The Sportatorium and the Longhorn Ballroom: Dallas’ Long-Suffering Cultural Landmarks

texas-theater-1-20080303180725.jpg I read an article in yesterday’s Dallas Morning News that the legendary Sportatorium is to be torn down very soon. The Sportatorium was a world-famous wrestling arena (home-turf of the Von Erich dynasty), and it was also the home of the Big D Jamboree (a venue for country and rockabilly performers in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s — sort of a rival of the Louisiana Hayride — Elvis played here several times). A landmark! None of my friends ever believed me when I told them that our parents (both Comparative Literature majors) regularly took my brother and me to wrestling matches at the Sportatorium. My father loved wrestling. He also loved country music, and although I missed the Big D Jamboree era, we went to several country music package shows in the ’70s at the Sportatorium. I wanted to go see it before they tore it down, but I didn’t actually know where it was. Ah — South Industrial and Cadiz (south of downtown and not a part of town you’d take your grandma to). I found it this afternoon (take a left at the jail!), and it’s in a pretty sorry state of disrepair, just a big hulking metal building waiting to be put out of its misery. What a shame. I loved the atmosphere in that place.

 

sportatorium_0203

 

Since I was in the area, I decided to drive a few blocks down to Corinth Street and see the OTHER famous country music venue, The Longhorn Ballroom, originally owned by Bob Wills and called The Bob Wills Ranch House, one of the largest country music venues in the country. When Bob decided to get out of the nightclub business he sold it to that nice young mobster Jack Ruby who, in turn, eventually sold it to Dewey Groom. It was the Billy Bob’s of its day. HUGE. This is where the Sex Pistols played in 1978, causing some consternation amongst the regulars.

 

longhornballroom sexpistols

 

I went there only once, I think. Sometime in the ’80s when they were trying to make it into an alternative music venue. It was the coolest place I’d been in: fiberglass cactus EVERYWHERE. Wagon wheels, bales of hay, cowboy stuff … acre after acre after acre. It hasn’t been in use for years that I know of. I think Ray Price was booked there a couple of years ago in an attempt to resuscitate it.

We’ve been hearing for YEARS that a Gilley’s is supposed to open south of downtown, but it’s yet to make an appearance. The developers are waiting for tax abatements from the city first. (The original Gilley’s is the honky tonk in Pasadena, Texas made famous by the movie Urban Cowboy.) The mayor thinks it’s ridiculous to give a tax abatement to what is essentially a BAR (and it is ridiculous), but tourist and convention traffic is disappearing, and Dallas needs SOMEthing to draw in the punters. The hapless tourists who DO come here have to go all the way to Fort Worth to see a real-life “Texas-sized” honky tonk. Whatever happens, it will NEVER be as cool as the Longhorn Ballroom. Gilley’s may have that damned mechanical bull-ride, but they won’t have the gigantic fiberglass longhorn out front.

 

Longhorn Ballroom 0203
Looks like someone’s stolen the wagon wheels that are supposed to be imbedded in the cement under the bull. And they’ve chopped off the barn on top of the marquee. Sheesh!

 

Longhorn Ballroom - Indian Teepee -Â 0203
This is back into the “complex” of the Longhorn Ballroom — the parking lot is in a horseshoe, with red and white barn-like buildings sporting several kitschy retro-cowboy murals. Then there’s this somewhat politically-incorrect little diorama.

 

Sportatorium window 0203
Back to the Sportatorium. Calling Dr. Kervorkian…. (Or maybe even Killer Kowalski….)

 

Dowtown Dallas 0203

Heading back to Dallas from the wrong side of the tracks.

 


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15 responses to “The Sportatorium and the Longhorn Ballroom: Dallas’ Long-Suffering Cultural Landmarks

  1. I grew up listening to country music in my parents van. We had an 8 track player which was really cool at the time. My favorites were Loretta Lynn, Dolly Pardon and Kenny Rogers.

  2. I’m with you on Loretta and Dolly, but Kenny has never really struck me as “country.”

    Thanks for reading!

