From the Dallas Morning News, Feb. 22, 2003:
GOING DOWN FOR THE COUNT
(By Michael E. Young) - Beat up and stripped down, the dilapidated old Sportatorium offers nary a hint of its storied past - where a young Elvis Presley could sing his songs, then gawk at his own heroes, the wrestlers who brought the place worldwide fame.
The onetime home of the Big D Jamboree and a palace of professional wrestling for more than 40 years, the Sportatorium soon will be bulldozed into history. Its owners, Sportatorium Associates Inc., obtained a demolition permit from the city of Dallas last week.
Still, echoes of the glory days linger, from the torch and twang of Patsy Cline to Hank Williams' honky-tonk blues. And always, wrestling looms large, built around the tragic Von Erich clan.
"It was a great big old barn," said Kevin Adkisson, the youngest of the Von Erichs and the only surviving son of patriarch Fritz Von Erich. "But it was such a great old building. It had this feel to it, that it was much more than a barn. It was, 'This is the Sportatorium!'"
Mr. Adkisson's time at the Sportatorium came after Mr. Presley's, but he heard all the stories, he said.
"Elvis played there at the jamboree, and he loved wrestling. Dad said he was just a kid, just a skinny kid back then. And he loved to go into the back to see the wrestlers, and they'd give him a Coke," Mr. Adkisson
said. The Big D Jamboree brought some of the greatest stars of country music to Dallas during its heyday, beginning in the late '40s in the first Sportatorium and running through the early '60s at the second arena, rebuilt at Industrial Boulevard and Cadiz Street after a 1953 fire.
Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins played the jamboree. So did Buddy Holly. And the young Willie Nelson so enjoyed the place that for years, it was his favorite venue in town, Mr. Adkisson said.
Even later, during its waning days, the Sportatorium became a concert venue again, most notably for a 1992 show starring post-punk rappers the Beastie Boys. The crowd packing the old hall pushed relentlessly to the stage, overwhelming security teams. The harried promoter threatened to cancel the show unless the crowd backed off before relenting.
Gray Pierson, an Arlington lawyer who ran a wrestling operation at the Sportatorium from 1992 to 1994, said the show almost demolished the building 10 years before its time.
"The Beastie Boys packed the place. And because the electrical system there was kind of dicey, they brought in separate generators," Mr. Pierson said. "Well, they generated so much power and so much volume that the galvanized sheeting that covered the building began resonating. The walls were moving."
The Sportatorium's real fame came with wrestling, though, and it spread around the world.
"It's interesting that that building was more famous in other countries than it was in this area," Mr. Pierson said. "And wrestling was very popular in the Middle East."
In 1992, when the Republicans gathered in Houston to nominate President George Bush for a second term, Mr. Bush invited a delegation from Saudi Arabia to attend, Mr. Pierson remembered.
"They came via Dallas," he said, "because they wanted to go to the Sportatorium. They had all these Secret Service men with them, and they came just to see the Sportatorium."
The Saudis left impressed, Mr. Pierson said, although he can't say he felt the same on his first visit. "That was back in the early '70s. I was going to college in Waco and came up with some friends to see the wrestling for laughs," he said. "We got up here, and it looked so dangerous to me that I wouldn't get out of the car.
"Twenty years later, I ended up running the place." Bill Mercer arrived long before then, four decades before, arriving in 1953 to broadcast wrestling on TV from the Sportatorium.
"That was the big show in town in those days. We did it live, two hours on Tuesday nights, from 8 to 10," the sports broadcaster said.
"When I got there, all the big people in town - the police chief, the fire chief, the mayor - they were going down there all the time, everybody dressed in suits. It was the place to go."
The Sportatorium was part of the National Wrestling Alliance then, Mr. Mercer said, and the biggest names in the game visited, stars like Gorgeous George.
Later, televised wrestling moved to other venues but returned to the Sportatorium in a big way around 1980, Mr. Mercer said.
"Suddenly, the place was rocking again. It was transformed. The people in suits were back," he said.
After a few years, wrestling faded, and it was never quite the same at the Sportatorium. And soon it, too, will be gone.
