Robert Edward Nail, Jr., playwright, director, and creator of the Fort Griffin Fandangle, was born in Wolfe City, Texas, on September 13, 1908. He was the son of Robert Edward Nail, Sr., and Etta (Reilly) Nail. The family moved to Albany, Texas, in 1909. Despite a severe drinking problem, Bob Nail, Sr., had an aptitude for business and was successful in a grocery and dry goods store and later in a feed and seed mill.
Young Bobby showed an early interest in drama and writing verse and graduated from Albany High School in 1926, the year a prolific shallow oilfield was discovered on the Cook Ranch, property of Nail's uncle W. I. Cook. He traveled in Europe after graduation. Influenced by the J. A. Matthews family, whose son Watt had graduated from Princeton University in 1921, Nail headed east to the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where an English professor, the famous Thornton Wilder, took an interest in him and encouraged him. Bobby, by then called "Spike," had an outstanding record at Lawrenceville that included editorship of the yearbook Olla Podrida and managing editorship of the literary magazine. In the fall of 1929 he entered Princeton and was determined to be a playwright. Among classmates such as Joshua Logan, Jimmy Stewart, Jose Ferrer, and Bill Reynolds, Nail served as the class poet and president of the Theatre Intime. He wrote several plays, one of which, Time of Their Lives, received unanimous acclaim. It was performed his senior year and pronounced "the maturest and best piece of undergraduate playwrighting to come out of Princeton," even when it was given a repeat performance in 1937. Nail graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1933.
Though others expected him to accompany others of his class to New York, a dean advised Nail to go home and see how he could help there. His father, overcome by alcoholism and devastated at the death of his sister, Mrs. Cook, had committed suicide the year before, and Bobby later told friends that he felt a duty to see about his mother. He returned to Texas and directed the Little Theater in Fort Worth from 1933 to 1935, the Dallas Theater in 1936, and the Abilene Little Theater. But the Great Depression militated against theater in Texas, so Nail returned to boom-time Albany to live with his mother. The Aztec Theater on Main Street, along with other new enterprises, reflected the Shackelford County oil boom.
Nail became head of the drama department at Albany High School in March 1938. Superintendant C. B. Downing encouraged the senior class to ask Bob to write and direct a colorful, fast-moving cavalcade portraying the history of Shackelford County. Dr. Shackelford's Paradise had a cast of 200 students; the band, the choral club, and the tumbling team took part. The spectacle, held on the football field, was such a success that the Albany Chamber of Commerce decided to hold a July performance with added adult participation and to rename the show the Fort Griffin Fandangle. Bobby enlisted a talented young artist and music graduate from Baylor University, Miss Alice Reynolds, who had returned to Albany and set up a studio. For thirty subsequent years the two brought entertainment and music of a polished quality not seen before in West Texas.
Bob wrote the beautiful finale song "Prairie Land" for the 1939 show, and it has been the final piece of every show since. Alice incorporated classical themes into the musical interludes of the show, eschewing harsh, crude melodies for more soothing, sophisticated pieces. During the first years many traditional songs were used, but these were largely replaced by home-grown products, particularly the songs of James Ball, who, in combination with Bobby or Alice, wrote most of the show's most popular tunes. By the time of Nail's death, the Fandangle included mostly original songs. Nail wrote or assisted in writing the lyrics for "Let's Settle in this Country," "The Town of Fort Griffin," "Old Red-Eye," "Love Hovers Over You," "There's a Night and a Day," "It's a Gully Washer," "My Love and I Will Marry," "Officer's Ball," "Four Little Girls," "Lonesome," "Work Is a Song," "Shank of the Evening," "You Can't Change Them Ways," "Think Twice," and "Kissin' Kin." He wrote both music and lyrics for several songs, including "Tall Tale," the rattlesnake song, "The Horse that I Ride," "Lottie's Song," and "Prairie Land."
Many saw directing as Nail's greatest skill, however, for he could evoke polished performances from ordinary people, especially young ones. He called the Fandangle the "People's Theater." Its elaborate props, along with Longhorn cattle borrowed from Fort Griffin and herded by real cowboys, resulted from the hard work of many individuals. Local welders and mechanics built the sets, steam calliope, stagecoach, and train, produced by G. P. Crutchfield, an engineer working in Albany for Marshall R. Young Oil Company of Fort Worth. The singers onstage came from all walks of life. Ordinary people showed themselves willing to pool their talents and be directed by Bob Nail, who received a small remuneration of $3,000 a year for only a few of the shows he directed. No one was paid in the earliest years, and the performers have never been paid.
