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Magazine | Okiecentric

Headlining the Hippodrome

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Posted 08.16.12

The architect, like a divine creator surveying six days of work, righteously declared that the boxy, beige, concrete structure he’d designed was indeed good. Edward Durell Stone was a world-famous architect whose hands had drawn the plans for New York’s Radio City Music Hall and Museum of Modern Art; the United States Embassy in New Delhi, India; and the United States Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, and yet in 1964 he declared the Tulsa Assembly Center “the most majestic and monumental building I’ve ever had a part in.”

The Assembly Center (it would later undergo two renovations and be renamed the Tulsa Convention Center) was a project 30 years in the making. City leaders envisioned a space that could host conventions, rodeos, concerts and sporting events, but funds were lacking. But in 1952, when the Tulsa Coliseum burned to the ground after being struck by lightning, proponents of the project had their in: Something would have to be built to replace what was lost. The city tried three times before voters finally—and narrowly—approved a $7.5 million bond to pay for the building. When Stone returned to Tulsa in the final weeks of construction, he commented that the Assembly Center’s “grandeur is a little reminiscent of the great European monuments.”

“The appearance of the building has simple dignity rather than one of the exaggerated space-age contraptions you see around the country,” he told the Tulsa World in 1963.

“You know, Frank Lloyd Wright said early in life he had to choose between hypothetical humility and honest arrogance. So, I think I’ll choose the course of honest arrogance also and say I think the building is majestic and very beautiful.”

The facility opened in March 1964 with a week of events that included a performance by the U.S. Air Force drum and bugle corps, professional ice hockey games, public ice skating, an arts and crafts exhibit, a chamber of commerce luncheon, performances by public school bands, and a public dedication ceremony emceed by Will Rogers Jr. Soon, in addition to the traditional convention business and sporting events, the Assembly Center’s arena stage began attracting headliners. The Jackson 5, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, Johnny Cash, and Bruce Springsteen all played there in the primes of their careers.

Just about every major touring rock ’n’ roll act in the 1960s and ’70s made a stop in Tulsa, and the Assembly Center hosted upwards of 30 concerts a year.

“It was just as big and glorious for us then as the BOK Center is now,” said Larry Shaeffer, who, at the time, was promoting concerts through a small company he called Little Wing Productions. The once owner of Cain’s Ballroom now books tours for Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.

“When I saw Jimi Hendrix play there, it changed my life.”

•••

Roy Saunders was the Assembly Center’s first general manager, running the show there since the day the doors opened until he retired. His office overlooked the arena, giving him a bird’s eye view to the day’s top rock musicians, none of whom he cared much for. He was a fan of the big bands, and when those groups came through, he made sure to shake their hands and get his photo taken with them. But he didn’t fawn over the rock stars.

Saunders, 80 now, sits up straight in a small recliner, an oxygen tank plugged into his nostrils, ice melting in an untouched glass of tea perched upon a coaster on a small table at his right hand. His bald head makes his large ears seem more protruding, and his long legs are crossed at their knobby knees. Tight, thin creases line his mouth and his hacking, emphysemic cough interrupts every small burst of laughter. Through it, he expresses his disdain for rock ’n’ roll.

“I really didn’t care for rock ’n’ roll from the very beginning,” he said. “So many of the rock groups got to be difficult from the standpoint of getting them to start on time. So many of the entertainers were notorious for being late or not showing up at all.”

Once, when Johnny Cash was scheduled to play, an hour passed without any word of his arrival. Saunders crossed the street to get himself a cup of coffee and found Cash, drunk, in one of the café’s corner booths. On another occasion, Saunders remembered seeing an odd-looking fellow wearing a large top hat, its brim made to look like piano keys. He asked one of the stagehands who the guy was, and the kid answered him: “Elton John.”

Saunders required cash bonds from promoters whose artists he thought might be predisposed to showing up late, cursing on stage, or leaping off of it and into the crowd.

“I talked to the promoter when Ozzy Osborne came in and said, ‘Look, he’s got a reputation for a lot of profanity and we’re not going to stand for it.’ ” He required a $5,000 bond from the promoter. “The first sentence out of his mouth was, ‘Come on, Tulsa, let’s have an effing good time!’ ”

Shaeffer was the promoter for that show.

“The more Roy Saunders tried to keep people from cursing, the nastier mouthed they were,” Shaeffer said. “The more Roy Saunders tried to keep people from jumping into the crowd, the more they were going to jump in the crowd in Tulsa that day. All Roy Saunders did was stir stuff up.”

Saunders didn’t just dislike rock ’n’ roll; he was afraid of it.

“Roy and the city leaders were scared to death someone might get screwed in the bathroom or smoke a joint,” Shaeffer said. “They were intimidated by rock ’n’ roll. It was still evil and scary in the ’60s.”

•••

The Tulsa Convention Center archives, a bunker of jumbled memories, have been all but ignored for the past 48 years. But a few months ago, Julie Cook took a part-time administrative assistant position at the place and began inquiring about its history. She found her way to a narrow broom closet underneath the arena’s nosebleed seating, tucked in between two concession stands, where people had been tossing old papers and outdated materials that were taking up too much real estate in their offices.

