|THE SPORTATORIUM STORY|
I originally wrote this story on June 10, 1988, for the wrestling program at The Sportatorium. That World Famous Arena met it's end this year, as it was demolished. Allow me to take you back in time, and pay tribute to this unique building that I love so much.
Even a five year-old child can sit on the front row of The Sportatorium and feel it. When the bell rings at 8:00 pm on Friday nights, that huge, silver, metallic building on the corner of Industrial Blvd. and Cadiz Street comes alive!
When you visit The World Famous wrestling arena, you can’t help but to think about the days gone by. “If only one of the pews in the front row could talk!” I’ve heard that one a thousand times. No, the pews can’t talk, but I know somebody that can. That man is Bill Hines.
The following history was personally given to me in an interview with Mr. Bill Hines. Bill Hines was the maintenance man at The Sportatorium from 1950 until 1988. I knew that with 38 years of eating, drinking, and sleeping in The Sportatorium, he could tell me all I wanted to know. And boy, was I right!
The Sportatorium was originally built in 1936 for the first Texas Centennial Celebration. It was an 8-sided structure, with a flat roof, built by Bill Cox of the Cox Fence Company.
The first pro wrestling promoter in Dallas was a man named Burt Willoughby. The Sportatorium became one of the hottest tickets in the Southwest. Willoughby employed a man named Ed Mclemore to handle the concessions at the boxing and wrestling events. Little did he know then, that this move is what would put The Sportatorium on the map.
Ed Mclemore started out handling the popcorn, then the cold drinks, then and the hot dogs; before Willoughby knew it, he had the entire concession business to himself. Mclemore advanced in Willoughby’s company until he owned the entire business in 1940.
When The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) was still in it's infancy, Mclemore began promoting under The NWA banner at The Sportatorium. This relationship lasted until January of 1953. The reason for the breakup is unknown, but the NWA and The Sportatorium went their separate ways.
Then in the middle of a windy night on May 1, 1953, someone poured kerosene on the flat tarpaper roof. The Sportatorium burned to the ground! You would think that stopped Ed Mclemore’s wrestling events? Wrong!
The matches were moved to fair Park, to a livestock show arena. They were held there for six months, while The Sportatorium was being rebuilt. The doors were re-opened on September 22, 1953 and the new building was called “The Million Dollar Sportatorium”. The outside of the new structure was a rectangle, however, the inside still retained the original octagon shape.
Local television Channel-4 was on hand to broadcast live one of the most exciting events in Dallas pro wrestling history. I searched in vain for the card that night, but was unsuccessful. At one time Channel-4 used to broadcast live from the south side of the building, and Channel-8 televised live from the north side, AT THE SAME TIME!
The Sportatorium eventually rejoined The NWA. It was about that time that a young local football player named Jack Adkisson appeared on the scene. Adkisson was talked into trying pro wrestling, and broke his shoulder while working out for his first match. Jack’s first paid job at The Sportatorium was working as a bookkeeper for Promoter Mclemore. Ed Mclemore died of a heart attack in 1969. Jack Adkisson had long already established himself as the legendary, Fritz Von Erich.
Besides being a “Wrestling Hall Of Fame”, The Sportatorium was also famous for another regular event, namely THE BIG D JAMBOREE. The jamboree appeared at The Sportatorium from 1948 until 1966. The country music shows were held every Saturday night, with all the stars of The Grand Ole Opry. In 1962, adults could get in for only 90 cents and kids for just 60 cents. “Back then you get a whole bus load of talent from Nashville for $500.” Bill Hines explained to me, “The great Hank Williams Sr. was here just three days before he died. Believe it or not, a newcomer named Elvis Presley was here many times.” Mr. Ed Watt came to work at The Sportatorium in 1953, booking the jamboree talent, and eventually became matchmaker for the wrestling events.
Bill said he saw them all, Hank Thompson, Sonny James, Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzel, Charlie Walker, and of course my favorite “The Possum” George Jones. “Around 1954, the year after the building was rebuilt, Jamboree crowds started to decline.” Mr. Hines told me, “Something called Rock and Roll started coming around. Promoters from New York staged one of the first R & R shows in the south right here at The Sportatorium. They were all here.” “One night a guitar picker broke his instrument, and he brought it to my workshop under the bleachers. I was able to get it fixed for him just in time for the show. He shook my hand and said his name was Chuck Berry. Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, all stood under The Sportatorium spotlights.”
Bill emotionally explained to me how hard it was back in the days when the crowds were segregated. “One section would be for blacks, and one section would be for whites. It rotated around the building.” He said that one of the biggest crowds was the night President Eisenhower was elected. “Our normal TV telecast was preempted for the first time. We had 7,000 people stacked to the ceiling.”
Bill Hines swore to me that as far as he knew, he built the first cage ever to be used in a wrestling match, in 1962. “It was made out of two by fours with chicken wire around the sides, and barbed wire on top. It was for a match between NWA World Champion, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers and Duke Keomuka. Fritz Von Erich and Duke sold the Sportatorium out for a solid year, during that same time.”
“The bloodiest match I can recall had to be between Fritz and Johnny Valentine.” Bill said, “Fritz took one of those wooden chairs and put 30 stitches in Johnny’s head!” I could have talked to Bill all day, so I wrapped it up by asking him what he remembers most throughout the years. “There was the night that Wahoo McDaniel was bouncing off the old hemp ropes, and the top one broke! The Chief landed in Section F, Row 3!”
However, Bill added that his favorite story was the night he was closing down the building after a particularly wild night of matches. “As I walked around the top of the box seats, I noticed a man slumped over in his chair” Bill continued, “When I raised him up, there was a knife sticking out of his back right between the shoulder blades!”
Probably the best way to end this story is to mention the hundreds of thousands of wrestling fans who have filled this historic arena. That is what really brought the old building to life, the fans. Then there were all the wrestlers, from Gorgeous George to Gorgeous Gino Hernandez. There is no doubt that The Sportatorium was a legend in it’s own time.
Allow me to steal a line that Bret Hart used when talking about Madsion Square Gardens. "It may not be a church, but it is certainly holy ground."
Join me next time right here in STORY TIME, for the continuing saga of Percy Pringle III, also known as The WWF character Paul Bearer.