Civic Arena played big part in birth of 'megaconcert' industry
Pittsburgh skyline from within Civic Arena at opening ceremonies.
Paul McCartney played the Civic Arena, February, 1990.
On Sept. 15, 1986, the ceiling of the Civic Arena dazzles as the stage is set for a concert.
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When I became involved in the music business in the late '50s, all concerts were held at the 3,700-seat-capacity Syria Mosque in Oakland or the 2,000-seat Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall across the street.
Surprisingly in the early days of rock, it was difficult for one act to sell out these small venues, and promoters often had a hard time dealing with management at these venues, who preferred any act over a rock act because of potential noise and other problems.
There were other issues. Although the Syria Mosque was considered the prime venue for all types of concerts, it didn't have air conditioning and often was too hot during the summer to host shows.
At the time, most promoters believed Pittsburgh didn't need another concert venue. But the Civic Light Opera was the exception. It was meant to be played in the summer and needed an open-air venue. The CLO played stadiums and other outdoor facilities but needed a permanent home for the summer that would be both comfortable and provide theater-style seating. Having a retractable domed roof made sense and would ultimately give birth to the construction of the Civic Arena.
When the Civic Arena -- now the Mellon Arena -- was built, I did not think that it would be a rock music venue. Who would want to see a concert in a gigantic sports facility?
So when the arena was ready to open in 1961, promoters were uneasy about risking their money at such a large venue. Not only did they fear the public would not want to pay to see a concert in such a huge facility, but the artists' agents also were unwilling to let their act be the first to try this "experiment." The agents wanted to be sure that the audience could see and hear their performer.
I had to hand it to the architects, though. When I saw the finished product, it was a beautiful sight, and I was proud that Pittsburgh had such a venue. It felt like space-age technology. The roof could open, it had an ice floor for hockey and skating shows, and at the same time it could host a concert.
The Ice Capades officially opened the arena on Sept. 19, 1961. During its 20-day run, the Ice Capades sold 189,270 tickets for a gross sale of $514,483. This was a phenomenal success. Suddenly everyone thought that the new arena was the right venue to have in Pittsburgh.
Although the Civic Arena was built with the initial help from the Kaufmann Foundation as a home for the Civic Light Opera, the public soon regarded the venue as a sports facility. Edgar Kaufmann Sr.'s foundation had contributed $1 million to push the idea of constructing it, but unfortunately he died before it was completed. He probably would have been disappointed with how the arena became more of a home for sports teams than the CLO.
Judy Garland made her way to the stage on Oct. 19, 1961, and became the first act to perform at the arena. To everyone's surprise, the event sold out. There were 12,325 people in attendance and a whopping gross sale of $58,523. This was unheard of at the time. Many attributed it not only to the fact that Judy Garland rarely made personal appearances, but also that people wanted a chance to see this new architectural masterpiece.
When the arena opened, the big question for the rock promoter was, can we afford to use this huge facility? No one was positive that the arena's greatest feature -- the retractable roof -- even worked. Engineers claimed that sometimes the roof did not close properly. Therefore, you really couldn't advertise that the roof was going to be open for the show. I never did, at least.
There were other expenses that were unique to this arena that the public never saw. What's involved if the arena hosts hockey on Monday, a concert on Tuesday and basketball on Wednesday? A nightmare.
After the hockey game on Monday, an all-night crew, in addition to normal cleanup, covered the ice floor with a Homasote type of insulation. Then it set up as many as 2,000 chairs on the floor -- over the ice -- to prepare for the concert that evening.
After the Tuesday night concert, the all-night crew arrived, cleaned up and removed the temporary seats. Then, it lay down a new floor for basketball.
All of this was very expensive and was the major reason why most promoters in the '60s were not enthusiastic about using the Civic Arena to host rock concerts.
At this time, Tim Tormey -- my mentor and partner -- was attempting to become the dominant promoter of the city. Lenny Litman, the owner of the Copa nightclub, was his toughest competition. As the arena was being built, guys such as Tim and myself in the record business were starting to take over the concert promotion business.
With the success of the Judy Garland show, we considered producing a rock show at the arena. That could really make us big. And since we were all in the record business, we felt that the record companies and local disc jockeys would be instrumental in the success of the show.
Nick Cenci and Herbie Cohen were two successful record distributors and the type of people to do a show at the arena. Unfortunately, they were hesitant like everyone else.
