Saturday, July 28, 2007

"They Died Old"--Volume III

When I left off in my second installment of this little series on classic sporting venues, we were on the South Side of Chicago.  Come with me now around to the West Side to that boxy little cacophony known as Chicago Stadium, where the likes of Jordan, Mikita, T. Esposito, Chelios and Rodman (?!?) ruled.  It was home of the Bulls and Blackhawks, as well the world’s first Arena Football game, and a place I deeply regret not visiting more often than I did, but the two times I did partake of the "Madhouse On Madison Street" left a lasting impression on me.

Chicago Stadium opened in 1929, and in its early years was known mostly for hosting boxing matches and political conventions (sometimes simultaneously), and Sugar Ray Robinson often held court there, including when he beat the living snot out of Carmen Basilio on March 25, 1958, sending him to the hospital for nine days.  Assassinated Chicago mayor Anton J. Cernak’s funeral was held there in early, 1933, too.  Bicycle racing was also a staple during the arena’s early days, when the annual six-day bike races were immensely popular during the ’30s and ‘40s, along with the usual arena fare of concerts, circuses and figure skating events.

My first visit to Chicago Stadium was a Blackhawks game with the L.A. Kings on November 4, 1990.  I’d driven by the place a couple times during previous Windy City summer sojourns, and I was dying to see it on the inside.  However, I was extremely leery of the neighborhood in which the Stadium was located.  I gotta tell ya, folks, it’s bad—I mean really bad!  Even worse than the neighborhood surrounding Comiskey Park.  Therefore, I was quite concerned for the welfare of my three-year-old ’87 T-Bird (with its Missouri license tags and Kansas City Comets bumper stickers that screamed out "Tourist!" to the local vandals) while it sat scared shitless in the parking lot during the game, not knowing exactly what I would come back to afterward.  The arena was only a couple blocks from the expressway, and they have cleaned up the area a bit with the advent of the United Center built across the street from the Stadium site, but even today you only have to drive three blocks in any direction from there and you’re smack dab in the middle of the ‘hood.  Luckily "The Bird" was still intact and functional after the game that night, but if you ever attend a Bulls or Blackhawks game at United Center, I urge extreme caution, or they might have to bring your hat to the hospital...

In 1932, Chicago Stadium unwittingly leaped about 60 years ahead of its time by hosting the world’s first indoor football game.  The Chicago Bears were to play the Portsmouth Spartans (now the Detroit Lions) in the NFL Championship game, but the weather outside was frightful (even by Chi-town standards), and Wrigley Field was completely iced over and unusable.  So, it was decided to truck in some dirt and play on a makeshift 60-yard field (plus the 10-yard end zones) on the Stadium floor, thus on December 18, 1932, Arena Football was born!  The Bears won 9-0 in a game that was surprisingly well-played in spite of the unusual situation.  However, kicking was a bit of an adventure, as some punts hit the rafters and one kickoff nearly knocked out a window.

The NBA's Chicago Bulls played their first season just a few blocks from Comiskey Park at the equally-old International Amphitheater (which wasn’t actually an amphitheater, nor was there anything terribly international about it), and moved to the Stadium for the 1967-68 season.  I remember watching many a game broadcast from there, both on national TV and locally when we had the Kansas City (and/or) Omaha Kings.  The Bulls of the early ‘70s featured the likes of Chet "The Jet" Walker, Bob Love, Norm Van Lier (whose guts I truly loathed, for some reason) and current Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan.  They were a good team, but not a great one until #23 came along in 1984 and turned the NBA on its collective ears.  But from start-to-finish, Chicago Stadium was a hockey arena first and foremost, home of the NHL’s Blackhawks, who still sport quite possibly the coolest uniforms of any sports franchise, native American protesters be damned!  The ‘Hawks last won the Stanley Cup 46 years ago, but they were always competitive no matter what, and the Stadium often gave them a distinct home-ice advantage with its shorter ice surface and sheer volume.

Being an old arena, by definition the Stadium naturally had a few quirks.  The hockey press box was on the end of the rink instead of on the side, and the players actually had to climb a rather steep staircase (in their skates, no less) leading from the locker rooms to the ice surface.  The Blackhawks’ zamboni had its own cage right there on the main concourse on the lower level.  There was also the legendary "Gate 3 ½", located between 3 and 4 on the west side of the building where autograph hounds and groupies congregated as the players and/or singers and bands entered and left the premises.
Chicago Stadium had two other beloved features (besides #23):  its mighty foghorn that saluted each Blackhawk goal and the even mightier Barton pipe organ that was perched on the east end of the arena.  The horn was so loud that if you were sitting anywhere near it, the damn thing would probably give you brain damage.  The organ, which was manned for 47 years by the late Al Melgard, followed by his protégé Frank Pellico, was unique for its ornate multi-tiered keyboard and cathedral-like sound, as well as its pipe work, which was actually built into the framework of the Stadium roof.  Some pipes were wide enough for a full-grown man to fit in, and others were as thin as an ink pen, and the organ took over 100 people to install.  According to legend, if the organ’s volume had ever been turned up to full-blast, one note would’ve blown out every window in the building.  Sadly, they weren’t able to preserve the piping, but the organ itself was spared when Chicago Stadium was demolished in 1995 and it’s now on display in the home of Las Vegas millionaire Phil Maloof (co-owner of the Sacramento Kings).

