The Orange Show: Surprises for the Eyes
Houston’s Orange Show Foundation’s goal, as part of its mission, is to preserve folk art in America, with outings called Eyeopener Tours to dozens of imaginative environments across Texas. Travelers interested in having their eyes opened can visit sites as varied as the Western-themed downtown dwelling that Howard Porter painted with a feather duster, and the boyhood home of influential musician Albert “The Iceman” Collins, the latter part of a rollicking Blues Music Tour in November.
But first stop on any Eyeopener Tour of Houston is the Orange Show Foundation’s whimsical namesake itself, the Orange Show, a madcap environment as difficult to define as true love. It’s a circus tent run amok, an amusement park for the imagination, a testimony to the power of creativity, and truly, a sight for sensory-deprived eyes.
Eccentric creator Jeff McKissack, who from 1956 to 1979 single-handedly built the Orange Show as a tribute to the wonderfulness of oranges, his favorite fruit, suffered no lack of confidence. He said he was sure that 80 to 90 percent of all Americans would want to see the Orange Show and would prefer it to the Grand Canyon or Disneyland. After all, he figured, “It’s the biggest thing to hit Houston since the Domed Stadium.”
Born in 1902 and a longtime postman when he retired in 1968, Jeff had known a variety of careers, including stints as a Wall Street investor, a dance hall proprietor, and a nurseryman. He had even considered a career as a beautician, figuring it would be a good way to meet women. But during the Depression, he trucked oranges throughout the Southeast, a job that aligned him with “the mission of the orange farmers of America” and inspired him to build his most lasting legacy. “The main purpose of the Orange Show,” explained Jeff, “is to encourage people to eat oranges, drink oranges, and be highly amused.”
You’ll be amused, yes, and inspired, and agog. Built almost entirely from items that Jeff found along his postal route and on his travels to Arkansas to “take the waters,” the Orange Show bursts forth on two city lots, smack-dab in the middle of a quiet neighborhood. Wildly spinning whirligigs and undulating Texas flags announce the site’s presence from blocks away. Then, up close, orange awnings and a mortared-rock border frame the entrance, which is emblazoned with giant orange letters: THE ORANGE SHOW.
Look up, and orange-and-white umbrellas crown a series of decks ornamented with wagon wheels, nearly 100 painted tractor seats, and kaleidoscopic, wrought-iron scrollwork. A maze of tiled pathways, encrusted with Jeff’s assorted words of wisdom (“EAT ORANGES AND LIVE,” “GO ORANGE BE STRONG,” “I LOVE ORANGES”) leads to a wishing well, and then to a circular amphitheater featuring a small steamboat. Here, Jeff McKissack hoped to host performances of all kinds, including a “show” featuring a battery-operated monkey and a beautiful woman playing an organ.
Though Jeff died only six months after the Orange Show’s grand opening in 1979, some visitors swear his enthusiastic spirit still permeates the wild architectural collage to which he devoted so much energy. Perhaps Jeff is smiling his ear-to-ear grin from a whirligig-festooned celestial sphere, proud that his one-man show is finally bringing joy to so many people.
From the May 2000 issue.