Big Tex has served as the State Fair of Texas’s official greeter, master of ceremonies, and beloved mascot since he left his first job as a 49-foot-tall Santa Claus in Kerens in 1951. And though he began his long stand at Fair Park motionless and silent, the now-55-foot-tall figure has long been aided by animatronics and voiced by an actual human being. In fact, if Big Tex sounds a little different this year, it’s because the individual behind the colossal cowboy’s booming voice is a different person—the actual identity of whom is a closely guarded state fair secret—than the one who was doing Big Tex’s talking for him in 2019, the last time the fair was on. (The new voice is only the seventh in fair history.) But vocals aside, the big man, over his seventy-odd-year career keeping watch over the annual revelries, has become a treasured state symbol, recognized the world over for his iconic look and welcoming, folksy manner.
With the fair returning after the pandemic scuttled last year’s event, we thought we’d check in with Big Tex to see how he’s doing and how this year’s festivities are shaping up.
Texas Monthly: Howdy, Big Tex! Though last year’s fair was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you did make an appearance (properly masked, if we recall) at the Fair Food Drive-Thru. Had the fair ever been canceled before?
Big Tex: Well, howdy back at ya. The State Fair of Texas began in 1886 on the grounds in Dallas now known as Fair Park. Before 2020, there had been eight years in total when the State Fair of Texas was not able to hold a state fair. And it has been 76 years since the last time we were not able to host a state fair. During both world wars, the military used the grounds, and in the 1930s the Texas Centennial Exposition and the Greater Texas and Pan American Exposition were held instead. And now, unfortunately, we add 2020 to the years of canceled state fairs, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
TM: How fired up (sorry) are you for this year’s fair?
BT: Yikes! Why’d you have to bring up fire? I still get a little burnt up with that word. Brings back some bad memories. Anyhoo, I can’t wait to welcome back fairgoers with a hearty “Howdy, folks!” this year. Although we had the Fair Food Drive-Thru last year, I didn’t get to see all my friends.
TM: Are you anticipating attendance to be back to pre-pandemic levels? And, with safety in mind, what are your expectations of fairgoers this year?
BT: Ya know, we’re not looking to break any attendance records this year. We understand some folks might feel hesitant coming out to a large event right now, and that’s okay. We’ll be back next year, and will hopefully have this pandemic behind us all by then. For those of y’all who do come out, please take a look at the guidelines to make sure you’re willing to follow all our safety protocols. Our goal is to create a safe place for everyone to come out and have fun this year. And most of all, please respect your fellow fairgoers. It’s the right thing to do.
TM: Will you be sporting any new duds this year?
BT: Well, I’m glad you asked. I’ll, of course, be wearing my Dickies Western shirt and jeans, and my 95-gallon cowboy hat. My friends at Lucchese design my size-96 boots. The most recent design was actually done by a Texan named Katie Sauceda, who won my Big Tex Boot Design Contest in 2019. But this year I’ll also be wearing a new belt buckle provided by the folks at Shiner Beer.
TM: Of all the deep-fried victuals you’ve encountered at the fair over the years, what’s the strangest one you can recall?
BT: It’s hard for me to pick just one, but that Funnel Cake Bacon Queso Burger was pretty wild and delicious, if I do say so myself.
TM: We heard that deep-fried seafood gumbo balls are this year’s Big Tex Choice Awards fair-food winner. How do those taste?
BT: Woo, doggie! Man, are those good. Reminds me of eatin’ a pot o’ gumbo down on the Gulf Coast of Texas. And don’t even get me started on the “Sweet” category winner, the Armadillo [a cookie-butter ice cream sandwich].
TM: By the way, what are the most Fletcher’s corny dogs you’ve had in a day? Are you a mustard guy, or do you prefer ketchup?
BT: Well, at least one a day, all 24 days, of course! There’s just somethin’ about eatin’ a corny dog at the fair. As for the condiments, to tell ya the truth, I like to mix it up. Sometimes, I even like it plain. And have you tried that jalapeño-cheddar one? Hot diggity!
TM: Who are the musical guests you’re most looking forward to this year?
BT: My buddy Clay Walker is opening the fair on Friday night, so definitely him. And I’ve heard the Black Pumas are making their State Fair of Texas debut on Saturday night. I sure hope I can hear them all the way in Big Tex Circle! Not sure if you’ve ever heard my take on “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” but I can carry a tune.
TM: Any standout attractions we should be aware of this year?
BT: Well, I’m really excited that the rodeo is back this year—it first returned in 2018 after not being held during the fair for many decades. There’s a different rodeo theme every weekend, and it’s all included with your fair ticket.
TM: What’s your favorite ride at the fair?
BT: Well, I’m a bit too large to ride the rides at the fair, but I sure do like the looks of the Texas Star Ferris wheel. I hear you get a great view of the fairgrounds and the Dallas skyline from up there.
TM: Not to pry, but is there a Mrs. Big Tex?
BT: Well, ya see, I’m kind of married to my work. It’s my one true love—the State Fair of Texas.
TM: That sounds like a smoking-hot romance, Big Tex. Tell us more.
BT: [Sound of size 96 cowboy boots tromping off.]