FAQ: The Sportatorium

What can you tell me about the history of the Sportatorium before Fritz Von Erich became promoter?
The only known exterior photo of the original Sportatorium,
taken circa late 1930s
Thanks to the diligence of researchers who have posted information at the message boards of the Dallas Historical Society, Wrestling Classics and the defunct Old School Wrestling board, we've been able to piece together a sketchy outline of the legendary arena's early history.

Before getting started, however, we should mention a page at the Dallas County Pioneer Association's website which claims that the Sportatorium's first promoter, Herbert E. "Bert" Willoughby (1890-1963), "raised enough capital in 1920 to buy land at the intersection of Cadiz and Industrial Boulevard and build the first Sportatorium in 1922."  Unfortunately, we must point out that this claim is not accurate.  Willoughby and partner Jack Fox did own an arena in the early '20s, but it was not called the Sportatorium, nor was it located at Cadiz and Industrial; the 1927 edition of Worley's Dallas City Directory lists the Fox-Willoughby Athletic Arena on East Jefferson near Hutchins Avenue (putting it just across the Trinity River from the Sportatorium site, to the southwest).
The same directory lists Willoughby as a coffee roaster (his day job) at the U.S. Coffee and Tea Company, as well as one Edward E. McLemore, a clerk at the Oriental Oil Company.  By 1933, according to that year's edition of Worley's, McLemore had started his own business, the Green Lantern Barbecue Stand, at 2822 North Henderson Avenue (now the location of the Cuba Libre Cafe).     

In 1935, W.T. Cox, president of Cox Steel and Wire (later the Cox Fence Company), began construction of the Sportatorium, which would be the new home of Bert Willoughby's wrestling cards.  The Dallas Morning News ran the following story on September 13 of that year:
There will be no wrestling matches Monday night. Promoter Bert Willoughby, who has turned his Fair Park arena over to Centennial officials to be razed shortly, said Thursday.  The next program will be staged in Fair Park Auditorium, Sept. 23.  Negotiations were completed Thursday for acquisition of the auditorium, where the tinears will cavort until Promoter Willoughby completes his own building.
Willoughby has leased a block at Cadiz street and Industrial boulevard, where work started Thursday on a new arena, to be one of the finest in the Southwest. It will be ready for occupancy in five weeks and will be enclosed, with a heating system [for] winter shows and air conditioning for the hot summer months.

On December 1, the Morning News reported on the new facility's opening:

The new sports bowl, under construction at Cadiz and Industrial, will have its official opening Monday night, Dec. 9, when Promoter Bert Willoughby will offer the biggest wrestling program ever staged in Texas, if present plans go through as outlined. This 10,000-seating capacity structure, built as the home of wrestling, will also entertain many other events, such as boxing, basketball, indoor circuses, style shows, conventions and gatherings of all kinds.
"I am hot on the trail of twenty of the Nation's best wrestlers," Willoughby announced Saturday, "and we hope to offer on opening night, ten matches. Some will have to be cut to a twenty-minute time limit, but the main go will be for two out of three falls. I can't say just now who will be on the card, but hope to have the name of every man by Monday or Tuesday, and among them will likely be Juan Humberto, Southern heavyweight champion, who will defend his title against some outstanding opponent."

Whether fans of today's wrestling product -- or, for that matter, fans of World Class! -- will recognize any of the names who ultimately appeared on that first card is a different story, of course; but, for the historical record, here (thanks to Dan Anderson and Jim Zordani) are the results:      

12/9/35 Dallas (att. 8,500)       
Sol Slagel beat Bob Stuart     
Jack Nelson drew Pat O'Brien       
Dick Stahl beat Tiny Roebuck     
Jack League drew Nick Elitch   
Dan O'Connor drew Eddie Newman   
Jack Ryan beat Bob Wagner DQ       
Billy Edwards beat Pete Schuh     

Note that the larger original building was configured as a full octagonal amphitheatre, as opposed to its "half amphitheatre" reconstruction after the 1953 fire that partially destroyed it.  This would explain the higher seating capacity, although 10,000 would seem to be a wildly exaggerated figure judging by the one available photo.      

The Sportatorium as it looked circa 1972, in a newspaper
ad emphasizing the building's rich history (originally
posted by "Gino von Steiger" at pinterest.com)
By 1938, Ed McLemore was working as a salesman at Cox Steel and Wire; evidently, he worked in that capacity during the day and as concessionaire for Bert Willoughby at the evening wrestling events (his previous experience with the Green Lantern Barbecue Stand having obviously proven valuable).  What is certain, though, is that in 1940 McLemore was able to buy the promotion from Willoughby; Ed's company, Texas Rasslin', Inc., would promote cards in Dallas until breaking away from Houston promoter Morris Sigel (who, up to that point, had been supplying talent to McLemore) and the Dallas Wrestling Club in 1966 -- a conflict that resulted in Sigel taking over the Sportatorium for a very brief period, while McLemore temporarily relocated his shows to the Bronco Bowl Auditorium.   