Mr. Mercer and Mr. Pierson lament that, but Mr. Adkisson said his feelings are mixed.
"I spent a lot of time with my four brothers there," he said. "The last time I went down there, with them gone, it was kind of hard for me. It was like I didn't want to go."
But he did come away with something to help him remember the good times, he said.
"There's a guy from Chicago doing a documentary on wrestling, and I went down to the Sportatorium with him for my interview," Mr. Adkisson said.
"When I went in, one of the guys there gave me Row 28, seats 1, 2 and 3 as a souvenir.
"I put it on the porch swing at the ranch," he said. "Now I'll always have a little piece of it."
Big D Jamboree
By Kevin Coffey
A regional showcase that drew the best of Shreveport and the Opry as visiting talent, the Big D was the pride of Dallas in the late 40's and 50's.
While it was neither as fabled nor as long-lived as the Grand Ole Opry or even friendly nearby rival the Louisiana Hayride, the Big D Jamboree was an important second-tier radio "barn dance" from the late 40's through the early 60's. Broadcasting from co-producer Ed McLemore's Sportatorium wrestling arena, the Jamboree served as a springboard to national status for regional stars, as a venue for aspiring local performers, and as a valuable showcase for both regional and national touring acts.
Broadcasting in its heyday on Dallas' KRLD, the Jamboree also gained local television coverage on KRLD-TV and a revolving national slot on CBS radio's Saturday Night Country Style from the early through late 50's.
First aired on KRLD on October 16, 1948, and spearheaded by popular KRLD deejay Johnny Hicks, the Big D Jamboree's's pre-KRLD origins apparently date to 1946, when a weekly Saturday night multi-act hillbilly music show was begun at the Sportatorium by Slim McDonald, owner of the Ole Top Rail night club--an important and popular country venue in Dallas--and his publicity director, the well-traveled radio personality Uncle Gus Foster. Foster had worked all over the South and Southwest and in 1940 brought a morning program to KRLD that was rechristened the Texas Round-Up and included among its stars fiddler Georgia Slim Rutland and singer- songwriter Rex Griffin. Foster eventually left Dallas and turned the program over to Griffin, but returned to Dallas after the war and began working for Mcdonald.
It's unclear whether McDonald and foster approached Sportatorium owner and wrestling impresario Ed McLemore about doing a show or vice-versa, but the Texas State Barn Dance was born. The Barn Dance had no radio hookup and included among its stars comedian Bob Shelton, singer-comedian Bill Callahan, his young sons Ronny and Buddy, and singer Riley Crabtree. Despite Western swing's preeminence in the region, the show was decidedly more homespun and country-flavored. Another figure involved with the show from very early on was KLIF hillbilly deejay Big Al Turner, who shared announcing duties with Foster. Foster's and McDonald's involvement with the show seems to have been short-lived and by the time the show was poised to take the air, it was Turners and McLemore's baby.
A February 1956 article in Country Song Roundup detailed the Jamboree's recent ten-year anniversary gala, indicating that at least some of the show's hierarchy considered those early incarnations to be more than precursors-- even if the show was not christened Big D Jamboree until its KRLD debut. The Jamboree first aired on WFAA-570, as the Lone Star Jamboree, a few months prior to its debut on KRLD. Although Johnny Hicks remembers that the initial KRLD broadcast was the first done live from the Sportatorium, there is some evidence that the Lone Star Jamboree broadcast from there as well. At any rate. WFAA-820, 570's larger sister station, had already been broadcasting a studio-originated 30-minute hillbilly broadcast called the Saturday Night Shindig for several years. In the wake of the Jamboree's success, WFAA moved the Shindig to the State Fair Auditorium, began emulating the Jamboree's format and even landed a few Big D stars like Bobby Williamson and steel guitarist Jimmy Kelley. The Shindig's biggest draw star was Sonny James, already recording for Capitol but yet to hit it big, and its emphasis was largely more local than the Jamboree's, with far fewer names; the Jamboree easily outlasted its WFAA rival.
