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A Big Idea: Little Sahara

Grace Ward Smith’s vision for the desert



 



Grace Ward Smith had a vision for northwestern Oklahoma. It involved camels, a pageant, some sheiks … and a harem.
 

Raised on the old Cherokee Strip by a family steeped in showmanship, Smith knew how to sell an idea.

Her father, Harry C. Ward, was one of five pioneering brothers who staked farms in Woods County, north of Freedom. In the early 1900s, after planting crops, the Ward Brothers would travel the show circuit, offering “lantern-lighted literaries” in entertainment-starved towns of the High Plains. Ohio-born Harry was billed as an Irish comedian, guitarist and fiddler, and later found his niche as an Alva auctioneer.

Baby Grace joined the family of showmen-farmers on Jan. 8, 1911. Sixteen years later, at the height of the Roaring Twenties, she signed to tour with her brother Johnny’s spin-off show. She soon wed Ray “Flapjacks” Smith, who performed with her uncle George’s tour.

The newlyweds went on to found Keen-O-Tone, a medicine show offering free entertainment and bargain cures for ailments from colds to cancer. In its heyday, Keen-O-Tone toured with a cast of 32, including an orchestra. Smith mostly worked the business side, arranging for permits, advertising and publicity as the show rolled into town.

Changing tastes and times ended the business in 1951, and the Smiths returned home. On April 14, 1953, she was hired for a six-month trial to head the Chamber of Commerce in Alva.

Grace Ward Smith offered her hometown a bold plan: Instead of bringing a show to an audience, as her family had done for years, why not bring the audience directly to the show? The attraction to promote: the people and places of Woods County, Oklahoma.

She was specific about her goal: “New dollars are what we need, and I believe our biggest untapped source [is] tourists.” To those who doubted that anyone would travel to the sparsely populated region so far off the beaten path, she invoked Proverbs 29:18, saying, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

She had vision enough for the entire county.

With fresh eyes, she envisioned Alva as the gateway to the region’s Wild West history: outlaw hideouts, a dude ranch, Alabaster Caverns and the Great Salt Plains. She gave speeches and knocked on doors to increase membership in the Chamber of Commerce, organized civic groups to help entertain bus tours and attended conferences throughout the state to extol the virtues of Woods County.

But what she really wanted was another big attraction.


Her imagination was sparked by the dunes south of Waynoka, a sandy patch that had been ignored for decades, save for school field trips and adventurous picnickers. The fine quartz sand had been deposited by the Cimarron River over centuries, stretching uninterrupted for more than two square miles.

The dunes were an annoyance to most, creeping north and east as much as a foot every year in grainy drifts encroaching on Highway 281, causing the road to be rerouted time and again.

Grace Ward Smith, however, saw the sand as an answered prayer, and a sure bet to gain more traction in promoting Woods County.

First, the dunes field needed an inspiring name. Something evocative, yet familiar. Something she could sell. Her idea: “Little Sahara.”

Not everyone was impressed. Longtime Waynoka resident Rosalie Walker recalls, “We don’t want to be ‘little’ anything. I favored ‘Golden Sands.’” Decades later, she admits that Little Sahara was the best choice.

Smith recruited riders from the Waynoka Saddle Club to guide visitors through the new city-owned park of Little Sahara. She lined up townsfolk to dress as outlaws and stop incoming buses, presenting surprise gifts to the tourists. She orchestrated Indian smoke signals to be sent from hill to hill, and organized square dances, cave tours and chuckwagon feeds.

A 1956 report in The Daily Oklahoman noted Smith was “‘on stage’ practically 24 hours a day promoting Alva in a ‘show,’ which may equal the long run of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma … Alva’s first woman chamber of commerce secretary-manager may give business-like reports on projects to the board of directors at a night meeting, serve them pie and coffee, then show up at the office early the next morning to sweep out and wash the coffee cups before first callers appear.”

By 1958, she upped the ante, spearheading the purchase of two camels from the Al G. Kelly-Miller Brother Circus, which was wintering in Hugo, for $2,300.

“Once Grace has those camels, there’ll be no stopping her,” a contemporary said, in awe.

