Bud Kennedy

How actor Jimmy Stewart fell in love with Fort Worth, and left us a film love letter

The Fort Worth of 1977 didn’t have a Sundance Square, a Billy Bob’s Texas or a winning TCU Horned Frogs football team.

But it had famous art museums, a Water Gardens, gritty cowboys working a genuine stockyard, and one very good friend in Hollywood: Jimmy Stewart.

Among the famous actor’s career of movie achievements, from “Harvey” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Rear Window” and “Vertigo,” is a 1977 film he narrated as a gift to a city he loved: “Fort Worth: The Unexpected City.”

“I don’t know of another town, and I’ve seen quite a few, where you could enjoy great art on one side of the street and take in a cattle auction on the other,” Stewart says in that hesitant, aw-shucks voice that made him an enduring screen star for more than 50 years.

At a time when an insecure Fort Worth was trying to showcase arts and symphony groups but hide its dusty boots, Stewart’s script talked not only about the “unexpected sophistication” of Fort Worth but also about the time opera tenor Enrico Caruso sang in the Stockyards three blocks from a now-gone meat packinghouse.

“The city was sweeping the ‘Cowtown’ image under the carpet, and I thought that was what was really wonderful about the city,” said Jane Schlansker, a Fort Worth public relations executive. She produced the 16-minute film for the 100th anniversary of what was then First National Bank of Fort Worth, since merged into what is now Bank of America.

Stewart donated his $5,000 narrator’s fee to the Fort Worth Zoo for a then-new education center, according to Star-Telegram archives.

About 1950, Stewart had been hunting in Africa with business partner F. Kirk Johnson of Fort Worth and his late friend, Harry Tennison, when Johnson and Tennison vowed to protect endangered rhinos by raising money for what was then a small and underfunded Fort Worth city zoo.

Over the next two decades, Stewart and his wife, Gloria, would visit Fort Worth often, staying in Bess and “Fran” Johnson’s Merrymount Drive home in Westover Hills.

Stewart had come to Johnson, an older oil executive, for investments advice in the late 1940s and considered him a great friend and business mentor, said Johnson’s granddaughter, Debbie Johnson Head.

“They just clicked — all of them absolutely loved each other,” Head said, saying the families vacationed together for years.

“He became fascinated with Fort Worth after all his visits, and he would do anything for the Fort Worth Zoo,” she said. “He was one of those people who took all that passion for hunting animals and turned it into a passion for preserving animals.”

When Stewart visited a newborn baby rhino in 1953, one of his news quotes became a fundraising campaign: “You know, it takes more than peanuts to build a world-class zoo.”

Two of his most prominent visits came in 1955, when the movie “Strategic Air Command” was filmed at what is now Naval Air Station Fort Worth, and 1966, when the movie “The Rare Breed” had its premiere at the original Palace Theatre, now gone from East Seventh Street.

When he came for the 1977 soundtrack of “Fort Worth: The Unexpected City,” Schlansker said “he was the most gracious person you could ever imagine — everybody was just in awe.”

Nobody knew then, but he was narrating the city’s pivot from past to future.

In May 1977, the city was talking about the aircraft plant’s new F-16 contract, the Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd arena concerts downtown that month, murder suspect Cullen Davis’ upcoming trial or the coming sci-fi movie “Star Wars.”

Sundance Square was a year away, so the film’s concert scenes are on Burnett Plaza in front of the bank. The film co-stars Radio Shack founder Charles Tandy; American Airlines’ headquarters had not moved from New York.

That same year, the Washington Post’s report on the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition described Fort Worth as “a prairie town where the public schools close for the livestock show.”

(They still do.)

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.