Due to declining health, Sigel's attempt to run shows in opposition to McLemore was extremely short-lived (Sigel would, in fact, be dead by year's end), and in the fall of '66, McLemore and Jack Adkisson (Fritz Von Erich) formed a partnership, moving back into the Sportatorium and establishing Southwest Sports, Inc.  This company, which was taken over entirely by Fritz upon McLemore's death in January 1969, promoted under the name Big Time Wrestling and, beginning in spring 1982, as World Class Championship Wrestling.      

Though the WCCW promotion has, of course, long been defunct, Southwest Sports -- having been taken over by Kevin Adkisson after Fritz's death -- still exists today as K.R. Adkisson Enterprises, Inc.  

Why was the Sportatorium demolished?      

As Dallas wrestling crowds dwindled in the post-WCCW era, it became prohibitively expensive for indy promotions to rent the building, pay insurance costs, etc.  As a result, local feds in the D/FW area began to use smaller venues.  (The last cards held at the Sportatorium were promoted in early 1998 by Arturo Agis, who ran lucha libre shows off and on in the Dallas area for several years.)     

For the next few years, the decaying venue was vacant, save for the homeless persons in the area who periodically broke into the arena seeking shelter.  Finally, on December 8, 2001, some of these people apparently lit a fire inside the building to keep warm and wound up starting an out-of-control blaze.  The upstairs offices where Fritz Von Erich, Gary Hart, Percy Pringle and others had once worked sustained heavy damage (which can be seen during Kevin Von Erich's tour of the soon-to-be-dismantled Sportatorium in Brian Harrison's documentary, Heroes of World Class).  

The owners of the building reportedly did look into the possibility of restoring the Sportatorium and bringing it up to code.  But, after receiving estimates that were well into the six-figure range, they made the sad but perhaps inevitable decision to demolish the arena in early 2003.      

What was the Sportatorium's seating capacity?  And how large was it?  It certainly doesn't look very big in the pictures I've seen.    

No, it wasn't terribly large.  The legal limit posted by the Dallas Fire Marshal was 4000, although it was possible to squeeze more people into the Sportatorium with a little...er...persuasion.   (Which, according to Roddy Piper in his book In the Pit with Piper, did indeed happen, at least during his mid-'70s stint in Dallas.) 

This satellite photo of the Sportatorium, taken circa 2000, is from Google Maps:  

...while the image below, showing the former location as it looks today, is from Microsoft Virtual Earth (click images to open full-size versions in new browser windows; the crosshairs in each photo indicate the approximate location of the ring).

We were able to determine the size of the Sportatorium, even though the building is long gone, by using Google Earth.  After entering the former address of the venue (1000 South Industrial Blvd., Dallas, TX), clicking Search and zooming in on the top photo, we used the program's measuring feature to get the approximate length and width: 
  • Length, side facing Industrial Blvd. (bottom left):  ~205 feet
  • Length, side facing Trinity River (top right):  ~250 feet
  • Width, measured across center of building:  ~145 feet 
Splitting the difference between the two sides (227.5 feet), and multiplying it by the width, gives you a ballpark figure of just under 33,000 square feet.  (For the sake of comparison, about six buildings the size of the Sportatorium would have fit under the roof of nearby Reunion Arena.)  And there you have it.  Hey, you've got questions?  By golly, WCM has answers!  :)      

What was the Big D Jamboree?      

Late August or early September 1955 ad from the
Dallas Morning News, promoting an upcoming
appearance by Elvis at the Big D Jamboree 
The Jamboree was a weekly country music showcase held Saturday nights at the Sportatorium beginning in October 1948.  It was essentially the Dallas equivalent of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and Shreveport's Louisiana Hayride, running some four hours each week and broadcast live in the D/FW area on KRLD Radio (with a half-hour segment airing nationally on the CBS Radio Network).  Literally all the major country stars of the era played the Jamboree until the mid-1950s, when performers such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly ushered in the show's rockabilly era; Sportatorium promoter Ed McLemore soon began managing some of the rock-and-rollers who appeared regularly on the show (most notably Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, of "Be-Bop-a-Lula" fame) and promoting package tours.    

In the mid-1960s, the Jamboree faded away due to changing tastes in popular music, broadcasting its final show in 1966. Attempts were made to revive the Jamboree in 1970 and again in 1984 (as the "Big D Jamborama"), but neither effort got off the ground.      

Much more info on the Jamboree can be found at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame website, and also at the official website of the late Scotty Moore (Elvis' original lead guitarist), which includes an entire page devoted to the Sportatorium, with many photos from the period.  In the mid-'90s, the Dallas-based Dragon Street Records label released a line of "Legends of the Big D Jamboree" CDs featuring rare studio recordings and live performances from the show by many of its stars. And in 2013, the German label Bear Family Records, known for its massive and pricey box sets of classic rock 'n' roll and country music reissues, released an eight-CDs-plus-hardcover-book collection including a number of full half-hour CBS Jamboree broadcasts. Suggested retail price is just under two hundred U.S. dollars, so we recommend checking out Amazon Marketplace sellers for a discount if you're interested.