"The arena," Nick shot back in response to Tim's plans to host a concert at the venue. "Isn't that a big risk?"
"Not if I can get the acts for nothing or very little," Tim countered. "We have to talk to Porky [Chedwick] to use his influence with the record companies. If we can get the big names to come without paying them or just paying their expenses, I think we can make money. If we do well, we can then decide if we should pay."
Tim's only other request? The acts had to be big.
Our main concern was the cost of producing such a show. We thought one of the best ways to reduce that cost was to get the record company and the artist to work with us.
When a record was released, the record company sent out the national promotion man to do whatever it took to get the record played. It was not uncommon for the act to do public performances at no charge for the local disc jockey, which worked out great considering a lot of the disc jockeys had record hops at the time.
The radio stations permitted the disc jockeys to promote their record hops, which were considered part of the disc jockey's compensation. The record companies knew that the disc jockey could make or break the record.
In the '50s, the two most influential disc jockeys here were Jay Michael at WCAE and Barry Kaye at WJAS. Some of the lesser-known DJs had a special niche audience, and one of the least known of them all, Porky Chedwick, would turn out to be the one with the greatest influence.
Porky was sincerely interested in helping new artists get noticed. He would give anyone a break. "The Platter Pushin' PaPa" played music that KDKA, WCAE and WJAS would never dream of playing. Porky would play new, unproven music from black artists when most of his white counterparts would not.
Tim was the best at figuring costs and keeping things to a bare minimum. He went to Charlie Strong, general manager of the arena, and negotiated a deal with the venue that would save $1,000 on the traditional guarantee with the arena.
"After all, Mr. Strong," Tim said reassuringly, "if we do well with this concert, other promoters and agents will be beating down your door to bring rock shows here."
Mr. Strong not only gave Tim the deal he wanted but he also reduced the maintenance costs associated with changing over the ice at the arena.
Finally, someone was sold on the idea.
It was official. Porky Chedwick of WAMO radio would present the first major rock 'n' roll show at the Civic Arena. "Live in person for one night only," Porky urged the audience with his best endorsement. "Jackie Wilson, The Drifters, The Coasters, The Castelles, Jerry Butler, The Flamingos, The Angels, The Blue Belles, and Pittsburgh's own -- The Skyliners."
The show was held on May 11, 1962, and I still consider it one of the greatest concerts at the Civic Arena. Surprisingly, most of the acts received very little compensation. They were happy to do a favor for Porky. After all, he played their records first and took a gamble on acts when no one else would.
Finding the best way to sell the tickets was one of our biggest challenges. Was someone from Punxsutawney willing to drive all the way in to Pittsburgh to buy concert tickets at the Civic Arena box office?
Buying them at the box office had its advantages because concertgoers could pick their seats from a seating chart. Moreover, arena staff also held the best tickets to sell at the box office. The arena ticket sellers consequently became influential because everyone who wanted good tickets knew the sellers were the ones to contact.
Since we were all in the record business, we thought another idea was to sell tickets at record stores. A local chain of record stores seemed to be the solution -- National Record Mart.
The Shapiro brothers -- Sam, Howard and Jason -- were by far the best in the retail record business. They saw the opportunity immediately. We knew the Shapiros and trusted them with our ticket money.
The arena issued a small number of tickets to the Shapiros, which they distributed to each of their 34 stores in the Tri-State area. They actually ran the ticket agency out of a cigar box located under the counter in each store. At stores far from Pittsburgh, the customer would receive a blue voucher that reserved the ticket at the arena box office on the night of the show.
At first, we didn't want to levy a service charge. We thought it wasn't fair to our customers. If the ticket price was $2.50, that's all they should pay. The Shapiros, however, thought that they should be compensated. After a long discussion, we all agreed on a service charge of 25 cents per ticket. It was a hard pill for us to swallow.
Now that we saw the success of the Porky Chedwick show, and we felt we had a good handle on how to sell more than 10,000 tickets for a show, Tim and I were ready to start using the Civic Arena as a concert venue. Our goal was to assemble enough star power by promoting several hit rock acts of the day and packaging them on one stage as our "Shower of Stars" series with KQV Radio. We would have up to 10 acts for one show. Amazingly, we knew that very few acts could even sell out the 3,700-seat Syria Mosque on their own so we needed 10 acts to sell out the arena.
