Roadside America is filled with unique oddities from giant balls of twine to extravagant kitschy Mexican rest-stops. Each of these unique places were a labor of love, making something impossible somehow possible. One of the most eccentric of these Americana road-stops is simply a living shrine to the orange.
The Orange Show in Houston, Texas, is a fantastical collection of folk art dedicated to all the wondrous benefits the citrussy fruit can provide. Jeff McKissack, the creator of this roadside amusement fell in love with the orange when he was a fruit-truck driver for farmer’s markets during The Great Depression. In 1956 he wanted to spread his love of the orange by building an attraction that people would drive for miles and miles just to see. What began as his dream to build the world’s best juicer, turned into a topsy-turvy little wonderland of winding paths, mosaics, strange sculptures and an amphitheater. At the time he was a simple mailman, with very little money to bring his vision to life, but he was the creative sort.
During his mail routes he would pick up random bits of junk no one wanted to create his dream. He knew how to take the most mundane piece of junk and fit it into his beautiful show on earth.
McKissak learned to weld when he served in the army during World War II. This skill would serve to be useful because it gave him the ability to turn the trash people threw out into whimsical works of art.
For over 20 years McKissack continued to salvage tiles, farming tools, bricks, and random decorations from anywhere he could find them. By the late 1970s, McKissack had created multi-decked building, complete with a wishing well and a multi-colored maze.
He was ready to show his Orange Show off to the world. He called his interactive piece of art “the most colorful show in harmony and the most unique” and estimated that 90 percent of the country’s population would want to visit it.
He had his grand opening on May 9th, 1979, but to much disappointment, people did not come down to see McKissack’s Orange Show.
He became brokenhearted and passed away seven months later from a stroke. Jeff McKissack never married, never had children, all that he left on this earth was his Orange Show.
Through the decades it took to build the work of art it had begun to show wear after being exposed to the elements and was potentially doomed to be demolished.
McKissack was like other great artists such as Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson who never had their work appreciated until after their death. The Orange Show still stands today because of an art philantropist named Marilyn Oshman.
Oshman recalls the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston telling her: “I bet you don’t know the best artist in Texas”. When she was taken to the monument and met McKissack, still alive and working on The Orange Show at the time she said, “something changed in me.”
Marilyn saw the beauty in McKassick’s work and knew she had work to do to keep the Orange Show from becoming a distant memory.
She quickly went to work preserving the Orange Show and with the help of other donors such as the oil heiress Dominique de Menil and members from ZZ Top; she was able to form the Orange Show Foundation.
In order to draw crowds artsy events were held such as outdoor movies, Barbie doll beauty contests, art car parades, and other events that celebrated the unconventional arts.
Even though Jeff McKissack’s main objective was to build a monument that expressed his love for the orange, his work has come to mean so much more than that. The Orange Show Foundation has gone on to save other roadside kitch monuments such as the Beer Can House, help other artists to continue their passion, and most importantly has installed a unique art culture that can only be found in Houston.
Very few times in my life have I truthfully been able to say that something is indescribable. Never in my life have Iseen something even remotely similar. McKissack must have had one of the most original minds because his creation represents such an unusual perspective and passion… There were so many different things to look at and examine. I kept finding more paths that would lead to new rooftops or corners that I had not yet seen. The Orange Show just goes on and on…. the whimsy and wonder of The Orange Show is truly awe-inspiring. I dare you to visit it and come back with a clear explanation.
We’re happy to report that as of the 4 of September, The Orange Show is safe and has no sign of flooding.
By Shanna Farley