The Old Civic Center Stands As An Icon Of The 1960s

May 19, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

The 1st Mariner Arena, which the consultants decree has "served its useful life," will be referred to as the Civic Center in the following paragraphs. That old name just seems to fit the place.

My intro to it was a Clippers ice hockey game on a cold night in the winter of 1962. When the game was over, my father and I bolted for the Howard Street exits and caught a No. 8 streetcar home.

In pre-Inner Harbor Baltimore, the Civic Center and its attractions were real players.

A little history: Before I was reading a newspaper, I'd hear the voices of Eddie Fenton or Galen Fromme on the radio discussing some aspect of the Civic Center's construction debate.

There was one plan to locate it in Druid Hill Park because the city already owned the land. Former city Comptroller Hyman Pressman wanted to save money by not air conditioning it. Baltimore loves to be cheap.

People forget that the Civic Center at one time had some exhibition space on its Lombard Street side.

I was dazzled at a 1963 home show by interior designer Rita St. Clair's proposed den for WBAL-TV personality Rolf Hertsgaard. I had dinner afterward at Oyster Bay restaurant and thought I was at the Ritz. Years later, the first winter craft show opened at the Civic Center.

The Civic Center was all about the 1960s, a democratic place that mixed professional basketball, ice hockey and soccer, along with wildly popular professional wrestling events and entertainers from Bette Midler to Luciano Pavarotti. If the Civic Center had a theme song, I would nominate "Welcome to the Sixties" from the musical Hairspray. I can still see the fluorescent posters for the James Brown shows plastered over construction fences downtown and the big plastic letters announcing the arrival of the Temptations.

How about Judy Garland's disastrous February 1968 concert? She was on the same bill with Woody Allen and Tony Bennett. I was not there and rely on my friend John Eggen's recollections:

"She was the last one to come out, and when she did, she was on Tony's arm. The instant I saw that, I knew she was in trouble," said Eggen. "She flashed that big smile. She wore a white sequin pant suit. She never got to "Over the Rainbow." You could feel the response in the audience. She just couldn't do it," he recalled of the legendary performer who died at 47 the next year in London.

There were others who played the Civic Center and died not long after -- Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and the King himself, Elvis Presley, in late May 1977. His concert was a sellout, of course, and when he took a 30-minute break, fans knew something was up. He died later that summer at 42.

But the Civic Center was not a jinxed house. I think of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon.

And let's not forget all the children's shows, all those circuses and the hawkers with supermarket carts full of balloons and overpriced souvenirs along Howard Street. I went to plenty of ice shows, too, and learned to love "Indian Love Call" as rendered by a swirling chorus on precision skates.

Baltimore is still a cheap town, and my prediction is that the Civic Center will make it until at least 50 in 2012.

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