While working on our podcast America’s Girls, I read a lot of stories about how the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders started. Many of them have some version of a line I read in one book: “The cheerleaders began as the creation of one man: Texas E. Schramm.”
Well, that’s one way to tell the story.
It’s certainly true that Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm was a visionary who helped shape modern sports. But it’s also true that Tex Schramm was known for outsourcing labor and asking people to work for free during an era when women’s work was often invisible. So another way to tell this story is that the cheerleaders are the creation of a series of enterprising, chronically underpaid women whose vision, talent, and energy ushered in a global phenomenon.
History has not celebrated them. Let’s do that now.
Dee Brock was around thirty years old when Tex Schramm approached her with an idea. He wanted models on the sidelines of his games. This was 1960 or 1961; nobody can quite pin it down. Schramm had left a job at CBS Sports to run a scrappy expansion team in the nowhere land of Dallas, Texas, where college football reigned and professional football had yet to capture the imagination. The Dallas Cowboys played to piddling crowds, and Tex Schramm needed to fill the stands. So this part was his idea, and I think it wasn’t half bad: beautiful models on the sidelines in white uniforms whose full leather skirts he’d mocked up and displayed in the office when Dee came to visit.
When I interviewed Dee for episode four of our podcast about the cheerleaders, America’s Girls, she told me the story.
“How much are you going to pay?” Dee asked.
Dee stopped him right there. Models didn’t put on shows for free. Dee knew, because she was one. She’d debuted the big Dior dress at the “New Look” fashion show a few years prior. Dee was tall, with a blond beehive and fine bone structure, and the kind of figure the kids today call slammin’. When she took the runway at Neiman Marcus, the owner, Dallas retail icon Stanley Marcus, confessed he didn’t really like models with such big breasts. “Well, I’m sorry, but there they are,” she told him.
But modeling was just a hobby for Dee. She had her master’s in English from the University of North Texas, and she taught at Thomas Jefferson High School. She was married to the Dallas Times Herald’s Bob Brock, who wrote about society and, later, television, and they raised three boys. Ambition ran in her family. Dee told me her father had been a union organizer at Sinclair Oil, until they fired him. He ran a jukebox business in Oklahoma, but had to leave it when the mob took over.
So Dee was kind of a badass, but a few stories I’ve read simply refer to as “a model and a former high school cheerleader.” She was that, too.
Dee knew models on the sidelines wouldn’t work. They would wilt in the Texas heat. The fancy white uniform Schramm had mocked up would likely cost $500 a person, and that alone was a deal killer. So Dee hatched another idea: Let’s recruit high school kids from the local schools. They’ll work for free.
Schramm placed her in charge of this project, which they named the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Dee told me she bargained her salary up to $900 a year from Schramm’s original offer, which was zero dollars. And for the next decade plus, she managed a group of a dozen or so kids, who chanted “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y” as the Cowboys themselves grew more victorious. She brought on boys at one point for a coed team that a PR guy dubbed “the CowBelles and their Beaux.” Dee hates that name, but popular lore kept it alive. Books and magazines love poking fun at the corniness of “the CowBelles and their Beaux,” but the boys were dropped in 1969, and in the intervening years Dee had done something else radical. She’d integrated the squad.
Like so much of the South, Dallas was segregated. But in 1965 (a year before Southern Methodist University integrated its football team), Dee went to Tex Schramm to lobby for Black cheerleaders. She wanted the squad to reflect the city and the people in the stands. Dee told me she had to fight hard for that one. She recruited a teacher from an all-Black school, Frances Roberson, and they led the squad through the next years. In 1971, half of the cheerleaders were Black.
The Cowboys went to the Super Bowl for the first time in 1971. Tex Schramm wouldn’t pay for the cheerleaders to go (maybe you’re sensing a pattern), so Dee went on a local TV station to ask for a sponsor, and she got it. That guy wrote a check for the cheerleaders to go to the Super Bowl, which the Cowboys lost. But the next year the Cowboys made it again, and the pattern repeated. Dee went on television, another sponsor wrote a check, and the cheerleaders went to the game. This time the Cowboys won.
The year 1972 was a big one for the Cowboys. They had just moved into Texas Stadium when they won the Super Bowl, and Dee began thinking it was time to revamp the cheerleaders. Two years playing chaperone to high school kids on overnight trips (one to New Orleans, no less) had been enough.
