The Sportatorium, once located in downtown Dallas, Texas, used to be the home of many professional wrestling events and music concerts from December 1935 until it’s final show in 1998. The building had a seating capacity of over 5,000 people and had many greats such as the Von Erich’s, The Fabulous Freebirds, Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts and a young ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin walk through its doors. The most famous promotion to run out of the arena was Jack Adkisson (Fritz Von Erich)’s World Class Championship Wrestling from 1982-1990 and later was the home of the Global Wrestling Federation from 1991-94 and the NWA in 1994-96. Soon later, the building fell into disuse.
Legendary booker/manager Gary Hart had this to say about the building:
“On TV, the Sportatorium looked like the greatest arena on earth, while in reality it was – pardon my French – a shit-hole. The Sportatorium – at the best of times – was nothing more than a tin building. It was literally just a sheet of tin surrounding wooden benches with no backs. That was it. It was put up to hold jamborees in 1938, was incredibly uncomfortable, and there were never any renovations done on it. It was so ram shackled that when it rained, the water literally would run down the aisles. There was no insulation or air conditioning in the building, either, so in the summer it could easily be 110 degrees in there, and in the wintertime, it was colder than you could possibly imagine. Yet, week after week, we would have 5,200 people in there screaming their brains out. Everyone talks about the Sportatorium so glowingly these days, but in reality, it was the worst arena in Texas. It was a total dump. Fans would come from all over the world, and everyone wanted to see the Sportatorium because they were under the illusion that it was this magnificent arena. When they would walk up to the Sportatorium, they would shockingly ask, ‘Is this the right place?'”
Perhaps some of the rosy retrospective mystique surrounding the Sportatorium could be because it no longer stands. After a fire decimated most of the building in December 2001, a demolition of the building took place in the spring of 2003, but not before Kevin Von Erich had one last opportunity to walk through the historic building. See the video at the end of this post.
Del ‘The Patriot’ Wilkes spent some time wrestling inside the storied venue during his time with the Global Wrestling Federation back when the building was called ‘The GlobalDome.’ This is what he had to say to us about the venue:
“[The building was iconic] not only from a wrestling standpoint but when you think of all the musical stars that went through there. Elvis, when he first hit the road back in the mid to late 50’s, he frequented the Sportatorium. If those walls could have talked, man, they had stories to tell.”
After reading this story, Del Wilkes reached out to us on Twitter and had this to add:
“Great job. That building and those fans hold a special place in my heart. That’s where The Patriot started!!”
Watch Del ‘The Patriot’ Wilkes battle One Man Gang at the Sportatorium for the Global Wrestling Federation (October 3rd, 1991):
The History of Wrestling’s Sportatorium from Percy Pringle aka Paul Bearer
Another legend who spent a lot of his career in ‘The Million-Dollar’ Sportatorium was the late, great Percy Pringle, also known as Paul Bearer in WWF / WWE. Back in June 1988, he wrote a great piece which broke down the history of the building he loved so much. This piece originally ended up on a Sportatorium wrestling program and later on, was featured on his website, percypringle.com. Here is what he had to say:
“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 its 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 busload 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 the matchmaker for the wrestling events.
Bill said he saw them all, Hank Thompson, Sonny James, Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, 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 its own time.
Allow me to steal a line that Bret Hart used when talking about Madison Square Gardens. ‘It may not be a church, but it is certainly holy ground.'”
If those holy walls could talk, we would surely listen!
As promised, here is the video of Kevin Von Erich taking one last emotional last walk through The Sportatorium before its demolition in 2003:
Update: Perhaps Gary Hart embellished just a touch on his memories of The Sportatorium. After reading this article, Kevin Von Erich kindly took the time to reach out to us privately on Twitter to correct some of what Hart said in part one of this story. This is what Kevin had to say:
“I don’t want to ruin a good story but some of that’s not accurate, water never did run down the isles, and the building was insulated because Dave, Me, and Kerry did it in 1980.”
As somebody who knew that building inside and out, we will happily take his word for it!
SOURCES: wikipedia, percypringle.com, ‘Playboy’ Gary Hart’s autobiography, My Life In Wrestling…With A Little Help From My Friends’, our interview with Del ‘The Patriot’ Wilkes
Thanks to Matt Pender and our friends over at ‘Wrestling’s Glory Days’ Facebook page for compiling some of the quotes used in this article