Employees gather to fondly recall the strange, populist hodgepodge that was the Bayfront Arena's legacy. It is slated for demolition.
By TOM ZUCCO
Published June 21, 2004
[Times file photo]
Sometime next spring, the Times Arena will be torn down. The site will become a grassy lot, with tentative plans for a new building.
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
On June 14, current and former Bayfront employees Russ Gambill, Todd Beatty, Phil Scott, Jimmy Roberts, and David White folded the flag that flew over the Bayfront Center when it opened in 1965.
ST. PETERSBURG - The night of the last event at the Times Arena at Bayfront Center, Jack Johnson looked up at the sea of empty seats and spotted the life-sized cardboard cutout of a young Elvis Presley that someone planted at the base of the stands. The night the King played the Bayfront Center? Sure he remembered.
The line for tickets wound outside the building, across the parking lot and all the way to First Street SE. They were people in their 30s and 40s mostly, because by February 1977, Elvis had fallen to a B-list nostalgia act.
But sporadic scuffles broke out as fans jostled for position, and police had to be called to maintain order. Across the street at the Hilton, Presley remained holed up in his room.
At the time, Johnson was a city production manager whose primary responsibility was staging events inside the Bayfront Center. He rigged steel cages for pro wrestling matches, helped spread tons of dirt on the floor when the rodeo came to town, set up barricades for demolition derbys, an ice rink for hockey games, and a revolving stage for Liberace and Tom Jones. "So everyone could see them. They were huge."
Johnson, 67, retired from the city two years ago. But like a lot of his co-workers, he couldn't keep away from the arena and stayed on as a parttime stage hand.
"I turned out the lights after Palm Harbor's graduation May 20," he said. "That was the last event ever staged here."
Technically, the arena's final event came last Monday, when dozens of former and current Bayfront Center employees gathered on the floor of the arena to share a potluck dinner and say goodbye. They swapped stories, took one last look around, and toward the end of the night, retired the faded American flag that had hung from the spotlight platforms for as long as anyone can remember. They presented the flag to Johnson.
"This place," he said, "is special."
It's just a round, white building. A five-story collection of concrete, steel and wood that belongs to the city of St. Petersburg. No one was born or died there. No one got their mail delivered there.
And it had became a drain on city finances in the past 10 years, requiring a $1-million per year subsidy.
"I'm not sure it was ever profitable," said Dave Metz, the city's director of downtown enterprise facilities. "It had more of an economic impact on the community."
But to the people who spent countless weekends and holidays ripping tickets, setting up stages, and making sure other people's families had a good time, it was home.
Sometime next spring, the building will be torn down. After an extensive study, the St. Petersburg City Council decided it would be too expensive to bring the 8,355-seat arena up to the standards of other venues. The site will become a grassy lot, with tentative plans for a new building. Among the suggestions: relocating the Salvador Dali Museum.
The Mahaffey Theater at Bayfront Center will remain open and its lobby expanded, but as of last week, the air conditioning in the arena has been turned off. In the next few weeks, most of the equipment, like the 1975 Zamboni machine left over from the ice show days and the original louvered wooden restroom doors, will be taken to another city facility or auctioned off.
"It's an issue of competition," said Beth Herendeen, the arena's general manager who first came to the Bayfront Center for a folk fair when she was a fifth-grader at Palmetto Elementary in Clearwater.
"Times change. When Bayfront opened in 1965, it was Curtis Hixon Hall and Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa, and us. Now we have the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the St. Pete Times Forum, Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Ford Amphitheatre, Van Wezel in Sarasota, plus all the outdoor venues. And with all the extras those places can provide, like the plaza area at the Forum, the event is almost secondary."
And there just aren't enough seats. In order to be profitable, Herendeen said, most acts prefer arenas that seat at least 15,000 to 20,000.
"But she's a great building," Herendeen added. "She helped put St. Petersburg on the map. And the caliber of people who used those dressing rooms...
"I remember booking pro wrestling at Bayfront and the Florida Orchestra at the Mahaffey on the same night, and watching the crowds converge from the parking lot.
"That made for some interesting visuals."
The building could provide a full length movie of interesting visuals. Among the first performers to play the arena were Jonathan Winters, the Beach Boys, Up with People, and Jayne Mansfield, who presumably sang.
The acts ranged from 2 Live Crew and Public Enemy to John Denver and Dolly Parton. Even the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, played Bayfront. Twice.
In October, 1971, Bob Hope played the arena followed by Jethro Tull. Barry White followed Anita Bryant in November 1977. And Ozzy Osbourne followed the Glenn Miller Orchestra in the fall of 1986.
What may have been the strangest coupling happened in the fall of 1978 when Frank Zappa and Black Sabbath played the arena, followed by the Bugs Bunny Follies.
"I might be able to top that," said Russ Gambill, who's been the building superintendent the past 15 years. "In 1989, Motley Crue played Bayfront the same night there was a Lutheran Church service at the Mahaffey. People with Bibles next to people with really strange hair. It was weird."
In the late 1980s, as musical acts started finding other places to play, the arena filled the spots with conventions, trade shows and something few people seemed to notice: sports teams.
The names of those long gone teams reads like a list of discontinued cars: the Tampa Bay Renegades, St. Petersburg Parrots and Suncoast Suns hockey teams, the Tampa Bay Terror and Rowdies indoor soccer teams, and the Tampa Bay Windjammers, Thrillers and ThunderDawgs basketball teams.
But the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to the arena every January from 1966 until two years ago, the St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society was a regular, and every June, hundreds of Pinellas County high school seniors got together one last time and sat through their graduation ceremonies.
"We had something for everybody," said Philip Scott, who was the arena's manager from 1980-85. "From blue blood to blue collar to blue hair."
The Bayfront Center is not on a list of historic places, and it never had the aura of the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco or the Apollo Theater in New York. On the day of the last event, it was barren except for Elvis, the flag, and the dozen or so tables set up for the farewell dinner that evening.
"I had to reschedule my own wedding because of this building," said Ed Shamas, 60, who in his job with Orange Blossom Catering was responsible for providing food for events. "It was 1980. We had an event booked" and he had to work.
"But the last time I was here, about two months ago, it looked really nice," Shamas said. "It was all lit up and there was carpeting on the floor.
"I think I'll remember it like that."
Most people at the dinner felt the same way. Even the sad memories didn't seem quite so unpleasant.
"When it was time for Elvis' show," Johnson recalled, "they brought his limo to the back and I had to have steps with handrails for him to hold. And they had a rule that no women were allowed in his dressing room. Not even women police officers.
"I don't think he wanted them to see what he looked like. Six months later, he was dead."
But that night at the Bayfront Center, the King managed to deliver one more time.
"He'd sing the first few bars of a song," Johnson said, "and then his background singers and his band took over.
"But the women loved him. He threw them his silk scarfs, and the women fought over them.