Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum is the Wrigley Field of rodeo venues: ‘It’s historic’

When Trevor Brazile, pro rodeo’s winningest cowboy, rides into Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum to compete in the 2019 Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, it’ll be the last time the legendary cowboy throws his rope in the storied venue during the Stock Show’s traditional rodeo.

That’s because rodeo performances will be moved to the new state-of-the-art Dickies Arena in 2020.

The 123rd Fort Worth Stock Show begins Friday. Throughout its 23-day run, there will be tons of sentiment among fans and competitors about the Stock Show’s last year to conduct its array of rodeos in Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum.

“It’s easy to look forward to new stuff, especially when [Dickies Arena] is going to be such an amazing building,” Brazile said. “However, there are certain memories that are associated with the Fort Worth Stock Show and Will Rogers Coliseum. But I guess there’s a lifetime for everything.”

Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum opened in 1936 and the Stock Show and Rodeo was moved to the venue in 1944. Performances had been conducted in the Fort Worth Stockyards’ Cowtown Coliseum since 1918.

“We’re just as proud of the Coliseum today as I know they were in 1944 when we moved here from the Northside,” said Stock Show president and general manager Brad Barnes. “Probably more great rodeo memories have come from this building than any other in the sport. Each time the arena gates open and the grand entry starts, I’m reminded of the many men and women that rode into the Will Rogers Coliseum before me and set the Stock Show on this wonderful course of success.”

Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum could be billed as the rodeo equivalent to New York’s old Yankee Stadium, Boston’s Fenway Park or Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

“It’s comparable to Wrigley Field, it’s historic,” Fort Worth Rodeo senior livestock producer Jim Gay said. “Every time I go there, it’s like the hair stands up on the back of my neck because all of the people who have competed there.”

In addition to Decatur’s Brazile, a 24-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world champion, legendary competitors such as Jim Shoulders (1950s), Larry Mahan (late 1960s and early 1970s), Tom Ferguson (late 1970s) and Ty Murray (1990s), have ridden in the coliseum in front of the signature white bucking chutes, each with a large red diamond emblem, and the red, white and blue awning that circles the arena above the box seats.

Over past decades, numerous dramatic incidents have occurred such as the Saturday night show in 1999 when a bucking bull named “Dillinger” scaled the back of the bucking chute and ran into the concourse and terrorized fans. There’s other special memories such as legendary western actor Roy Rogers performing in the late 1950s and country-western star Tanya Tucker singing the 1970s.

Bob Watt, the rodeo’s former general manager, said one standout year was 1996 when the Stock Show featured an elaborate production during its centennial. The production included a horse and rider entering into a shiny silver ball that was hoisted high above the arena floor during each rodeo performance.

One reason for the overwhelming nostalgia about the coliseum is because numerous rodeo fans have attended the rodeo for years.

“I’ve been going to see rodeo at the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum for seven decades and I have sat in the same seat ever since I sat in my mother’s lap,” said Ed Bass, the Stock Show Rodeo’s board chairman. “This is a year to really celebrate the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum. It’s our grand old coliseum that has served beautifully for all of these decades.”

Debbie Liles, who wrote the book “Images of America: Will Rogers Coliseum,” said the venue has served its community well.

“There’s a lot to be said about the ambiance of Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum and the history behind it,” Liles said. “It ties into an era that was difficult to live through and the people of Fort Worth and the people of Texas met that challenge. For the amount of time and money they put in, that facility has served Fort Worth incredibly well.”

Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum can seat more than 5,700 spectators for each of the 36 rodeo performances scheduled throughout the 2019 Stock Show. Dickies Arena will seat 9,300.

Philip Schutts, who has attended the Stock Show Rodeo for about 65 years, said he’s looking forward to making the transition to the new arena. But he added he has great memories being in the coliseum at length year after year.

“I haven’t focused on what it’s going to be like not to go into my box at Will Rogers to watch the rodeo, but I think it’s all going to hit home after we close down on the last night of the rodeo [on Feb. 9],” Schutts said. “I think everybody is going to say, ‘Oh my goodness.’ But the good news is we’re not totally leaving Will Rogers Coliseum.”

The coliseum will undergo renovations to enable the Stock Show to feature additional shows, said Kirk Slaughter, Fort Worth’s director of public events. Other organizations such as the National Cutting Horse Association plan to continue to utilize the coliseum.

Bob Tallman, the Stock Show Rodeo’s longtime announcer, said he’ll miss the distinct aroma of the old coliseum.

“I’m going to miss the smell,” Tallman said. “It’s the smell of that old building, the dirt, the food vendors and so on. It’s a good smell. The new arena is going to have to get seeded in order to have that. But when you go to a new home, you get a different pleasure.”

Pam Minick, a longtime TV journalist for rodeos and horse shows, said the coliseum has helped the Stock Show to consistently feature a successful traditional rodeo.

“If I could sum it up in one word, it would be tradition,” Minick said. “I kind of get misty eyed when I say this, but seeing those flags up above the arena, the Six Flags Over Texas opening and the grand entry that includes the Mounted Patrol and horse clubs and to regular fans in the grand entry. That’s a tradition a lot of rodeos have gotten away from.

“But the Stock Show engages the whole community. A lot of other rodeos have gone to pyrotechnics and fancy openings. But if you want to see the best of modern technology with the big screens along with the best of tradition, that’s what we have in Fort Worth.”

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