Local ranchers donated feed as the camels were kept in the Little Sahara’s “Oasis Pasture,” ready for photos. Tours by train and bus continued, including nearly 1,000 students from Oklahoma City and Tulsa in a single weekend.

Picnic tables were added around the park, and 20 students from Northwestern State College were paid $5 per performance to cavort in “colored pajamas, bathrobes, sheets and towels for the sheiks” and “sheer pajamas over shorts for the harem girls.” Plans were tossed about for a luxury hotel near the dunes with a desert theme, turquoise pool and a courtyard open to the night sky for star-viewing parties.

The camels – Susie and Nellie – continued to draw crowds, and garnered even more excitement when Nellie was about to give birth. A zoo veterinarian was flown in from Oklahoma City, and contests were held to guess the baby’s birthdate and time. The tiny camel arrived safely; she was named Gracie, in honor of Smith.

Alva proposed having some of the dunes designated a state park, and state lawmakers Lute Morrow of Dacoma and Ben Easterly of Alva promised to help. The Oklahoma Legislature earmarked $12,500 to purchase a parcel from the state Land Commission and develop the park, acquiring the 339-acre Little Sahara in September 1960. Restrooms were installed, along with 21 picnic tables and a water system.

The camels were exhibited at Little Sahara and were the star attraction in Waynoka’s first Christmas pageant in the dunes, held on Dec. 22, 1960, before a crowd of more than 4,000.

In 1961, an estimated 50,000 visitors made the trek to Waynoka to see the wonders of Little Sahara State Park.


By then, the extraordinary Smith had pulled up her tent stakes and moved on to head the Elk City Chamber of Commerce. The story goes that she ran for mayor of Alva and lost by six votes.

By November 1961, The Daily Oklahoman noted “credit for the plan to transform the Woods County dunes into a state park belongs to the county Chamber of Commerce, with individual laurels going to Ralph Sharp and Ike Ashpaugh, Waynoka businessmen.” Any mention of Smith and her inspired campaign had been erased as quickly as the shifting sands.

The park had momentum now, and could not be stopped. An observation tower was built, and adjoining acreage was added, bringing the total to more than 1,600 acres.

In the spring of 1963, Waynoka auto dealer Phil Middleton showed up in the dunes wearing goggles and an old aviator helmet, driving a makeshift steampunk vehicle with wide rims and balloon tires, topped by hay-rake wheels serving as roll bars.

By the end of the year, dozens of Mad Max-style vehicles took to the sand, tackling dunes reported at the time to rise more than 100 feet. Riders and spectators arrived from across Oklahoma, and from neighboring states. Local businesses popped up to offer rentals, repairs and rides.

The camels were eventually sold to a place in Arkansas, far from the whine and hum of the machines that are allowed to run the dunes 24/7.

Although the population of Woods County has declined – from 17,500 residents in 1910 to 9,304 in 2015 – Little Sahara State Park’s crowds continue to rise. On a good weekend, the numbers of those camping near the dunes and staying in nearby motels surpasses Waynoka’s population of 944.

The park’s Buttercup, Cowboy and Golden Sands campgrounds now offer 86 RV sites with water and electricity, 143 tent sites, pay showers, picnic areas and a colony of roadrunners.

Little Sahara took in more than $1.28 million in admission in 2015, when 128,397 riders paid $10 each for entry to the dunes. Their patronage boosted local businesses through sales of food and fuel, equipment rentals and lodging.

Sixty-five years after Smith vowed to inspire travelers to set their sights for the wonders of Woods County, visitors outnumber county residents 14-to-1.

In the end, the hometown girl who learned her craft in a traveling medicine show – and who insisted where there is no vision, the people perish – successfully sold Little Sahara as a cure for what ailed.

