Stale Beer, the Trinity River, Popcorn and Grease

D/FW area newspapers report the end of two eras at the Sportatorium: the final World Class card in November 1990, and the venue's demolition in early 2003.

By Bill Muller
From the Dallas Times Herald, November 24, 1990

Friday night, wrestling fans may have seen their last flying dropkick from the Von Erichs at the Dallas Sportatorium.

A legal battle with an out-of-town promoter and the cancellation of their television show has forced the legendary Texas wrestling clan to pull their World Class Championship Wrestling out of the Sportatorium, where matches have been held for 47 years.

"We've been down before," Kevin Von Erich said Friday.  "We're going to beat this thing.  Right now, they've got me down, but I'm coming back.  I'm not a quitter."

Prior to entering the ring for what he said would be a last match at the Sportatorium, the 29-year-old [sic] wrestler said, "It's a tough thing to do.  Most of these people watched me grow up.  They kept me up when things were bad.  I can't tell you how I feel about these people."

After an emotional Kevin Von Erich told the crowd it would be his last match, several people burst into tears.

"I just think it's the worst thing that ever happened," said Grover Greer, 55.  "My heart's just broke.  I hope Kevin can find a way to come back."

Roy Gregory, 42, and his 10-year-old son Adam said they came every Saturday to watch wrestling.

"My dad used to bring me here when I was [Adam's] age, and now I'm doing it with him," Gregory said.  "It's sad.  It's a part of history that's not going to be passed down."

A series of business setbacks over the past year left Kevin and his brother Kerry Von Erich virtually penniless.  The brothers currently are suing an out-of-town promoter who was their business partner, after things got so bad that they lost their homes.

"They lost just about everything they had," said Fritz Von Erich, the family patriarch who built the wrestling empire only to watch it fall on hard times.  "They've had to start totally over."

To recover from financial woes, Kerry now wrestles for the World Wrestling Federation, a high-profile New York-based wrestling syndicate that features stars such as Hulk Hogan.

"Kerry's doing fine," Fritz said.  "The WWF is a first-class outfit.  Kevin is more of a family man.  He doesn't want to go out on the road again."

Meanwhile, Kevin Von Erich has been trying desperately to keep wrestling at the Sportatorium, which recently raised the rent to a flat $2,000 a week from the old price of $1 per customer.  Although the arena has a 5,000-person capacity [sic], the Friday night wrestling card usually filled only a small portion of the Sportatorium.  About 600 fans turned out Friday.

"We lost the show on Channel 11, and now we can't advertise on Channel 11 or Channel 33," Kevin Von Erich said.  "Without TV advertising, wrestling just can't survive."

He said his advertisements were taken off those stations because they picked up other wrestling shows that didn't want the competition.

Losing the Von Erichs may finish off the dilapidated Sportatorium, which first featured Fritz Von Erich as a pro wrestler back in 1954.

"I think after they lost the television, a lot of people assumed it was closed," said Patsy Weaver, who works at a concession stand.  "I guess the old has to give way to the new."

Fred Alford, owner of the Sportatorium, said Friday that if wrestling ends in the old arena, he will seek another tenant.

"It's kind of sad.  My gosh, I spent many, many nights in that old building," Fritz Von Erich said.

The business problems are the most recent to plague the famed Von Erichs, a family synonymous with pro wrestling throughout Texas.

Since 1984, two of Fritz Von Erich's six sons have died:  David, 25, of an intestinal infection while on a wrestling tour of Japan, and Mike, 23, of a drug overdose in 1987.

The elder Von Erich sold his interest in the business in 1987, saying he was tired.  Since then, Kevin Von Erich has run the family business, but "had no tools to work with," according to his father.

Kevin Von Erich will take his 16 wrestlers out of the Sportatorium, and said they will be able to pursue other contracts.

He said he wants the Von Erich style of wrestling, which he described as "fast-paced and exciting," to survive.

