McMahon Memorial Auditorium & The Southern Club

The city of Lawton is located in the southwestern region of Oklahoma approximately 80 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. Named for Major General Henry Ware Lawton, it was built in 1901 as a town opened by lottery for homestead development on former reservation lands of Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache Indians. It is now the fifth largest city in the state and the county seat of Comanche County. The city's proximity to Fort Sill Army Post has given Lawton economic and population stability in the region.1

McMahon Memorial Auditorium in Lawton, OK

McMahon Auditorium located at 801 NW Ferris Avenue in Lawton's Elmer Thomas Park was built as a memorial to Eugene McMahon, who died in July of 1945, by a foundation started by his mother, Louise. It was planned and designed by Paul Harris and Mendal Glickman in 1953 and built by the J. J. Bollinger Construction Company of Oklahoma City.2  The land where it sits was once where the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache grew corn and other crops.3

With a seating capacity of 1,522, the proscenium opening is 40 feet wide and 28 feet high. The stage is 40 feet deep, 60 feet wide and 66 feet high. The orchestra pit seats 40 musicians. It was completed and dedicated on March 11, 1955 to the use of the citizens of the Lawton community for the advancement of music, the arts, and other forms of educational and cultural endeavors.2

Lawton Constitution Ad for Auditorium Show - June 22, 1955
courtesy Sharon Cheatwood, S.W.O.G.S. and the Lawton Public Library

Just three months later, on June 23, 1955, Elvis, Scotty and Bill performed an 8:00 p.m. show at the auditorium. According to Peter Guralnick, they arrived in Elvis' parents new Crown Victoria with Bill's bass strapped to the roof and headlined a bill with "8 big stars," including Leon Payne and TNT Records' Chuck Lee.4 Also on the bill were Joe Carson, Cecil Lee (a DJ on KSWO radio), and Bobby Joe Stewart. The MC was Alfred Lee Whittle.5

Leon Payne - I Love You Because

Leon Payne, though blind, was a vital and versatile performer who recorded prolifically from 1941 through the 1960s. Payne recorded for such labels as Bluebird, Bullet, Decca, Starday, 'D,' and TNT, but it was during his mid-career stint at Capitol from 1949-1953 that he reached his peak. Of the hundreds of song he wrote, he is probably best remembered as the songwriter who wrote "I Love You Because," a song recorded by Elvis, Scotty and Bill during their Sun sessions, and "You've Still Got A Place In My Heart," as well as two songs best known through Hank Williams' recorded versions, "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me" and "Lost Highway." He gained only mid-level stardom nationwide, though he remained a popular performer in his native Southwest until his death.6

Lawton Constitution ads - June 23, 1955
courtesy S.W.O.G.S. and the Lawton Public Library

Lee Cotten wrote that fourteen-year-old Hank Wilson, who would later change his name to Leon Russell, was in attendance that evening.5 This, however, may only be speculation. In actuality, Claude Russell Bridges is Leon Russell's real name and Hank Wilson is an alias he first used in 1973 to record an album of country standards. Though born in Lawton on April 2, 1942, he attended high school in Tulsa almost 200 miles, and three hours, away but was playing in nightclubs there at the age of 14.7 Following their auditorium concert, Elvis and all the others performed from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. at the Southern Club in Lawton.5

Tommy Allsup, Bob White, Glenn Rhees, Dutch Ingram, Bob Wommack, Donny McDaniels
The Southernaires at the Southern Club in Lawton, OK - ca.1952
Photo courtesy Kimberly (Ingram) Dunn

Several of the entertainers on the bill for both shows were members of the Southernaires, the house band at the Southern Club.  The Southern Club in Lawton was owned by Clyde Prestage and located at 108 W. Lee Boulevard. At the time, it was the top venue in the area and all the top names in the country field played there. The Southernaires normally backed many of the top acts that Clyde booked like Lefty Frizzell, Jimmy Dickens, Webb Pierce, Hank Williams, Tex Ritter, Homer and Jethro, and other Nashville stars.8

Bob Wommack, Donny McDaniels, Glenn Rhees, Dutch Ingram, Tommy Allsup, Bob White
The Southernaires at the Southern Club in Lawton, OK - ca.1953
Photo courtesy Kimberly (Ingram) Dunn

