Comeback: Historic Will Rogers Auditorium enjoys new life as Stock Show concert venue

What's old is new again: Will Rogers Auditorium (Photo by Brooks Burris)

If the walls of the Will Rogers Auditorium could talk, they would have some incredible stories to tell.

After all, this venue has hosted some of the entertainment world’s top attractions during its 86-year history, including rock and country music legends, opera stars, hit Broadway musicals, comedians, symphony performances and Nutcracker ballets as well as untold numbers of local dance recitals, graduations and the Miss Texas Pageant.

Among the headliners to appear on the stage at the Auditorium were the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Peter, Paul and Mary, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jack Benny, Alice Cooper, Joan Rivers, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Duke Ellington, Tammy Wynette, Paul Simon, The Charlie Daniels Band, John Denver, Hank Williams Jr., and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

For many years, the Will Rogers Auditorium could pull in the crème de la crème of the industry because it was Fort Worth’s primary venue for traveling shows. It’s next-door neighbor, the Will Rogers Coliseum, also hosted traveling acts, particularly those requiring more seating capacity than the approximately 3,000 seats in the Auditorium.

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But despite the legacy of its stellar lineup, the Auditorium has faced some troubling times and even the threat of extinction due to age and deterioration.

Nevertheless, the facility has overcome all that and its future is now guaranteed as a national historic treasure. As part of the Will Rogers Memorial Center, the Auditorium, Coliseum and Tower, all built in 1936, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

With its future no longer in jeopardy, the Auditorium has been given a new starring role as the concert venue for the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo as well as other shows throughout the year.

“We see a concert series as a great opportunity to expand our offerings during the Stock Show and Rodeo,” said Matt Homan, president and general manager of Trail Drive Management Corp. and Dickies Arena. “Visitors could come to the Stock Show and go to the rodeo one night and then come back another night and see a concert,” Homan said.

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Homan recognized the potential ahead of the rodeo’s 2020 debut at Dickies Arena, the 14,000-seat, $540 million multipurpose venue that opened in 2019. The rock band Foreigner performed on stage at the Auditorium on Feb. 5, 2020, during the Stock Show.

The Stock Show was canceled in 2021 due to the pandemic but returned in 2022 with a multiple concert lineup. This year’s lineup of seven shows, mostly country music acts, included two comedy shows, one with Larry the Cable Guy and the other with Brian Regan.

The K-Pop boy group Oneus was on the schedule as a way to bring younger folks to the Stock Show, Homan said. Concert tickets also included admission to the Stock Show.

Besides the Stock Show concert series, a partnership between Trail Drive Management and LiveNation is bringing other shows and performers to the Auditorium throughout the rest of the year.

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In 2020, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra took up residence in the Auditorium to resume its season once the go-ahead was given to lift the pandemic shutdowns. The Auditorium was large enough to accommodate social distancing; Bass Hall, the symphony’s regular home, was not.

With 2,856 seats, the Auditorium is a fraction of the size of Dickies Arena, which can accommodate 12,000 people or more for concerts. But the venue’s more intimate setting, authentic art deco charm and notable history offers a different type of experience than a large arena provides.

The city of Fort Worth, which owns the Will Rogers Memorial Complex, always receives very favorable reviews on social media from Auditorium event-goers. Most enthusiastic are those who discovered it for the first time by attending a show, according to a city spokesman.

Both Homan and city officials acknowledge that the Auditorium is in need of renovation. The city has made some improvements but more are still needed.

“The art deco Will Rogers Auditorium is enjoying renewed interest from local arts and educational organizations, as well as national concert and comedy tour promoters,” said Mike Crum, director of the city’s public events department.

“Our intent is to continually refresh this historically significant facility, so we have an Auditorium master plan that we are currently working to fund,” Crum said.

In 2022, the city upgraded the audio system at a cost of $150,000 and cleaned the facade at a cost of $230,000. This year, the city plans to spend $1.7 million to replace the roof and $192,000 for new stage curtains.

Major improvements completed in the past included refurbishing the seats and replacing the ceiling, which was on the brink of collapsing.

Homan’s wish list includes adding the sort of concession and customer experience amenities found in newer venues. Also at the top of his list is an overhaul of the green room, the lounge area used to accommodate artists before and after they perform.

“When I first saw the green room in the Auditorium, I thought Johnny Cash was going to jump out at me,” Homan quipped.

To make up for the shortage of concession and lobby space, a heated tent was put up in front of the building’s entrance so concert-goers can a enjoy a drink, snack or meal before or after shows or during intermission. A smoker outside the tent is used to prepare barbecue for guests who wish to purchase a meal.

Homan said he would like to see the city invest in a permanent concession structure built adjacent to the Auditorium.

The Auditorium’s long and colorful history and continued useful purpose justify the investment in the upgrades, according to its many supporters, including Stock Show officials.

