The 1969 face of the land stretches out in parking spaces before us: asphalt waves of carports with houses attached, of shopping centers named Gateway and Northwind, of Holiday Inns and Burger Chefs, Sunocos, TraveLodges, Dairy Queens, Citgos, Minnie Pearls, McDonalds. And now to this Americana scene can be added a structural newcomer, the round parking-lot-surrounded mounds that rise like giant mushrooms across the horizon. They are the new arenas, a municipal phenomenon that is bringing high-quality sport into every nook and cranny of America, just the way the other modern establishments have brought to every man the best in French fries, vibrating beds and piano bars. The arena, more than any other, is the building for this time, an edifice held in such esteem by a proud citizenry that it is usually called "The Coliseum," for no name can be too highfalutin. It is a phenomenon that all by itself is changing the entertainment habits and sporting interests of millions.
AudArena Stadium guide estimates that there are already at least 355 arenas in North America with a seating capacity of 5,000 or more, and 105 with 10,000 or more. Two out of every three arenas standing today have been constructed in the last 20 years. Almost a quarter of them are five years old or less, and the boom is not likely to stop until every ambitious town of any size has treated itself to one.
The state of Virginia offers a worthy example of the trend, for until recently the Old Dominion did not possess a single arena large enough to fit a fair-sized Virginia reel into. Then, in 1967, Salem—a town of 24,000 that lies near Interstate 81—built itself a mushroom that can seat 7,000, almost one-third the population, and park 3,500 cars. Almost at once Salem had its own professional ice hockey team and was being visited by such attractions as ice shows and the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus—something no other town its size could claim.
Five miles east of Salem is Roanoke, pop. 102,000. Seeing what Salem had wrought, Roanoke is building an 11,000-seat arena. A scant 25 miles the other way, down U:S. 11 and over to Blacksburg, pop. 7,000, another 11,000-seat arena has been completed, this one on the Virginia Tech campus. If events are ever scheduled at the same time in all three buildings, warm bodies will have to be bussed in from Radford and Lynchburg to fill them up. Yet this is still minor league compared to what is going on farther east where, in a 100-mile corridor of Richmond, Hampton and Norfolk, three arenas are going up that will cost a total of $65 million and seat 35,000.
May 11, 1969
Suddenly there are so many arenas that the metropolitan area that does not possess one seems emasculated in its efforts to attract industry, tourists, conventions, publicity or even plain old suburbanites. Besides, a town's residents—having seen top entertainment on TV—are no longer content to while away the hours kicking tires down at the Mobil station. Says Carson Bain, the ebullient mayor of Greensboro, N.C., which has just committed itself to $5 million in improvements for an arena that is only a decade old: "These buildings are no longer luxuries. They are necessities for the cities of the '70s. I mean that. America needs them for the happiness of a community, and in the long run, I'm afraid, for civic peace as well."
In years past, the arena has been dismissed as nothing more than a place of rough male discourse, tart cigar fumes and drab rows of heavy pleated pants, a building whose antecedents were the gymnasium, the union hall and the poolroom down on the corner. But if this were once true, it is no longer. Indeed, at a time when populations tend to splinter into numerous demanding interest groups, the arena has become a rare cynosure that the whole community can focus upon. In that way it is descended from a traditional, and vital, building line, having a common historical function with the church of colonial times, with the country store of frontier days, with the town hall or the county courthouse.
Until the arenas began to emerge in the '50s, there was no apparent modern heir to this line of crucial civic structures. Cities with populations in the hundreds of thousands had to satisfy their sporting tastes with minor league baseball teams and the ragged skirmishing of high school rivals. The circus was dusty, and in a tent. The ice show crowded into a rink called Iceland. There wasn't a hall large enough to pay the way of a big-time entertainer.
The arenas have altered all of this. They have saved the circus. They have enabled Liberace or Andy Williams to come right into your town, live, just like Las Vegas. But most of all, they have brought in sport. The new coliseums made the NBA major league, they are the last hope of the ABA, they lifted college basketball out of the economic shadow of football. They have brought a whole new division to the NHL and have made minor league hockey a success in towns that never saw ice, unless it was in glasses.
