For 30 years, Baltimore Arena has been a place for memorable performances

JACQUES KELLY

October 28, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

"If you are afraid of crowds, this is not the job to have," said Charley Oberman, an ushers' supervisor at the Baltimore Arena.

He ought to know. The former Baltimore Civic Center turned 30 years old last week. He and three other Arena employees have been at the ticket windows, turnstiles and aisles since opening night, Oct. 23, 1962, when the Baltimore Clippers took to the ice against the Providence Reds.

The Arena, which Baltimoreans persist in calling the Civic Center, was never a stylish hall. It's a utilitarian gymnasium, with gray-painted concrete block walls and a roof that looked as if it were designed by a Chrysler engineer. The sound system is so bad it'll make you go out and buy the record.

Yet the voices of James Brown, Dr. Martin Luther King, Pavarotti and Michael Jackson have boomed inside the Arena's walls.

How many City, Poly, Eastern and Western graduates received their diplomas here? Who didn't save ticket stubs from the night that Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra or Diana Ross sang?

Many Baltimoreans have a favorite Civic Center memory, but veteran Arena employees agree there were four epic shows that always get people talking -- the Beatles appearance of Sept. 13, 1964; Judy Garland Feb. 18, 1968; the Jackson Five Aug. 5, 1973; and Elvis Presley, May 29, 1977. Presley died Aug. 16 of that year.

"There were two Beatles shows that Sunday, one at 4 and the other at 8:30. Nobody heard any music. All the young girls did was stand on the seats and scream and scream. It was like a religious experience. We hauled them out left and right as they fainted," said veteran usher Roscoe Heigh.

"It was fantastic. I couldn't see for an hour after the performance for all the flashbulbs that went off. The police had to move the horse patrols in to try to clear Howard Street," Oberman recalled.

Elvis' appearance stood out for other reasons. The King was near the end of his life. He looked bloated and puffy. He would be dead within 10 weeks.

Frank Severa, who has worked as a ticket seller in the box office for 30 years, recalled The King's advance sale: "Elvis sold out in 2 1/2 hours. It was the only show I can remember where no tickets were sat on -- held back. Elvis gave orders to offer every ticket, starting with the best seats. There was nothing kept back for privileged people," Severa said.

Judy Garland, also at the end of her troubled life, was on an amazing bill with Tony Bennett and a then little-known New York comic called Woody Allen.

"Judy was not at her best. It was sorta sad. Her daughter Liza was there, standing behind the curtain. The people just rushed out of their seats and stormed the stage with flowers," said Heigh.

Others recalled seeing Garland earlier that day, drinking a bottle of Blue Nun wine at the old Schellhase's Restaurant, which sat five blocks north of the Arena on Howard Street.

But the big auditorium's meat-and-potatoes features were Clippers ice hockey and Bullets basketball, plus the annual arrivals of the Ringling Brothers circus, always the Arena's biggest attraction. And the ice shows -- the old Holiday on Ice, the Ice Capades and the Ice Follies. The ice acts and the gags never seemed to change, yet the customers kept coming back.

Soul music was a big draw in the 1960s. An event billed as the "Last Soul Session of '67" (Dec. 10, 1967) featured Gladys Knight and the Pips, Peaches and Herb, Junior Walker and the All-Stars and the Manhattans. Masters of ceremony were local deejays Rockin' Robin and Al Jefferson. Admission was $2.50

People will always associate the Arena with a show that dazzled and stays locked in a memory: Lawrence Welk March 1963; Sam Cooke April 1963; Dave Brubeck May 1963; Johnny Mathis, also May 1963; Ella Fitzgerald August 1963; Nat King Cole October 1963; "Little" Stevie Wonder December 1963; Peter Paul and Mary January 1964; Dick Gregory February 1964; the New Christie Minstrels July 1964.

The Beach Boys September 1965; Sammy Davis Jr. October 1965; the Rolling Stones November 1965; Sonny and Cher November 1965; the Tijuana Brass April 1966; the Byrds June 1966; Herman's Hermits July 1966; Otis Redding July 1966; the Dave Clark Five July 1966; the Four Tops June 1967; the Monkees July 1967; Ray Charles July 1967; the Supremes September 1968; the Temptations December 1968; Jimi Hendrix May 1969; and Janis Joplin December 1969.

"To me, the finest show of all times was Diana Ross after she'd gone out on her own. It was all great technology and illusion. It looked like she had walked out of a screen," said Clifton Johns, another 30-year Arena employee.

But of all the Arena's various constituencies, none is as notorious as the throngs who come for professional wrestling.

"People will buy a wresting ticket before they'll buy a pair of shoes. I've seen them with their toes sticking out and ask for the best seat in the house," Severa said.

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