Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"They Died Old"--Volume I

As a counterpart to my "They Died Young" series, it's time to salute those sports venues who made it to old age, and in some cases, out-and-out senility!

It was old, it was smelly in places, it had dark and narrow hallways and a few bad sightlines, it was rather decrepit—it even had cats living in its basement—but the mighty St. Louis Arena had soul and it had atmosphere, and it was one of my favorite sports venues of all-time.  While not quite as well-renowned as its Depression Era brethren Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden, Detroit’s Olympia Stadium or the old Madison Square Garden, "The Old Barn" withstood the test of time (as well as a tornado), and it was home to a big chunk of entertainment and indoor sports history in St. Louis.  It’s true The Arena had a rather checkered history (like when it was called "The Checkerdome" during the ‘80s), but hell, any sports arena with a bowling alley attached to it can’t be all bad!

Located at 5700 Oakland Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the city’s world famous Forest Park Zoo, St. Louis Arena was built in 1929 as a showcase for various farm and dairy shows that were popular at the time, as well as conventions, circuses, religious gatherings, concerts and sporting events.  Unfortunately, almost as soon as the place opened, the stock market crashed, and The Arena nearly closed permanently.  It bounced from owner to owner throughout its history, and went through numerous renovations and improvements over the years.  The Arena held about 15,000 people when it first opened, and more than 19,000 by the time it closed.  The building was also flanked by matching structures, one to the east called "Arena Annex" that was used for various exhibitions and storage, and one to the west, the "Arena Bowl", which for a time was one of the largest bowling alleys in St. Louis.  AB closed sometime in the ‘60s, but the building survived until the mid-‘80s.  Perhaps The Arena’s most distinctive feature was its huge wooden Lamella roof, which was one of the largest of its kind in the world at the time, and gave the building its trademark barn-like appearance.  It was a pretty sturdy roof too, despite having a big hole blown out of it by a freak February, 1959 tornado that also heavily damaged much of the Arena Annex and parts of the city as well.

St. Louis Arena was home to numerous sports teams throughout its 70 years, but it is most identified as the home of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, beginning in 1967.  Prior to their arrival, several minor league and college hockey teams played at The Arena, most notably the St. Louis Braves (the farm team of the Chicago Blackhawks for many years) and the St. Louis University Billikens hockey team.  The Blues were an immediate hit as an expansion franchise in the NHL, and The Arena was home to fan favorites over the years like Garry Unger, Bernie Federko, the Plager brothers (Bob and Barclay), the Cavallini brothers (Paul and Gino), Brett Hull early in his career and legendary play-by-play announcer Dan "He Shoots, He Scores!" Kelly.  The team had its ups and downs over time, and nearly left town a couple times because of ownership changes and financial woes, but the Blues always fielded a consistent product on the ice, and made the playoffs in nearly every season they played at the Old Barn.  The high point was probably the 1986 playoff series vs. the Calgary Flames that featured the "Monday Night Miracle" on May 12th when the Blues fell behind 5-2 in Game 6 and roared back to win 6-5 in OT on a goal by another fan favorite, the late Doug Wickenheiser.  The Blues lost in Game 7, but that game was such a thriller that people still talk about it in the Gateway City to this day.

Oddly enough, basketball didn’t become a regular staple on Oakland Avenue until the ‘70s, primarily because the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks played their home games at old Kiel Auditorium until they bolted for Atlanta in 1968.  St. Louis U. played mostly at Kiel as well, but college basketball hit its stride in St. Louis in 1973 and 1978 when The Arena hosted the NCAA Final Four.  The annual "Border War" game between Missouri and Illinois became a Christmas-time tradition, with the final one at the Old Barn being the best of all in 1993 as MU beat the Illini in a triple-OT thriller that nearly brought the house down.  The Arena did get a brief sniff of pro basketball (although most of it didn’t smell too good), as the semi-legendary Spirits of St. Louis of the old American Basketball Association played there for two eventful, if not well-executed, seasons in the mid-70s.  They were perhaps the wildest collection of misfits ever assembled on one team in any sport, and their story is chronicled in the hilarious ABA documentary book Loose Balls by Terry Pluto.  You can also read about them and the rest of the league at a wonderful site called RememberTheABA.com.  Incidentally, the Spirits were also the launching point in the sportscasting career of one young Bob Costas.  Sadly, they folded when the ABA merged with the NBA, and St. Louis has been without pro basketball ever since, apart from the three or four "home" games the Kansas City Kings would stage each season at The Arena during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

One sport that truly rocked the house on Oakland Avenue was indoor soccer.  The St. Louis Steamers of the original Major Indoor Soccer League arrived in 1979 and featured many local players on its squad who became fan favorites right away as they took on big-name European and South American players on other teams.  The Steamers quickly became the hottest ticket in St. Louie, routinely outdrawing the Blues (just as my boys the Kansas City Comets concurrently outdrew the Kings here), and The Arena was packed to the rafters throughout the early ‘80s until the indoor soccer novelty wore off.  The Steamers eventually folded in 1988 and were replaced by the Storm a year later.  The Storm turned into a drizzle and ceased to be when the MISL folded in 1992, and were replaced by the St. Louis Ambush in the National Professional Soccer League who played one season at The Arena before moving with the Blues to the new venue next to Union Station.

