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Workers tear down famed home of Texas prison rodeo

- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2012

HUNTSVILLE, TEXAS (AP) - A piece of entertainment history is tumbling as workers demolish a Texas prison rodeo arena that hosted many stars through the years.

The brick and concrete stadium on the grounds of the state's oldest prison, the Huntsville Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, has sit silent since its last rodeo in 1986. Engineers determined the structure, which for more than five decades hosted a spectacle billed as "The Wildest Show Behind Bars," was no longer safe.

Prison system officials, who were faced with a choice of using limited resources to fix the place or focus on keeping inmates locked up, decided to scrap the tradition that attracted big-name entertainers and thousands of spectators each Sunday in October.

"It is a piece of history but a safety hazard at the same time," Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said Wednesday as crews worked the rubble of concrete, steel reinforcement bars and red bricks that match the distinctive walls of the prison in downtown Huntsville, where most folks know it as the Walls Unit.

The wrecking crew moved in because of concerns the crumbling structure could topple into the street that borders the prison. Work is expected to be finished next month.

In its heyday, the rodeo would pack upwards of 20,000 people into the half-circle arena to watch inmates in traditional rodeo fare and unique contests such as the "Hard Money Event," where 40 inmates wearing red shirts would try to snatch a tobacco bag placed between the horns of an angry bull. Inside the bag was at least $50, although donations could bolster the dollar amount well into the hundreds.

Through the years, the rodeo featured a who's who of country singers from Roy Acuff in the 1950s to Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton in later years. George Strait, before making it big, appeared at the rodeo once as a fill-in for an act that canceled at the last minute.

"If you had to work there, you got to see those people," said Jim Willett, who rose through the ranks to become warden at the Huntsville Unit.

Willett, now director of the Texas Prison Museum, worked the rodeo as an officer from 1972 to 1982 and fondly recalled seeing Parton up close. "She didn't see me," he laughed.

John Wayne and Steve McQueen made appearances at the rodeo. And in 1980, the John Travolta movie "Urban Cowboy" featured the rodeo prominently. Scott Glenn portrayed a prisoner who competed in the rodeo in the film, with newlyweds Travolta and Debra Winger in the crowd.

Former inmate Juanita Phillips, known more widely by her stripper name Candy Barr, performed at the rodeo in a group of female inmate singers called "The Goree Girls" after the prison where they were locked up. Phillips, who was serving three years for a drug conviction, achieved notoriety after her release by being linked to Jack Ruby.

Ruby was the Dallas club owner who shot Lee Harvey Oswald days after President John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963 in Dallas.

The first rodeo was held in 1931 on a converted baseball field next to the prison. Texas Prisons Manager Lee Simmons viewed it as a form of entertainment for employees and inmates during the heart of the Great Depression. Within two years, it was attracting 15,000 people, making it among the largest sporting events in the state.

The structure now under the wrecking ball was built in 1950 by inmates. The same year, the rodeo hit the road for a one-time, summer show on the grounds of the Texas State Fair in Dallas.

The new arena opened in 1951, bringing the addition of big-name musical acts.

Livestock used at the rodeo were rounded up by inmates at prison farms, female inmates sewed the distinctive striped outfits worn by participants and other inmates printed programs.

Willett said prison officials one year discovered an inmate was a former paratrooper and thought it would be interesting to have him parachute from a plane into the arena.

"On a practice jump, he landed on the roof of a house and frightened the people inside," Willett said. He then missed the target on each of the Sunday performances.

At least two inmates were killed from rodeo injuries over the years, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Willett believes Texas was the first state to hold a prison rodeo. Until recently, Oklahoma had one that began in 1940. Louisiana's prison rodeo, started in 1964, continues.

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