 

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June 2017

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Sponsor: The Orr Family Farm
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Cost: $75-$160

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Oklahoma Contemporary
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Cost: $30-90 (military and child discounts available)

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Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall
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Sponsor: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
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OK Hall of Fame Museum
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Sponsor: The Orr Family Farm
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Contact Name: Shanain
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More information

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Cost: $75-$160

Where:
Oklahoma Contemporary
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Telephone: 405.951.0000
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Cost: $30-90 (military and child discounts available)

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Sponsor: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
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Where:
OKC Museum of Art
415 Couch
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View map »


Telephone: 405.236.3100
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Cost: $10-12

Where:
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Where:
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Cost: Free

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OKCMOA’s Roof Terrace gives visitors the ultimate downtown experience every Thursday evening from April through October with live local music, the best views of downtown OKC, a relaxing...

Cost: $5

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Cost: Free

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Cost: $5 for Non-Members, Free for Members

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Oklahoma City Museum of Art
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Sponsor: Oklahoma City Museum of Art
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Cost: $30-90 (military and child discounts available)

Where:
Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall
201 N Walker Ave
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Sponsor: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
Telephone: 405.524.9312
Contact Name: Cynthia Bedford
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Free lunchtime serenades to sonically spice up your Thursdays.

Where:
Downtown Library
300 Park Ave
OKC, OK  73102
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Telephone: 405.231.8650
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Come find a piece of furniture you love at the 5th annual community-wide garage sale benefiting Concordia Life Care Community. Proceeds are donated to Concordia’s Good Samaritan Fund, to...

Cost: Free

Where:
Zion Lutheran Church
7701 W Britton Rd
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Sponsor: Paige Haag
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Where:
OKC Museum of Art
415 Couch
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View map »


Telephone: 405.236.3100
Website »

More information

Politically charged and unapologetically feminist, this shows harnesses the talents of dozens of local women creators, with proceeds benefiting OKC Artists for Justice.

Where:
Current Studio
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View map »


Telephone: 673.1218
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More information

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Where:
Throughout Edmond
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Telephone: 405.340.2527
Website »

More information

Self-billed as the best listening room in Oklahoma, it certainly has some of the best music - check online for updates.

Where:
The Blue Door
2805 N McKinley
OKC, OK  73016
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Telephone: 405.524.0738
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A Tony-winning comedy wraps up the Carpenter Square season as siblings reunite for arguments, complaints and eventually, bonding.

Where:
Carpenter Square Theater
800 W Main
OKC, OK  73106
View map »


Telephone: 405.232.6500
Website »

More information

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic presents an overview of the artist’s career including around sixty of his oil paintings, stained glass and sculpture. The exhibition...

Cost: $10-12

Where:
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Drive
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View map »


Telephone: 405.236.3100
Contact Name: Becky Weintz
Website »

More information

Come find a piece of furniture you love at the 5th annual community-wide garage salebenefiting Concordia Life Care Community. Proceeds are donated to Concordia’s Good Samaritan Fund to...

Cost: Free

Where:
Zion Lutheran Church
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View map »


Sponsor: Concordia Life Care Community
Telephone: 405.219.2927
Contact Name: Paige Haag

More information

Come spend an evening under the trees enjoying local bands with your family.

Where:
Hafer Park
1034 S Bryant
Edmond, OK  73034
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Telephone: 405.359.4630
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More information

A joint exhibition of Western portraiture and iconography from Oklahoma Hall of Fame artists Mike Larsen and Harold T. Holden.

Where:
OK Hall of Fame Museum
1400 N Classen
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View map »


Telephone: 405.235.4458
Website »

More information

It's not quite Hamilton, though it's written by Lin-Manuel Miranda - prepare to get fired up by this upbeat tale of cheerleading competition.

Where:
Pollard Theater
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View map »


Telephone: 405.282.2800
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Summer camp at the Orr Family Farm offers educational fun with activities such as learning about proper animal care and agriculture, fishing in the ponds, playing challenging games and much more!...

Cost: $170

Where:
The Orr Family Farm
14400 S. Western
Oklahoma City, OK  73170
View map »


Sponsor: The Orr Family Farm
Telephone: 405.799.3276
Contact Name: Shanain
Website »

More information

Expand your skills and explore your creativity this summer. Enrollment is open for our four- and eight-week classes designed for artists at any level. Under the guidance of experienced instructors,...