The arena binge made most of its early headway in the South, but now it is visible in every section of the country. Fayetteville, N.C. has a new building that seats 7,000; Odessa, Texas has one for 9,300. Monroe, La. (pop. 65,000) recently finished a complex that includes an 8,000-seat arena, a 15,000-square-foot conference hall and a 2,200-seat theater, all with a "Symphonic Colorfall" out front. Bismarck, N.D., which is about half as big as Monroe, has a 7,000-seat arena under construction.
How does an arena fit into a community? A revealing example of an arena, and an arena town, is Greensboro, a pleasant Piedmont municipality of 145,000. It has a progressive leadership to go with the remnants of a Southern rural heritage of Gospel, tobacco and souped-up automobiles. Greensboro has no special tourist attraction, and strong waters cannot be purchased there by the drink. Were a man not disposed to golf, patio barbecueing or drive-in movies, time might lie heavy on his hands. But this year more than 800,000 people will, by accurate count, go through the gates at the 9,000-seat Greensboro War Memorial Coliseum. The popularity of the structure can be, and has been, translated into votes. Last year the question of whether to float a municipal bond issue to enlarge the coliseum to 16,500 seats was put on the ballot. The coliseum bond led the whole ticket, outpolling such things as water, sewage bonds and government buildings.
Support was not so easy to come by when the original $4.5 million structure was suggested in 1946 by an enterprising mayor, W.H. Sullivan Sr. Memories of the Depression remained too vivid, and it was difficult to convince voters anywhere that they should approve great sums to be spent on hedonistic temples for sweat and show biz. The arena was built in Greensboro—and many other cities, too—because the arena bonds were included in an appropriation for an arena and auditorium. The auditorium, which had the combined appeal to worthiness of being a place for culture and revenue-producing conventions, carried the arena through the polls.
Today the situation is reversed; it is the arena that has the support, with the auditorium coming along for the ride. The arena, unlike either the auditorium or the stadium, is a flexible building that is capable of housing the most diverse entertainment. The average U.S. arena is now in use 230 days a year, a figure that is all the more impressive because many of the buildings are run by politically appointed officials who do not know how to get the full potential out of their structure.
In Greensboro the new appropriation will air-condition the coliseum, at which time it will become a true year-round proposition. But even now, except in the hottest summer months, there is hardly a night that it is dark. To watch it closely for a few days is to capture the arena phenomenon, and something of the country, too.
The circus has just left Greensboro and the ice show is coming in, with Johnny Carson after that, and in between there is some traditional-rival basketball, some tournament basketball, the Globetrotters, professional hockey, Roller Derby, a country and western music show, while over in the auditorium and exhibition hall is a touring Man of La Mancha, a local theater group drama and a sportsman's trade show. There was to have been a wrestling bill, but it canceled out, perhaps because the promoter was nervous about all the competition. He should not have been. Almost everything, as they say, "went clean"—sold out.
"I don't know what it is, escapism or what," says Bob Kent, the coliseum general manager and a man who has a national reputation for being the best in the business. "Maybe it is just affluence. I know there is seldom any price resistance. I told the hockey team owners they were crazy not to raise their prices. They have a $3 top, and you've got junior high kids coming in waving $5.50 at you for a rock show. We will have Cabaret in the auditorium at $8.50 top. Sports are very modest compared to most entertainment."
Sports teams—usually those that are doing poorly at the gate—like to talk about the competition for the so-called "entertainment dollar." But that is an outdated concept, for in this economic era, when leisure spending money is available to such a broad base of the population, the only real competition appears to be for entertainment time. Events that do poorly in arenas today are not failing because people have run out of entertainment dollars but because they are not sufficiently interested to allot any more of their entertainment time.
"I'll tell you," Bob Kent says, "anybody who figures out a third successful family show to go with the circus and the ice shows can make a fortune. They tried water shows a few years ago, but they didn't quite make it. There are a lot of rumors now that some big companies are working on various concepts for a third big family show, and I'm not surprised, because there is a demand that needs only to be satisfied."
