The Oil Palace was a dream of Bobby Joe Manziel Sr., an immigrant from Lebanon who as a bantamweight boxer fought under the name The Syrian Kid. Manziel met and sometimes sparred with Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight boxing champion throughout the 1920s. The men became friends.
In 1932, Dempsey loaned Manziel the money needed to drill for oil near Gladewater, according to a history on the venue’s website. The well blew in as a gusher. Manziel later drilled other successful wells, amassing riches in the process.
Decades later, Manziel and Dempsey set their sights on building a huge sports venue that could host professional boxing matches and would rival the famed Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Work began in 1955 on the huge 65,000-square-foot auditorium on 50 acres of land fronting Highway 64 east of Tyler. The ambitious plans called for making it one of the largest air-conditioned sports venues in the United States. It was to have 20,000 seats surrounding a sunken arena. Some reports at the time put the price tag at over $3 million.
Dempsey had agreed to manage the facility and use his considerable influence to lure the boxers and other sports celebrities to compete there.
With only the exterior completed, the project came to a halt when Manziel got sick and died in 1956. He was 51 and left behind a widow and seven children. For nearly two decades, the empty shell of a building stood as a monument to dashed dreams.
In 1982, Manziel Jr., who ended up taking over some of his father’s business operations, began the work needed to open the venue. He ditched the plans for an arena surrounded by seats in favor of a convention hall with movable bleachers that could accommodate many types of events.
The Oil Palace opened on Oct. 27, 1983. Its first events were the East Texas Oil and Gas Show and a concert by country music star Barbara Mandrell, who performed before a packed house.
In the decades since, The Oil Palace has hosted events as diverse as monster truck rallies and professional wrestling to three-ring circuses and Sesame Street Live.
Many of the biggest stars have graced its stage including ZZ Top, Willie Nelson, Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, Garth Brooks, Boys II Men, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Chris Tomlin, Run DMC, Charlie Daniels and George Jones.
“All the big names came through here. I met them all,” said Manziel who oversaw venue operations while also tending to his oil interests in Texas and Louisiana.
The venue has also seen controversy. In 1986, PTA and church leaders protested a scheduled concert there by Ozzy Osbourne, claiming the flamboyant rocker was a bad influence on youth. The debate was the focus of a CBS news report.
Manziel ended up canceling the concert saying, “We do not wish to present an event that would be a divisive influence in the East Texas community.”
In 2010, the health department determined the venue did not have an adequate water supply to meet the needs of its bathrooms and concessions. Thousands who arrived to attend the graduation ceremonies of Tyler ISD’s two high schools had to use portable bathrooms in the parking lot.
A few days later, the problem was corrected. However, the experience of having to use portable toilets left many disgruntled.
Family members say those types of problems are in the past.
Taylor Manziel, one of Bobby Jr.’s grandsons, now serves as the venue manager.
“I have been around here (The Oil Palace) my whole life. It now seems like we are turning over a new leaf,” Taylor Manziel said. “Everything is new and top of the line. We’ve seen that times have changed.”
Bobby Manziel said said he is more excited about the venue’s future than ever. “This is my first love. I want this to be a wonderful place to go to a concert. I want people to want to come back.”
Manziel said the time right is to position The Oil Palace as a top venue.
“With the internet, everyone’s streaming the music. No one buys it any more. It’s just sitting on the shelves. They (music artists) are not getting much in royalties any more. They’re all back on tour,” he said. “They’re all back on the road and I want them all to come here.”