Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Star-Crossed History

Time to take a brief timeout from the Concert Trek series to salute the venue at which I have attended more concerts (26) and sporting events (over 300) than any other, Kansas City's dump with a hump, Kemper Arena.  Kemper is a place I have a love-hate relationship with, and I find it rather ironic that the old St. Louis Arena was at one time called The Checkerdomea moniker that should have been bestowed on Kemper, considering its checkered past.

Here’s what Kemper looked like when it first opened.  Officially known as R. Crosby Kemper Memorial Arena, so named for a local banker who donated a big chunk of change to build it, Kemper Arena was parked in the heart of the famed K.C. stockyards, right next door to the old American Royal Building, which was best known for hosting livestock shows, rodeos, and minor league hockey during the '60s and early '70s.  Looking like a big white oversized plumbing company headquarters with its pipe-wear holding up its roof, it was hoped that the arena would spur major development in the surrounding West Bottoms area (i.e. bars, restaurants, hotels, et al), but that never quite materialized.  In spite of its poor location, Kemper Arena had at least one good thing going for itoutstanding sightlines for both concerts and sporting events.  It also didn’t take long for Kemper to find a place in the national spotlight, as barely 18 months after opening, it hosted the 1976 Republican National Conventionoriginally slated for downtown's Bartle Hall, which wasn’t completed in time to nominate Gerald Ford and Robert Dole (AKA, “Dull & Dole” as Johnny Carson once dubbed them).

Seating just over 16,000 humans, when Kemper Arena opened, the paint was literally still drying the night on November 2, 1974 as the NHL’s expansion Kansas City Scouts lost to the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3, after beginning their season with a 10-game road trip necessitated by putting the finishing touches on their new home.  The Scouts only won 20 games at Kemper in their brief two-year existence in KC, with the high point being December 3, 1975 when they knocked off the mighty Montreal Canadiens 6-5, tying a team record for most goals in a game, including a hat trick from Wilf Paiement, who was the closest thing the Scouts ever had to a star player.  In spite of attracting decent crowds (for that era, anyway) and having what I think were the coolest uniforms (see left) in the NHL, the team owners were undercapitalized, and the Scouts moved to Denver after the 1975-76 season to became the Colorado Rockies (not to be confused with the baseball team of the same name), and they're now the New Jersey Devilsstill my favorite NHL team.  What can I say?  I’m a loyal som-bitch...

Kemper Arena was also home to the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, beginning in ‘74.  The Kings' first home here, venerable Municipal Auditorium, was not available during parts of January and February each year because of annual conventions and exhibitions, thus we had to share our NBA team with Omaha from 1972 thru '74, and that didn’t sit too well with local fans.  I still say this was a big reason why that team failed to succeed here.  Even after moving to Kemper and dropping "Omaha" from their name, the Kings still played half a dozen games a year in Nebraska for several years, as well as staging 3-4 “home” games a year in St. Louis during the ‘80sI don’t think they ever did play a full home schedule in Kansas City throughout their 13 seasons here.  Apart from an unexpected and exciting playoff run in 1981, the Kings never totally caught on here, in spite of having several star players like Nate “Tiny” Archibald (see pic), Phil Ford, Otis Birdsong, the late Jimmy Walker (not J.J. from “Good Times”), Reggie Theus and Scott Wedman.  The team bolted for Sacramento after the 1984-85 season.

