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About that time the Houston International Festival, the annual downtown arts-and-music extravaganza, started bleeding money and cut back on its outdoor sculpture exhibit. Looking for a replacement, it contacted the Orange Show and asked about art cars.
"The festival gave us $5,000, and we gave away about $3,000 in prizes," says Theis of that 1988 event. "We had 40 cars and about 2,000 spectators, and I don't think any one of them came intentionally."
Theis says she was surprised that the festival asked them to return the following year. She was more than surprised -- she was shocked -- when 200,000 people showed up to watch.
"I'll never be able to explain it as long as I live," she says. "We didn't do anything differently, really. But we've been racing to keep up ever since."
Hixson credits word of mouth. "Everyone in Houston comes from somewhere else, and we were all just calling our friends after the first one and telling them, 'This is so fucking cool, you've got to come,' " he says.
Theis says two unforeseen trends helped the parade grow: "When people saw these cars, a whole lot of them said, 'I want to make one too.' " There also was the involvement of schools creating art cars as class projects.
Twenty-six such student-built cars paraded this year. "It became a curriculum in schools; we produced a book on how to do it," she says. "It was this totally unanticipated consequence from the parade."
The Orange Show Foundation, formed as a small, almost staffless nonprofit group involved with one "monument" and some small projects -- an organization with an annual program budget of just $2,500 -- suddenly found itself responsible for a massive parade each year. "It utterly transformed this tiny little organization," Theis says.
As the parade grew, so did its budget -- both in terms of staff time (5,000 to 6,000 telephone calls come in to the foundation each April) and in the infrastructure needed to put the event on and pay at least part of the transportation costs for many of the participants.
Some of the changes riled artists. In the freewheeling days, applications to ride in the parade were one page. If you didn't actually have a finished art car to photograph as part of the application, you could just draw what you thought your completed project would look like. And if it didn't really come out that way in the end, no worries.
Now, even Theis admits the form "looks like a 1040." She says the need to provide accurate information for visiting media and for the TV broadcast of the parade means more description is required from applicants. Newly constricted parade routes forced organizers to take into account such details as a vehicle's turning radius.
"It's gotten to be really incredibly complex," she says. Especially for an organization like the Orange Show, whose idea of a big event before the art cars came along was to bring in Ralph the Swimming Pig for a show or two. And the "bureaucracy" of the foundation, run out of a ramshackle house across the street from McKissack's fruit-saluting monument, is still more reminiscent of an enthusiastic bunch of college students than of a killer, money-hungry cash-raising machine. The "handmade" philosophy celebrated by the folk-art heroes the foundation champions carries over to their own efforts: Trophies are personally decorated, information packets are gathered and stuffed by hand, relationships with individual art car artists are nurtured by phone and mail.
Even with 300 volunteers, the job of putting on the parade is daunting.
As the load became too much, the foundation and the festival sought corporate sponsorships. In 1998, memorably, the event was formally known as The Bank United Art Car Parade Powered by Pennzoil. Now Pennzoil is the sole name sponsor, thanks to a donation of nearly six figures.
A lot of people aren't happy with the corporate tie-in. "The whole idea of Pennzoil leading the parade with its shitty little car really pisses people off," Hixson says.
Others are more sanguine. Mike Scranton, who typically provides some of the more outrageous entries, says such a sponsorship "is pretty inevitable these days. I don't like sponsorships -- I hate those Bank U guys -- but I don't know what can be done."
For its part, Pennzoil says it decided to get involved for internal as well as external reasons. The company merged its consumer products division with Quaker State in 1998, and the new entity was looking for ways to let people know it was no longer the famously stuffy Pennzoil of old.
"I don't know if the old Pennzoil would have gotten involved, but we saw it as a way to incorporate something really unique," says Courtneye Barrett, Pennzoil's manager of marketing communications. "It's been really neat, especially as far as employee interest and involvement. We have a reception with the art car that our employees put together and we had a promotion where we invited employees to write an essay on why their boss should take them to lunch in the art car, and the winner was indeed driven to lunch by their boss in the art car. People love it -- you can be 60 years old, but when you get in that car you feel like you're 12."