Fort Worth, like any big city, defies easy classification. Our town is both pickups and pearls, both tequila and sweet tea, both heifers and Heifetz.
For sixteen years Panther Hall was a symbol of that dichotomy, providing the East Side’s cultural counterpoint to the West Side’s Casa Manana.
Oh, the two buildings—five miles apart on Lancaster Avenue—had some superficial similarities. For example, Panther Hall, like Casa, had a round footprint. Panther Hall, like Casa, had a distinctive roof: twelve-faceted, like a tin origami project. (Photo from NBC 5/KXAS Photograph Collection, University of North Texas Special Collections; painting by Granville Bruce.)
But there the similarities ended.
If Casa Manana was Hello, Dolly, Panther Hall was “Hello, Walls.” If Casa was Arthur Miller and Ruta Lee, Panther Hall was Roger Miller and Jerry Lee.
From 1963 to 1979 Panther Hall was a grand ole opry on the prairie, Fort Worth’s answer to the Ryman Auditorium.
Country music deejay Bill Mack, looking back in 2015, said, “I don’t know of one star that didn’t play Panther Hall.”
Pretty impressive for a place that began life in the gutter.
The bowling gutter, that is.
Brothers Bill and Corky Kuykendall built Panther Hall in 1961 as a bowling stadium for a Dallas investor who envisioned a national bowling league. But there was not a big audience for professional bowling.
Panther Hall was located just 150 feet south of Meadowbrook Lanes, built in 1958. If the Dallas investor envisioned the professional venue and the amateur venue complementing each other, they didn’t.
Soon, the Kuykendalls recalled in 1986, they were left holding a “whopping mortgage” on Panther Hall. A nightclub operator suggested that the brothers convert the bowling stadium into a dance hall. So, out went the risers, lanes, and pin-setters, and in went a stage, tables, and a hardwood dance floor of 7,500 square feet.
Local western swing performer Billy Gray was the headliner for the first three nights. But on July 7 the headliner was the king of western swing: Bob Wills.
The only problem, the Kuykendalls recalled, was that Wills had a reputation for failing to show up for concerts. That’s why, on the night of July 7 when Wills’s band, the Texas Playboys, stepped onto the stage, the seats of the hall were empty. Where was everyone? They were outside—hundreds of country music fans—on the parking lot, waiting to commit to buying tickets until Wills was spotted on stage.
Sure enough, Wills took the stage, people bought tickets, and Panther Hall began its legendary life.
The Kuykendalls kept up the momentum. Tony Slaughter announced that “America’s No. 1 country and Western singer” would perform eleven days after Bob Wills.
And in August clean-shaven, up-and-coming Willie Nelson made his first appearance at what biographer Joe Nick Patosi would call Nelson’s “home away from home.”
In 1986 Bill Kuykendall recalled the early days.
“We weren’t really nightclub people. We had spent a lot of time in nightclubs, but we’d never run one.”
Nonetheless, the brothers made smart decisions.
They made sure that Panther Hall’s air-conditioning was cold and that its beer was colder.
They made sure that Panther Hall was a safe place. It offered young parents a nursery for their children. It was patrolled by uniformed off-duty sheriff’s deputies.
Kuykendall recalled: “If any arguments or fights got started, we just kicked both parties out, innocent and guilty alike. This became the only country-western joint where you could leave your wife and go to the restroom and not worry about her safety.”
Even the performers felt safe, even though there was no chicken-wire screen between the stage and overzealous patrons.
Another key to Panther Hall’s success was Cowtown Jamboree. The country music television program was broadcast—live and without rehearsal—from Panther Hall as part of Channel 11’s Saturday night lineup: seven hours of gospel and country music, wrestling, and roller derby. The program was syndicated to other stations, giving Panther Hall nationwide publicity. Deejay Bill Mack was one of Jamboree’s emcees over the years.
Fort Worth, basking in the TV exposure on Cowtown Jamboree and Panther Hall’s concerts drawing up to 2,500 music fans, became a center of country music.
Panther Hall became a showcase for not only established stars but also for rising stars.
For example, Hank Williams Jr. made his nightclub debut at Panther Hall when he was still a minor.
Tanya Tucker made her first appearance there when she was fourteen.
In 1965 a twenty-nine-year-old studio musician stopped in Fort Worth as he drove home from California to Arkansas. He wanted to see Panther Hall, which he had heard about. At the entrance to the building he stared through the glass of the front doors. On the stage inside Buck Owens was performing. When a ticket-taker asked the studio musician if he wanted to go inside, Glen Campbell replied, “No, I must be moving on. But I hope I’m singing on that stage some day.”
By 1968 he was.
Also in the 1960s young Charley Pride performed at Panther Hall in exchange for nothing more than an opportunity to perform on Cowtown Jamboree. Pride recorded his first hit single, “Jambalaya,” at Panther Hall.
Another up-and-coming performer, Loretta Lynn, also didn’t ask for money to perform at Panther Hall. She asked only to perform on the Panther Hall stage one night. But the timing was unpropitious: November 23, 1963.
In 1986 the Kuykendalls recalled that as the nation mourned on that day in 1963, the brothers considered canceling the concert, but Lynn, broke and living out of her car, had spent all day driving from New Mexico and wanted to perform.
Bill Kuykendall recalled: “We took in $75 at the door, and we gave it all to her.”