It may have been co-producer Ed McLemore who pressed to get the Big D Jamboree on KRLD. He had a popular wrestling show on the station and didn't want the Jamboree on WFAA because, says Hicks, "he had such a sweet deal with KRLD and the stations were very competitive." (Al Turner's station, KLIF, broadcast in the daytime only, removing it from consideration). Hicks, a ten-year radio veteran who had been at KRLD earlier, returned after the war as a sort of second-in-command to the station's enormously popular and influential hillbilly personality Pappy Hal Horton. Following Horton's death in December 1948, Hicks took over all the station's Hillbilly Hit Round-up. By the end of the decade, he was among the top rated hillbilly disc jockeys in the nation.
KRLD's Clyde Rembert told McLemore and Turner that they could broadcast Saturday night from the Sportatorium, but that Hicks would have to be in charge. So Hicks, Turner and McLemore became the show's joint producers. "He (Rembert) wanted a new name for it, and that's when I came up with 'Big D Jamboree,'" says Hicks. "It was kind of euphonious and it stuck."
It was no small coup for KRLD to land the Jamboree. Country music's popularity was soaring in the postwar boom years and local and regional radio jamborees patterned on the Grand Ole Opry and National Barn Dance were springing up everywhere. In fact, the Jamboree's launching on KRLD may have been precipitated by the success of KWKH's new and popular Louisiana Hayride. The Big D Jamboree's debut came in the middle of the annual Texas State Fair celebrations in Dallas, and the show was an immediate hit.
Although Hicks emceed the original 30-minute radio spot--a spot which would in several years expand to include almost the entire night's stage performance--for a while the stage show remained mainly Turner's territory. He emceed the bulk of the show, booked the show and managed many of the act's daily careers. He also started an hour-long afternoon sister show to Big D on KLIF called the Liberty Jamboree, which used much of the same talent.
Early stars of the Jamboree included Bill and Joe Callahan, Riley Crabtree, Dewey Groom, Gene O'Quin and Billy Walker, who came to the show in 1949 as the masked, mysterious Travelin' Texan--and Hicks himself. From the start, the show regularly attracted big names like Hank Snow--wintering in Texas in those days--and regionally based stars like Hank Locklin, a semi-regular on the Jamboree throughout the early to mid-50's.
"We never did have too many Grand Ole Opry people on," recalls Hicks. "A lot of the Hollywood hillbillies, as we called 'em were on. A lot of the Shreveport hillbillies were on (from Hank Williams to Webb Pierce, to Jim Reeves and, finally, Elvis). The Grand Ole Opry stars would come, but they would usually come on a week-night. Once in a while we would have them in on a Saturday night, but not often because they were very expensive."
Despite the show's growing success, it remained a struggle to keep locally grown stars from moving on to bigger time in Shreveport, Los Angeles or Nashville. Becoming one of the revolving shows on CBS's Saturday Night Country Style in the early 50's helped, but the show still lost O'Quin and Walker and failed to snag local up-and-comers like Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price. The CBS radio hookup consisted of a 30-minute segment every few weeks. KRLD-TV also broadcast a live Saturday afternoon preview of the night's show.
In 1951. Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery brought Ft. Worth's Light Crust Doughboys to the Jamboree as a second house band, calling themselves The Country Gentlemen. The show's original band was fronted by the young fiddler Billy Jack Saucier and included such musicians as guitarist-vocalist bobby Williamson, steel guitarist Jimmy Kelley and lead guitarist Leon Rhodes. With the arrival of the Doughboys--who included fiddler Carroll Hubbard, guitarist Lefty Perkins and Paul Blunt on piano and steel--the house bands alternated segments.
The Jamboree's local air time gradually increased as its popularity grew. From its half-hour slot, it expanded to an hour, then an hour and a half. Finally, at the start of September 1952, KRLD began airing the entire stage show.
The original Sportatorium burned in May 1953, and for the four months that it was being rebuilt; the Jamboree was held at the Live Stock Pavilion at Fair Park. By this time, the Jamboree was divided into as many as nine segments with six different hosts. Hicks was the heart of the show and hosted the CBS radio hookup. Al Turner, who was struggling unsuccessfully with alcoholism, receded further and further into the background (he was eventually replaced as emcee and co-producer by John Harper and was dead by the end of the 50's--a suicide, according to some sources).