“I think we need older girls,” she told Schramm.
“Old?” he said skeptically.
No, older. Like, 18 to 25. She wanted more dancing—that seemed to be working better than the cheers—so she recruited a choreographer she had met when they both appeared in a summer musical. Her name was Texie Waterman. Schramm wouldn’t pay for her, either, so Dee split her own salary, which had been knocked down to $600.
Dee also suggested new uniforms, something racier with a dash of showbiz. She says she sketched the concept on a yellow notepad—a controversial detail, but more on that later.
The major innovations of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are eye-catching uniforms and dancing instead of cheering. And those innovations started with Dee Brock. She liked Mr. Schramm, as she calls him. But she also remembers the cheerleaders’ splashy 1972 debut very differently than that Cowboys history book I read. She told me “Tex Schramm had nothing to do with starting it except [to] finally give us permission.”
Dee ran the squad until the mid-seventies. She showed real verve talking with reporters. In 1974, she was informed by Sports Illustrated that the male sponsor of another squad called her team “disgraceful,” complaining that “those girls hang out all over the place.” Dee Brock quipped, “If there’s anything hanging out that isn’t adorable, show me.”
In the mid-seventies, Dee left the cheerleaders to pursue other dreams. A decade earlier, she had helped found El Centro College, the first community college in Dallas. She continued her education career by going to Washington, D.C., to work as the senior vice president of educational programming at PBS, and eventually got her PhD. It’s possible one reason her legacy with the cheerleaders disappeared is that she had a rather robust legacy elsewhere. She wasn’t around to remind people of her work with the squad. A new era had started, and because history gets flattened, her name has not had much staying power.
Dee gets a passing mention on Wikipedia, while the better part of a paragraph is devoted to the wild tale of Bubbles Cash, a stripper whose famous strut through the Cotton Bowl in 1967 wearing a miniskirt and holding two cotton candies became the stuff of Dallas legend. The mythology holds that Bubbles was the big bang that created the cheerleaders. It’s a great story. (We tell it in episode four of the podcast.)
And Bubbles Cash is a hell of a character, a self-made woman who modeled her own career on the Dallas stripper Candy Barr after seeing her perform at the Texas Prison Rodeo. Bubbles’s walk through that stadium helped transform a Cowboys game into a happening, as Joe Nick Patoski explains in our podcast and in his must-read book The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Most Loved Football Team in America.
But the idea that Bubbles inspired the cheerleaders doesn’t quite hold. Tex Schramm hatched the idea for models back in 1960, and the new uniforms didn’t debut until 1972. Dee Brock didn’t remember Bubbles Cash when I mentioned her name. “Probably she never heard of me either,” she said, smiling.
Dee is alive and well at 91 years old and living in Tyler. She uses a cane to get around, but she has the same charming demeanor, fine bone structure, and radiant smile she had as a younger woman.
When I first sat down across from her, in a room filled with books, she told me the story of her childhood home in Wright City, a town in East Texas not too far from where we sat. It took her a minute to come up with the name. The past has a way of disappearing, even in our own minds. But that place was all she knew once, a thriving community with churches, a photo studio, a cafe, and a drugstore her father owned.
“There’s nothing left,” she told me. “There’s just a little sign about six inches tall, partly hidden by grass, that says Wright City. It’s gone.”
I found myself tearing up as Dee told me this, and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe because I’d never heard of Wright City, like I’d never heard of so many bygone places, or maybe because I was starting to sense how little I knew about the formidable figure telling me about this tale. History gets lost, and you could say that’s a sad story, or you could say that’s the only story, because life moves on.
We’d been chatting for a while when I suddenly remembered I hadn’t asked Dee to introduce herself on mic. What she said next gives me a little shiver each time I hear it.
“My name is Dee Brock, and I was the founder of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.”
Paula Van Wagoner
Paula Van Wagoner grew up dreaming of being a clothing designer. As a little girl in Dallas, she used to pluck the petals off flowers and stitch them together to make dolls’ clothes. She went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and came back to Dallas and landed a job at a clothing manufacturer called Lorch. She worked mostly in junior apparel, and she shared an apartment with three other young women.
