Bud Kennedy

After 76 years of rodeos, what’s next for Will Rogers Coliseum?

‘This thing is legendary.’ 2019 is last year for rodeos in Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum

Rodeo events will be moved to Dickie's Arena in 2020, making this the last year the Will Rogers Memorial Stadium will house the Fort Worth Stock Show's rodeos. The World's Original Indoor Rodeo is one of 36 rodeo performances during the FWSS.
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Rodeo events will be moved to Dickie's Arena in 2020, making this the last year the Will Rogers Memorial Stadium will house the Fort Worth Stock Show's rodeos. The World's Original Indoor Rodeo is one of 36 rodeo performances during the FWSS.

For Will Rogers Coliseum, this is the last rodeo.

But Amon Carter’s 1936 dream-come-true arena was also built for horse events. So it’ll literally become the workhorse of Stock Show arenas after the rodeos this week.

When the new $540 million Dickies Arena opens five blocks south, the old coliseum will revert to a year-round equestrian center. It’ll host the Mustang Magic riding show, annual cutting horse stakes and a full calendar of horse shows.

But for fans in the city where indoor rodeo began, the new arena brings both thrills and a melancholy goodbye.

“Will Rogers Coliseum was the perfect place for rodeo,” said Harry Smith, 94, of Fort Worth, a rodeo volunteer. He’s seen 74 of the 76 rodeos there since the Stock Show moved from the north side in 1944.

He talks about the arena the way baseball fans talk about Fenway Park.

“It’s little enough that the action is right in front of you,” he said: “There’s not a bad seat. The cowboys, the bulls — you’re right there with it all.”

His first trip to Will Rogers was in 1936. The event: roller derby.

Since then, the coliseum has hosted championship prizefights, Billy Graham crusades, superstar pro wrestling and Texas’ first pro hockey game.

Nobody wants to lose that history. Including the Stock Show.

On the big screen at rodeos this week, President Brad Barnes tells the crowd, “We’ll now be capable of truly transforming these Fort Worth landmarks.”

City Hall is already spending $3.75 million to restore and relight the 209-foot-tall Pioneer Tower. Next, they hope to restore the original art deco coliseum lobby, director Kirk Slaughter said.

When the Stock Show left the Stockyards

This is the second time the Stock Show Rodeo has left an arena.

But the first time, on March 22, 1942, nobody knew.

On the final night of the last Stock Show Rodeo in what is now Cowtown Coliseum in the Stockyards, a Brahma bull lunged through a wall into a box where reporters were sitting. A publicist was injured.

North and west side political leaders already had waged a seven-year political tug-of-war over whether the Stock Show would stay in the Stockyards or move to Will Rogers.

It took a flood and a war to get it done.

Weeks after that 1942 rodeo, floods washed through the 1908-vintage Stockyards coliseum, barns and exhibit halls, all now Exchange Avenue restaurants, shops and bars.

“It left 5 feet of debris inside and the back of the building collapsed into Marine Creek,” said Fort Worth historian and author Richard Selcer.

“It didn’t take much of a flood to put the whole thing under water.”

Then, with World War II ramping up, Globe Aircraft Co. took over the Stockyards exhibit buildings to build the Beechcraft AT-10 military trainer.

Fort Worth already had its next rodeo arena: “Amon’s Cowshed.”

In Fort Worth, Amon Carter got his way

Carter, the Star-Telegram publisher and the city’s No. 1 booster, had negotiated for the old Van Zandt horse ranch property and lobbied for $1.3 million in federal public works money to help build a new civic complex as part of the 1936 Frontier Centennial celebration of Texas independence.

According to author Jerry Flemmons in the 1998 book “Amon,” federal officials at first rejected the request.

When Carter took his case directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Postmaster General James Farley told Roosevelt jokingly: “Amon wants to build a cowshed.”

In 1935, the week after Western comedian and celebrated actor Will Rogers, a Carter friend, was killed in a small plane crash in Alaska, the city council first discussed naming the coliseum and auditorium for him.

At first, the Star-Telegram described tentative plans to divide the rodeo and stock show. The rodeo, horse shows and exhibits would be at Will Rogers, the livestock and cattle in the Stockyards.

But it wasn’t that easy.

It took a flood and a war to move the Stock Show

“The stockmen and some of the businesses on the north side were unhappy,” said retired University of Texas at Dallas professor Clay Reynolds, author of the 1995 Stock Show history “A Hundred Years of Heroes.”

Ranchers worried that the new coliseum and barn didn’t have enough space for the rodeo stock. Downtown leaders countered that the north side didn’t have enough room for parking. Crowds were having to cross North Main Street, then the primary north-south federal highway and nicknamed the “Main Street of North America.”

The 1943 rodeo was canceled for the war effort. That October, with Globe Aircraft still filling the Stockyards barns, directors voted to have the 1944 Stock Show in Will Rogers.

Gov. Coke Stevenson opened the rodeo. The show drew a record attendance of 390,000, and crowds even filled the coliseum for a special 1:30 a.m. Sunday rodeo for swing-shift defense workers.

Carter was “thrilled,” Reynolds said.

“He felt he had put the State Fair grounds in Dallas into the shade completely.”

Smith, the 94-year-old volunteer, lived it all.

“The north side people hated it when they moved,” he said.

“But Mr. Carter made it run smooth.”

One last week in Will Rogers

After 76 years, the city and Stock Show workers know the coliseum by heart.

For example, every livestock or horse show wants a different type of dirt.

After the cutting horse stakes in December, crews scoop out the sand and then remove the clay and sandy loam base, Slaughter said.

The Stock Show base and dirt comes in. Then the floor is cleared again for a National Reined Cow Horse Association event.

If you go to the coliseum this week, be sure to study the tile friezes over the entrance showing agricultural scenes from West Texas.

Then stop and visit the giant panthers in the terrazzo entryway, Fort Worth’s original mascot and the symbol of the city’s days as “Panther City.”

Then make plans to come back for the next Stock Show Jan. 17, 2020.

Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.
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