"Panther Hall - Up Close and Personal"
by Steve Jones
When country music legends Marty Robbins or Hank Williams Jr. performed at Ft. Worth's Panther Hall Ballroom, had they looked off to their left at any given time during their shows, they might have seen the silhouette of a young boy standing just outside the stage door. Of course they were far too busy working their audiences to notice me, but that didn't matter. I would have plenty of face-to-face time with them before and / or after their shows. As nice as they were to talk to, I was far more interested in watching them work. The experience was always magical and transforming. It was while standing in that very doorway, with stale cigarette smoke pouring past me into the brightly lit loading area, that I decided what I was going to do with my life. I was going to be a performer.
Okie Jones had been a talented young up and coming singer back in the 1940's. He toured the country with the Little Jimmy Dickens Show. Also on the tour were Faron Young and Grandpa Jones (the performer - not MY grandfather!). As my uncle's recording career waned, he segued into a career as being sort of a combination road manager / bus driver for Hank Williams Jr. during Hanks young and formidable years. When Hank would come to Ft. Worth to play Panther Hall, my uncle would call my dad to let him know he was coming to town. Every now and then, my dad would go visit Okie on Hank's tour bus in the back parking lot of Panther Hall while Hank was on stage performing. And occasionally, dad would take my two brothers and I along for the trip. Mom always preferred to stay home and enjoy the rare peace and quiet.
I must have been in my early teens, and the oldest of the three Jones boys. It was always exciting to get the news that Okie was in town. My young brothers liked going because they thought the bus was cool. Sure, the bus was great, but I liked going because when the stage door was open, which it almost always was, dad would let me stand outside and watch the show. The view was perfect. I have vivid memories of young Hank, looking like almost any blond headed kid you'd see on the street, putting on the most amazing shows! Not only did Hank sing, but he was also a tremendously talented musician as well. I could see a collection of various instruments on stands off to the side of the stage. There were all kinds of guitars, and a 5 string banjo. When Hank picked up the banjo and began to play, I knew I would have to learn to play one too. He wore a white fringed C&W type costume, and I can remember how profusely he would be sweating by the end of the show.
After his final number, he would routinely come over to the door and step out to get a little fresh air as the crowd roared for an encore. It was during one of those moments that we had a memorable dialogue. As he stepped out onto the concrete stairway, a beer in one hand, he said, "Hey kid. You here to see your uncle Okie?" I looked him right in the eye, and without missing a beat I replied, "No, I'm here to see you." To think of it now, it almost seems like a perfect scene in a movie. I don't think he was moved that much by it though. Hank was pretty much spoiled when it came to that stuff. He was surrounded by people who were always telling him how special he was. That is the nature of the business. Still, before he had a chance to respond, his roadies came over and whisked him back to the stage for his encore. I think it might have been “Kawliga.”
Dad was a considerate and conscientious person, so he always made sure we were at least making an effort to be on our way by the time Hank made it back to the bus. That is, when he came back to the bus at all. Dad didn't want us being in the way, and rightly so. But I would learn later, while traveling and doing concerts with my own band, why a tour bus wasn't the best place for kids after a big show! The best visits with Hank were on those occasions when we would arrive before the show started. Most of the time, Hank stayed back in his private quarters. But there was a time or two when he came out and was very cordial, and relaxed.
And then there was Marty. After Hank's accident, my uncle went to work as an assistant to Marty Robbins. Different people switched out with the driving duties, but Okie enjoyed driving the buses, so he did a lot of the driving. When Marty came to town it was the same drill. Only Marty's shows had a different kind of energy to them. While Hank was young and wild and loved to raise hell, Marty was a little more laid back. He sang ballads. But he also wore the white C&W fringed costume style outfits, similar to Hanks. Only Marty's looked more like something made for Elvis.
Marty was always friendly and polite and liked to hang up at the front of the bus. He didn't seem bothered by our visits, and we tended to stay longer during the Marty visits than we had with Hank. But we were a bit older by then too. Even though I was in High School by then, I never passed on an opportunity to go visit Okie at the Panther Hall gigs. Once Panther Hall closed down, Okie's visits became normal ones - without the celebrities and the tour busses and the cramped schedules. He was able to integrate back into the family again and we loved seeing him. Okie worked with, and was close friends with Marty until Marty's death. He'd been handling a lot of things around the ranch for Marty, and they shared a major interest in the hobby of photography. When Gentleman Jim Reeves' airplane crashed on Marty Robbins' ranch, Okie was the first person on the scene. He happened to have a 16 mm movie camera with him, and those movies are in our family's private archives. My uncle had written a song that Marty recorded called "Chasing Rainbows", and had appeared as an extra in one of Marty's movies. As family members had visited Okie at Marty's ranch over the years, one of my cousins actually ended up having a long relationship with Marty. My brother now lives in the house that the cousin once lived in, and one of the closets is still full of Marty's albums - all personally autographed to her. When Marty died, he left all of his camera equipment to Okie.
Eventually, I did get to see Marty play Panther Hall from the INSIDE of the building, out front with everyone else. It was the only time I was ever actually inside Panther Hall. And then not long after, Panther Hall closed for good. I would see the big Panther Hall sign in a lot off of Hwy 820 from time to time as years went on. It seemed I also saw it in a lot off of Denton Hwy years later as well. But time plays tricks on the mind.
I remember those nights on Lancaster Avenue with Okie, and Hank, and my dad and brothers. I also remember the long, neat rows of street lamps that lined Lancaster. Sometimes Okie would lock up the bus and we'd take him to the Lone Star Restaurant for a quick dinner, and have him back by the end of the show. I remember how clean and happening Lancaster looked in those days. I would watch that area decline before my eyes in later years as my bands "Desperados" and "Savvy" played clubs up and down the old Lancaster strip. There was the Hungry I Club, The Dunes Club back off of Rosedale, The Rocking Chair, and of course, Savvy's Nightclub.
However, our first gig on Lancaster was right across from the Panther Hall, at the Broken Spoke, which had previously been known as the Panther Hall Annex. There are many stories about those days on my web site at
Jones Land and can be accessed by clicking on the DESPERADOS button on the menu. For some unknown reason, I started keeping journals of my adventures when I was 9 years old. I never stopped, and as I have time to transcribe those cryptic notes into story form, I'm adding them to the site.
As a fellow archivist, I have a great respect for the efforts Rick is making in documenting the legacy of Panther Hall, a true music landmark right here in Ft. Worth.