One day in 1972, her boss asked if she’d like to make a new uniform for the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Sure, she said, she’d be happy to do that. Her boss had gotten the job from a local retail giant named Lester Melnick, who was golfing buddies with Tex Schramm. The way Paula remembers it, she met with Dee Brock and Tex Schramm, who told her they wanted a uniform for “beautiful dancing girls.” Two days later, she had the design.
Actually, she had two designs. One was a long-sleeved blue turtleneck and a swishy, white fringe skirt—the cheerleaders wore it occasionally, but only for a few years. The other design, though, would end up in the Smithsonian. It had white hot pants, a blue crop top that tied at the rib cage, and a fringed vest with blue stars. Paula told me she was inspired by a Western theme and early seventies fashion.
“I’m lucky they didn’t ask me to do something for the Chicago Bears,” she said, at her apartment in Dallas. “I don’t know what I would have done.”
Where this story gets contentious is the question of who first sketched that uniform. Dee Brock told me she showed up to that meeting with her own sketch.
“It just didn’t happen that way,” Paula told me, flatly but politely.
And this is an important detail, because Paula’s sketch of the uniform is now housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, which accepted the uniform into its permanent collection in 2018. (An associate curator at the Smithsonian told me the museum doesn’t independently research the donations it accepts.) According to Dee, Paula’s sketch is based on what Dee drew, and according to Paula, that’s not the case. (We go deeper into this in episode four.)
Wherever the truth lies, Paula told me she was paid nothing extra for her work. When I expressed my outrage at this detail, she didn’t quite understand.
“That was part of my job,” she said.
The Cowboys copyrighted that uniform, which was a good idea, because teams started copying it. (And so would Playboy and porn flicks. See episode three.) The cheerleading craze swept the NFL in the late seventies, creating a lucrative industry, but Paula tuned in to watch the Cowboys from her couch each year to find out if her uniform was still around. She had no contact with the team for more than forty years. She’d left fashion design, which she found hectic, and started a needlepoint business. One time, she heard the Cowboys cheerleaders needed winter uniforms, and she called them to offer her services, but she says nobody called her back.
Her work was not entirely forgotten. In 1979, at the peak of the cheerleaders’ pop-culture fame, the Dallas Morning News ran a story about the uniform’s origins. The newspaper attributed it to Paula. But other sources have attributed the design to Tex Schramm or a fellow designer at Lorch, whom I was able to reach but didn’t want to participate in the podcast.
Paula is the woman credited with the uniform on Wikipedia, but she tells me the name has been changed from time to time.
Paula is friendly and down-to-earth. Her apartment is decorated with cool needlepoint designs so intricate they look like paintings. When I met her, she was wearing the sparkly blue Cowboys cheerleaders alumni jersey she got in 2016, at a celebration honoring her contributions. Her niece Inga, who cheered for the Cowboys in 1995, had advocated on Paula’s behalf after learning of her aunt’s little-known place in history. And when the Smithsonian event rolled around in 2018, Paula Van Wagoner was on that stage, along with cheerleaders’ president Charlotte Jones, director Kelli Finglass, and choreographer Judy Trammell.
Dee had not been invited. It’s a painful inconvenience in telling their story that these two women’s legacies have competing storylines. One version can’t help but undercut the other. As far as I’m concerned, they were both undervalued. For Paula, the trip to the Smithsonian more than made up for it. That was the trip of a lifetime. I just wish she’d been given a cheerleader uniform to keep for herself. Neither she nor Dee Brock had one. Once again, this bothered me, but not Paula.
“Well, I’m not a cheerleader,” she said.
The other woman who helped that uniform gain its iconic status is a seamstress named Leveta Crager, who sewed the uniforms for 24 years. She died in 2003, the same year as Tex Schramm, but I spoke to her granddaughter Shawna Smith, who blew my mind when she told me Leveta had made the uniforms with patterns cut from Kroger bags.
“So she would go to Kroger, buy groceries, and make a new uniform,” Shawna said.
The onionskin generally used in sewing would too easily bend or tear, and Leveta had to make 36 uniforms each season, so the patterns had to be durable. Leveta was the head of operations at Lester Melnick, the high-end shop in Dallas whose namesake had been Tex Schramm’s golfing buddy. And for more than two decades, she was integral to making sure those uniforms fit each woman. She sewed them at home on her own machine.