Loretta Lynn with Ernest Tubb (left) and Bill Mack at Panther Hall. (Photo from NBC 5/KXAS Television News Collection, University of North Texas Special Collection.)
Over the years Panther Hall entertainers autographed a backstage wall that came to read like an encyclopedia of country music.
Some of those stars recorded live albums at Panther Hall.
For example, Willie Nelson in 1966 recorded a live album entitled Live Country Music Concert at Panther Hall. The album includes “My Own Peculiar Way,” “I Never Cared for You,” “Night Life,” and “Mr. Record Man.”
A poster from 1966.
Another Panther Hall favorite, Jerry Lee Lewis, recorded a live album at Panther Hall in 1966: Jerry Lee Lewis: By Request—More of the Greatest Live Show on Earth.
And in 1969 Charley Pride released a live album—In Person—recorded in November 1968 at Panther Hall.
Nelson and Pride backstage at Panther Hall. (Photo from the Star-Telegram.)
To the Kuykendalls, an empty hall meant an empty wallet. So, when no concerts were scheduled, the brothers opened the hall for other uses. For example, in 1966 Panther Hall presented a closed-circuit boxing match and hosted the county Republican convention.
And if boxing and politics weren’t enough, how about premature burial? Yes, as a publicity stunt in 1966 Bill White of Fort Worth, who billed himself as the “Living Corpse,” was “buried alive” in the Panther Hall parking lot. White, who in 1964 had been buried for forty-nine days in Galveston, hoped to break his own subterranean record with fifty days. Alas, he would not stay down for the count, lasting only twenty-four days at Panther Hall. But take heart: On March 24 White would get a do-under do-over: He was buried alive at the Twin drive-in theater.
As an entertainment venue, Panther Hall was one corner of a diverse triangle with the Cellar and Casa Manana. People who experienced all three could truly say they had boxed the cultural compass of Cowtown.
But although Panther Hall drew big crowds and sold a lot of beer, the Kuykendall brothers later claimed that it was never profitable.
Corky recalled: “It was always for sale or lease, every day that we opened. We tried to sell it to everybody.”
So, in 1964 Corky opened a mobile home sales office and display area in a corner of the Panther Hall parking lot. From then on, newspaper ads for Panther Hall plugged Corky Kuykendall’s mobile home business.
“Panther Hall became a tax write-off for our mobile home business,” Corky recalled.
In the 1970s, in addition to presenting traditional country performers, Panther Hall presented “outlaw” country artists. Rusy Wier and Ray Wylie Hubbard performed in 1977. Emcee was Bill Mack.
In fact, Panther Hall from its beginning occasionally deviated from old-school country performers. Among the first was Bobby Vinton, who performed for “teens only” two weeks after the hall opened in 1963. Emcees were KFJZ deejays Hap Arnold and Mark Stevens.
And in 1965 Panther Hall would go go-go. At least on Friday nights. The Kuykendalls created Panther A-Go-Go nights for patrons seventeen and older. Local bands performing included Larry and the Blue Notes, the Kasuals, and the Chaunteys.
As the sixties ended, Panther Hall was booking performers who would have curdled the Coors of a traditional country music fan: Canned Heat and Nazz in 1969, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, and ZZ Top in 1970.
Panther Hall presented big stars—country and non-country—but it did not produce big profits. The Kuykendall brothers finally sold Panther Hall in 1973. The new owners closed the hall for remodeling and reopened it in early 1975 with four of the biggest names in country music.
But when Dolly Parton performed at Panther Hall in late 1977, the hall was only half filled.
Meanwhile, the hall’s trend away from country music continued. In 1978 punk rockers the Ramones and the Runaways performed. (In the photo caption, “Joan Left” was Joan Jett.)
As the year 1978 ended, so did a tradition. Among the last country performers at Panther Hall was Tony Douglas, who had appeared frequently since the beginning.
By 1979 Panther Hall housed the “largest disco in Texas.” That year Texas Wesleyan University bought the hall and seven acres as part of a plan to build a grand entrance to the campus off East Lancaster Avenue instead of Rosedale Street.
Panther Hall soon closed as a music venue. By March 1979 the building was used to house a motorcycle parts swap meet.
Meanwhile, TWU’s plan to build a grand entrance through the Panther Hall property was stymied by the Texas & Pacific railroad overpass over Collard Street.
TWU abandoned the plan and used Panther Hall for storage. Weeds grew through cracks in the asphalt parking lot. People without homes took temporary shelter in the vacant building. With neglect, vandalism, and fires the building deteriorated. Loose metal panels and trim on the exterior tapped rhythmically in the wind like the ghosts of drummers past.
In 1991 TWU sold the property to a church that planned to revive the building as a place of worship.
But that plan, too, was abandoned, and TWU repossessed the property.
In early 1997 TWU demolished Panther Hall. As the bulldozer flattened the iconic building, tens of thousands of music fans and hundreds of musicians over sixteen years—from Roy Acuff to ZZ Top, from Bobby Vinton to Joan Jett—could only be grateful, as Ray Price once sang, “for the good times.”
Since 1999 the Panther Hall land has been TWU’s soccer field. Now, as you stand on the field on a Saturday night, the sound of the wind blowing through the goal nets sounds a lot like a bow being pulled across a fiddle of long ago.
This is a sampler of performers promoted in Panther Hall newspaper ads from 1963 to 1979.