AMON! The Ultimate Texan
May 9 – May 25
444 E Pipeline Road
Dave Lieber’s fascination with Amon G. Carter Sr. began soon after his arrival in Fort Worth to start his “dream job” as a columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Lieber never had a chance to meet Carter, founder of the Star-Telegram, because Carter died 38 years before Lieber’s arrival in 1993. But Lieber realized right away that Carter’s policies were still influencing the business culture at the newspaper and throughout Fort Worth.
“In my first week of work, I was assigned to serve on the picnic committee,” Lieber said. “WTF, the picnic committee? What kind of newspaper has a picnic committee?”
Turns out, company picnics were just a small token of the generosity of the “Star-Telegram” toward its employees. There were also Christmas bonuses and half-priced tickets for Texas Christian University football games.
More importantly for Lieber, the Star-Telegram set an example of benevolence by supporting many local charities and worthy community causes. The newspaper supported Lieber’s efforts to promote and grow his own charity, SummerSanta.org, which has raised more than $1 million to provide school clothes and supplies, as well as a camping experience, for needy children in Northeast Tarrant County.
A native New Yorker, Lieber was a veteran of five newsrooms, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, by the time he arrived in Fort Worth. The Star-Telegram was an outlier in this way.
Lieber’s interest in Carter continued to grow and he began to see similarities between Carter and his own approach to business and life. Lieber even bought a largely out-of-style Shady Oak hat as a tribute to Carter.
After reading the late Jerry Flemmons book, Amon: The Texan Who Played Cowboy for America, Lieber was convinced there was a play about Carter waiting to be written.
“Jerry laughed at me,” Lieber recalled.
But 20 years later, Lieber has the last laugh. His one-man play, AMON! The Ultimate Texan is running through May 25 at Artisan Center Theater in Hurst.”
The play is the centerpiece of Lieber’s Amon Carter G. Carter Sr. project, which also yielded the book by the same name based on the play. Both rely on Lieber’s gift of storytelling to showcase the civic contributions of Carter to Fort Worth.
Both the play and the book are the result of Lieber’s journalistic abilities as a journeyman researcher.
Lieber, 61, dug through approximately half of the 444 boxes of Carter’s papers, letters and telegraphs at the Mary Couts Burnett Library at Texas Christian University to weave together the first-hand accounts of Carter’s life.
The book also relied on Star-Telegram photographs stored in the Special Collections at the University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.
The play took about two-a-half years to write because Lieber had to work around his day job as a newspaper columnist. He worked for the Star-Telegram for 20 years before being laid off in 2013. A few months later, he was hired by The Dallas Morning News, to write the “Watchdog” column, where he investigates troubling, and sometimes corrupt, practices by businesses and governments on behalf of readers.
The Carter project is timely given the state of American journalism, says Lieber.
“As the 500-year-old newspaper industry comes crashing down, the time has come to tackle this project and bring Amon G. Carter back to life,” Lieber states in the forward to his book. “Newspapers have the power to change the world.
“Amon understood that better than anyone. William Randolph Hearst used his media to make money,” Lieber states. “Amon used it to make Fort Worth and West Texas a better place to live and work. He also made a lot of money.”
Researching and writing the play was the easy part for Lieber. Trying to get it produced was another matter. Despite Lieber’s notoriety in Fort Worth and Dallas, he was still a neophyte as a playwright.
“I sent the script to 15 local theaters and college theater departments,” Lieber said. “The reaction – they all ignored it.”
Then fate intervened.
Rick Blair, co-founder of Artisan Center Theater, contacted Lieber late last fall to ask for a favor. Artisan was producing the musical Newsies and Blair needed a bundle of newspapers as a prop.
Blair and Lieber knew each other because Lieber had written a column about Artisan when it first opened years earlier in an abandoned restaurant space in the now demolished North Hills Mall.
“I’m kind of offended,” Blair said of Lieber’s response when he called. “You didn’t look at my play.”
Blair said didn’t know Lieber was talking about. Because of its willingness to produce plays by new playwrights, Artisan regularly receives unsolicited scripts.
So Blair sifted through a pile of unopened manila envelopes in the theater office to find Lieber’s submission.
“I read it once and I was so moved, I read it again,” Blair said. “This guy is a really good playwright.”
Blair shared the script with Joe Brown, a theater professor and former Dean of Fine Arts at Texas Wesleyan University. Blair considers Brown his mentor.
He also shared the script with Kelvin Dilks, who plays Carter, and Connie Sanchez, the director. Both are retired Birdville ISD theater teachers.
“Everyone said there is a play there,” said Blair, who was so moved by the play that he asked his wife to allow him to be executive producer for the production. Typically, DeeAnn Blair assumes that role and Blair is in charge of technical aspects of productions.
Artisan rescheduled a previously planned production to make room for AMON! The play was originally for only eight performances. But the shows sold out so quickly that more were added.
Blair said what struck him about the show was the opportunity to “do something extraordinary” to showcase the life and contributions of a legendary Texan, whose life is all but forgotten.
“We see a road and a football stadium named after him but who was he and what did he do?” Blair said. “I see a lot of similarities between him and Walt Disney, who were both from the same era. Disney’s brand lives on but we don’t much about the story of Amon Carter.”
Carter’s mark on Fort Worth is as outsized as his personality. Among his myriad of accomplishments, he persuaded the Texas Legislature to create a college, now Texas Tech University, in Lubbock and he served its first chairman of the board. His influence remains felt in the region. He was involved in bringing Air Force Plant 4, now Lockheed Martin, and Bell Helicopter to Fort Worth.
An oil and gas investor, Carter put his earnings into his Amon G. Carter Foundation, which has given out more than $620 million in grants to supports art and culture, civic and public affairs, education and health, and human services.
Born into a poor farm family in Wise County, Carter arrived in Fort Worth in 1906, where he honed his natural inclination for sales. He commandeered a sales job with the Fort Worth Star into a merger with the competition, The Fort Worth Telegram and created the largest newspaper in Texas with The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
He later added a radio station WBAP and the NBC television affiliate to his media holdings.
Lieber characterizes Carter as a “benevolent dictator” because he had the power of intimation as a media mogul to force people to his will, whether it be bringing a new business to Fort Worth or donating to worthy causes he endorsed.
Carter would use the strength of his media empire to bend people to his will, Lieber said.
Carter was also known as a character who would dress up as a cowboy and “sometimes carried a six-shooter and loved to whoop and holler.”
“Amon was America’s best-known cowboy even through he was more businessman than ranch hand,” Lieber writes. “It was all a show to promote Texas.”
But his disdain of Dallas is mostly real, although he did sometimes eat there “if he was hungry,” Lieber said.
Lieber, who is the author of seven other books, said the one of top personal takeaways from Carter’s example is the value of effective marketing.
“I strategized to create the character of the Yankee Cowboy,” Lieber said of his garish, cartoon-like alter ego. I said to myself, “if you’re going to play a Cowboy and build a brand in Texas, you have to learn from the master.
“Amon Carter was the ultimate marketer,” he said.