Behind the dark green door is a 15-foot deep sliver of a closet, its sloping ceiling cascading into long rows of wooden shelves fixed to the shorter wall. On those shelves rest stacks of paper, posters, and photographs. Small, rectangular boxes contain carbon copies of every hand-written receipt ever written. Leftover brochures from every era of the center’s existence preach the same message: The Tulsa Convention Center is a world-class facility in a world-class city attracting world-class events and audiences.

On the opposite wall, at the end of the closet, are four tall, green, metal filing cabinets, most of the drawers labeled with a year, each one containing hundreds of manila folders representing an event occurring at some point in the center’s past. Every expo, every hockey game, and every concert gets its own folder; inside are the figures on attendance, profit turned, promoter fees, and other significant details—like the fact that, during a Jackson 5 concert on July 21, 1972, someone called the center to warn about a bomb “in the Civic Center fixing to go off.” The police turned the place upside down, peering inside trash cans, concession stand corners, and bathroom stalls, but never found a bomb. The Jackson 5 fans, screaming inside the arena for their favorite brother, were never alerted.

Some of the folders contain typed and handwritten letters to and from general manager Roy Saunders. People would write him, inquiring about a show date, or the price of tickets, or expressing their excitement about an upcoming event, and he would reply to each one, expressing his gratitude for their inquiry and providing whatever information they required.

Beside the cabinets are cardboard boxes filled with scrapbooks and photo albums, snapshots and mementos tucked inside plastic sheathing, none of them labeled, their contents decipherable only to those who might recognize a face or some tiny detail in the background.

The whole mess is just that—a mess. But Cook is on a mission to pore through each page, box and drawer to make sense of the madness—hopefully in time for the center’s 50-year anniversary in 2014. She seems slightly overwhelmed by the task she’s assigned herself, but her eyes shine when she sees the pile of posters, the box of receipts. She has to stop herself from getting lost it in all, reluctantly switching off the light, shutting the door, and trudging back upstairs to her desk, where she’s using what archives are available online to list, chronologically, every event—especially the concerts—held at the center.

“I haven’t gotten very far,” she said. “I still haven’t figured out what the first concert was.”

•••

When the Assembly Center’s 8,900-seat arena was built, it was the largest Tulsa had seen, and it was on par with other arenas across the country. “It was bigger than the music business at that time,” Shaeffer said. “It was as big as it needed to be. The rock and roll touring business was not the giant that it is today.”

The Beatles came along and changed the music business everywhere, including Tulsa, where they never even performed. Bands and record labels both got the itch for stardom—record labels began seeking out new talent and pouring money into their development.

Then, in 1972, as part of an urban renewal project called the Pei Plan, Oklahoma City built the 15,000- seat Myriad Convention Center—now known as the Cox Business Services Convention Center—and the bigger names started passing up Tulsa in favor of Oklahoma City.

“It’s all about money,” Shaeffer said. “Acts follow the money. Tulsa became a second-tier market.”

Then, in 2002, OKC one-upped itself with the $89.2 million, 19,000-seat Ford Center, renamed the Chesapeake Arena with the arrival of the Oklahoma City Thunder, partly owned by recently ousted Chesapeake Energy chair, Aubrey McClendon. In 2005, Tulsa followed suit with its own 19,000-seat arena, the BOK Center, its $196 million price tag funded through the voter-approved Vision 2025 long-range development initiative. The same initiative also paid for a $52 million update to the Tulsa Convention Center.

The original plan replaced the center’s arena with a ballroom, which it would use to attract larger, more lucrative expos and events that normally passed on the Convention Center for lack of space, but the center’s staff lobbied hard to keep the arena, building the 30,000-square foot ballroom, along with seven other 1,200-square-foot meeting rooms, to the north and east of the existing building.

The Chesapeake Arena, BOK Center, and Tulsa Convention center are all managed by SMG, which tries to pull every event within the vicinity of those three venues into one of their rooms. Because the Chesapeake is so often occupied by the Thunder, the BOK Center has become the primary destination for major rock, pop, and country acts coming to Oklahoma. The Convention Center stays busy, too, but with conventions, expos, and minor league sporting events.

Shaeffer says, without the ability to compete with the BOK Center—and without the atmosphere of smaller venues like the Cain’s Ballroom and the Brady Theater—there’s no longer a place for convention centers in the music industry. And some say the country is running out of room for convention centers altogether.

According to a recent story published online by The Atlantic Cities, “Over the last 20 years, convention space in the United States has increased by 50 percent; since 2005, 44 new convention spaces have been planned or constructed in this country alone. That boom hasn’t come cheap. In the last ten years, spending on convention centers has doubled to $2.4 billion annually, much of it from public coffers.”

But the actual number of conventions hosted at these facilities—and the number of people in attendance at those—has been in steady decline since the mid-1990s.

Saunders credits some of the decline in concert business at the Convention Center to a more selective audience. “The general public has become so much more selective that they’ll only support the really big names, and there just aren’t as many shows out on the road,” he said. Perhaps the same is true for conventions, but Janet Rockefeller, assistant manager for the Tulsa Convention Center, insists the venue is doing fine. She says the staff is making plans for a big 50-year anniversary celebration in 2014.

Until then, there’s still time to reserve a seat at Tokyo in Tulsa (a Japanese pop culture convention), TNA Impact Wrestling, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Bassmaster Classic, or the Conference USA Basketball Tournament.