Leveta took Shawna to all the Cowboys games. They entered through the tunnel and marched across the field to their seats on the visitors’ side. “She said it was to stay out of the sun, but she liked heckling the players,” Shawna said. Leveta was five foot three, a feisty Irish woman who’d mouth off to a four-hundred-pound lineman. “She’d be there with her beer yelling, ‘You couldn’t touch that ball if I duct-taped it to your hand,’ ” Shawna told me.
And Leveta kept her eye on the cheerleaders, too. “She eyeballed the girls just to make sure everyone looked good and the rookies knew how to tie their shirts,” Shawna said. There was strict protocol. You had to buy a certain bra with a clasp at the rib cage. The shirt had to be tied around that clasp in a box knot, or things could get a bit loose. But the look was designed to be seamless.
“You never saw a hemline in those shorts,” Shawna said, explaining that they were actually two pairs of shorts sewn together. One acted as lining, to hug in a woman’s curves without riding up.
“They were skimpy. But you never saw anything you weren’t supposed to see,” Shawna said. “How she did it, I have no idea.”
There is perhaps no figure more essential to the cheerleaders’ rise than Suzanne Mitchell, who led the squad during its golden era in the late seventies and early eighties. Once known and feared by the journalists who covered the Cowboys, Suzanne’s name has also been somewhat lost, thanks in part to the short history of the internet, which barely contains a drop in the ocean of news stories once written about her.
Raised in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, Suzanne went to the University of Oklahoma and spent time in New York publishing before she was hired as Tex Schramm’s secretary in 1976. She was smart, strong, fierce. After Dee Brock left, the reins passed to Texie Waterman, but the demand for the cheerleaders was climbing, and Tex Schramm dumped the whole enterprise in Suzanne’s lap. He told her to run the cheerleaders in her spare time.
Luckily for history, she said yes.
The daughter of a military man, Suzanne introduced a boot-camp mentality to the cheerleaders. She was a master of image management and public relations, and she transformed a group of pretty and plucky sideline dancers into a sleek machine. She reframed what could be seen as a frivolous hobby into something like a passage to womanhood. “A girl becomes a LADY,” as one of the eighties-era cheerleader handouts put it. She really leaned into the personal development stuff. Another line from that handout: “What Director Suzanne Mitchell looks for are women beautiful inside and out, charitable, giving, sincere, and without a self-centered personality that could and sometimes does grip such ladies of talent and beauty.”
The 2018 documentary Daughters of the Sexual Revolution goes a long way toward reviving Suzanne’s legacy. Directed by Dana Adam Shapiro (Murderball) and shot during the last few years of Suzanne’s life, as she faced down pancreatic cancer, the documentary shares stories and incredible archival footage of how she steered the squad through its explosive growth. The made-for-TV cheerleaders movie, their Love Boat appearance, the USO tours; that was all Suzanne. She gave everything to the Cowboys. She was divorced when she took the job, and she never married again. Whether she was dating or not was the subject of cheerleader gossip, which she treated with a coy smile, but she never had kids. Cheerleader Dana Presley Killmer, who joined the squad in 1981, remembered a Christmas when Suzanne didn’t have a tree, which made the cheerleaders a little sad. “The Dallas Cowboys are my Christmas tree,” Dana remembers Suzanne telling them. “And you girls make it sparkle.”
Suzanne left the squad when Tex Schramm resigned. She was loyal to the end. And the story of how Jones took over that team and redefined it is well established. “I think Mr. Jones wanted to create his own era, therefore he had to create his own era, and I was very much a part of that other era,” Suzanne says in the documentary, in her disarmingly frank tone.
But it’s also true that Suzanne Mitchell wanted to create her own era, too—and that might have meant paving over the legacy of anyone who came before her. A handout from the eighties detailing the history of the cheerleaders says, “In the early years Tex Schramm hired Texie Waterman.” Well, actually it was Dee Brock, who had to split her salary to make that happen. Dee’s name doesn’t appear in that handout. It goes on to say, “The cheerleaders were different then from the ones we know today. That birth came in 1976.”
Suzanne loved to tell the story of “The Wink,” a mythology that suggests the cheerleaders’ fame really began when a cheerleader named Gwenda Swearengin winked at the camera at Super Bowl X in January 1976. “She may have not known she was on live national television,” that handout says, which I find doubtful, but that’s not the only questionable detail. As we explain in episode one, the wink was a carefully orchestrated moment that took place at a Monday Night Football game on November 10, 1975. It isn’t surprising that Suzanne got the date wrong; she wasn’t with the team at the time.