As Kent talks, a short lady with pink plastic curlers in her hair gets to the ticket window. Like almost everybody, she does not evince much interest in ticket prices, but she cares a lot about where she will sit. She asks for a seating chart, and the ticket seller provides it and the required information. "You mean all them seats are gone?" the lady asks. "And way up there's alls that's left?" She pauses. "Shoot." She pauses again, but only briefly. "Gimme two." There is no substitute buying at the arena. This lady was there for Roller Derby tickets. Good seats for Man of La Mancha or the Globetrotters would not have interested her.
Indeed, the key to any sustaining arena attraction is a devoted hard-core constituency. Arena patrons do not want to be surprised. For that, they can stay home and switch channels. A country and western singer who played the arena circuit recently with what promoters called a jazzy "colored act" is having trouble getting new bookings. The Greensboro Generals of the Eastern Hockey League attract—as hockey usually does in the U.S.—a middle-and upper-class audience that wants to witness the release of clean, respectable aggression. Thus, the Generals are careful not to hire any roughneck types. Instead, they seek out clean-cut young players who can address high school classes and become part of the community.
The most profitable arena presentations anywhere are the circus and the ice shows, because their constituency is the broadest—children of all ages. The Harlem Globetrotters mine this same vein. By now, in fact, it is no more than incidental that they happen to be Negro and basketball, for those factors are transcended by something more important: what the Globetrotters really have become is a part of growing up. Like a puff on a clandestine cigarette, a bruised knee, a peek at a girlie magazine, the Globetrotters have become something you must encounter at least once as a child—and then again, one more time, as a parent.
So what if it is a school night, and a Monday night at that, when the Globetrotters come into Greensboro? The lines are long, and fear is beginning to crease the faces of some fathers. The kids were promised this; Mother made the suggestion—repeatedly—that tickets be bought in advance. Now, still 15 feet from the window, the announcement is made: sellout. You will, however, be refunded your quarter for parking in the lot. An insufficient consolation.
"We'll stop at the Dairy Queen for whatever you want on the way home," the father offers, trying his best, but even before he can hustle his family outside they hear the first loud roar. The children, two quiet little fellows with bad haircuts, instinctively move closer to Mother, a more dependable sort. "Do you remember where we're parked?" she asks. "What I'll do is come down tomorrow on the way home from work and pick up some ice-show tickets," the father says. There is, unfortunately, another loud roar.
Despite the cheers, the Globetrotters are just beginning to get dressed, for they are only the feature act on a bill that includes a girl who twirls knives to the theme song from Zorba the Greek, some Cuban tumblers, a gentleman who balances things on his forehead and a contortionist from Germany who exhibits strong teeth to go with a facile body. Most of it is regular fare on Ed Sullivan, and therefore old hat for every jaded youth of 6 years old, of which there are plenty in the audience.
Everybody has a good time, though, especially when the Globetrotters come on with the most predictable act of the evening. The Globetrotters are 43 years old now, and they change their bits about as regularly as Jack Benny does. A group of Boy Scouts watches in delight as Meadowlark Lemon chases Curly Neal. One of the Scouts, a picture of cosmopolitan smugness, is too smart for this. "Oh," he informs his buddies, "here comes that old water-bucket gag." Meadowlark lets fly, the confetti tumbles out and nobody laughs harder in the whole place than the sophisticated Scout.
The boy had, of course, already seen the whole act on TV. The Globetrotters make periodic television appearances and had been on a special with Soupy Sales only a few weeks before. But the Boy Scouts and everyone else were glad to pay to see for real what had been on TV for free. Surprisingly, almost all successful arena attractions have learned to use television, rather than the other way around. Essentially, what has happened is that television and the arenas have combined in the establishment of a modern vaudeville circuit that is set up exactly in the reverse of what vaudeville used to be. In the old days you played the sticks, working your way up till you made the Palace in New York. Now you start off with the Palace of today—television—and if you are a hit you head out into the sticks to capitalize on it.
