Thursday, March 20, 2008

"They're Still Standing"--Vol. 1

"You’re Getting Even, While We’ve Got Aud"
It’s hosted more NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament games (83) and Final Fours (9) than any other venue.  I saw my first NBA game and first Kiss concert there.  It’s been around since the Great Depression, and unlike other arenas of its era, it still has many many years of life left in it.  I am referring to Kansas City’s venerable Municipal Auditorium, one of the coolest old buildings you’ll ever set foot in for a concert or sporting event.

Located at 13th & Wyandotte in downtown K.C., The Aud was built in 1936 as part of President Roosevelt’s WPA—Works Progress Act...AKA, “We Piddle Around”.  It replaced the 35-year-old Convention Hall directly across the street that was built in an astonishing three months to replace the original Convention Hall on the same site that burned down just months before K.C. was to host the 1900 Republican National Convention.  Ironically, K.C. was supposed to host the 1976 Republican Convention at Municipal’s current next door neighbor Bartle Hall, but Bartle wasn’t finished in time, so the GOP event was moved to Kemper Arena in the stockyards.  Confused yet?

Similar in concept to New York’s Madison Square Garden, Municipal Auditorium is in fact four separate venues—the 9,500-seat main arena (sometimes called Municipal Arena or just plain City Arena), the 2,400-seat Music Hall, which is home to various high-brow musical and ballet events, the 600-seat Little Theater, which houses minor plays and musicals, and the Exposition Hall that runs beneath the entire complex.  Its distinctive art-deco design is prevalent both on the outside and the inside, and the building features a grand foyer that takes one back to the days of Dillinger and the Three Stooges.  It also features outstanding acoustics for concerts, and some of the finest sightlines for basketball of any venue in the world.

My first encounter with Municipal Auditorium was a Kansas City-Omaha Kings game with the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas night, 1972, during which I got to see Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar play in person.  The Aud was the temporary home of the Kings from 1972-74 after the Cincinnati Royals moved here (and to their home away from home, Omaha’s Civic Auditorium).  The Kings moved to Kemper in ’74, but The Aud (or “The Muni” as some people call it) had one more stint as an NBA facility in 1979-80 after Kemper Arena’s roof collapsed.  One of Municipal’s backboards also collapsed under the weight of the Philadelphia 76ers’ Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins when one of his slam dunks shattered it in November, 1979, sending late Kings forward Bill Robinzine (#52 in white in this video) scurrying for cover.  The Aud was also home of those dreaded Kansas City Sizzlers of the minor-league Continental Basketball Association for one season in 1985-86 after the Kings left town for Californy.

I attended one other Kings game there in 1973, and didn’t return until September 30, 1979 for the Kiss/Judas Priest concert, the first of many concerts I attended at the Auditorium, including three more Kiss shows and two Pat Benatar concerts, plus the closed-circuit TV broadcast of The Who‘s “farewell” concert from Toronto on December 17, 1982.  Municipal Auditorium also spent one year in the twilight zone, so to speak, in 1991-92 as the indoor soccer home of the NPSL’s Kansas City Attack in their inaugural season after moving here from Atlanta and refusing to play at Kemper Arena (which the MISL’s defunct Kansas City Comets vacated the previous season).  While Municipal’s sightlines are killer for basketball and concerts, it was just plain weird for indoor soccer, with its glassed-in hockey-like playing surface.  The Attack moved to Kemper for good in 1992-93.

When my alma mater, the University of Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos, made the jump from NAIA to NCAA Division I play in basketball in 1987, they moved from tiny Swinney Gym on campus (where I wrecked my right knee playing volleyball in 1985) to Municipal Auditorium, thus making The Aud the “Kanagaroo Court”.  I attended several Roos games during the ’90s, but kinda lost touch with them until one night in 2005 when I attended their season finale against Valparaiso, which turned out to be an exciting game that the good guys won.  I sat in the same seat I had for that first Kiss concert in ’79 (Row S, right next to the spotlight turret against the wall in the NE corner), and as exciting as the game was, I was even more floored by how beautiful Municipal Auditorium looked that night.  The city put a lot of money and effort into refurbishing the place, and it practically looked like a brand new arena.  Even cooler, the old time-of-day clock on the east wall was restored and fully-functional again, and parts of the original basketball floor were preserved as well.

The above-mentioned remodeling/ retrofitting has brought Municipal Auditorium back up to speed and made it worthy of hosting major basketball tournaments again, including the Big 12 Women’s Basketball Tournament, and NCAA Women's Tournament regionals as well as the annual NAIA Basketball tourney and various local high school tournaments.  What’s really ironic is how history is repeating itself here as it did in places like Denver, Baltimore and Atlanta, where an older arena is still in use while the venue that was built to replace it bit the dust.  Denver Auditorium, Baltimore Civic Arena and Alexander Memorial Coliseum—all still in use—were replaced by McNichols Arena, the Capital Centre and The Omni, respectively, yet those latter three are all demolished now, and I think the same fate awaits Kemper Arena in the next five-to-ten years.  In fact, there was even talk at one time about 15 years ago of "building down" into Municipal Auditorium's Exhibition Hall and lowering the current floor to add a whole new lower level and enlarge the main arena to about 17,000 seats in an effort to replace Kemper, but the plan was deemed unfeasible.  Meantime, if properly-maintained, Municipal Auditorium will easily live to be a hundred.  I plan to see a game there in 2036...

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