Jacksboro Highway In the 1950s-Memories of the Sunset Ballroom
By Phil Strawn
Back in the early fifties, for a very short while, my Father, Johnny Strawn, owned the Sunset Ballroom, just a stones throw off Jacksboro Highway, in West Fort Worth Texas.
My Father, a country fiddle player by profession, soon realized that trying to play nightly gigs at other clubs, and managing his own business didn’t work, so he hired, as his club manager, his childhood running buddy, best friend, and my God Father, “Big” Dick Hickman.
Dick and my Father had grown up together in depression era Fort Worth and managed to remain best friends to their last day. Decades later, they often reminisced, over a good glass of scotch, that ‘they didn’t know they were poor, because everyone had the same amount of nothing that they did”
Dick, besides being the new manager, was also pulling double duty as the clubs bouncer. A job he deplored, but accepted, performed extremely well when required. Being a family man and a peaceful sort, he soon became weary of kicking unruly customers rears every night, so my father, in lapse of good judgment, hired one of the local tough guys to take Dicks place as the official bouncer and security, A mean little cat, that went by the name of “Toes Malone”
Toes was a likable two-bit-north side thug that had experienced one too many run-ins with the Fort Worth mob. The boys in the mob liked him immensely, and thought he was a funny guy to be around, so when Toes tried to horn in on their action or crossed them in any way, instead of just killing him outright like anyone else, they would shoot, or cut off a body part to teach him a lesson.
After a few major discussions in back ally’s with his admirers, and the loss of an ear, three-fingers and an arm, “Toes” got his new name.
He didn’t give up being a tough guy. Being the mean little son-of-a-gun that he was, he had the local boot smith, install two small pen knife blades into the toes of his Justin cowboy boots.
He was pretty agile for a one armed cat, and could carve you up like a Winn Dixie rib-roast before you knew what happened to you.
No one messed with Toes. He was the original Bad Leroy Brown of the south.
The patrons loved Toes so much, they would ask him to show his little “toe knives” to their wives just for laughs. He would gladly hoist his boot up on their table and proudly display his shiny little blades to anyone who asked, and tipped a buck or two. The wives, giggling like school girls, would open their pack of Lucky Strikes on his boot tip blades.
He was part of the entertainment, sort of a hoodlum head waiter that would kill you if you complained about anything.
My father said his presence increased business, so in spite of his reputation, he kept him own. He did admit in later years that firing Toe’s would have likely led to his own early demise.
Toes, being a hoodlum to the core, couldn’t help himself, and finally crossed the mob boys one too many times. On a cold December night in 1953, out by Crystal Springs Ballroom, they blew him in half with a shotgun blast.
My Father, saddened by the grisly demise of his entertaining employee, was relieved that he didn’t have to fire him.
Toes didn’t have any real friends, so the memorial was attended by a handful of musicians, the mob boys that killed him, and a few patrons from the Sunset.
On top of his casket, sat his little knife boots, and a nice framed picture of a 10-year-old Toes. A very fitting end. And once again, Dick had his old job back.
The Sunset, as the legend goes, was where the famous Roger Miller goosing incident occurred.
It’s been said it happened at Rosas or any number of clubs in Fort Worth, but I have it from two witnesses, my father and Dick, that it happened at the Sunset.
Roger Miller, one of future “King of the Road” fame, grew up around Fort Worth and Oklahoma and like many stars, struggled many years in the joints before making it big in Nashville. He was a worse than half-assed fiddle player, but a promising song writer, scraping out a living by frequenting the Sunset ballroom, Rosas, Stella’s, Crystal Springs or any other dive that would let him sing and play for a few bucks.
One August night at the Sunset, he was onstage singing a tune and torturing his fiddle for the less than appreciative crowd. The dance floor was full of sweaty “tummy rubbing” dancers doing their best to “not pass out” from the oppressive Texas heat that saturated every corner of the un-air-conditioned joint.
There was one couple dancing, the lady, clad in very tight peddle pushers, was really putting on good show for the boys on stage.
She got her rear-end right up against the stage and, Roger Miller, being the pre-Icky Twerp idiot that he was, couldn’t resist reaching out with his fiddle bow and goosing her backside.
She jumped.. pushed her dance partner away and slugged him in the nose. The injured fellow, with the help of numerous whiskey and cokes, stumbled and fell into a table full of visiting mob boys that turned out to see Roger torture his fiddle.
The ensuing brawl lasted a good ten minutes, clearing out the club. Dick was carrying the fighters out by the collar, two at a time. The mob boys “whooped up” on most everyone within a three table area, and the rest of the people just whooped each other. The Fort Worth police came in, assessed the situation, sat at the bar, had a free coke, took their pay off money and left.
Roger was banned from playing his fiddle at the Sunset, and soon after that incident, he went on to Nashville, and started writing better tunes and working in better dives.
My Mother, fed up with my fathers teetering on the fringe of certain death, finally told him to sell the place or he would be living there by himself.
Dad sold it to Dick, Dick hated it, and sold it to some mullet, and the club, after becoming an illegal gambling joint in the late fifties, finally ceased to exist and was demolished in the mid-sixties.
In spite of it’s well deserved reputation, most of the great entertainers did manage to play there; Lefty Frizzle, Marty Robbins, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, Bill Boyd and the Cowboy Ramblers, Willie Nelson, The Lightcrust Doughboys, and a long cast of other impressive country music acts.
One Saturday night, a few weeks before Dad sold it to Dick, Bob Wills and his band, had a show in Weatherford Texas that was canceled due to bad weather. Not wanting to make the night a complete loss, on his way back into town, he stopped at the Sunset. Bob, being good friends with my Dad, as well as his mentor, took the whole band on stage and did a knocked out impromptu show. Word on the Jacksboro Highway spread fast, and within an hour, the place was packed to capacity. I have an old 8×10 black and white picture of Bob and Dad playing twin fiddles on San Antonio Rose. It was a night he was profoundly proud of, and over the years, spoke of it often.
The old place may have been a dive with a less than stellar reputation, but that long demolished building and that rickety stage saw some of the greatest musicians in country music.
The Sunset Ballroom, Forth Worth Texas