Around 1951, when sax player Glenn Rhees joined the Southernaires, the lineup consisted of Bob White on steel guitar, Preacher Harkness from Jimmie Davis' band on fiddle, Bob Wommack on trumpet, Dutch Ingram on drums and Donny McDaniels on piano. Beneficial to Glenn, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys would also play the club often.8

Benny Wallace, Bill Roy, Bobby Joe Stewart, Bobby Wommack, Bob Heppler and Tommy Allsup
The Southernaires at the Southern Club in Lawton, OK - ca.1953
Photo courtesy Pine Grove Press

Tommy Allsup grew up north of Tulsa. In 1952 he became part of Glenn Rhees’ Southernaires and then the line up changed. Rhees left to form a duet with his brother before joining up with Bob Wills. Donny McDaniels and Bob White went with Hank Thompson and Dutch Ingram went with the Miller Brothers out of Wichita Falls.8 Tommy took control of the band and in March 1953 brought in sixteen-year-old 'Little' Joe Carson as vocalist. They played almost seven nights a week.9

"Little" Joe Carson
Photo courtesy MySpace

"Little" Joe Carson was born in 1937 in Holliday, Texas and by the age of sixteen was performing and writing his own material. Carson was known as a great yet classic country singer. In 1956, he signed a recording contract with Capitol Records and in December of that year Tommy accompanied Carson to Hollywood for a Capitol session. Although the files suggest Capitol's A&R man Ken Nelson was in charge it seems Tommy was largely responsible for the arrangement and production; gaining skills which would be much used in later years.9 & 10

Ronnie Jones, Elvis, Allen Johnson, Al Terrill and Jim Powers at the Southern Club - June 23, 1955
Photo courtesy Georgia Williams

Bill, Nancy Ferguson, Allen Johnson, Scotty, Elvis, Jim Powers, Ronnie Jones, Al Terrill,
Carol Crossland, Jay Davis and Nancy Klass at the Southern Club - June 23, 1955
Photo courtesy Georgia Williams

While there, Elvis, Scotty and Bill posed for pictures with students from Lawton High School and Oklahoma State University who had attended the show. One of them, Albert L. "Al" Terrill would in 1964 become the youngest member elected to the Oklahoma Senate and would hold that seat for 22 years. The same line-up played the following night at the City Auditorium in Altus, OK.4  There the crowd was said to be very small. In all, the Southernaires were said to open for Elvis seven times in 1955.11 It's not known at this time, however, if Tommy was currently with the Southernaires.

Buddy Holly and Tommy Allsup - Jan. 30, 1959
Photo courtesy Ron Matthews

In 1958 Tommy met Buddy Holly on a trip to Clovis, New Mexico to record at Norman Petty's famous studio and started playing lead guitar with Holly and the Crickets. He played with him on his last tour, losing a coin toss to Ritchie Valens for a seat on the fatal plane crash that took their lives in February 1959.9

Chuck Caldwell  Jr. would join the Southernaires on steel guitar and with varied members would stay together at least until 1964.11 From 1953 to 1964, "Little" Joe Carson recorded with the Mercury, Capitol, Liberty, and D record labels. In 1963, Carson released his biggest hit, "I Gotta Get Drunk," a song that was penned by a young and promising songwriter at the time named Willie Nelson. Tragically, Carson was killed in a car accident about 50 miles south of Lawton, in Wichita Falls, Texas, on February 27, 1964. He was 27.10

Leo Feathers, Chuck Blackwell, Ron Ryles, Johnnie Williams,
"Leon" Russell Bridges, Jack Dunham, Jimmy Markham in Tulsa - 1959
Photo courtesy Rocky Frisco

After graduating from high school, Leon's band went on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis for almost two months. Leon left Tulsa at the age of 17 for Los Angeles where he eventually became one of the elite group of studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew playing on hundreds of hit records in the 1960's. In 1975, he married Mary McCreary, a former member of Sly & the Family Stone's background vocal group Little Sister. Russell and Willie Nelson had a number one duet on the Billboard country music charts in 1979 with a cover of "Heartbreak Hotel".7 The list of people that Leon has performed with, produced and/or recorded in his career reads like a "Who's Who" in Rock history.  He continues to perform today.

