The musical drama T E X A S is in its 57th summer season. The play attracts people from around our state, nation, and world since it began in 1965. “The Canyon” is the single most visited park in Texas.
A cast of over 60 actors, dancers and singers bring to life the values of the Texas Panhandle. And, from the perch on the edge of Palo Duro Canyon State Park, many of the tribulations of early settlers have not been tempered by time. ” The outdoor musical shares durable perspectives on life in the Panhandle, which in ways are similar to people in Dallas’ Deep Ellum. Values such as patriotism, the celebration of community, the embeddedness of politics in every aspect of our existence, and strains of life common to all are displayed. It’s a remarkable production, fit for the whole family, heralding the cultural foundations of this part of the world, our state and nation.
Governor Preston Smith‘s welcome letter, published in a souvenir program for “TEXAS: A Musical Romance of Panhandle History” in 1969, called the production “… a community effort, which has been hailed as an outstanding accomplishment in helping to achieve a better understanding of the American way of life.” Governor Smith understood then what many people are coming to understand now: Panhandle values and deeply seated Texas values represent our nation’s founding values. In this part of the world, we take pride in these values. Governor Smith connected these time-tested values of the Panhandle and the challenges of contemporary society. He said, “Texans maintain the pride of their heritage from the pioneer past while progressively moving forward in this space age.” He affirmed what many of us know and live by daily: “Visitors will find that our citizens retain much of the strong pioneer spirit in the old-fashioned virtues of friendliness and western hospitality.”
Paul Green, the playwright, saw the production as a “tribute to the brave men and women who dared to settle this hard and bitter land, which had been called ‘uninhabitable,’ and make it prosper.” The Pulitzer Prize winner penned this work that so ably captures what sometimes appears to be the distinguishing trait of those who call our region, state and nation “home.” Bill and Margaret Moore directed the musical in its early years. They said, “When God created man – and woman – that was drama – grand, eternal, divine drama!” The play appeals to a very basic trait of human nature to desire something better in a place which marks history in eons rather than decades. Edward L. Melin, then president of the Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation (TPHF), produced the play. Margaret Harper, the TPHF founder, dreamed of building a theater in Palo Duro Canyon. And there it was, here it is, and likely forever will be, a symbol of a community working together to positively remember its heritage and project itself into the future. The play is teamwork between West Texas A&M University and Texas Parks and Wildlife choreographed by TPHF.
Early participants in the production include a long list of dignitaries. Jane Bivins Lipscomb played Aunt Anna, and she was a lifetime member of our community and the pioneering Bivins family. Doctors, lawyers, school teachers, WT students and children participated in the play in various roles. Many students in the drama department at WT got an early start, an internship, as it were, in the musical. Musicians and other students of the arts at WT had similar experiences. The production represents a great asset to the University and the Texas Panhandle, a willingness to work together to improve our region and this place we call home.
The production staff included Royal Brantley as music director, Neil Lynn Hess as dance director, James D. Kemmerling as designer and technical director, as well as Sandra Martin Kemmerling as costume designer. A multitude of others contributed in essential roles. And then there was Pat Hickman. The program from 1969 recognizes Pat Hickman as a “super salesman of souvenir programs.” It said, “His ad-lib style of repartee with the audience has become a favorite part of the entertainment each evening.” Today, Pat continues his involvement as a member and leader of the Cultural Foundation of the Texas Panhandle Advisory Board.
At times people in rural settings may feel overlooked by the major metropolitan areas that consume many headlines in politics, professional sports, culture, education and every other aspect of the human condition. However, anyone who knows even the slightest bit of history recognizes the value of rural folks in producing a productive future.
At WT, we work to benefit the larger world.
The production is ready to close out this season, but a new year is coming. It may be hot in Palo Duro Canyon, but nothing compares to the starlit sky as T E X A S concludes creating a coolness and clarity that is unmatched.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.