Kemper Arena’s biggest claim to fame as a sports venue is probably as a college basketball venue.  The annual Big 8 (now Big 12) postseason Tournament always packed the place, and Kemper also became known as “Allen Fieldhouse East”, as the University of Kansas enjoyed beaucoup success there, including winning the 1988 NCAA Tournament against Oklahoma.  It was during a 1986 NCAA Tourney regional game involving KU on national TV that a clock malfunction on the scoreboard may have benefited the Jayhawks, and it led to the eventual replacement of the main Kemper scoreboard in 1988.  Meantime, the popularity of the Big 12 Tournament grew by leaps and bounds here, and in one of the bigger wastes of money in recorded human history, Kansas City decided in the mid-’90s to blow $20 million to add 3,000 nosebleed seats on the east side of the building that were only used once a year, thus giving the arena its new hump and glassed-in atrium area.  You’d think this little addition would’ve included moving the outdoor box office indoors, but noooooo!  Even venerable old venues like St. Louis Arena, Chicago Stadium and our own Municipal Auditorium had/have indoor ticket booths, but hockey fans and concert-goers are still expected to freeze their hineys off waiting in line for tickets at Kemper.  Poffeycock!

My favorite memories of Kemper Arena involve my favorite sports franchise ever on this planet, the mighty Kansas City Comets of the old Major Indoor Soccer League.  When the Comets moved here from San Francisco in 1981, they instantaneously became the hottest ticket in town, and actually outdrew the Kings at the gate during the early '80s.  I fell in love with the sport and the team almost immediately, and by the mid-‘80s, I ate, slept and drank the Comets.  I’ll never forget the orgasmic scream I let out on April 19, 1985 (I rarely scream, folks!) when midfielder Tasso Koutsoukos scored the game-winner @ 1:22 of overtime, as the Comets finally beat their longtime nemesis St. Louis Steamers 4-3 in a playoff game that was probably the most intense sporting event I’ve ever attendedI’m tellin’ ya, folks, this was war!  From that point on until the bitter end in 1991, I only missed two Comets home gamesmy devotion to that team was such that I even passed up a Kiss/Ted Nugent concert in early, 1988 (WTF?!?) at Municipal Auditorium the same night in favor of the Cometsand I was totally heartbroken when the team folded.  I remember one week in 1986 when I practically lived at Kemperbetween Comets games and concerts, I was there five out of the seven nights that week!  The Kansas City Attack of the NPSL replaced the Comets in 1991-92, and while they were actually a better team on the field and went on to win two league championships in the '90s, it was never quite the same vibe as the original team.  The Attack even changed their name back to Comets in 2002, but they struggled at the gate and subsequently ceased operations and, as of this writing, are still waiting for this mythical 10,000-seat Johnson County arena to be built for them over on the Kansas side.  Meantime, look for a full-fledged salute to my beloved Comets on this here blog sometime in the not-so-distant future.

The void left by the Comets was partially filled by our minor league hockey team, the Kansas City Blades of the International Hockey League.  The Blades had a dismal inaugural season in 1990-91, but affiliated themselves with the NHL’s fledgling San Jose Sharks the next year, and went on to win the IHL’s Turner Cup in 1991-92 after sweeping the Muskegon Lumberjacks 4-0 in the champeenship series.  Yours truly unwittingly got his five minutes of fame at a Blades game long about 1995 or so because my game program was autographed by a Blades player, thus I got to do the tire roll contest on Kemper ice between periods of the game.  I whiffed on both attempts of rolling a tire from center ice to the goal, but still won a new free oil change from Firestone.  Unfortunately, I had just recently had my oil changed—d’oh!

No discussion of Kemper Arena would be complete without mentioning the roof collapse on June 4, 1979.  A nasty little thunderstorm blew through town that evening with 70-plus-mph wins and heavy rains, the combination of which was enough to send the scoreboard crashing to the floor and ¾ of the roof along with it.  Thankfully, the arena was empty at the timeif this had happened at the same hour the night before, there’s no telling what carnage we’d have witnessed.  Kemper was closed nearly nine months for repairs, and re-opened with a Kings game on February 20, 1980 vs. Seattle (I was there), and the current roof has remained intact ever since.  Between that and the infamous Hyatt skywalks collapse two years later here, it seemed like the sky was falling around these parts…

