Travel

There’s a Giant, Hallucinatory Shrine to Oranges Hidden in Houston

Clowns never lie. Neither does Santa’s Son.

The Orange Show in Houston
Welcome to the greatest Orange Show on Earth | Nicolas Henderson/Flickr
Welcome to the greatest Orange Show on Earth | Nicolas Henderson/Flickr

The Orange Show appears like a mirage in Houston’s residential East End, its bright-white walls adorned with colorful metalwork and topped with multiple Texas and US flags. It’s a vibrant, carnivalesque fever dream where concrete, brick, iron, tile, and assorted found objects come together in a multi-level, maze-like construction. These jumbled layers resist comprehension, offering a taste of the oddities that lie within. 

But this isn’t some psychedelic fortress. At its core, it’s a tribute to citrus fruit. It just so happens to also be a 3,000-square-foot folk-art fantasia.

The Orange Show's outdoor space, from on high | dabfoto/David A. Brown

Postman Jeff McKissack began building his magnum opus on an empty lot across the street from his house in 1956. It was a single-handed labor of love for the 54-year-old, and everything you see at The Orange Show today is original to McKissack’s whimsical vision, structural tweaks aside. 

Upon entering the red gates, you’ll follow a path lined with orange and white umbrellas and leading to a highly unscientific display detailing how oranges power the complex chemical plant that is the human body. Continue past a metal map showing where oranges are grown in the US and you’ll be greeted by a miniature steamboat sitting in what looks like a circus arena. 

There doesn’t seem to be any architectural logic to direct your wandering, allowing you to zigzag between covered and uncovered areas and up and down the various decks. Down below, phrases like “Go Orange Be Strong” and “Love Me Orange” appear in mosaic on the walls. Above, repurposed tractor seats form stadium-like seating. Glance around and you’ll catch sight of a brick wishing well, painted wagon wheels used as railing, and cartoonish steel birds fixed in the air.

Clown at the Orange Show
Clowns. Never. Lie. | dabfoto/David A. Brown

Nobody knows why the late McKissack was so in love with oranges, but theories amplify the site’s mythical allure. Jonathan Beitler, director of communications at The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, says his favorite involves McKissack’s truck breaking down in the middle of nowhere, forcing him to survive on the oranges he was delivering. Another tale says McKissack was visited by an orange god in a dream. 

Like the museum itself, the origins are a mystery -- and that mystery is always being unpacked. 

“Just imagine going to somebody's attic and there just being a lot of boxes of things throughout the years, labeled or unlabeled items that you kind of pick through, and that's sort of what it's like going through the museum,” says Beitler.

The Orange Show in Houston
The Orange Show will not be contained by walls | dabfoto/David A. Brown

Some of the pieces are more puzzling than others. Take, for example, the statue of a clean-shaven man wearing a Santa suit labeled “Santa’s son,” or the deadpan clown face paired with a sign claiming mysteriously that “Clowns never lie.”

“Nothing really makes sense… It's kind of like you're walking inside of [McKissack’s] head,” Beitler says. “When you read about it or hear about it, you may think, ‘Oh well that sounds real creepy,’ but it's not. It just has a good energy, and it's unlike anything you've seen.”

In 1979, decades after he began his work, McKissack opened his world to the public. He passed away shortly after in 1980, just a couple of days before his 78th birthday. According to Beitler, some people believe McKissack’s disappointment in the lack of crowds might’ve even contributed to his passing.

“He had these ideas that it was going to be a bigger attraction than anything else in the city,” tells Beitler. “He thought more people would be coming to The Orange Show every year than the Astrodome or Disneyland.”

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North Pole nepotism | Shavawn/Flickr

Before his death, McKissack left a note saying that if anything should happen to him, local arts patron Marilyn Oshman would know what to do with The Orange Show. She went on to form the nonprofit foundation the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art to preserve McKissack’s work and legacy.

According to Beitler, The Orange Show -- now on the National Register of Historic Places -- attracts thousands of visitors a year (it is temporarily closed due to COVID-19). He believes part of its allure lies in how it allows the museum-averse a place to experience art without pretension or intimidation. 

Having grown up visiting the attraction and having worked for the nonprofit for about 10 years, Beitler says he still feels inspired by the off-kilter world McKissack created.

“It kind of shows that anybody can do something as long as they have an idea,” he explains. “Art can be on your street. It can be down the block. It can be in your backyard. And it can be something that anybody can make.”

Cindy Brzostowski is a freelance writer and editor based in Berlin. In addition to Thrillist, her work has been featured in TripSavvy, The Points Guy, Greatist, Time Out, Roadtrippers, and more. Follow her@cindybrz.