"Some of these guys just stand around and flex their muscles," he said.  "I don't think people want to see that.  I think they want to see the good guys and bad guys fighting tooth and nail."

Wrestling, music venue Sportatorium being razed

By Eva-Marie Ayala
From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 21, 2003

DALLAS - Sounds of rockin' and rasslin' filled the Dallas Sportatorium for more than six decades.

It was a nearly mythical place where stars such as Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams Sr. once played during the Big D Jamboree broadcasts. The thuds and groans of wrestlers resonated off the walls as well. It was home to the Von Erichs and other famous wrestlers of the past.

But after a few reprieves in recent years, the oversized barnlike building made of metal and wood is finally down for the count. Last week, the city of Dallas issued a demolition permit for the building on Industrial Boulevard southwest of downtown. The work has already begun.

Mark Longoria, a wrestling fan who remembers the days when headlocks and body slams filled the building, is overseeing the building's demolition.

"It's ironic that I'm the one tearing it down," said Longoria, who has found old posters in the Sportatorium promoting matches from its golden age. "I have a hard time doing it."

It is not clear what will replace the Sportatorium. Owner Morton Rachofsky did not return several phone calls this week, and Longoria said he doesn't know what will happen to the site.

The Sportatorium opened in the 1930s with boxing and wrestling. It was a popular honky-tonk from the '40s to the '60s, when the Big D Jamboree featured local, regional and national talents on a Metroplex radio station.

In May 1953, the original Sportatorium was destroyed by a fire, and it was rebuilt four months later, according to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame Web site.

Legendary rockabilly star Ronnie Dawson played there every Saturday night for about four years in the late 1950s. It was at the Jamboree that Dawson met and joined the legendary Light Crust Doughboys.

"It's just a big ol' tin building that I can still smell -- a smell of stale beer, the Trinity River, popcorn and grease," he said.

Various country and rock legends, including Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Willie Nelson, made appearances there.

When a barely known Presley played the Sportatorium on April 16, 1955, he invited the local musicians to his hotel for a party, said Dawson, who decided not to go.

"Like some idiot, I wasn't interested in Elvis at the time," Dawson said. "I was interested in his guitar player who had done some work on a record I loved."

Nevertheless, the Sportatorium is best known for its wrestling.

In the '70s and '80s, Fritz Adkisson [sic], better known as the patriarch of the Von Erich brothers, would build his dynasty at the Sportatorium.

Muscle-bound men with names such as "Gentleman" Chris Adams, "Playboy" Gary Hart and the Fabulous Freebirds dazzled the crowds with chokeholds and pile drivers.

Longtime referee James Beard said he was thrown about the ring by many wrestlers getting their start at the Sportatorium, including some of today's well-known wrestlers, such as Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Bradshaw and Booker T.

"Anybody who was anybody worked there at one time," he said.

In the summers, it was hot, and in the winters, it was cold. But the "classic smoky atmosphere" that lingered above the wooden benches made it one of the best arenas in the world, Beard said.

But local wrestling started to fizzle in the 1990s. The Sportatorium quietly was slipping past its heyday, and at least two attempts to revive it failed.

In 1998, Arturo Agis, a former wrestler from Mexico, was the last to try and reclaim the Sportatorium by holding Mexican-style wrestling there.

He fixed dilapidated bathrooms, repainted and revarnished. Attendance fluctuated, and he ended up losing about $35,000 after only five months.

"I lost money, but I'm happy. I cry about this place," Agis said. "I love this place.  I put my dream, myself, into the Sportatorium."

Longoria said the building is too old and too run-down to be renovated to meet today's codes. It will be taken apart in pieces so that much of it can be recycled, he said.

It will soon be another stop on the "what-once-was-here-but-now-is-gone" tour, leaving behind a mixed legacy of sport and song.

"I can't think of any place better," Beard said. "It was really something unique. You can't manufacture it. It just has to be there."

By Michael E. Young
From the Dallas Morning News, February 22, 2003

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 [sic] 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 [Brian Harrison's Heroes of World Class], 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."