Crutchfield and Nail's brother Bill both died in 1958, and the show was halted until 1964, when John Musselman, a young University of Texas graduate, returned home and became the producer. After two performances were held on the Musselman Ranch in 1964, Nail took forty Fandangle performers to Palo Duro Canyon State Park to inaugurate a new amphitheater built there for the show Texas. The crew returned eager for a Fandangle amphitheater. Rancher Watt Matthews, who had provided wagons, mules, and horses for performances, with other family members donated the site of the old railroad shipping pens just northwest of town, where the Prairie Theater was built in 1965.
The Ministerial Association of Albany, led by the First Baptist Church, asked Nail to write and direct a Christmas pageant in 1939. He did so, with Alice Reynolds's assistance. The pageant, the Albany Nativity, is presented on alternate years free to the public in the restored Aztec Theater.
Several of Nail's one-act plays were published by the Samuel French Company. The first of these, Antic Spring, inspired by Thornton Wilder, made its premier at Albany High School in 1939. This is Nail's most popular play and has been presented thousands of times by high school classes around the nation. Nail's other plays include The Young and the Miserable, The Real Princess, Joe, The Thing a Man Loves, Remember the Alamo, Love Errant, A Portrait of Nelson Holiday, Jr. (for which Bill Overton wrote ten songs), Touch of Fancy, and 2,000 Nights in the Theatre.
Nail raised funds early in World War II by staging entertainment for "Bundles for Britain." After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, though suffering from an ulcer, he volunteered for service. The United States Army put him to work in the War Bond effort. Toward that end, he wrote two popular radio series—Letters from the Front and What's Your Name, Soldier?. He also wrote a successful play, Men of Bataan, patterned on the life of a boyhood friend, pilot and hero Edwin Dyess. For this Nail received the Legion of Merit from the War Department in 1943. During this time, he directed such well-known Hollywood stars as Robert Taylor, Jack Holt, Tyrone Power, and William Holden. Nail entered the army as a private and attained the rank of captain. In 1946, though he received an offer to be associated with the Reeder Children's School of Theater and Design in Fort Worth, he returned to Albany to maintain the Fandangle and Nativity. These shows were not presented during the war years but were revived in 1947. They were stopped in 1951 when Nail had major abdominal surgery.
In order to ready the cast and publicize a revived Fandangle, Nail took small groups to do shows around the state. These shows he called "samplers." He did two samplers at Dyess Air Force Base, Abilene, and one in Austin highlighting Texas music brought together by the Fine Arts Commission. The biggest sampler went to the LBJ Ranch in 1967 for the entertainment of a group of Latin-American ambassadors, United States officials, and the White House press corps. A selected cast of about forty performed at the presidential ranch, where Cactus Pryor and Carol Channing introduced them to an appreciative audience.
In 1947 Nail was named Albany's outstanding citizen; in 1963 Albany set up a scholarship in his name still given today. In the late 1960s Nail established the Robert E. Nail Foundation to provide for the annual production of the Fort Griffin Fandangle and to preserve historical and archival materials of Albany. In 1966 the West Texas Chamber of Commerce honored him, and Governor John Connally named him to the first Fine Arts Commission of Texas. In 1968 he received an honorary doctorate from Hardin–Simmons University. The Texas legislature passed a resolution upon Nail's death. The Fandangle has been awarded honors, including the Coral H. Tullis Award from the Texas State Historical Association (1969). In 1970 Governor Preston Smith presented the Fandangle and the entire community with the annual Tourist Development Award. Lady Bird Johnson asked the Fandangle to return to the LBJ Ranch for a performance to benefit a grove of trees honoring her husband in Washington, D.C.
Nail was stricken at his home in Albany, Texas, by a fatal heart attack. He died on November 11, 1968, and was buried in the Albany cemetery. Subsequent directors of the Fandangle have been James Ball, Marge Bray, and Betsy Black Parsons, who grew up performing in the show. In 1940 Bob Nail purchased the old county jail to use as a repository for his papers and photographs. His nephew Reilly Nail inherited the old jail building from his uncle and converted it into the Old Jail Art Center and Archives.