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SPORTATORIUM

The Sportatorium in Dallas
The Sportatorium in Dallas, known as a storied wrestling venue, was also home to Big D Jamboree from the late 1940s into the 1960s. Courtesy of Dragon Street Records, Inc.

SPORTATORIUM. The Sportatorium, famed wrestling venue and home to Big D Jamboree, was located at 1000 S. Industrial Boulevard in Dallas, Texas. Originally constructed by Bill Cox of the Cox Fence Company, the large octagonal steel building with a flat roof opened on December 9, 1935, with a professional wrestling event promoted by Burt Willoughby. The venue quickly gained popularity for its wrestling and boxing matches, and Willoughby hired Ed McLemore to operate the concessions. The enterprising McLemore eventually purchased Willoughby’s entire promotion business in 1940 and publicized wrestling matches under the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA).

Just after World War II in addition to his wrestling promotions, McLemore began presenting a weekly country music variety show on Saturday night at the Sportatorium. The show, originally christened the Texas State Barn Dance and then renamed Lone Star Jamboree, eventually in 1948 became Big D Jamboree, broadcast from the Sportatorium on KRLD. The Saturday night shows would continue until 1966. By the early 1950s the show had also secured a slot as one of the revolving Saturday night national broadcasts on CBS radio.

On May 1, 1953, a fire completely destroyed the Sportatorium. Authorities suspected that the conflagration may have been an act of arson, possibly by a rival wrestling promoter, but no arrests were ever made. McLemore, undaunted, moved both his wrestling matches and Big D Jamboree shows to the Livestock Pavilion at Fair Park for four months while construction took place to erect a new building. On September 22, 1953, the Sportatorium, now dubbed “The Million Dollar Sportatorium,” reopened at its same street location. The building, a large rectangular structure, retained its original octagonal seating configuration and had a capacity of about 6,300 people.

During the 1950s the Sportatorium played host to an impressive lineup of country and rockabilly performers and later stars of the new genre of rock-and-roll. Guests included both local talent and up-and-coming stars. Hank Snow, Hank Williams, the Light Crust Doughboys, Carl Perkins, Johnny Carroll, Wanda Jackson, Johnny Cash, Ronnie Dawson, Elvis Presley, and many others graced the stage, along with Jamboree regulars such as Charline Arthur, Sonny James, Hank Locklin, and Helen Hall.

Through the years, in addition to hosting a load of musical talent, the Sportatorium was the site of a number of legendary wrestling figures and matches that included Gorgeous George in the early days to “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, Fritz Von Erich, Johnny Valentine, and Wahoo McDaniel in the 1960s. Reportedly, the Sportatorium was the site of the first cage match in wrestling in 1962.

In 1966 McLemore went into partnership with Jack Adkisson, better-known by his wrestling alter ego Fritz Von Erich. After McLemore’s death on January 9, 1969, Adkisson was in charge of promotions. Adkisson’s program, Big Time Wrestling became the highly successful World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) in 1982. Taped broadcasts of WCCW matches at the Sportatorium went into international syndication, and the television program, broadcast weekly across the United States, was enormously successful into the mid-1980s. North Texas sportscaster Bill Mercer served as ringside announcer, and the program served chiefly as a showcase for the Von Erich family which consisted of Jack Adkisson’s (Fritz Von Erich) sons, David, Kevin, Kerry, and later, Mike Von Erich. Other notable wrestling stars that competed in the Sportatorium’s ring included Chris Adams, Gary Hart, The Fabulous Freebirds, Ric Flair, Bruiser Brody, Gino Hernandez, and others, along with up-and-comers Mick Foley and Shawn Michaels.

A series of tragedies with the Von Erich family and fundamental transitions in the wrestling industry led to a major decline in attendance and the end of WCCW in 1990. A series of smaller promotions took place at the Sportatorium, along with occasional music concerts, but by the late 1990s the building was no longer used and had fallen into disrepair. A fire in December 2001 caused major damage to the building. The Sportatorium was demolished in February 2003 thus ending the run of a legendary music and wrestling venue.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Kevin Coffey, Liner notes, The Big “D” Jamboree Live, Volumes 1 & 2 (Dragon Street Records, 2000). Scotty Moore—The Sportatorium (http://www.scottymoore.net/sportatorium.html), accessed June 16, 2011. “The Sportatorium Story,” Story Time with Percy Pringle (http://www.percypringle.com/Story-Time/Storytime-Sportatorium.html), accessed June 16, 2011.

Laurie E. Jasinski

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Handbook of Texas Online, Laurie E. Jasinski, "Sportatorium," accessed December 15, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xds11.

Uploaded on May 27, 2015. Modified on September 14, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.