Texas throws 150-year birthday party. But in midst of celebration, Texans uncertain about the future
Austin, Texas — When Prince Charles visited the Texas capital recently to help kick off the state's 150th anniversary bash, the 90,000-pound cake he cut was billed as the largest ever made. For many, that was as it should be. After all, this is Texas.
But considering all the fanfare that for months has heralded the state's Sesquicentennial -- invariably describing the event as a ``year-long, Texas-size birthday party'' -- what's surprising is the contemplative, nearly introspective quality pervading much of the celebration.
If the 59 delegates who declared the Lone Star republic's independence from Mexico at Washington-on-the-Brazos in 1836 had done so in, say, 1832, the commemoration might be more unabashedly exuberant. In 1982 Texas was still riding the oil boom, the state economy far outstripped national performance, and newcomers were pouring in by the hundreds of thousands.
If it had taken place in the early '80's, the party might have more closely resembled the banquet scene from the movie ``Giant'' -- itself based on the 1949 opening of Houston's Shamrock Hotel. The hotel, with its swimming pool big enough to accommodate water skiing, and the everyone-who's-anyone party that opened it were one wildcatter's way of telling the world that Texas had arrived.
But this is 1986. The price of oil is in a free-fall, domestic immigration into Texas has slowed to a comparable trickle, and the state economy is doing the previously unthinkable: growing at a slower pace than that of the US as a whole.
Consequently, the traditional Texas swaggering seems a little less appropriate. What's more, the big money that state organizers had sought for the Sesquicentennial was not forthcoming. The slick publicity efforts planned to spread word of the celebration to the nation had to be scaled back. And some of the big events, like the wagon train that continues to wend its way around the state, have never attained the grandiose proportions originally planned. Consequently the celebration has taken on more of a grass-roots, close-to-home character.
``We haven't had a lot of money to work with, and there hasn't been a lot of centralized planning,'' says Ruth Ann Edwards, Sesquicentennial officer for the City of Austin. ``But that hasn't stopped us from putting together a celebration with lots of variety.'' She says the great response to Sunday's Independence Day parade, in a city that before this year never really celebrated the March 2 declaration of independence, suggests the interest that both native and adoptive Texans alike are taking in their common heritage.
Part of the celebration is to encourage the creative, be-what-you-want tendencies that so many here see as an important part of their state's personality. And they hope to foster creativity in more than just traditionally Texan activities. For instance, the Arts Committee of the Austin Sesquicentennial Commission is sponsoring a competition, with a $8,600 prize, to induce American composers having spent some time in Texas to write a musical piece commemorating the anniversary.
A heightened impatience with the old clich'es about Texas is also evident. Texas Monthly magazine -- which in its January Sesquicentennial issue offered reflections by 98 (mostly) Texas writers on Texas and the events that made it what it is -- in February bestowed a ``Bum Steer Award'' on James Michener's new novel, ``Texas,'' calling it ``the longest unbroken string of Texas clich'es ever compiled.''
This is not to say that the event is devoid of Texas braggadocio. In the Sesquicentennial Emporium on downtown Austin's Sixth Street, Texas skiers can buy baskets for their ski poles that ``brand'' the snow with an imprint of the state. Other items include a $6,700 Sesquicentennial belt buckle, miniature barrels of ``genuine Texas crude oil,'' and the inevitable T-shirt proclaiming, ``Proud to be Texan.''
But even in this focal point of the celebration's commercial element, there is evidence of a desire to provide a broader portrait of what the state is. Next to the plastic Sesquicentennial hair brushes are calendars featuring biographies of the heroes of the 1836 war of independence, jars of locally prepared foods, and books explaining the Lone Star state.
According to Ms. Edwards, the Sesquicentennial Commission includes a number of people who, having served on the local planning committee for the US Bicentennial commemoration in 1976, are adamant that the heavy commercial and caricaturing flavor of that celebration not be repeated. ``They were determined that it wasn't going to happen,'' she says, ``and I don't think it has.''