Other numerous problems have plagued Kemper Arena throughout its existence.  To begin with, the arena sits in what is a rather unsavory part of town.  It can be a bitch to get to sometimes, as it’s bordered on one side by railroad tracks and by the Kansas (Kaw) River on the other.  Kemper sits amongst numerous abandoned warehouse buildings (several of which now serve as “haunted houses” every October), loading docks, dead-end streets and the old stockyards itself.  You can even pass by the ol’ K.C. Bolt, Nut & Screw Co. on the rickety 12th Street Viaduct on the way there!  It’s an area very similar to that surrounding Seattle’s Safeco Field and Seahawks Stadium (and previously The Kingdome), but some forward-thinking Seattlelites were on the ball by converting many of those old warehouses and freight docks into brewpubs, restaurants and other retail outlets, whereas the West Bottoms area here only has three actual places to hang out before and after Kemper events:  the venerable Golden Ox steakhouse (which is a tad too pricey for the average sports fan), a small Italian eatery and a hole-in-the-wall bar/restaurant.  The bar inside Kemper itself is a travesty, with one bartender trying to serve 200 people at once.  Official arena parking is also a tad scarce, often forcing patrons to park in gravel lots filled with mud puddles.

One also needs a fair amount of muscles to open the metal doors just to get in the place.  Once inside, Kemper Arena itself also leaves a lot to be desired.  Maybe it’s just me, but every time I walk in, I catch this whiff of dirty mop bucket water, especially in the dimly-lit johns, where one is expected to pee into a trough lined with rusty pipes.  The gray concrete concourses don’t exactly entice one’s eye either.  Once inside the seating bowl, the lighting is patchy and dark in places, and the PA has all the fidelity of a C.B. radio and/or Kraco car stereo from the ‘70s.  Acoustics for concerts are iffy, at best, as well.  Then there’s the infamous Daktronics scoreboard, which replaced the malfunctioning one in 1988.  The scoreboard itself is fine, but the original video screen (the “Dak-O-Matic” as my friend Tom and I derisively called it) was a joke.  It was one of those rear-projection jobs that only worked effectively when the arena lights went down during the pre-game shows.  The rest of the time, you were viewing a shadowy white screen 90% of the time.  During the late ‘90s they replaced it with a dot-matrix video screen that had a bit more definition/resolution, but it’s so microscopic you need binoculars to view the blasted thing!

Another black mark on Kemper Arena took place on May 23, 1999, when WWF wrestler Owen Hart fell to his death from the arena rafters during a stunt gone wrong when his safety harness opened prematurely as he was to be lowered to the ring.  Two guys I worked with at the time were there and saw it in person.  Not sure I’d have been much in the mood to watch phony wrassling after seeing all that, but as they say in show bidness, the show must go on, and it did that night.  Then again, things haven’t been all bad at the big house at 1800 GenesseeElvis left the building here one last time almost two months to the day before he died in 1977; the live version of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” you usually hear on the radio from Wings Over America was recorded there on May 29, 1976; one track from Fleetwood Mac’s 1980 Live LP was done at Kemper (“Over My Head”, I want to say); Ozzy Osbourne and REO Speedwagon both did full-length live concert videos there circa 1985-86neither of which I attended, much to my chagrin!

With the advent of the new Sprint Center downtown, Kemper Arena’s future is mostly cloudy at best.  The Kansas City Brigade of the Arena Football League called Kemper home the last two years, but is moving to Sprint this season, thus Kemper is resigned to mostly serve bucolic endeavors in connection with the annual American Royal livestock show and rodeo, as well as various tractor pulls and motocross events, and its tenure as a sports arena is pretty much over, apart from hosting the occasional UMKC home basketball game (when Municipal Auditorium is unavailable).  One thing that will most assuredly endure until they implode the place is this damn silver mylar balloon that attached itself to the Kemper rafters sometime in the early ‘80s.  Every time I go to Kemper, I make sure to glance upward to see if it’s still hanging around, and after 25 years or so, it’s still there!  Nice to know that some things never change…

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