Indeed, except for the rock shows, which are often wild and vulgar and contain a potential for violence, any night at the arena is likely to be homey. The spectators know the performers from TV, and they also know their fellow spectators, because the same people attend the same type of events regularly. Fans get very piqued in Greensboro when they discover they cannot obtain their usual seat near friends.
Thursday is traditionally wrestling night in Greensboro, and on any Thursday when there is no wrestling show, at least a few grunt-and-groan buffs show up out of habit. Sometimes these people head to the window, purchase tickets "for tonight" and are seated inside before they realize that they are watching a basketball game or something, not wrestling. Kent gives them their money back without question. On Thursdays in the summer, when the farmers around Greensboro work the tobacco land long under the late sun, many of them go directly from the field to the coliseum, with no time to change from their work clothes. If they can manage it, though, they bring other clothes and get out of their coveralls in a men's room. Each arena crowd favors its own dress style, but they all try to dress up.
Though every social stratum of Greensboro uses the arena, the full face of Greensboro is never there on the same evening. The time to see the people is during the day at the ticket windows, when the fans are just buying and not consciously on view. By night, the lady in curlers, the gentleman in work clothes, the teen-ager in a frayed sweat shirt, return, stylish in their fashion, each dressed exactly like hundreds of others that evening. The only way to relocate an afternoon ticket buyer at the game would be to band him, like a mallard, or bell him, like a cat.
The similarity of dress for each event becomes as standard as the color of the tickets. But one recent night there was a marked contrast to be observed. A country and western show starring Porter Wagoner ("When a man gets woman hungry, he can find a meal somewhere") was in the arena, while down the hall in the auditorium the local Little Theatre group was presenting Paddy Chayevsky's The Tenth Man, a drama about New York Jews. The outer lobby area was the only common ground, and the spectators eyed each other curiously in passing. The theatergoers, a distinct minority, stood out in their double-breasted blazers and imitation Gucci shoes. One couple walked by in evening dress. Two sunburned country aficionados, dressed fit to kill in the prevailing country mode—loose dark suits and dress light-blue socks—stared at the couple. "Monkey suit," one smirked to the other, and then they were through the turnstiles to the inner lobby.
This lobby area is an important one, one of four battlegrounds in the arena. The most obvious, of course, is the hall itself. The offices constitute a second front, and in the bowels of the place George Staley and his men move with ice-making machines and tow motors and a platoon of other devices.
The peak attraction for lobby action is the annual Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, which this year came to Greensboro just before the ice show. Except for a predictable cordon of pro basketball scouts, the CIAA crowd is all black, but that is incidental to the point. The tournament has eight teams, which means that at any one time no more than 25% of the teams, and hence, 25% of the fans, are directly involved in the action. The rest fill the lobby, making and renewing acquaintances and planning for the parties that follow.
Hockey crowds seem next best at thronging the lobby. Hockey has what amounts to two halftimes, and thus a double emphasis is placed on socializing. The hockey crowd is the easiest to spot, too, since everybody seems to have come directly from the 19th hole. This is quite possible; when the Generals were brought to Greensboro, much of the stock was sold at the country clubs. Everybody is in monogrammed sweaters. Monogrammed cardigan sweaters. Monogrammed V-neck sweaters. Monogrammed crew-neck sweaters. There is bantering with the girls walking by, and mental dressing of them in monogrammed sleeveless sweaters. Suddenly a Kelly-green cardigan whispers to a wine-colored V neck and then heads to the guard by the turnstile. "I have to go out to my car," he says. "I left my headlights on."
"Are you sure?" the guard says. Spectators have been known to employ such ruses in an effort to retrieve spirits from the car.
"I'm pretty sure," he says, a lot less sure.
"All right," says the guard, "but I'm going with you, and those headlights better be on or you're not coming back."
Shaken, Kelly green takes a few steps and then stops. "You know," he says, "there's no sense us going out there. If those headlights haven't run down the battery in two periods, another period isn't liable to make much difference."
"I don't suppose so," the guard says, letting Kelly green back in.