Cost: $75-$160

Where:
Oklahoma Contemporary
3000 General Pershing Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK  73107
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
Oklahoma Contemporary
3000 General Pershing Blvd
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View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
Website »

More information

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Cost: $6-15

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Oklahoma City, OK  73109


Telephone: 405.702.7755
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More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
Purple Loft Art Gallery
514 NW 28th
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View map »


Sponsor: The Purple Loft Art Gallery
Telephone: 405.412.7066
Contact Name: MaryAnn Ceballos

More information

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma is bringing "the greatest jam session in history" to OKC! This Tony-winning Broadway musical is based on the true story of the famed recording session when Sam...

Cost: $30-90 (military and child discounts available)

Where:
Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall
201 N Walker Ave
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
Telephone: 405.524.9312
Contact Name: Cynthia Bedford
Website »

More information

Enjoy light snacks, a cash bar and the splendor of the sky on a Sunset Cruise. Boarding at 7:45 p.m. in June.

Cost: $35

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Exchange Landing
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SW, over the bridge from Farmer's Market
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View map »


Telephone: 405.702.7755
Website »

More information

It's not quite Hamilton, though it's written by Lin-Manuel Miranda - prepare to get fired up by this upbeat tale of cheerleading competition.

Where:
Pollard Theater
120 W Harrison
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View map »


Telephone: 405.282.2800
Website »

More information

Politically charged and unapologetically feminist, this shows harnesses the talents of dozens of local women creators, with proceeds benefiting OKC Artists for Justice.

Where:
Current Studio
1218 N Penn
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View map »


Telephone: 673.1218
Website »

More information

Summer is a perfect time to join Cimarron Opera in revisitng the classics via Gilbert & Sullivan's comic masterpiece. It's about duty.

Where:
Nancy O'Brien Center
1801 Stubbeman
Norman, OK  73069
View map »


Telephone: 405.364.8962
Website »

More information

Crank it up on the south side with a high-energy show.

Where:
Diamond Ballroom
8001 S Eastern
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View map »


Telephone: 866.977.6849
Website »

More information

A Tony-winning comedy wraps up the Carpenter Square season as siblings reunite for arguments, complaints and eventually, bonding.

Where:
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View map »


Telephone: 405.232.6500
Website »

More information

A joint exhibition of Western portraiture and iconography from Oklahoma Hall of Fame artists Mike Larsen and Harold T. Holden.

Where:
OK Hall of Fame Museum
1400 N Classen
OKC, OK  73106
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Telephone: 405.235.4458
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A slice of American (and Oklahoman) history retakes the spotlight in this exhibition of works created under the New Deal's Federal Art Project.

Where:
OKC Museum of Art
415 Couch
OKC, OK  73102
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Telephone: 405.236.3100
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Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic presents an overview of the artist’s career including around sixty of his oil paintings, stained glass and sculpture. The exhibition...

Cost: $10-12

Where:
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Drive
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
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Telephone: 405.236.3100
Contact Name: Becky Weintz
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Come find a piece of furniture you love at the 5th annual community-wide garage salebenefiting Concordia Life Care Community. Proceeds are donated to Concordia’s Good Samaritan Fund to...

Cost: Free

Where:
Zion Lutheran Church
7701 W Britton Rd,
OKC, OK  73132
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Sponsor: Concordia Life Care Community
Telephone: 405.219.2927
Contact Name: Paige Haag

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Edmond's citywide celebration of Independence Day spans more than a week of events, excitement, food and all kinds of fun.

Where:
Throughout Edmond
Edmond, OK


Telephone: 405.340.2527
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Expand your skills and explore your creativity this summer. Enrollment is open for our four- and eight-week classes designed for artists at any level. Under the guidance of experienced instructors,...

Cost: $75-$160

Where:
Oklahoma Contemporary
3000 General Pershing Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK  73107
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Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
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Departs Exchange Landing | Saturdays (May  – August) | 11:40 am Experience history as you never have before. Colorful Oklahoma characters will reenact history through the eyes of...

