Arena likely to go, but not memories of its shows, teams

Who can ever forget the Rens or Pipers?

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Elvis did two concerts there, which means he twice exited for real. And announcer Mike Lange, in his best Pittsburghese, still punctuates the icing of a Penguins' win with the catch-phrase: "Elvis has just left the building!"

This mix of music and sports is just part of the history of an arena conceived as a venue for the Civic Light Opera, which wanted to put on shows under the stars -- or under the cover of a retractable roof in the event of rain.

One of the most distinctive shapes on the city's landscape, the stainless-steel, retractable dome opened in 1961 as the Civic Auditorium, later shortened to Civic Arena, before a naming rights payment made it Mellon Arena.

The house that welcomed Ginger Rogers and Mister Rogers, honorary captain of the Penguins in 1999, and offered entertainment from monster trucks to the Cookie Monster of "Sesame Street Live," has been in the news for years as being too outdated for its hockey team.

Local and state officials are cobbling together a deal for a new building that would keep the Penguins from leaving town for Kansas City or some other city hungry for an NHL franchise. Owner Mario Lemieux's answer to his suitors in Kansas City is due in two weeks.

If the Penguins stay, the team would play at least two more seasons at the arena in the countdown to the final curtain. And while there is some talk of saving it and converting it to other uses, the arena is likely to go the way of Forbes Field, Duquesne Gardens and Three Rivers Stadium.

The memories, however, have a life all their own.

The building opened with a showing of the Ice Capades on Sept. 19, 1961, as the world's largest dome and largest retractable roof. The roof was opened for 22 minutes but was closed in fear that the 74-degree weather would melt the ice.

Over the years, a motley crew of entertainers has played the arena, including, of course, the band Motley Crue, which appeared there in 1985.

The Beatles graced its stage in 1964, and almost 40 years after the Fab Four appeared, Keith Richards, of The Rolling Stones, was still cranking out the guitar riff to "Satisfaction." Garth Brooks once sold out six consecutive shows. Elton John and Billy Joel appeared together. Simon and Garfunkel reunited. Dancing in its confines have been Dead Heads and Parrot Heads.

The arena that featured Julio Iglesias has seen hockey from A to Z, from Syl Apps to Zarley Zalapski. And a veritable menagerie of sports teams have called it home, including Hornets, Rens, Pipers, Condors, Bulls and Piranhas, not to mention Triangles, Stingers, Gladiators, Crossfire, Xplosion and the ghosts of franchises past in the Phantoms and Spirit.

Those team names represent hockey, basketball, tennis, indoor football, indoor soccer, lacrosse and roller hockey.

Yet another confluence
This being Pittsburgh, the arena came about at the confluence of civic forces and featured that most Pittsburgh of traditions, a Plan B.

Department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann, who once hired Frank Lloyd Wright to build a vacation house called Fallingwater, hoped to build an amphitheater housing the Civic Light Opera at what is now Point State Park.

At the time, Mayor David Lawrence was overseeing Renaissance I. He wanted to build a multipurpose arena as part of the urban redevelopment of the Lower Hill District, and he persuaded Mr. Kaufmann to join in.

In the name of city progress, an entire neighborhood was obliterated and not all of the people were compensated for relocating. The federal government endorsed the redevelopment and picked up most of the $22 million tab for the arena.

Mr. Kaufmann's dream was hardly fulfilled. The roof couldn't be opened if there was a 60 percent chance of rain, or if the wind was above 7 mph. The CLO left the arena in 1968.

As an example of what happens when high-brow music and sports are combined, remember the indelicate sports cliche of the 1970s: "The opera ain't over till the fat lady sings."

All kinds of royalty
Rodney Dangerfield once joked that he went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out. The arena offered both.

Hockey brawlers Bob "Battleship" Kelly and Dave "The Hammer" Schultz prowled the ice.

Inside the ring, an up-and-coming heavyweight named Cassius Clay knocked out Charley Power in 1963 on his way to becoming Muhammad Ali. Larry Holmes retained his heavyweight title in 1981 by defeating Renaldo "Mister" Snipes.

If the place was suitable for the self-proclaimed Greatest of All Time in Ali, it also accommodated the Greatest Show on Earth, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The arena has experienced recent low-lights. A basketball game was delayed for 41 minutes last year because the roof leaked, and a Penguins game was interrupted twice by a power outage.

At one time, the place had a regal bearing, or at least featured regal names.

A King, Billie Jean, played a tennis match against Evonne Goolagong in the Triangles' home opener; they won a national title in 1975 to carve out their niche in the City of Champions. Queen performed there. The artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince dazzled crowds. So did Bob Prince as a hockey announcer after he was fired as the Pirates' broadcaster. And the Penguins hung up a championship banner for winning the Prince of Wales Conference. The Dukes were a mainstay, in that the Duquesne Dukes once played their home games there. A Lord has a presence there: Lord Stanley's Cup, the most coveted prize in hockey, which the Penguins won in consecutive years.

There was a Chairman of the Board in the presence of Frank Sinatra. There was even a Fuhrer -- Frank -- who owned several teams calling the place home.