However well dressed they may be, sports fans are not often equipped for special contingencies. There are so many kids at Globetrotters games that it often takes a half hour or so after a game for the players to sign their way through autograph seekers. Most of the action attendant to this scene, however, does not concern getting an autograph but getting a pencil or pen. Even more confusion is created by proper owners trying to get their pens back. Sports fans, even at an early age, rather expect athletes to supply their own writing instruments, as well as their signatures.
The fans who patronize the performing arts are, on the other hand, better prepared. The leaders in this field are the country and western buffs, who come to the arena loaded down with binoculars, food reserves and flashbulb cameras. It is traditional in country-music circles that you will be permitted to leave your seat, wherever it is located, and make a hegira up to the rope in front of the stage, where you can take a picture of the performer. When each new act arrives onstage, there is a stirring all over the arena as spectators rise and siphon down the aisles to the stage. Maybe it is all this walking to and from the stage that accounts for what seems to be less congregating out in the concession lobbies.
At intermission, though, there is a lobby crowd gathered about a card table set up for one of the country-music entertainers, Stonewall Jackson. He has suggested, at the close of his act, that fans might visit him there and purchase autographed record albums "to help stamp out poverty." But most of those gathered about him appear less interested in commerce than in closely inspecting Stonewall and his spangled outfit. One buyer does express some anxiety that Stonewall is not going to sing Waterloo. Stonewall explains he saves that for last.
Mostly, though, there is kibitzing on the fringes, like the two elderly gentlemen who are standing back smoking True cigarettes (made in Greensboro) "He looks better to me than on TV," one whispers to the other.
"Well, you know," his friend says, "we never seen him in color."
"No, it's not that," an interloper offers, "it's the TV makes you more heavyset, black and white and color both The TV always makes you heavyset" All heads nod in assent.
Such a TV-oriented assessment is not an isolated occurrence. At the arena, it matters not whether it is Liberace or Meadowlark Lemon, Peggy Fleming or Charlie Scott, Stonewall Jackson or Fabulous Moolah, every audience has one preoccupation. That is to speculate on how the star looks in person compared to how he looks on television. The team comes out on the floor or the performer moves up to the microphone, and there is applause. As it subsides, there is left only murmur noises, for everybody in the place is turning to his neighbor and observing the differences between what they see and what they saw on television. Perhaps the real mark of the arena and the guarantee of its continued success is that it is the one place where you can find America when it isn't in front of its TV.
The coliseum had just been cleared out for another night and now Bob Kent is reflecting on the arena business. Kent, who is president of the International Association of Auditorium and Arena Managers, turned a $93,000 profit on his coliseum last year, but he has no illusions. "If you could consistently make enough money with these buildings to retire the original debt," he says, "municipal governments wouldn't have to build them. Private capital would gladly assume the burden. Use and service, not profit, are the yardsticks of success for the arena."
Ken Campbell, the promoter of the night's event—Roller Derby—had just settled up. Campbell is a rugged, enthusiastic man who has made a living guessing what people would pay to see. He ran stock-car races before they were fashionable, demolition derbies, now the Roller Derby. Tonight he has something on his mind. "Bob," Campbell says, "are you taking Gospel shows?" Kent backs off a little; he says he is not convinced yet that there is a sufficient constituency for them. "I really think it might be the next thing to go," Campbell says.
They chatted some more, and then it was time to leave. Campbell was taking his Derby to the Charlotte Coliseum the next day, and then right on to the Minges Coliseum in Greenville the afternoon after that. Kent had the Porter Wagoner Show in the next night. He turned out the lights behind him and moved into the lobby. It was pitch-dark, with only the moon to light the way. As he moved toward the door, Kent saw, over in a corner, three towheaded kids, two brothers and an older sister of 9 or 10.
"Hey, what are you all doing here?" Kent said.
"We're still waiting for Daddy to pick us up," the girl explained.
"It's been over an hour since everything ended," Kent said. "Don't you think we ought to call him up?" The girl said they were out of money, so Kent led them back into his office.
"I bet you anything," one of the boys said all of a sudden, "that Daddy done fell asleep again in front of the TV." Kent began to dial, and outside the moonlight glanced off the posters of the coming attractions. It would be just a few hours before the ticket lines would be forming up again.