The (new) Southern Club in Lawton, OK - ca.2008
Photo courtesy MySpace

After Holly's death, Tommy moved to California to join Liberty Records as A & R Director of all Country and Western product and began producing Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. His association with Wills lasted through 1973. While at Liberty he would also produce Tex Williams, Willie Nelson, Joe Carson and work with artists such as Walter Brennan, Bobby Vee, Johnny Burnette, Julie London, and Vickie Carr. Allsup moved to Nashville in 1968 where he still lives and remains active in the music business.9

The (new) Southern Club in Lawton, OK - ca.2008
Photo courtesy MySpace

Photos courtesy Microsoft Earthdata

Clyde Prestage passed away in 1995 but the building that housed the original Southern Club has been gone for years.  It caught fire burned down and another club was built not too far from the original location. As recently as 2008 a new Southern Club was located at 4 SW Lee Boulevard in Lawton, at the time owned by Jim and Jan Landrum. The facility has since changed hands and names several times, from Duvall's to Guys and Dolls.

Aerial view of the McMahon Municipal Auditorium and vicinity - 1999
Photo © Jim Davenport courtesy City of Lawton Arts and Humanities Division

Lawton's economy is still largely dependent on Fort Sill, but has also grown to encompass manufacturing, higher education, health care, and retail. Lawton is served by Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport and Interstate 44. Over the years McMahon Memorial Auditorium has presented performing arts from ballets, Broadway shows, concerts to performances by many local organizations.2

McMahon Memorial Auditorium in Lawton, OK
Photo courtesy City of Lawton, OK

West front of the McMahon Memorial Auditorium in Lawton, OK
Photo courtesy City of Lawton Arts and Humanities Division

Dressing Room of the McMahon Memorial Auditorium in Lawton, OK, originally green
Photo courtesy City of Lawton Arts and Humanities Division

A public trust known as "The McMahon Auditorium Authority" was created in 1963 to oversee the operation and management of the auditorium. In 1990, the Foundation funded a renovation and expansion of the facility, renovating dressing rooms and adding a Green Room, a storage area at the rear and office space to the west side of the building.2

view from center stage of the McMahon Memorial Auditorium in Lawton, OK

Photo courtesy City of Lawton Arts and Humanities Division

view from side stage of the McMahon Memorial Auditorium in Lawton, OK

Photo courtesy City of Lawton Arts and Humanities Division

view of seating and balcony of the McMahon Memorial Auditorium in Lawton, OK

Photo courtesy City of Lawton Arts and Humanities Division

A new state of the art sound system was installed, the restrooms in the balcony area were enlarged and a box office was added in the central area of the front lobby. A second renovation took place in 2001 expanding the lobby restrooms. Each expansion and renovation has purposefully retained the integrity of the original design.2

McMahon Memorial Auditorium in Lawton, OK
Photos courtesy Microsoft Earthdata

page added March 18, 2011


Special thanks to Linda Garrison of the South Western Oklahoma Genealogical Society and to Sharon Cheatwood of the City of Lawton Arts and Humanities Division for their assistance with this page.

1 according to wikipedia
2 according to and courtesy of the City of Lawton, OK
3 according to Joseph Richard who lived on Ferris Avenue across from the land, courtesy Sharon Cheatwood
4 excerpt from or according to "Elvis Day by Day" by Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen
5 according to or excerpt from Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown? by Lee Cotton
6 according to or excerpt Traditional Country Hall of Fame profile -  Leon Payne
7 according to Leon Russell Biography at Lyricks Freak
8 according to The jazz of the Southwest: an oral history of western swing By Jean Ann Boyd
9 according to Tommy Allsup biography courtesy West Main Productions
10 according to Joe Carson Biography by Jason Macneil courtesy AllMusic
11 according to obituary for Charles 'Chuck' Caldwell Jr. in The Lawton Constitution, November 18, 2010

Leon Russell and Willie Nelson - Heartbreak Hotel


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