Our first "Shower of Stars" show was June 14, 1963. It starred Dion, The Chiffons, The Shirelles, and Freddy Cannon. The show did extremely well, but there would not be another rock concert at the arena until Tim and I promoted the Beatles on Sept. 14, 1964. The Beatles show easily sold out to more than 12,000 for a gross sale of about $75,000.
Boy, did the concert business change after the Beatles. That's when the arena-rock era truly started. The Beatles were the first act that was big enough to sell out an arena on their own. Yet, by the end of the '60s, there were probably more than 20 acts that did so.
These were the early days of "megaconcert" promoting. It was the start of the rock concert as we know it today. Back then, folks such as Tim and myself in Pittsburgh, Bill Graham Productions in San Francisco, Electric Factory Concerts in Philadelphia, Belkin Productions in Cleveland and Sid Bernstein in New York were each inventing a new business -- "rock concert promoter."
It was an exciting time for us. Even though we were competitors, we shared cordial relationships. It wasn't uncommon to get a call from Mike Belkin asking how "such and such" band did for me in Pittsburgh or how I think an act would do in Cleveland. And we, of course, paid attention to how shows did for them in the trade magazines such as Billboard.
In the '60s, we still weren't sure which way the business was headed. Was rock 'n' roll really here to stay?
What really locked me in as the promoter in Pittsburgh was an exclusive lease that Tim and I were able to get with the arena. This was bad news for other promoters around the country who were trying to promote an entire arena tour with a band. I still remember getting one of those famous angry, rant-filled calls from Bill Graham. He had the Rolling Stones on tour and was cursing me up and down about why he had to go through me to book the Civic Arena. However, it usually worked out well for both of us. I would simply have the outside promoter cut me in on the show and I would do their legwork and advertising in the city.
By the late '60s, it was apparent that rock 'n' roll was here to stay. In 1965, we had the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones (who drew a paid attendance of only 9,131), and our Christmas Shower of Stars. In 1966, we once again did three shows at the arena. We reached a benchmark of six rock concerts in 1967.
After Tim left Pittsburgh to become head of the Dick Clark Productions concert division in Hollywood, I continued to promote concerts in Pittsburgh for the next several years under the names University Attractions, Pat DiCesare Productions and, finally, DiCesare-Engler Productions.
When we thought that no one could do more than four rock concerts a year in the city, I did nine in 1968, 10 in 1969, 16 in 1970, and 22 in 1971. It kept growing from there.
Although my exclusive lease with the Civic Arena ended in 1973, we continued to do most of the shows at the arena for the next three decades.
Almost 50 years later, I believe I was lucky to have Pittsburgh as my territory for concert promotions. Looking back, I think Pittsburghers had a stronger interest in rock music than other markets. And they loved seeing concerts at the Civic Arena. Sure, other markets were much bigger than ours, but back in the '70s and '80s, almost every year the Civic Arena was one of the Top Ten in gross concert ticket sales for arena-sized venues in the country. Although I'm sad to see the Civic Arena go, I think it's fitting that this historic concert venue will forever belong to my generation of concert promoters. Concerts are done today by large multinational corporations that are more concerned with pleasing their shareholders than the people of Pittsburgh.
We as promoters lived in the city and cared for the people who came to our shows. We wanted to make it easy for the customer to get a ticket regardless of where they lived. We wanted to keep the ticket prices low. I noticed that an out-of-town promoter has James Taylor (whom I've played many dates) playing the arena in June. The top ticket price is about $400 with a low price of $68. That doesn't seem right to me.
Rarely does a day go by that someone fails to stop me and talk about a show they saw at the arena and how special it was to them. It's been 46 years since the Beatles played at the Civic Arena, and I still get more people who want to talk about that concert than all the other concerts combined.
I've always had this theory that to each concert attendee, every show is their Super Bowl or Stanley Cup. They've waited forever for certain acts to play, and when they finally see that show, they remember it for the rest of their lives.
In the early days, I used to emcee the concerts myself. I would step on stage in front of a sell-out crowd at the arena and introduce the band. And as I would gaze upon the sellout crowd cheering below, I would sometimes quietly think to myself, "I had something to do with this. I had the pleasure of bringing a few hours of happiness to these people. They will remember this night forever."
First Published May 30, 2010 12:00 am