My first visit to St. Louis Arena was during the middle of the great heat wave in July, 1983 to see The Police in concert with my friend Tom.  Great show, and I seem to remember the building felt like a sauna, even though it did have air conditioning.  I returned three years later on my first official solo road trip and pretty much spent pretty much the entire weekend at the Old Barn in March, 1986, watching my beloved Comets beat the Steamers on Friday night, then taking in my first NHL regular season game outside of K.C. as the Blues beat the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.  I had such a great time both nights that I decided to attend the matinee on Sunday between the Steamers and Wichita Wings, which gave me a chance to really roam the place and check out all the nooks and crannies, since the crowd wasn’t as large as the previous two nights.

I was particularly taken by the balcony sections on the ends of the arena that I’m sure gave some folks vertigo because the pitch was so steep that each seating row had a railing in front of it to keep folks from taking a tumble.  It was worth the climb, though, because the views were awesome and you felt like you were hovering over the action.  Another cool feature that I loved was the out-of-town hockey scoreboards on the facing of the balconies. Instead of the traditional abbreviations for the teams like "CHI", "DET", "MIN", et al., the Blues were creative enough to employ these colorful backlit signs of the individual team logos inserted next to the game scores, thus you had to really know your team insignias to know who was winning.  Now with all the fancy state-of-art scoreboard technology, they can do all that stuff electronically, but back then it was a much cooler homemade touch.  Another oddity that intrigued me were the claustrophobic narrow passageways underneath the dark lower level seats on the sides in the above photo that were barely even wide enough for a wheelchair to fit through.  Good thing this place never caught fire during a game, or there would have been major carnage down there...

My friends and I made several pilgrimages to The Arena for Blues games and soccer games involving the Comets and the Steamers and Storm between 1986 and 1992.  My final visit was in March, '92 for a game between the Tacoma Stars and St. Louis Storm (the Comets folded the year before), and even at its advanced age, The Arena’s old magic was still there, and the atmosphere was still electric.  As cavernous as the building was, it still got plenty loud when the crowds got raucous, and the joint really got to jumpin' during hockey fights.

Probably my favorite Arena memory of all was "Kazoo Night" at a Blues game on March 3, 1990.  Classic Rock station K-SHE 95 sponsored the giveaway of plastic kazoos to everyone who entered the building, and they were put to use almost immediately when one of the K-SHE jocks led the assembled multitude in the greatest rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" you'll ever hear.  Screw Whitney Houston—this was the damndest thing I’ve ever seen and heard!  The DJ got it going, and it started off rather tentatively, as most people (including me) thought it was a joke at first, but everyone gradually joined in, and by the "rockets red glare" part, it sounded great!  I wish someone had recorded this, because you’d be surprised how good 18,000 people playing the National Anthem in unison on kazoo actually sound—certainly as good, if not better, than any singer or musical soloist could’ve done, and a damn sight better than wimps like Kenny G...

Sadly, St. Louis Arena was never given a proper send-off, nor did it have any kind of Grand Finale.  The Blues were scheduled to begin the 1994-95 season at the Old Barn until their new arena, built on the site of old Kiel Auditorium and originally known as Kiel Center, was completed in December.  However, the new joint was finished way ahead of schedule and was indeed ready for Opening Night in October after all, if there had actually been one in October.  Turned out it didn’t matter anyway, as the NHL labor dispute delayed the start of that season to January, ’95, thus no one realized at the time when the Blues bowed out in the 1993-94 playoffs, that they had played their final game at The Arena, period, thus no fanfare, no closing ceremony, no nothing.  Given the building’s star-crossed history, I guess that seems fitting in some bizarre way.  Ironically, The Arena’s final event for a paid audience actually was a hockey game—a roller hockey game, that is, featuring those dreaded hometown St. Louis Vipers in August, 1994.  St. Louis Arena was shuttered not long after that and left to rot for 4.5 years until they gutted the place, auctioned off its valuables and imploded it on February 27, 1999.  A mixed-use complex comprised of retail shops, office space, loft apartments and a Hampton Inn hotel now occupies the site, but in a nice touch, the footprint of The Arena itself was left open for a green common ground/courtyard area.

There is a wonderful book that I believe is still in print called The St. Louis Arena Memories written by Patti Smith Jackson, and it features a treasure trove of photos from throughout the building’s entire history from construction to implosion.  It was one of the nicest Christmas gifts I ever received from anyone (thank you again, Stacy!).  I also read a few years back that the old main scoreboard was purchased by a bar near Kiel Center (or whatever it’s called this week) to use as its centerpiece, but the bar was subsequently torn down, so I don’t know what happened to it after that.  Anyone out there know of the old scoreboard’s current whereabouts?  I'd love to see it again.  In lieu of that, if ol' Doc Emmett Brown ever does perfect that flux capacitor to enable time travel, I definitely plan to drop by The Old Barn on Oakland Avenue again.  To paraphrase a line from Elton John's "Bennie & The Jets", it was "weird and it was wonderful..."

1 comment:

Randy Raley said...

Ah...The Arena. I have some wonderful memories of that place. I was there at the Monday Night Miracle and Doug Wickenheiser, God rest his soul. I was also there at the 1993 Mizzou-Illini game when the old Barn was actually breathing. You could feel it inhaling and exhaling after each and every point. Yes, the halls were narrow and dimly lit, but the ambience of that place was incredible. You felt like you were actually sitting on the ice. I saw Billy Joel do a concert there and the were no monitors on the stage, it was as clean as a stage could be. F'ing incredible. And as far as a sendoff goes, there were over a thousand people there when it was imploded, many were crying and actually leaving tributes to the place in the form of flowers and other trinkets. It was a sad day for St. Louis, but time marches on.