At the Arena: The nice, the rude, the outrageous
I am often asked "Who was your favorite act?" or "What was your best show?" Or "Who was the nicest act?
In the early days, artists appreciated anything I would do for them. They were grateful. If I was able to get their record played, they remembered that forever and were loyal to me. After a while, unfortunately, that changed. Most of what sticks in my mind are all of the greedy and selfish behaviors that our rock heroes exhibited over the years.
The Beatles were without a doubt the most celebrated and well known of all the concerts we promoted. I never cared too much for the Stones. The first time the Stones came to town was around the same time as the Beatles, but they did poorly in comparison. The next time they came, I assured them that they would do well. I went to WDVE -- which promoted almost all of my concerts -- to ask them to hype the show. It sold out to more than 14,000 -- the largest crowd I ever had up to then.
Bob Harper, program director of DVE and a good friend of mine, was backstage with all of his station's disc jockeys, who introduce the acts. They were proud that their station did such a good job promoting the Stones.
It was intermission and I was at the box office when the phone rang. John Woods, the box office manager, answered the phone. "That was Mick Jagger," he said. "He wants to see you in his dressing room."
That was never a good sign. Anytime an artist wants to see you in the dressing room, expect a problem.
When I reached the dressing room, Mick asked, "Who are all those people behind the stage?"
"They are the disc jockeys from WDVE. They are doing the emceeing for the show."
"Well I don't want anyone back stage, and I don't want anybody emceeing the show. Get rid of them now!"
"But Mick," I told him, "You don't understand. They are with the show. Their station did a great job promoting you and presenting the show. It is in your contract that they can announce you."
"Either you get rid of them or I won't go on," he said.
Bob Harper was not too happy with this news. "We have a deal. You can't do this to me. You go back and tell him that," he said.
I told him that Mick was adamant.
"Well, you tell him that if we don't announce him, WDVE will never play another Rolling Stones record again. I will break every Stones record on the air and tell the audience what he is like. Go on tell him," he yelled.
I could barely hear him over the loud roar of the crowd, "We want the Stones! We want the Stones."
Mick Jagger wouldn't back down. "Do you hear that crowd screaming for us? You tell him that I don't need him or his radio station and that he will have to play my records anyway."
It was one of the most difficult things that I had to do. Unfortunately for me, it affected my relationship with Bob.
Sonny and Cher -- a sold-out affair on Aug. 15, 1972 -- was another great show. At the time, I managed a brother and sister group called The Walkers who could imitate any of the acts.
When they learned I was bringing Sonny and Cher in, they asked for two tickets in the front row. I thought they were just big fans of the group. However, I had failed to realize just what they planned to accomplish with the request.
On the night of the show, they dressed like Sonny and Cher. They looked exactly like them. They hired a limo and drove up to the arena entrance. They were escorted into the arena and all the way to the front row. People rushed up to them, taking pictures and getting autographs. The Walkers were creating quite the scene.
When the real Sonny, who was back stage, peeked at the crowd, he saw The Walkers imitating them.
There was another call to the box office.
"What is going on down by the stage?" he asked.
I didn't know what he was talking about.
"Either you get rid of those two or we are not going on," Sonny yelled.
Several security guards and I had to escort The Walkers to the back of the arena. They changed clothes, and I sat them in the back. Sonny was furious. The Walkers were just trying to have fun, but it could have cost me my reputation.
The English acts were always difficult to deal with. In 1970, I played Led Zeppelin at the arena, which sold out as expected. The group wanted two cases of Dom Perignon champagne for the dressing room.
I had several runners whose jobs were to fetch what the acts demanded, the "rider requirements." The dressing room was the hockey team's locker room. All the walls and floors were concrete. We tried to buy the two cases of Dom but to no avail. Horne's Department store, the premier liquor store at the time, said that "In all of the city of Pittsburgh, you will not find two cases of Dom. You must order that item well in advance."
I dispatched my runner to all the state stores in the Tri-State area to fill up two cases with Dom and the next best thing he could find.
Before Led Zeppelin arrived, the two cases of champagne were placed in the dressing room. Several hours later, I was again summoned to the dressing room.
"What is this?" the manager asked.
"Champagne?" I responded.
"Champagne. You call this garbage champagne?" he yelled.