The segment hosts would change in the coming years, but the format remained similar. Musically, a typical 30-minute segment would begin and end with an instrumental feature, as in this 9:30-10:00 segment from May 16, 1953, hosted by Big Bill Lister: Leon Rhodes--"12 Street Rag:/Big Bill Lister--"She Knows Why"/Sunshine Ruby-- "Lovesick Blues"/Douglas Bragg--"Cannon Ball Yodel"/Riley Crabtree--"Peace in the Valley"/Joe Andrews--"Faded Love"/Sue Barber and Jimmy--"Jambalaya"/Billy Jack Saucier--"Flop-Eared Mule."
Paul Blunt's closing "Stars of Tomorrow" segment was a mainstay throughout the 50's, a popular talent search that brought the show numerous regulars, like the somewhat bizarre Belew Twins from Greenville, Texas, among the show's most popular acts of the mid-50's. The Jamboree continued to try to snag the biggest names possible for regular appearances, as well. The show's March 21, 1953, program announced that The Carlisles, who were riding high with "No Help Wanted" and drew a record breaking 6,000 people to their March 14 appearance, "will be here every Saturday night as part and parcel of the Jamboree's regular crew! And there will be no advance in Prices!" That deal fell through--on The Carlisles' return May 16th, the show's program lamented, "The Jamboree tried to sign to them as regulars once. But it was bigger than both of us,'"--but the show continued to field a formidable local cast and attract touring stars like The Maddox Brothers and Rose, Jim Reeves and Jean Shepard.
Hicks recalls that the local favorites more than held their own against the bigger stars. "It was an amazing thing. It was a little embarrassing, because from time to time some of the local people--especially the local kids would get more applause than some of the guest stars . . . They had their own little fan clubs and everything. That was much more the case when rock'n'roll came in."
Some of those pre-rock'n'roll young stars included The Belew Twins and Sunshine Ruby--who, like numerous other Big D acts, gained short-lived major label contracts during their time on the show. Denise Foster became the show's teenaged sex symbol through the early and middle 50's--programs featured her bare-legged, clad in buckskin, and remarked on her enormous popularity with the boys in the armed services.
Among the other Big D acts who recorded for major labels, Johnny Hicks waxed extensively for Columbia from 1950 to 1954, while Çharline Arthur recorded for RCA Victor, not to mention those like Billy Walker and Gene O'Quin who rode major label affiliation right out of Dallas. Others had brief tenures, like the exuberant Doug Bragg's short stint with Coral. Few of these ever became more than second-tier artists, although Sonny James' frequent Big D appearances after WFAA's Saturday Night Shindig folded certainly helped propel him to stardom. The Jamboree picked up not only James, but also local stars like Jim Boyd from the defunct Shindig.
By the mid-50's, things were beginning to change. Big D's emphasis was edging toward youth--and toward rhythm. It began with exuberant country performers like Charline Arthur, Doug Bragg and The Belew Twins, but the rumblings became even greater. On February 19, 1955, show, the rocking Five Strings, who had just released their first discs for Columbia, were handed over an entire 15-minute segment. Soon Ed McLemore was promoting touring package shows which combined Big D stars with national acts. An odd mix, emceed by Hicks, played the Houston Coliseum from April 29-May 1, 1955: The Crew Cuts, Homer & Jethro, Slim Whitman, Maddox Brothers & Rose, Tex Ritter, Jimmy Wakely, Sonny James, The Belew Twins and others. In June, a similar but even odder show combined Opry, Hayride and Big D Jamboree stars. Headlined by Elvis Presley, the show's real draw seems to have been Jamboree booking agent Ed Watt's appearance as Davy Crockett (Watt, the program claims, was a more authentic Crockett than most--Crockett wannabes were thick as thieves in 1955--having been "born near Tennessee himself"). Hicks has a copy of Presley's contract framed on his wall. "We paid him $225 a night, and he had to furnish his own drummer."
The writing was on the wall, too. Television and rock'n'roll doomed the Big D Jamboree, although it did not go quickly or quietly. Hicks remained at the helm until 1959. "McLemore and I never did get along very well. Every once in a while I would go off in a huff, and they would get somebody else to emcee.