Cost: $6-15

Where:
Exchange Landing
1503 Exchange Avenue
SW, over the bridge from Farmer's Market
Oklahoma City, OK  73109
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Telephone: 405.702.7755
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Scratch Art Stained Glass Windows, Saturday, July 1, 1- 4 pm Floral Collages, Saturday, July 8, 1-4 pm Fashionable Footwear, Saturday, July 15, 1-4 pm Watercolor Block Prints, Saturday,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Drive
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
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Sponsor: Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Telephone: 405.236.3100
Contact Name: Becky Weintz
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Saturday cartoons aren’t just for the children anymore. Share the classics with your crew every Saturday on an Oklahoma River Cruise. Kids 6 and under ride free.

Cost: $15 (free for kids 6 and under)

Where:
Exchange Landing
1503 Exchange Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK  73109
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Telephone: 405.702.7755
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Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma is bringing "the greatest jam session in history" to OKC! This Tony-winning Broadway musical is based on the true story of the famed recording session when Sam...

Cost: $30-90 (military and child discounts available)

Where:
Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall
201 N Walker Ave
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
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Sponsor: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
Telephone: 405.524.9312
Contact Name: Cynthia Bedford
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The CODED_COUTURE exhibition looks at the intersection of fashion and technology. Couture clothes are manufactured to a customer’s specific requirements. CODED_COUTURE offers a new definition...

Cost: Free

Where:
Oklahoma Contemporary
3000 General Pershing Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK  73107
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Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
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Dust off those chaps and spurs and saddle up! Enjoy country music, party mix and a cash bar on these weekend cruises. View the evening ferry schedule online for evening departure times, and pay...

Cost: $6-15

Where:
All OK River Cruise Landings
Oklahoma City, OK  73109


Telephone: 405.702.7755
Website »

More information

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma is bringing "the greatest jam session in history" to OKC! This Tony-winning Broadway musical is based on the true story of the famed recording session when Sam...

Cost: $30-90 (military and child discounts available)

Where:
Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall
201 N Walker Ave
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Sponsor: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
Telephone: 405.524.9312
Contact Name: Cynthia Bedford
Website »

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Crank it up on the south side with a high-energy show.

Where:
Diamond Ballroom
8001 S Eastern
OKC, OK  73149
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Telephone: 866.977.6849
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It's not quite Hamilton, though it's written by Lin-Manuel Miranda - prepare to get fired up by this upbeat tale of cheerleading competition.

Where:
Pollard Theater
120 W Harrison
Guthrie, OK  73044
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Telephone: 405.282.2800
Website »

More information

A joint exhibition of Western portraiture and iconography from Oklahoma Hall of Fame artists Mike Larsen and Harold T. Holden.

Where:
OK Hall of Fame Museum
1400 N Classen
OKC, OK  73106
View map »


Telephone: 405.235.4458
Website »

More information

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic presents an overview of the artist’s career including around sixty of his oil paintings, stained glass and sculpture. The exhibition...

Cost: $10-12

Where:
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Drive
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Telephone: 405.236.3100
Contact Name: Becky Weintz
Website »

More information

A Tony-winning comedy wraps up the Carpenter Square season as siblings reunite for arguments, complaints and eventually, bonding.

Where:
Carpenter Square Theater
800 W Main
OKC, OK  73106
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Telephone: 405.232.6500
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Politically charged and unapologetically feminist, this shows harnesses the talents of dozens of local women creators, with proceeds benefiting OKC Artists for Justice.

Where:
Current Studio
1218 N Penn
OKC, OK  73107
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Telephone: 673.1218
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Summer is a perfect time to join Cimarron Opera in revisitng the classics via Gilbert & Sullivan's comic masterpiece. It's about duty.

Where:
Nancy O'Brien Center
1801 Stubbeman
Norman, OK  73069
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Telephone: 405.364.8962
Website »

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Edmond's citywide celebration of Independence Day spans more than a week of events, excitement, food and all kinds of fun.

Where:
Throughout Edmond
Edmond, OK


Telephone: 405.340.2527
Website »

More information

A slice of American (and Oklahoman) history retakes the spotlight in this exhibition of works created under the New Deal's Federal Art Project.

Where:
OKC Museum of Art
415 Couch
OKC, OK  73102
View map »


Telephone: 405.236.3100
Website »

More information

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