  3. dear paularubia,
    hello i was wondering if i could use the picture that you took while it was being torn down? the reason that i’m asking is because i’m working on a doc film about the dallas sportatorium and would like to use it in the film.
    can i?

  4. Hi, Chad,

    You’re welcome to use the picture. I may have a few others I took that day.

    I’d be really interested in seeing the documentary when you’ve finished. I was there a few times as a child to see both wrestling matches and some country music package shows. These days I’m most interested in the place as it pertains to the Big D Jamboree.

    I’m sure you’ve talked with Bill Mercer (and if you haven’t, he would probably LOVE to talk to you). Bill’s the go-to guy about wrestling at the Sportatorium (he’s got a new book out). If you’re interested in the music part of it, you need to talk to David Dennard who has become the de facto archivist of the Big D Jamboree.

    Good luck on the project!

  5. Gosh! Am I that old? Nobody seems to remember the Longhorn Ballroom when I was employed there – circa 1963 to 1971 or thereabouts as the piano player for the Longhorn Band every tues thru sunday nights. Dewey Groom would book a headliner every saturday night and helped many artists on their way to national fame. Jerry Lee Lewis was a big money-maker for us and as a result funded the large bull out front and many improvements inside including expansion of the dance floor, air conditioning, and interior painting of the western scenes. Dewey and most of the old band: Clay Allen, George McCoy. Johnny Matson, Jimmy Belken, Freddie Dawson, others, are all gone now. I believe Billy McBay, Buddy Brady and myself are the only ones left. Most memorable night? .. The day President Kennedy was shot, Dewey was expressing his sorrow on stage to a large crowd that night. A drunk heckler laughed while Dewey was making his comments. Dewey angrily had him thrown out. Also of course we had several near riots when a packed house was waiting for an inebriated George Jone to appear. That night Dewey avoided the riot by offering everyone their money back

    • Bob,
      My name is Jeff,and I am a cousin to George Mccoy.I was looking for some old pictures or audio recordings of George.If you can help me out,can you please contact me?I would like to know more about George.Thank you so much.

      • Jeff I worked on the Frisco Railroad and George would come out and ride our freight trains. He like the trains. I just dug out a tape he made for me with 20 of his songs. My favorite is Train to the promise Land. In 1952 his uncle was in charge of the power plant for Dallas Union Station and George would come down and play the steel for ne and his uncle.

        Utah

  6. Thanks for the comment, Bob! I love reading about country music goings-on in Dallas. Because of your comment, I transcribed an article I found and scanned the pictures. Check out this post, containing a 1971 interview with Dewey Groom:

    https://paularubia.wordpress.com/2008/11/13/dewey-groom-the-longhorn-ballroom/

    If the link doesn’t work, type “Dewey Groom” into the search box on the right.

    Thanks again!

    –Paula

  7. I am trying to find information on a Dallas area wrestler who wrestled in the Sportatorium in the 40s-50s. He was Henry Curtis “Red” Rodgers. I don’t know his “stage” name, but it could have been “Red” Rodgers.

  8. hello, I know that place well. I grew up watchin my dad play there. Curt Ryle and Wild Turkey, my entire childhood was spent in that honkytonk

    • Ha I too Know that place well. I watched my dad Curt Ryle and Wild Turkey play there throughout the eighties. I also remember my uncle Dale playing there for years. I will never forget the longhorn ballroom.

  9. JAMES DAVID REYNOLDS

    I was just a youngster but it seems that every weekend my parents went dancing at the Long Horn Ball room. Buddy Brady was my aunts boy friend back the watched him on tv. its been a long long time.

  10. I have a Big D Jamboree program autographed by Roy Clark when he was there on April 9, 1966. I was 11.

  11. My mom , Janet mcbride, worked for Dewey groom in the mid 60’s, she would sing with the band and warm up the crowd for the headliner that weekend, Loretta, Roy Clark , george jones, Mel till is etc, my dad was also working there as the manager and bartender!
    Great memories of the longhorn for me growing up

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