"I think rock'n'roll just done us in. After all, the generations were changing, the music tastes were changing. It was just one of those things that happened. I could see it coming for a couple of years."
By the late 50's, McLemore was heavily promoting the rock'n'roll acts he managed, like Johnny Carroll and Gene Vincent. Newer, younger rock'n'rollers were coming in, too, like Ronnie Dawson, the son of a former Dallas Western Swing bandleader: Dawson, who recorded some of the rawest, R&B-flavored rock'n'roll of the late 50's, is currently enjoying a career resurgence. Young country singer Joe Poovey, a Big D vet, became rocker Groovy Joe Poovey.< /p>
The magic may have been gone, but the show did not die with Hicks' departure. Subsequent emcees included former Lightcrust Doughboys announcer Parker Willson and even the Hayride's Horace Logan. Starday Records released an album of its stars recorded live at the Jamboree and in 1964-65 singer-songwriter Lawton Williams emceed a KTVT-TV broadcast.
The show had been moribund for several years when McLemore's son-in-law George Baum, with the help of Ed Bernet, revived it around 1970. The new Jamboree never caught on and lasted only a few months before disappearing forever. A decade earlier and for a decade before that, however, the Big D Jamboree had been one of the best and most vibrant of the regional radio barn dances. "Between 1949-59, we would pack that place," says Hicks. "That's 5,000 people, every Saturday night . . . "
Gene Vincent collector/authority STEVE BONNER (L) with SID KING at the Sportatorium in Dallas, TX. This building used to have a different sign on it years ago, that read: "Home of the Big D Jamboree." A legendary rockabilly landmark.
I Was There...Posted September 25, 1999 - I often attended the Big D Jamboree around 1951-1955. The show was held every Saturday night (8:00-midnight) and broadcast live on KRLD Radio-Dallas from the Sprotatorium, located at Cadiz & Industrial Sts. near downtown Dallas in an industrial area. The Sportatorium was a circular corrugated sheet metal building with a wrestling ring in the center. Televised wrestling matches were held during the week but the Jamboree was not televised. The wrestling ring with the ropes removed was the stage for the Jamboree. I would guess the average audience size was 2,000-3,000. Admission price I believe was 50 or 75 cents. The audience was definitely a blue collar crowd. During the show vendors selling beer, hot dogs, etc. walked up and down the aisles just like at a sporting event. In the latter part of the evening an occasional fight would happen in the audience but it never interrupted the show.
The show MCs were Johnny Hicks, Al Turner & John Harper. Johnny Hicks was a very popular hillbilly DJ on KRLD, Al Turner was a hillbilly DJ on KLIF-Dallas and John Harper was a staff announcer on KRLD. Each week's show featured a special guest artist usually from the Louisiana Hayride, the Opry or southern California. Special guest artists I remember seeing on the Jamboree include Johnny Horton, Tex Ritter, Al Dexter, Maddox Bros. & Rose, Slim Willet, the Carlisles, Hank Snow, and Elvis Presley.
Regulars on the program that had recording contracts were Johnny Hicks (Columbia), Bobby Williamson (RCA), Sunshine Ruby (RCA), Big Bill Lister (Capital), Charlene Arthur (RCA), Riley Crabtree (Columbia), Slim Harbert & Molly(his daughter)(Columbia). Other regulars I remember featured on the Jamboree were Orville Couch, Denise Foster, and Joe Poovey.
There were two house bands, the Big D Jamboree band & the Country Gentlemen band. They would alternate backing up the 30 minute program segments. In the Jamboree band was Leon Rhodes, electric guitar, Billy Jack Saucier, fiddle and George McCoy, steel guitar. In the Country Gentlemen band(essentially the Light Crust Doughboys) Jim Boyd, lead guitar, Marvin (Smoky) Montgomery, tenor banjo, Buddy Griffin, rhythm guitar. There were other band members but I don't remember their names.
I really didn't see the rockabilly era at the Big D Jamboree. By the time that got established in the later 50s I was away from Dallas. I had no idea at the time how good some of these people were or how famous some of them would be the future. Looking back on it now it was the beginning of the end of a classical era in country music.
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