The largest crowd ever at the arena? That distinction belongs to professional wrestling. A World Wrestling Entertainment event Jan. 30, 1999, attracted 18,150 paying customers. Wrestling headliners who have entered the squared circle included Bruno Sammartino, George "The Animal" Steele, Hulk Hogan, Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff, the Undertaker vs. Mankind in the Hell in a Cell match, and The Big Bossman, not to be confused with Bruce Springsteen, who packed the joint. One wrestling show was titled No Way Out.

The silver screen made use of the arena.

The 1995 action film "Sudden Death," starring Jean Claude Van Damme, is notable in that the roof was opened for the hockey-themed movie, but it was never open for a real hockey game.

For a place known for frozen water, the arena could swim with the fishes.

The cult comedy "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh," starring basketball's Julius "Doctor J" Erving, was filmed there in 1979, and the arena was the weigh-in site for the Bassmasters Classic in 2005.

The all-time best nickname of the past 46 years might belong to tennis pro Vitas Gerulaitus, of the Triangles, who was known as the "Lithuanian Lion" for his flowing mane. That's not to be confused with the Disney On Ice presentation of "The Lion King."

Basketball has provided some memorable and laughable moments. And that's just the Harlem Globetrotters, who perform regularly.

The Pipers won an ABA championship in their inaugural season of 1967-68, but then abruptly moved to Minnesota. They eventually returned under the name of Condors. One night, ownership gave away every one of the 13,000 tickets for free, and only 8,074 people showed up.

The WPIAL held its boys basketball tournament at the arena for years, and many a high school student's first trip to Pittsburgh involved the playoffs under the dome. Super Grover might have appeared with "Sesame Street Live," but Norm Grover preceded him as a forward for Uniontown Area High School in the 1965 title game against McKeesport.

The 1979 state championships were held there, with Valley High School winning the title.

The Dapper Dan Roundball Classic was a staple from 1965 through 1991. The old Eastern Eight Conference, with Pitt and Duquesne, held its tournament there. The Steel Bowl, the City Game and the Pittsburgh Summer Pro Classic also attracted basketball fans.

Among the names who have graced the arena hardwood are Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, George Gervin, Dominique Wilkins, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and LeBron James.

"Everybody criticizes the place, but I always thought it was the Taj Mahal," said Dave Pover, one-time organizer of the Summer Pro Classic. "It was beautiful."

Time for an ovation
Generations have trekked to the arena. Once, during a family outing after one of the Spirit games, a 6-year-old girl advanced a soccer ball the length of the carpet to score a goal. She's now a 30-year-old doctor, married, expecting her first child and still attending arena events.

Nobody is quite sure if the arena is a music hall occupied by a hockey team or a hockey rink that welcomes music acts. It's been changed over the years to add E Level and F Level seats, luxury sky boxes and premium seating. And the roof doesn't open because a new scoreboard with video screens was hung from the ceiling in 1995.

The arena's first hockey club was not the Penguins but the Hornets, a farm team of the Detroit Red Wings, of the American Hockey League. The Hornets won the Calder Cup after the 1966-67 season, their last.

The place already was being called The Igloo, and the name Penguins was chosen for the NHL expansion team, which began play in 1967.

The NHL All-Star game was played Jan. 21, 1990, with Mario Lemieux scoring four goals to be its most valuable player.

You could almost feel the place move April 17, when a standing-room-only crowd saluted Sidney Crosby for becoming the youngest player in the history of the NHL to score 100 points in a season.

Maybe it is outdated and inadequate for the times, maybe it does look like a silver flying saucer surrounded by a sea of asphalt, but the arena should not pass without receiving its own ovation. If nothing else, it was flexible enough to accommodate do-wop, a defenseman named Steve Durbano, Bob Dylan and conservative evangelical activist James Dobson.

Not too shabby for an opera house.

Post-Gazette archives
In the name of city progress, an entire neighborhood was obliterated to make way for the $22 million arena, shown here under construction.
Click photo for larger image.Morris Berman, Post-Gazette
The roof was open, giving a view of the skyline for those who attended the formal opening ceremonies of the new Civic Auditorium in 1961.
Click photo for larger image.

ARENA MEMORIES

Click here to share your own remembrances and recollections of the Arena. We'll compile them for future publication.Post-Gazette archives
A frenzied crowd of Beatles fans breaks through the police line outside the main gate at the band's concert on Sept. 14, 1964.
Click photo for larger image.Kent Badger, Post-Gazette archives
In 1969, the Pittsburgh Pipers returned for a second season in the American Basketball Association. The announced crowd for this game was 793.
Click photo for larger image.Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Professional wrestling events consistently drew crowds. On Jan. 30, 1999, 18,150 attended a wrestling card, the largest attendance for any kind of event at the arena.
Click photo for larger image.John Heller, Post-Gazette
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger perform at the Civic Arena for the Rolling Stones on their No Security tour in Pittsburgh -- one of the many bands that rocked the venue and its patrons over the years.
Click photo for larger image.Post-Gazette archives
Bruce Springsteen takes center stage with Clarence Clemmons on sax in a performance with the E Street band.
Click photo for larger image.Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette
The Greatest Show on Earth, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, regularly made the arena it's Pittsburgh home, engagements often prefaced by an elephant parade through the streets of Downtown.
Click photo for larger image.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
The minor league Hornets preceded the Penguins under the Igloo, but the presence of No. 66, Mario Lemieux, was bigger than all else.
Click photo for larger image.

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at 412-263-1959 or at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com .


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