The Orange Show, an open-air, multimedia sculptural installation dedicated to the orange, is the state's leading example of a relatively newly recognized art form called "folk art environment." Environments of this sort are more of an assertion of the creator's individuality than an expression of "folk" culture shared by many people. Typically these environments are built over an extended period of time by one person, frequently of advanced age, and incorporate materials that others view as junk. Some of the best-known examples are Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles, California, and Fred Smith's Concrete Park of 200 glass-encrusted concrete animals, mythological figures, and everyday Midwesterners in Phillips, Wisconsin. The Orange Show, which is located in east Houston on 2401 Munger Street, was conceived and built singlehandedly over a period of twenty-five years by Houston postman Jefferson D. McKissack, and opened to the public on May 9, 1979.
McKissack first became interested in oranges when he trucked them from Florida throughout the Southeast during the Great Depression. His belief in the benefits of oranges and good nutrition led him to publish privately How You Can Live 100 Years And Still Be Spry in 1960. He built the exterior walls of what became the Orange Show in the mid-1950s as part of his plant nursery on two vacant lots across the street from the bungalow where he lived. In 1962 the folk art environment began to take shape. For building materials McKissack relied on such "found objects" as roof tiles, fire escapes, and decorations from old buildings, supplemented with curiosities purchased in antique shops. He transformed a plethora of steel wheels, tractor seats, and turnstiles into gates, seats, and partitions and converted metal scraps into birds with eyes made out of washers.
Built without architectural plans, the Orange Show evolved into a labyrinth of stairs, catwalks, and passageways encompassing two amphitheaters, several enclosed display areas, a guest shop, a wishing well, fountains, and two observation decks. The entire complex was painted in bright primary colors and festooned with striped awnings, banners, two United States flags, and seven Texas flags. Throughout the installation, signs and displays extol McKissack's belief in the orange as a pure form of energy that "grows right out of the bloom, protected by the rind." Tiled messages are embedded in stucco walls: "EAT ORANGES AND LIVE," "ORANGES FOR ENERGY," and "LOVE ME, ORANGE, PLEASE LOVE ME." Stock aphorisms such as "Birds of a feather flock together" are on view as well. McKissack also used displays to convey his messages. A Santa Claus and two clown figures radiate orange-induced good humor. Two frogs in a churn are accompanied by a sign recounting the tale of the frogs that fell into the churn; one gave up and drowned, and one kicked until a life-saving raft of butter formed. A blacksmith, an Indian by a teepee, and a woodsman being detained from cutting down an orange tree are some of the other exhibits accompanied by orange-promoting homilies. McKissack's interest in another form of "clean energy," steam, is represented by a stationary steam-powered buggy that demonstrates how a steam engine works, and by a steamboat floating in a tank in one of the theaters.
McKissack developed a grandiose perception of the importance of his creation. He believed that the Orange Show, which covers one-tenth of an acre, was bigger than the 270-acre Astrodome complex because "it represents the entire multi-billion dollar orange industry." He expected 90 percent of the population of the United States to want to visit his show. The expected crowds did not materialize after the show opened to the public, and McKissack died of a stroke just seven months later, unaware that some of the people who did visit the Orange Show were members of Houston's art community, who were intrigued by the aesthetic and expressive qualities of his "health show." In 1981 a group of twenty-two concerned citizens led by Marilyn Lubetkin, art collector and former president of the Contemporary Arts Museum, established the Orange Show Foundation; in addition to the Orange Show, the foundation sponsors a number of pageants, festivals, and music and art events in the area. The foundation purchased McKissack's creation from his heir and launched an extensive restoration of the facility, which had been constructed with more inspiration than knowledge of sound building techniques. The restored show opened in September 1982 with a formal dedication by Mayor Kathryn Whitmire. Seventy percent of the $150,000 annual operating budget in the late 1980s was based on private donations; the Orange Foundation also received support from the Houston Cultural Arts Council and the Texas Commission on the Arts. The Orange Show is open to the public on weekends and holidays from March through December.