Tuesday, April 18, was one of those days you live for as a reporter. As this issue illustrates, the future of Fort Worth and North Texas was ever present, with announcements about new developments at the TCU-UNTHSC school of medicine to the new Dickies Arena. Dirt is flying and so are ideas, new and old. Sleepy ol’ Panther City? Hardly.
Seeing the changes at the arena reminded me of the history of the Will Rogers Coliseum complex and its importance to the history of Fort Worth. Even more important? The many great stories associated with it.
Why, you may ask, do we have a Will Rogers Coliseum?
Partially, because we were pissed off at Dallas. Follow me, faithful reader.
The Texas centennial was 1936 and several cities were under consideration for the main celebration – San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. Fort Worth didn’t compete because it didn’t think a northern city stood a chance. When Dallas won, Fort Worth – in particular Fort Worth Star-Telegram owner and Cowtown emperor Amon G. Carter – was not happy. Instead of taking a sack lunch to attend any celebrations in Dallas, Carter decided Fort Worth should stage its own competing celebration. According to many who attended, Fort Worth’s celebration outdid Dallas. Fort Worth’s appeal can be laid to many factors, among them sheer chutzpah and nudity.
One example was the world’s second largest neon sign, advertising the Fort Worth extravaganza and strategically placed near the main entrance to the Dallas venue. The sign read “Wild & Whoo-pee, 45 minutes west Fort Worth Frontier.” Thanks to the book Will Rogers Coliseum by Debbie M. Liles for the information on the neon sign. The slogan for Fort Worth’s Frontier was “Go elsewhere for education, come to Fort Worth for entertainment,” with “elsewhere” basically meaning Dallas.
Sally Rand’s Dude Ranch, with the “D” in “Dude” displaced by an “N,” was part of Fort Worth’s offerings and proved very, very popular with the men folk, apparently.
After that event shut down, there were calls to provide a new home for the growing Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show and the site was selected. Public Works Administration funds were obtained, thanks to a friendship between Carter and many in Washington, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many in Washington, D.C., dubbed the project “Amon’s Cowshed.”
In 1935, the world-renowned raconteur, columnist and close friend of Carter, Will Rogers, was killed in a plane crash and thus the project eventually took his name. Rogers, the Bill O’Reilly – make that Anderson Cooper – of his day said things like “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” His column was read worldwide.
Carter was so distraught over Rogers’ death that he commissioned Electra Waggoner Biggs – a story in her own right – to sculpt Rogers seated on his favorite horse, Soapsuds, for the coliseum. We all know the statue. There are two copies, one at Texas Tech University and one in Claremore, Oklahoma.
What many not know is that the statue was completed in 1939, but apparently Carter couldn’t find anyone he thought esteemed enough to dedicate it to his lost friend. So, for about seven years, it was stored, according to the story recounted in Jerry Flemmons’ biography of Carter.
Then the war came. In 1946, the war over, the statue was mounted where it is today and ready to be seen – well not quite. Carter – still waiting for the right esteemed personage – had a box built around the statue. That proved irresistible to the curious and, in 1947, the statue’s covering was vandalized. According to Flemmons, the first sighting was by Carter’s drunk friends from the Fort Worth Club. Then came the inevitable teenagers who took away the boards covering the statute.
Carter was livid, offering $5,000 for an arrest and prosecution. Eventually, the teenagers were rounded up – no word on what happened to the soused, now hungover Fort Worth Club buds – and got a tongue-lashing from Carter, who, according to Flemmons, barred them from the Will Rogers Coliseum for life.
His anger over, Carter relented, didn’t press charges and apparently didn’t bar the teenagers for life. Good thing, as one of them was apparently future longtime Star-Telegram columnist Elston Brooks and he attended many an event at the Will Rogers Coliseum.
So what dignitary was finally chosen to ceremoniously unveil the statue? None other than Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The future president spoke and President Harry Truman’s daughter, Margaret Truman, sang.
Will there be similar drama for Fort Worth’s future Dickies Arena? We can only hope we’ll have more “Wild & Whoo-pee” stories to tell.