What is undeniable is her impact on the cheerleaders. She was mighty. The Dallas Cowboys were her Christmas tree, and she made it sparkle.
One of the most remarkable personalities in the cheerleaders’ saga is their first choreographer, Texie Waterman. A beloved jazz and musical theater dance instructor in Dallas, she is the person in the organization I most wish I could have met. We devoted five minutes to Texie in our first episode, and I wish it had been sixty.
Texie grew up in Dallas, where she went to Highland Park High School (which happens to be my alma mater). But she wasn’t that into school, and skipped college. Her mother was a dance instructor who helped found the Dallas Civic Ballet, and by the age of seventeen, Texie was taking the train to Mineola and other small Texas towns to teach dance. She landed parts in summer musicals, and when she was twenty, a Broadway producer recruited her to New York City, though Broadway never appeared in her credits. She danced at the Copacabana and the Versailles, lavish supper clubs popular in the fifties. She got a gig dancing in the Poconos, where she met a short, funny actor named Arte Johnson. An older generation might remember Johnson from his appearances on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where he played a German soldier who hid behind a potted plant and whose punch line was “Verrry interesting.” (It’s a meme now.) They married in 1957.
Texie danced on Sid Caesar’s variety show, but according to a story in the Dallas Morning News, her thirst for a career of her own likely ended the marriage. “I was a spoiled brat, and he probably was, too,” she said. They divorced, and although she got gigs in touring shows, the life span of a dancer is short, and eventually Texie moved home to Dallas. She began teaching in the two studios owned by her mom. (A very Texas detail: her mom was also named Texie.)
When I asked the seventies cheerleaders about the younger Texie, their eyes lit up. “Texie Waterman is an angel dancing on air,” said Vonciel Baker, one of the original professional cheerleaders in 1972, and the first one to ever try on the uniform. “[She had] this red hair, I mean red hair, and this unbelievable little body.”
“She’d walk on the field and we were like, ‘Oh my God, we want to be Texie,’ ” says Shannon Baker Werthmann, who joined the squad in 1976 and later replaced Texie as the group’s choreographer.
But it was Texie’s character that the cheerleaders remembered best. “You wanted to do your very best for Texie,” says Tami Barber, who joined the squad in 1977. “Her inner spirit and her soul were so dynamic, yet she could laugh at herself. She didn’t take herself seriously. She always was lifting, lifting, lifting us.”
“I thought she hung the moon,” says Kitty Carter, a cheerleader from 1974 to 1975, who became a dance instructor known among Cowboys cheerleaders fanatics for her appearances on the reality show Making the Team. “She had that real raspy voice. That smoker’s voice. And her laugh! She would throw that head back and laugh.”
Texie never had kids, although she had two more marriages, one with a Dallas advertising executive named Hugh Howard that lasted till Texie died of lung cancer in 1996. Kitty Carter told me Texie was devastated in the late seventies when her niece, whom she adored and who was planning to try out for the cheerleaders, was killed in a head-on collision. “She was never the same after that,” she said.
Texie retired in 1983. Although she is remembered among cheerleaders for her innovative style, I have to wonder if she was plagued by what she did not accomplish. “Of course I compromised. The world is full of compromises,” she told the Dallas Morning News in a 1983 story. “[The cheerleaders] are not artists. There’s only one thing I choreographed, for one country-western show, that brought out a little bit of my talent.”
But what talent she did bring transformed an experiment hatched by Dee Brock in 1972. It’s a great stroke of luck that these two women met—so it’s worth telling that story, too. In 1954, long before the Cowboys came to town, Texie Waterman was cast in a summer musical called Wish You Were Here, alongside Dee Brock. The show required a bevy of “bathing beauties” to walk across the stage, and two women would have to do it in a bikini—the racy new look that was still scandalous in fifties-era Dallas.
I’ll give you two guesses which women in that cast were bold enough to wear the bikini. And if the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders started anywhere, it’s in this picture, right here.
To hear more from Dee Brock and Paula Van Wagoner, listen to episode four of America’s Girls, “The Uniform.”