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Tangled Up in ‘Fandangle’

Folks in Fort Griffin are proud of the state’s oldest outdoor musical

In most parts of Texas, bumper stickers on the cars of proud moms and dads proclaim that Susie plays soccer or Billy is in the marching band. In the Big Country town of Albany, the stickers say, “My Kid’s in Fandangle!”

Performed annually on the last two weekends in June, Fort Griffin Fandangle is the oldest outdoor musical in the state. The homegrown show about the region’s frontier days features some 250 local folks, from 21st-century toddlers to a few cast members born when old-timers could still recall the days when soldiers quartered at nearby Fort Griffin to protect settlers along the Clear Fork of the Brazos River.

In addition to portraying soldiers, the all-Albany cast plays pioneers, Native Americans, cowboys and Wild West legends like the “soiled dove” called Big Nose Kate and Doc Holliday, the “desperado dentist from Dallas.” Holliday was among the many storied figures associated with the Flat, a wide-open, saloon-drenched settlement that flared up near the fort.

So ingrained is the show in local lives that one of its original songs, Prairie Land, is sung at many area funerals.

Playwright Robert Nail Jr. and music teacher Alice Reynolds, Albany natives inspired by Texas centennial theatricals produced in Dallas and Fort Worth, created a prototype of the show in 1937. In early 1938, they staged a local history pageant, Dr. Shackelford’s Paradise, with a cast of high school seniors. Expanded that summer with adult performers, the show was renamed the Fort Griffin Fandangle.

“‘Fandangle,’ though it appears in larger dictionaries (with ‘nonsense’ as its meaning), is almost a made-up word with us,” wrote Nail in the 1970 booklet The Fandangle—A People’s Theater. “We chose it for its sound, feeling that the sound indicates music, dancing, showing off, merrymaking, spirited action. Those are the qualities we try for in our productions.”

Before 1965, Fandangle was held at the Albany football stadium. Since then, the outdoor musical has been presented at the Prairie Theater, an amphitheater that provides plenty of landscape features for the action. Cowboys on horseback drive a herd of actual longhorns across the range. Native Americans send smoke signals up in the hills. A stagecoach rumbles across its frontier route. Steam engine railroads, saloons, a church and the Shackelford County Courthouse are all moved into the scene and then whisked away when their tales have been told.

Like all good theater, Fandangle is not a stuffy museum piece but rather a living, breathing organism. Each year’s version is a little different. The dress rehearsal I saw in 2017, complete with light rain and some scary Big Country lightning, was the first overseen by creative director Lorna Ayers.

“I moved to Albany in high school,” Ayers says. “I was a featured soloist and played the mysterious lady gambler Lottie Deno for years and years. I even married a fandangler. Fandangle is unique—there’s no other community where people can grow up with something like this.”

Last year, Ayers’ husband, John Ayers, celebrated his 50th year of fandangling. Daughter Abby Ayers’ roles marked the rites of passage followed by many local girls: She played a flower in the scene where a winding line of kiddos holding blue fabric portrays a river and others are costumed as a cactus, mesquite tree, rattlesnake, hawk, buffalo, coyote and bear grass. When a little older, Abby played a square dancer, and still older, she appeared as a cancan saloon dancer.

For last year’s show, Ayers created a completely new show by piecing together scripts written by Nail and Reynolds from 1938 to 1968. “The theme highlights the Old Timer [one of three speaking characters] throughout the ages,” Ayers says. “And also making an appearance will be the biggest goldurn rattlesnake ever seen by mortal eyes.”

Though several performers belt out tunes, most of the story is told by two narrators, local cowboy poet Sam Davis and Connie Wood, a 41-year veteran. The third character with speaking lines is Old Timer, performed with authority by John Matthews. Closing in on 100 years of life along the Clear Fork of the Brazos, Matthews’ roots extend to pioneer days. His uncle was the late ranching legend Watt Matthews, and his grandmother, Sallie Reynolds Matthews, authored the classic volume Interwoven: A Pioneer Chronicle.

“So, little ones,” Old Timer concludes, “time may pass, but our heritage only grows stronger. Keep these stories as treasures in your hearts and minds and share them with your own children when you are old and wrinkled like me. For just like me, you are a part of our prairie land.”

Gene Fowler authored Mavericks: A Gallery of Texas Characters, published by the University of Texas Press in 2008.