Big Tex's Secret Makeover Required Tight Controls

The reinvention of Big Tex was a top-secret project from the start. After the state fair icon's makeover was finally revealed, those close to the operation admit they were amazed the cover endured for so long.

"I'm absolutely surprised, to be honest," said Richard Mecke, president of San Antonio production company Texas Scenic, two days before the fair's opening day of Sept. 27. "I did not think it would get this far."

But in Boerne, a dainty burg 20 miles northwest of San Antonio where the project was hatched at remote SRO Productions, it was just how things get done.

"People are pretty good at keeping secrets around here," said Bonnie Westley, spokeswoman for the Boerne Chamber of Commerce.

News that SRO had headed up the project -- with Texas Scenic's assistance -- didn't even elicit a mention in The Belton Star, the twice-a-week local paper.

"SRO does a lot of projects around Texas," Westley told The Dallas Morning News. "It would not be a surprise that they would have been involved. Their work is very well thought of."

Aware of the excitement awaiting Big Tex's return, State Fair of Texas directors purposely picked a company far outside Dallas, aiming to keep the project under wraps.

Despite code names, tight circles of trust and, finally, fairground test-runs conducted under cover of night, team members figured the odds Tex's whereabouts and identity would leak were nearly as great as the suspense that awaited him.

And yet the cover remained -- at least until the day before the fair opened, when high winds forced early removal of the festive curtain veiling Tex from the curious public.

Maybe the biggest leap of faith had come early in the process, when Texas Scenic -- the company that oversaw Tex's internal framework and mechanics -- had to petition the city to use part of its new facility for which it didn't yet have a certificate of occupancy. In order to do so, the company had to tell San Antonio officials what it was up to.

The outfit pleaded with the city not to reveal the secret goings-on at the facility, which ironically sits just across the road from the even more furtive Texas Cryptology Center, run by the U.S. National Security Agency.

And the city complied: As inspectors visited, Mecke said, they'd offer assurances that mum was the word. "I will give the city credit, they absolutely kept it quiet," he said. "But when you're dealing with a city, there's so many eyes and ears."

The cover remained because this wasn't the city's first rodeo in terms of keeping things hush-hush -- not with the NSA in town.

"We do this quite often, as far as working with customers who want a certain level of discretion," said Ximena Copa-Wiggins, spokeswoman for San Antonio's department of development and business services, which issued Texas Scenic's temporary permit. "It really is nothing out of the ordinary for us."

To ensure secrecy, project members kept the words "Big Tex" out of their exchanges and labeling. Instead, they referred to the project as "Fried Chicken."

Tex is not the icon in San Antonio that he is in Dallas, so few had reason to suspect the true nature of the project. But being the age of digital handheld media, staffers took photos along the way, reminding each other not to post anything on Facebook or otherwise until the big day.

One iffy moment came as Tex's hat was transported from SRO to Texas Scenic's new San Antonio facility. Though draped, it raised some eyebrows.

Team members were ready with responses, if asked. Oh, that hat? It's for the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo.

Big Tex's move to Dallas came about two weeks before the state fair's opening day. Between secrecy and Texas Department of Transportation restrictions, it had the air of an action movie's covert military operation.

"We've got his body going up I-35 with at least two detours," reported SRO vice president Karen L. Wilson the afternoon of Sept. 10. "There's one small truck going up (U.S. Highway) 281, and another up I-35."

Tex's biggest piece, his torso, did draw some attention. At one point on the journey, the crew and its wide load stopped for a bite at a fast-food restaurant off the highway. A woman saw their company T-shirts and the tarp-covered hulk outside. She approached Mecke to ask what it was.

"I just told her it was a big piece of equipment we were going to install," he said.

In the days leading up to the fair, its spokeswoman Sue Gooding was constantly being asked questions. When does Big Tex arrive? What does he look like?

"I've even had employees ask, `When's he getting here?"' Gooding said on Sept. 11, the day after Tex's deconstructed pieces had arrived. "I just say, `Soon."'

Two days before the fair's opening, Tex's identity was still under wraps. Late that night, his face covered with a sheet, he was wheeled out and erected for real, surrounded by an ornamental drape that would shroud him like a shower curtain amid his foundation's cactuses and salvia plants.

Gooding expected that helicopters and media would hover, and she was right: One TV crew found its way onto the grounds as the cranes were preparing to lift Tex and had to be shooed away.

The day before the fair opened, excitement was high.

One TV helicopter captured a brief image of Tex's veiled form from above.

Then, around midday, came the winds that would spoil the Friday surprise. Was it just bad luck? Or could Mother Nature herself not bear the suspense any longer?

It had been so close. Now the only secret that fair officials still harbor is the identity behind Tex's new voice.

That hasn't always been the case. Bill Bragg, who provided Tex's sometimes cheeky commentary until the old Tex's untimely demise, does voice work for commercials and other activities. His voice reached far beyond his role at the fair.

But no more.

"Our board wants the voice of Big Tex to belong to Big Tex," said Gooding. Keeping the speaker's name secret only adds to the illusion that when Tex says, "Howdy," the greeting is from the big guy himself.

"So far the reaction to the voice has been incredible," Gooding said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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