Hurst — He was born in a log cabin, and died in a Fort Worth mansion. And in between, Amon G. Carter Sr. grew a city—Fort Worth—and lived a life (1879-1955) that seems almost too Texas-sized to be believed.
But it’s true.
Popular Dallas Morning News journalist Dave Lieber has lassoed a Lone Star legend and brought him onstage—hat, vest, seegars and all— for Amon! The Ultimate Texan, a show that, in Texas theater terms, is Lieber’s very first rodeo. Artisan Center Theater in Hurst took a chance on the greenhorn playwright and appears to have a hit play by the horns, with the first shows selling out and tickets scarce for even the extra performances recently added.
Carter’s name is all over North and West Texas (TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium, Texas Tech’s main plaza, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and a mountain—Amon Carter Peak—in Big Bend National Park, to name just a few) but memories of the man are fading, says Lieber.
“I think he was our Alexander Hamilton, our most consequential figure who’s been forgotten,” he told TheaterJones in a recent interview. Amon G (he liked to say the G stood for “gosh darn”—or something like that) was an essential presence in Texas history, the guy without whom…well, a lot just doesn’t happen.
But back to the play. Lieber’s script serves up the highlights and dramas of Carter’s life like brisket on a plate—tasty and satisfying. Here’s the kid who left school to help his family, turning his friends into “chicken and bread boys” selling sandwiches to train passengers stopping at little Bowie, Texas. Here’s the cocksure young head of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in the early years of the century—tirelessly promoting Fort Worth as “Where the West begins”…and Dallas, ipso facto, as “Where the East peters out.”
Here’s the man who brought the first airplane to Fort Worth, opened the first radio station in the region (WBAP) and published the biggest newspaper between here and the West Coast. And here’s the git-‘er-done marketing genius who stole Dallas’ thunder by organizing a rival Texas Centennial celebration in 1936—urging patrons to go to Dallas for “education” but to Fort Worth for “whoopee” and “entertainment.” Broadway Billy Rose’s extravagant girlie shows and Sally Rand’s famous fan dance brought customers to Fort Worth from all over the country.
Longtime Birdville teacher-turned-actor Kelvin Dilks makes a brash, funny Amon G—his hat a magical accessory waving us from one year to another—from his young “sell, sell, sell” years in Fort Worth, to his long run as a prime mover in the world, and friend to movie stars, presidents, even princes. Dilks’ version of Carter can’t resist “selling” the audience as well, making us all members of the “Amon G. Carter Full-Page Ad Club” and ragging on theater-goers brave enough to admit they live in Big D.
There’s a cartoon feel to the performance—intentionally so, as Carter knew he was “playing cowboy” for the whole country. It was a great way to bring attention to his beloved city—and to pull in money. Carter’s personality and PR savvy are credited with bringing one trillion dollars of business to Fort Worth during his long run as the city’s one and only “development” department.
But Lieber’s script doesn’t leave it at that. He drills down to find the father and friend inside the promoter, adding drama and depth to his portrait—and to the play itself. Carter called cowboy comedian and movie star Will Rogers “my best friend”—and when Rogers died in a plane crash in the mid-1930s, Carter accompanied his body home, and grieved for years.
During World War II, Carter’s emotional health was stretched to the breaking point during the two years his only son spent in a German POW camp. “I can’t fix this!” he cries—though he certainly tried, burning up the phone lines between Fort Worth and the Oval Office. But Carter’s pushy ways got food and medicine delivered, and helped 200 other Texas families keep track of their “boys” in the camp, too.
Director Connie Sanchez and solo performer Dilks worked long hours to bring Carter’s 52-page bio-play to life. (If there’s one note, it might be that given the non-stop “speechifying” of the role, a carefully adjusted body mike might have made it easier for the actor to reach the back rows.) Sanchez sets an energetic pace, one scene snapping into the next—and her designs for the theater space make Amon! an experience that starts at the door. Walls are lined with a panorama of great old photographs from UTA’s Special Collections: Carter with Will Rogers and FDR; the old Casa Mañana and Star-Telegram buildings; Sally Rand and her “Nude Ranch” showgirls at the 1936 Centennial; the mile-long assembly line at the “bomber plant” Carter won for Fort Worth.
Life-size cutouts of Amon G, backed by giant reproductions of historic Star-Telegram front pages, fill out the corners. And throughout the play, projections of the people and events in Carter’s long life take us through the years. (It’s a group effort by Artisan co-founder Richard Blair, Sanchez and her husband Reyes Sanchez, with stage manager Haley Allen hitting cues in the booth.)
Lieber, who was born and raised in Manhattan, says he didn’t know a thing about Amon Carter when he hit the newsroom of the Star-Telegram in the early 1990s. But he soon discovered that Mr. Carter, though long gone, was still a presence: in the newspaper’s family-style atmosphere, in the Carter Foundation’s ongoing giving (public and private) to the community, in the free-admission museum he created to make sure everyone got to see beautiful art.
And Lieber himself is no slouch as a promoter. There are plenty more Amon stories in his companion book, available in the lobby. Longtime WBAP chief Tyler Cox was tapped to record an audio book that’s coming soon. And there’s talk of taking Lieber’s “love letter to Fort Worth” on tour around North/West Texas, Carter’s old stomping grounds.
This is a story Lieber waited more than 20 years to tell, but he’s told it right, with spirit and bravado—a tribute from one newspaper guy to another. Here’s to Amon G. Carter Sr. of Texas, and to Dave “the Watchdog” Lieber, who got here from New York as fast as he could.
Seems like they go together—who knew?—like bourbon and branch water.