Once inside, I was immediately impressed with what immaculate condition Chicago Stadium was in even at its advanced age.  The concourses were cramped and narrow, yes, but they were clean and well-lit, which is more than I can say for Kansas City’s Kemper Arena, even today.  I was also surprised at how small the place seemed when I got to my seat on the lower level—it always appeared to be huge on TV, and I couldn’t believe they could actually shoe-horn 18,000 people in this joint.  It also struck me how the seating bowl was shaped almost like our Arrowhead Stadium, only on a much smaller scale, with the upper level sprouting "wings" that reached into the corners—sorta like Arrowhead inside a box, if you will.

Then came was the pre-game festivities.  The crowd stood politely during the playing of "Oh, Canada", and then the "Star-Spangled Banner" was introduced.  The crowd cheered wildly, and at first I thought it was because Chicago legend Wayne Messmer was doing the honors, but when he got to "What so proudly we hailed…" the crowd was still cheering vociferously, and I looked around in bewilderment.  This, boys and girls, was my on-the-fly indoctrination to "The Roar", a little tradition I knew nothing about until that night.  The cheering never stopped until we got to the "Home of the brave", and I was blown away—the building was loud enough as it was, then add this torrent of sound on top of it—man, what a way to get fired up for a game!  Apparently, The Roar began sometime in the early ‘80s, but it usually didn’t start until reaching "the rockets’ red glare", but as time worn on, the cheering started inching further and further back to the beginning of the song, and thus, you have a legend.  Just a few months after my visit, The Roar was featured on national TV prior to the 1991 NHL All-Star Game from the Stadium during the height of the Persian Gulf War.  ‘Hawks fans still do The Roar today, but it’s just not the same at the sterilized and cavernous United Center.

The hockey game itself was a double treat for me.  Not only did I get to see the Stadium and enjoy The Roar, but I got to see Wayne Gretzky play in person for the first and only time.  I’d love to have seen him score a goal, but he got stoned by the Blackhawks goalie on a one-on-one breakaway which was actually even more exciting, and the game ended in a 2-2 tie.  I returned for an encore during my 1994 "The Puck Stops Everywhere" hockey road trip and took in the next-to-next-to-last regular season game at Chicago Stadium as the Blackhawks and Calgary Flames skated to another 2-2 tie.  At least I got to hear the horn a couple times and do The Roar one last time.

Just as an aside, anthem singer Wayne Messmer (who also sings at Cubs games and once served as their P.A. announcer) was nearly killed that same month I visited in 1994 when he was shot by a 15-year-old kid during a robbery attempt one night after a game.  Did I mention that Chicago Stadium sat in a bad neighborhood?  Wayne eventually recovered and was back singing again, but was later fired by the Blackhawks for no good reason.  The ‘Hawks owner, William "Dollar Bill" Wirtz is a cheap-ola and a total douchebag, and it’s no small wonder the team hasn’t won a Stanley cup since the Kennedy Administration.

Even though Chicago Stadium was in remarkably good condition for its age in the early ‘90s, its replacement was inevitable.  One would think the Bulls and Blackhawks would have seized the opportunity to escape the ghetto they were in and build a new arena elsewhere in town.  As a certain former Chicago native once succinctly put it, "but noooooooooo!"  Instead, they just moved right across the street to the lifeless sterile confines of the United Center, which by and large, is reviled by most Chicagoans, especially Blackhawks fans.  It’s a nice building, yes, dwarfing the Stadium (as you can see in the pic), but it has none of the soul of the old place and isn’t nearly as loud.  Seems to me that if they were going to stay put in that crappy neighborhood anyway, they could’ve found a way to somehow renovate Chicago Stadium without removing any of the building’s charm and ambience (or volume).  I feel sorry for sports fans who never got to see a game at Chicago Stadium.  Everyone raves about the old Boston Garden, but it was vastly overrated—the Madhouse on Madison Street may well have been the greatest indoor sports arena of all-time.

1 comment:

Christopher Mallow said...

Hey, just happened to find this post...pretty late, from the looks of it. Found it while searching for "Blackhawks foghorn"; I just wanted to hear the ol' girl again. I did indeed get to go to the Madhouse (3 times, in fact, attending in "Standing Room Only" each time) and loved every minute. I went to school at the U. of Chicago in 1991-92, when the Hawks were making their last run to the finals behind Jeremy Roenick, Steve Larmer, Chris Chelios, and Eddie Belfour. I got to be quite a fan (being from Oklahoma, I had no prior natural exposure to good hockey). I even would ditch homework to listen to the Hawks games on radio. I still remember hearing the horn as I listened to those games, along with the total-deadpan announcements of goals and penalties that are still a trademark of the Hawks' game presentation routine.

Thanks for a great history lesson and a great trip down Memory Lane.