billy Rose and Amon Carter in 1936, kicking Dallas’ ass [in their dueling Texas Centennial celebrations]. I was really surprised to find the program for Billy Rose’s Casa Mañana show and see naked women on the cover and throughout. Fort Worth wanted to beat Dallas so bad in ’36 that they forgot their morals. So funny.
And Carter and Rose put up billboards in Dallas advertising the Fort Worth show as way more exciting than whatever Dallas was doing, right?
The billboards were all lit up, and said something like “Come to Fort Worth for Whoopee!” Sally Rand’s fan dance, Paul Whiteman’s [swing orchestra], Broadway Billy Rose—and Carter put them right outside the fairgrounds in Dallas. But he also put them along highways in at least nine other states, naked girls and all. Ernest Hemingway was driving cross-country, saw one of those signs, and decided to make a detour to find out what it was all about. Couldn’t find anything in the Star-Telegram about his visit, but there was a two-paragraph item in the Dallas Morning News saying only that “Ernest Hemingway is in town with his pet mouse.”
And that’s all they said about it, nothing about the nekkid girls?
What triggered the idea to write about Amon Carter?
When I got to the Star-Telegram in ’93, I said to myself ‘This is the strangest paper I’ve ever been at. They care about us. We have a picnic committee, they give us a Christmas bonus, I can buy half-price tickets to TCU football games through the Carter Foundation.’ And I didn’t understand what was going on—I’d never heard of Amon Carter, though I’d read literally hundreds of books about newspapers and journalism history. Then I read [S-T colleague] Jerry Flemmons’ book [Amon: The Texan Who Played Cowboy for America], and I had a thought I’ve never had in my life before or since: ‘This is a one-man play.’
I told Jerry I was going to give it a shot, and he laughed and said, ‘Good luck, boy.’ Ruth Carter Stevenson [Amon’s daughter] hated his book, he told me, and the Carter Foundation helped fund a lot of theater companies. So I waited 20 years, and the idea of the play just hung in my closet like a procrastinating ghost. But part of the impetus for me right now is that the newspaper industry is dying a very fast death, and I wanted to bring this story out to show people how someone could use a newspaper to do good in the world and make things better for people.
There was plenty of ‘fun and games,’ but yes, Carter did some serious, impactful good around here.
We learned it’s estimated that he [generated] a trillion dollars worth of business—and he did it without Fort Worth ever having an economic development department. He was the development department.
And he had an impact on the city’s cultural life. Is it true that his good friend Will Rogers, the much-loved cowboy actor and comedian, sparked Carter’s interest in collecting Western art?
That’s right. Will Rogers told him if he liked cowboys, he’d love Remington and Russell, so he started buying in 1928 and kept going. But we’re forgetting to talk about everything Carter did for West Texas, too, which he called ‘Fort Worth’s back yard.’ He was a major force in the creation of Texas Tech, for instance. [Visitors to campus come in through the university’s front door, Amon G. Carter Plaza.]
The Star-Telegram was the highest-circulation newspaper in the state then, and West Texas gave him those big numbers. The plane he sent out to drop bundles of newspapers at points all over West Texas [faster than getting the paper there by road] hangs from the ceiling of the historic Star-Telegram building that Bob Simpson renovated. You can see it through the windows at 400 West Seventh Street. That’s how people got their paper all over West Texas.
I had no idea they delivered the paper that way—amazing! On another subject, I believe the Fort Worth-Dallas rivalry was going before Amon Carter got into it, but he did invent the dig that “Fort Worth is where the West begins—and Dallas is where the East peters out.” He already was driving Big D crazy with that line before World War I, I hear.
From 1911 [when the first airplane came to Fort Worth] to 1974 when DFW International Airport opened, I think most of the rivalry was in the two cities never being able to handle the joint airport situation—and that just festered , especially from the ‘30s to the ‘70s.
You have written so many different things—newspaper columns, speeches, books. How was playwriting new for you? What literary muscles did you work out that felt different?
I’m looking at some books right now that helped me. One of them is my copy of the play Our Town. I wrote the play minimally, so if a theater wants to enhance it they can, but it works as a minimal, Our Town-ish show. The other book is Playwriting for Dummies—that’s basically where I was. [Laughs.]
I grew up in Manhattan, and studied a little bit at the Stella Adler School of Acting as a teenager. I kind of had a sense of how to do it, but it turned out that though playwriting is very different from newspaper writing, it’s not that different from magazine writing, which I’d also done. That’s what brought me to the point where I could actually pull it off.
The Amon Carter was the first museum I was crazy about. And it’s still free—almost every time I go I see a couple walk up to the desk and ask what they have to pay. And when they’re told it’s free, they blink a couple of times, and walk right in.
You know why it’s free, right?
I think he must have meant it to be that way, so anyone, of any income level, would be able to see the art. He was desperately poor as a boy.
Yep, he wrote it in his directions for the museum—free forever.
You’ve been here in North Texas a bit more than 25 years now. Is there a point at which you feel like you ‘crossed over’ from honorary late-comer Texan to the real deal?
I’m a lot of a Manhattan guy. I’m a little sweeter and a little more of a gentleman now, but I’m still a Manhattan son of a bitch. When you’re the Watchdog, well, I have to confront people who basically—I don’t know quite how to put it—but who have been accused of treating people poorly. And a lot of them try to bully me. I’ve been doing journalism for 43 years, and I want to stay strong.
But I think to answer your question, this play has really helped me cross over. I went to Cavender’s and bought a new pair of boots, I bought a Wild Rag and a new slide at Schaefer Outfitter along I-20, which I love—and three new Wrangler shirts. I’m duded up!