Like so many Fort Worth landmarks and legacies, the Will Rogers Memorial Center can trace its origins to the heyday of legendary Fort Worth Star-Telegram Publisher Amon G. Carter as the city’s most powerful business and civic leader. And the story is rooted in Carter’s celebrated antipathy for Dallas, a city he despised so much he was known to pack a lunch whenever he had to go there on business. The details are recounted in the city’s 2016 application for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

When Carter learned in 1935 that Dallas had been selected over Fort Worth to host the 1936 Texas Centennial marking the 100th anniversary of Texas’ Independence from Mexico, Carter and a group of local businessmen decided to stage an alternative event known as the Texas Frontier Centennial and alternately as the Fort Worth Frontier Centennial to showcase frontier life in Texas.

Organizers acquired funding from a bond issue, private investment and federal grants that Carter managed to wrangle through his relationships with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vice President John Nance Garner, a Texan.

From the start, Carter wanted to name the center for his dear friend, showman Will Rogers, who died in a plane crash in Alaska in 1935.

Part of the justification for the Will Rogers Memorial Center was the city’s hope to move the Fort Worth Stock Show from the crowded Stockyards area to a new location more suitable for accommodating large crowds and expanding the local livestock exposition to a position of national prominence.

Officials scrambled to obtain funding and acquire the land where the Stock Show is now located but construction of the buildings, including the Auditorium, did not begin until March 1936. An ambitious and accelerated building schedule led to the official dedication of the Will Rogers Memorial Center on Dec. 23, 1936, and the complex was rededicated the following month.

Architects Wyatt Hedrick and Elmer Withers led the design effort.

The Centennial celebration, using mostly temporary structures, opened on July 18, 1936, about a month after the Texas Centennial Exposition opened in Dallas. And Fort Worth’s Centennial celebration was nothing like the one in Dallas, as emphasized in Cowtown’s promotional slogan – “Go Elsewhere for Education: Come to Fort Worth for Entertainment.”

As a deliberate poke at Dallas, organizers hired producer Billy Rose from New York and local architect Joseph R. Pelich to design the Frontier Centennial layout, which included a midway with a frontier-era townscape, a circus arena and an outdoor dinner theater that featured burlesque and Wild West shows. A big draw was exotic dancer Sally Rand and her “Nude Ranch.” Carter went so far as to post an enormous sign in Dallas advertising his “Wild & Whoo-pee” Centennial just “45 Minutes West.”

In the following years, the Will Rogers Memorial Center was the centerpiece of the Stock Show and other equestrian events and the Auditorium flourished with big-name acts.

By 1990, the Auditorium was deteriorating and in need of major improvements. And by this time, Fort Worth had other performance options, including the 3,000-seat John F. Kennedy Theater and an arena in the Tarrant County Convention Center (later purchased from Tarrant County by the city and renamed the Fort Worth Convention Center).

Big traveling acts were choosing those options or bypassing Fort Worth altogether for grander spaces in Dallas.

The city proposed a bond election that year to pay for a major overhaul of the Auditorium that would transform it into a top-level performing arts facility. Under the plan, a combination of public and private money was to be used to demolish the building except for the art deco facade and reconstruct it as a concert hall.

“Every effort was made to explain the advantages of upgrading the Auditorium,” said Bill Lawrence, a Fort Worth public relations consultant who was hired by the city to promote passage of the bond proposal.

“It is a beautiful facility and built with excellent quality,” Lawrence said. “But the bond election was not approved so the project didn’t go forward. Voters didn’t see the benefit of it.”

Former Mayor Ken Barr said the bond proposal provoked a bitter political battle but there was a silver lining.

“As a result, we got Bass Hall out of it,” Barr said.

The bond issue’s failure set the stage for billionaire Ed Bass’s plan to build “the last great concert hall of the 20th century” in downtown Fort Worth, entirely with private money. In 1998, the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall opened at 525 Commerce St.

In the wake of the bond election, city officials said asbestos had been discovered in the Auditorium and shut it down for removal of the dangerous substance. The historic building’s future appeared uncertain – but the city ultimately decided to spend $1.5 million for repairs and upgrades to the building and it  reopened in May 1992.

According to the city’s application to the National Register of Historic Places, improvements included “new carpets, general lighting restoration, ceiling repairs and restoration, original paint colors replaced, thorough general cleaning, and of course new roofing and waterproofing.”

Other renovations involved restoration of side stage panels, including metal panels, refinishing of wood paneling and restoration of interior stairs and the full balcony. Afterwards, theatrical consultants Schuler Shook designed new stage lighting.

In the city’s application for the National Register, officials noted: “The Auditorium was Fort Worth’s first large municipal public performance center, with a large stage, rigged fly loft, and professional lighting. It was designed for symphonic acoustics, was suitable for opera, and has hosted legions of well-known artists.

“Until the Tarrant County Convention Center was constructed in the 1970s, it was the only place where symphony, opera and ballet could perform,” city officials stated.

Homan envisions a bright future for this venue that has such a proud past.

“There isn’t any reason the building couldn’t host 20 to 30 events a year,” he said.