Bud Kennedy

July 17, 2014

Dome memories: Time for the Fort Worth convention arena to go

The 1968 “flying saucer,” which no longer fits in downtown, will be replaced by a Cultural District events center.

Finally, Fort Worth is putting the convention center arena out of our misery.

The scene of 1970s sellout rock concerts, but forever an awful sports arena, the saucer-like downtown dome will be junked as soon as the city and donors can afford a new Cultural District events center.

Frankly, the arena should have given way to a convention ballroom long ago.

It’s almost embarrassing that a city larger than Denver, Washington, Nashville, Boston or Kansas City relies on civic arenas built in 1968, 1936 and 1908.

“It needs to go,” said Melvin Morgan, 68, of Azle. For 18 years until 1997, he kept the seats packed and the roof patched when it was the Tarrant County Convention Center.

“Fort Worth is finally doing things downtown that people have talked about for years. It was just a matter of how fast they could get a new rodeo arena up. We need that, too.”

If you haven’t followed the checkerboard jump of arenas, touring events will move to a new, 14,000-seat rodeo and exposition center south of the current Will Rogers Memorial Center in the Cultural District. News reports in competition-wary Denver put the Fort Worth arena cost at $450 million, half privately funded.

At the downtown convention center, the horseshoe-shaped arena may be replaced with a 50,000-foot ballroom flexible for convention sessions or trade shows.

Morgan remembered a career of coordinating rock concerts and tractor pulls in the arena and ballet performances in the old theater (before today’s Bass Hall).

When a U.S. president visited in 1976, the marquee read: “Welcome President Ford.”

But that was in small letters.

Above, in larger letters, the marquee announced: “Arena — May 3 — Paul McCartney.”

The arena hosted Elvis Presley for record crowds at nine shows in three visits, the Rolling Stones, gymnastics star Nadia Comaneci in the 1979 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships and U.S. stars Andre Agassi and John McEnroe in the 1992 Davis Cup world tennis finals.

It was also the oddly shaped home court for Fort Worth’s only major league sports team ever: the 1970-71 basketball Texas Chaparrals.

Before that, they had been the Dallas Chaparrals. Now, they’re the San Antonio Spurs.

“But we had lots of wrestling and [minor league] hockey,” Morgan said.

When Dallas’ wrestling Von Erich brothers were at the top of their career, Morgan said, “The crowds were so huge and wild we almost couldn’t handle it.”

When the legendary 1995 hailstorm pounded Fort Worth with grapefruit-sized hailstones, the center had 10,000 guests at a marketing convention and another full house at an exhibit-hall trade show. Hail broke through the theater roof and pounded sets for an opera.

Morgan remembered years of finicky concert artists and rock stars between 1968 and 1980, when Dallas’ now-gone Reunion Arena opened and took most tours.

The band Parliament Funkadelic ended one show by staging a giant pie fight on stage. Morgan had the catering staff bake 300 cream pies that the housekeeping staff later cleaned up.

Presley made only one special request, Morgan said: a six-pack of Cokes, “and he didn’t drink a single one.”

But when the late actor and singer Yul Brynner came to the theater, his agent insisted on one very personal amenity: a brand-new toilet seat.

The arena also hosted U2, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, Dean Martin, an ill-conceived rodeo on a shallow layer of imported dirt and once, a bullfight.

Now, it hosts mostly conventions coming to a much more energetic downtown Fort Worth.

“It’s time for a change,” Morgan said.

“I could never have imagined how beautiful the rest of the center has turned out. They need to do something just as beautiful in place of the arena.”

The dome is done.

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