I tried to explain the incredible effort it took to gather up the champagne to fill the cases, but he kept calling it garbage.
Then, he reached for a bottle, one that cost me about $100 apiece, and threw it against the wall. Again and again until all 24 bottles were smashed.
Two thousand and five hundred dollars disappeared before my eyes.
One of my favorite acts was Chicago. The group had an allegiance to me because I took a chance on them early in their career. In the mid '60s they competed with Blood Sweat and Tears for the same audience. I thought that Chicago was the better group and I helped them to get radio play and brought them to the arena before they were really big. By 1972 I had played them more times than any other act, and the show always sold out.
One time I had Alice Cooper scheduled for Three Rivers Stadium in June and Chicago scheduled for July 11. Unfortunately, the Alice Cooper date at Three Rivers Stadium got flooded out, and I had to reschedule it to the only date the group had available -- the same day as the Chicago gig at the arena.
I didn't want to do that because it could affect sales for the Chicago show, but I had no choice. On that night, I had to be at both the stadium and the arena. I made sure I arrived at the arena during intermission to see Chicago before they went on. Just as I got to the arena, I was summoned to their dressing room.
Before I went back, I checked on ticket sales. Only 8,800 had been sold -- a poor showing.
"What are you doing running two shows tonight?" they barked when I got to the dressing room. "Why did you book us the same night as you have a ball park date? You should know better."
I had to do a lot of explaining. Their egos were bruised. They couldn't handle the fact that the house didn't sell out. Just for that incident my relationship with the agent was never the same. Agents definitely have short memories in this business.
One of the most stressful dates was the Doors. Jim Morrison had a reputation, especially after his "disrobing" in Miami, of performing drunk, swearing, taunting the police and inciting a riot. The first time I booked him in 1968, the mayor's office forced me to cancel a sold-out show. I had to eat the advertising costs.
As the months passed, the city did finally let me present the show. I had to hire more police than any other show besides the Beatles. The police warned: "If he does anything immoral during the show, we are arresting him and you."
Fortunately for my sake, he behaved well enough for not only one but two Civic Arena shows. However, if you listen to the live album from the May 2, 1970, show you can hear him taunting the police a bit.
I would have to say that two of the nicest acts were the Jackson Five and the Osmonds. Both performed at the arena in 1972 and sold out. I met Michael Jackson and Donny Osmond, as well as their families. I was impressed with all of them, but I have to say that Michael was special. He had charisma even backstage.
Even though both grossed about $68,000 in sales for the night, the Osmonds ended up with more money, simply because they weren't into all the frills associated with success. They didn't spend money on their dressing rooms, hotels and limos like the other acts. They were plain folk.
One of the greatest shows that I was ever involved with, however, was not a concert. It was a sports event. Sonny Vaccaro, my lifelong friend, and I conceived an idea for a high school basketball game called the "Dapper Dan Roundball Classic."
The game premiered in 1965, a year after the Beatles. My goal was to get the best talent in the country every year and I wanted the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh to be its home. It instantly gained national significance. The arena became the recruiting mecca for college basketball for a long time. The game stayed in Pittsburgh until 1992 and continued on in other cities until 2007.
Bruce Springsteen was probably the greatest for many reasons. The first time I saw him perform was in the mid-'70s at a show that DiCesare-Engler did at Kutztown State University. I remember running to the phone to call Rich Engler. I told him, "I just saw the greatest rock 'n' roll act of all time. We've got to get the guy to Pittsburgh. This guys's gonna be huge!"
We played him everywhere from the Stanley to the stadium, but you could depend on a Civic Arena sell-out from the Boss every time. You also knew that the crowd was going to behave. Pittsburgh loved Bruce Springsteen. We even gave Mayor Richard Caliguiri tickets for the Born in the USA tour. Bruce would sell out so fast, and I would get so many ticket requests, that I would have to change my home answering machine to start off, "If you're calling about Springsteen tickets ..."
He did not let his fame go to his head. He was always a pleasure to deal with. When he played his first show for us at the Syria Mosque, he wanted something to eat late at night. So Rich took him to a nice restaurant. Bruce wore jeans and a T-shirt and he ordered corn on the cob and apple pie.
That's Bruce Springsteen.
First Published May 30, 2010 12:00 am