The giant neon cowboy peeking over Stemmons Highway and Walnut Hill Lane has gestured folks into Centennial Fine Wine and Spirits since it was welded in 1958. The Big Tex-inspired sign, standing 50 feet tall, exists as a vestige of a past era and a symbol of the resilient Texas chain, which maintained for 76 years before filing for bankruptcy at the start of 2013.
But Neon Tex is more than just a tall drink of roadside liquor advertising. He's a symbol of regional tenacity. And he recently got a Hollywood makeover, thanks to cable TV's most ambitious network and a locally bred screenwriter who wanted his hometown to shine.
In the early 1980s, Neon Tex was at his best, and Silicon Prairie, Dallas' own technological wild west, lifted off. Its key players pried their focus away from mainframes and onto the new, exotic world of personal computers. People who were too late to juice California's electronics success moved here, hoping to hitch their stars to the luckiest server.
That's the dramatic era time-capsuled by AMC's new pilot Halt & Catch Fire, produced by the folks behind Breaking Bad and created by former Dallasite Chris Cantwell and his writing partner Chris Rogers.
If the conflicting notions of new and old were central to making the pilot successful, so was the inclusion of regional eye candy -- distinguishing landmarks that would reiterate "Texas" even though most of the episode was shot outside Atlanta. That in mind, Cantwell and Rogers wrote a scene that required a helping hand from thirst's guiding hero.
Halt's main characters are transplants. One of the visionary leads, played by Scoot McNairy (Argo), washes up here, carried out of Silicon Valley on a tide of poor decisions. "He's sleepwaking through his life," Cantwell says.
Tex's quick cameo, shot here over the weekend, occurs when McNairy's character is being driven around gritty South Dallas by his wife. He's looking out the window, unfocused. It's that weighty portion of nighttime when minds wander and regrets are indulged. McNairy recalls the dreams and goals he use to cherish, before he made the mistakes that landed him in Texas exile.
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"He's remembering poignantly and pathetically and sadly," Cantwell says. "And he sees Big Tex waving back at him, essentially out of the passenger window." It's a quick shot, but one that Cantwell was hoping to pin down. "It shows that this guy isn't from here," he says, "and that he's failed to find a foothold in his own life."
The writers were surprised when AMC decided the moment was worth capturing. Then they learned that the cowboy's 1,200 feet of neon tubing had deteriorated.
The sign took a clobbering when a thunderstorm blew though in 1985 and it was later rebuilt out of original parts. In the early 1990s, Centennial sold the home he had guarded for 35 years, so Neon Tex sauntered from its original location off Central Expressway to his current home, where he remains today, bow-legged and proud. But somewhere between his tune-up and last week, Tex's glow dimmed again.
So AMC dipped into its budget, tracked down the sign's current owners and found local hands willing to do the work. The job was complete by the time the film crew arrived on Saturday, and Neon Tex is now fully restored -- glowing as brightly as he did in his heyday.