Were other concerts held at the Sportatorium?

Definitely.  Unfortunately, despite what has been posted on numerous bootleg tape trading sites, an early Bruce Springsteen gig was not one of them.  According to Brucebase, although "The Boss" was scheduled to perform there on November 10, 1974, the show was canceled (evidently a last-minute decision; radio commercials hyping the concert as taking place "this Sunday night" have surfaced) and never rescheduled; no reason is given, but the same site reveals that some Springsteen dates earlier that year at Gertie's, a Dallas nightclub, had been poorly attended.  This, of course, would not be the case for much longer, as Springsteen was then in the process of recording the album that would propel him to worldwide rock superstardom: Born to Run.    

But many other well-known performers did play the Sportatorium, among them Texas music legend Willie Nelson, who is reputed to have considered it one of his favorite venues.  The online archives of TIME Magazine include this article (subscription required) on a 1957 concert in which rocker Fats Domino and his band contended with the building's "rainbarrel acoustics".  In one of the newspaper articles reproduced here, GWF promoter Grey Pierson recalled how The Beastie Boys' high-decibel onslaught in 1992 caused the corrugated sheet metal walls to vibrate intensely.  And many gospel music package shows were held at the Sportatorium over the years, with such stars as the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Dixie Hummingbirds and many others.    

One curious claim we've seen online which we probably shouldn't bother debunking, but will anyway, since we are YOUR source for accurate, dependable info on this sort of thing:  that a Dallas concert hall known as the Electric Ballroom supposedly "used to be called the Sportatorium" where "local, semi-professional wrestling" was held (what the heck is "semi-professional wrestling"?!).  Sorry, but no.  The Enhancement Guy, who fondly recalls listening to live broadcasts from the Electric Ballroom over KZEW-FM ("The Zoo"), featuring AC/DC, Spirit, Rush, Ted Nugent and other 1970s rock luminaries, hastens to point out that that particular venue (formerly the Aragon Ballroom) was, in fact, located across Industrial Boulevard from the Sportatorium, which was still standing long after the Ballroom was torn down.  Seemingly an egregious mistake, but then it isn't too difficult to understand how the passing of four decades, and the general rock-and-roll atmosphere of that era, could cause some folks' memories to go to pot...so to speak.  ;)      

Is it true that a fan once tried to shoot a wrestler at the Sportatorium?    

Yes.  The incident in question took place, not at a World Class card, but at a WCW house show on September 5, 1992 following a tag team main event pitting Sting and Nikita Koloff against Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Super Invader (Hercules Hernandez).  During the post-match brawl, an elderly fan (who reportedly had been attending matches at the arena for 30 years without incident) pulled out a gun, apparently aiming for Roberts.  Another fan seated nearby reacted quickly and pulled the man's arm down, and the bullet went into the floor.  The gunman was subdued by WCW security personnel and several Dallas Police officers, who arrived shortly after a 9-1-1 call was made from the arena.      

This was by no means the only hair-raising incident that unfolded at the Sportatorium over the years.  The late Percy Pringle's tribute to the old, barnlike venue includes a story told by its longtime maintenance man Bill Hines, of how Hines found a man slumped over in one of the box seats after a show and, upon closer inspection, discovered a knife stuck in the man's back. (NOTE: Percy's original blog, to which we previously linked here, was understandably taken down after his passing. However, the story can still be read online as part of this article at prowrestlingstories.com.)  Then there's the story the Enhancement Guy heard back in the early '70s from a family friend, who told of being showered with blood when a knife fight broke out in the aisle next to her, and one of the men involved fell into her lap...further proof that, although the Sportatorium was one of pro wrestling's greatest venues, attending a show there wasn't for the faint of heart.      

Ironically enough, the one shooting incident that is known to have taken place at a WCCW card happened at Reunion Arena rather than the Sportatorium.  During an intermission at the 6/17/83 Wrestling Star Wars show, an off-duty Dallas policeman, who was working as a security guard, shot and killed a knife-wielding man who was involved in a scuffle in the upper balcony.  

I sure miss those great french fries they used to sell at the Sportatorium. Any idea where I can get them today?       

Concessionaire Jack Pyland Jr., whose company served 'em up at the matches for many years, unfortunately doesn't appear to have a presence on the Web at this writing.  However, at present, we know of at least two places in north Texas where those with a jones for Jack's French Fries can get their fix.  One of them is the annual State Fair of Texas, held every September-October at Fair Park in Dallas, where the fries are sold at two stands on Cotton Bowl Plaza.  If September is too far away (and if you're a racing fan), you'll be pleased to know that, at last report, Pyland and his crew were still handling concessions at the Devil's Bowl Speedway in Mesquite.  If you know of another venue where they're sold, we hope you'll email us and let us know, because we miss 'em too.  Pass the salt and vinegar!