1st Mariner Arena celebrates 50 years

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For 13 days in October 1962, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war.  Tensions ran high as President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev engaged in a perilous game of nerves over the placement of Soviet missiles on the island of Cuba.

On Oct. 23,  Ambassador Adlai Stevenson addressed the United Nations about the crisis.  President Kennedy signed Proclamation 3504, authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba.  And that night, while an anxious world awaited some cooling in the hot Cold War, Baltimoreans enjoyed an icy time-out as the $14 million dollar Baltimore Civic Center opened its doors for the very first time.

For 3 ½ hours, a sense of normalcy prevailed as the Baltimore Clippers took on the Providence Reds in that inaugural event.  Now, fifty years later, the twice renamed arena is still drawing relaxed, appreciative crowds.

To celebrate its half century mark, the city-owned 1st Mariner Arena is exhibiting artwork depicting a variety of artists, family shows, and sporting events; photographs and ads which span the last fifty years.  Most are on display on the first floor walls – some in color, some in black and white – all capturing memorable moments in the arena’s history.

Don't let the price fool you thinking that the band wasn't any good.
Don’t let the price fool you thinking that the band wasn’t good.

“Acclaimed Maryland photographers, Michael Maltese/The Lost Collection Gallery, Eric Stocklin, Gene Sweeney/Baltimore Sun, Owen Sweeney, and Keith Vendouern, have all managed to “seize the moment” in timeless photographs.

Also included in the gallery are original advertisements dating back to the beginning.” (From the official press release)

Frank Remesch, general manager for SMG-Management, the private management company which oversees the arena, says, “Some photos evoke personal memories and some will serve as a reminder of the significant role the arena has played in Baltimore’s rich history.”

Surfing in Baltimore meant something different in 1960s with the Beach Boys.

From being the home of a number of professional hockey, basketball and soccer teams to hosting acts such as the Beatles, The Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra and Elvis, the arena has seen its share of memorable events.

Yet even as the city debates replacing the aging venue, the arena continues to attract popular acts and draw impressive crowds.  So popular is the arena, in fact, that it garnered a top spot in Billboard Magazine’s “Year in Music” issue. (Venues with a capacity of 10,001 – 15,000)

This season, the arena has already hosted The Dave Matthews Band, Cirque du Solie, the European horse show Apassionata, the Harlem Globetrotters and AmsOil Arenacross.

Upcoming shows include the Superstars of 70’s Soul Jam, Baltimore Blast soccer, Disney on Ice, Chris Tomlin, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Rihanna and Barry Manilow.

(Check out the video below  of Peaches & Herb who will be appearing with Superstars of  Soul Jam Jan. 19.)

Keeping the arena attractive to both artists and audiences in austere times has been a challenge, but one Frank Remesch has embraced.  His secret for success is simply smart management.

“In 1992 they hosted 195 events and lost money.  Last year, we hosted 130 events and are doing fine. It’s not how many events you host, it’s knowing your audience.”

Knowing the audience has helped SMG attract major acts over the past few years.  Hannah Montana, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and Beyoncé have all played the arena.  Remesch notes, “We almost had Madonna booked before she decided to tour overseas instead.”

Lots of satisfaction with the Rolling Stones rocking the stage. (1st Mariner Arena courtesy photo.)

Knowing the audience also transcends taking the pulse of the public via editorials or local talk shows.  Occasionally, there is a call for adding arena football, or bringing back ice hockey or professional basketball.

Remesch is enthusiastic about hosting an arena football team.  However, he says basketball is out of the question and sees ice hockey as a losing proposition.

“Adding arena football would mean having 6-8 home games a year.  We could easily do that and have been exploring the idea with a potential team owner.  Conversely, the NBA would want a larger seating capacity while hockey would require some 40 dates – many of them during the weekend.  With big family shows scheduled every 4-5 weeks, shows which usually draw well such as horse or bull riding exhibitions, concerts or the circus, there are just so many weekends available.  Plus, turning the arena from an ice rink into an animal friendly venue and then back is both a costly and time consuming process, making the constant change-overs cost prohibitive.”

Today 1st Mariner Arena holds on to the rich culture of the old Civic Center but continues to draw top talent. (Justus Heger)
Today 1st Mariner Arena holds on to the rich culture of the old Civic Center but continues to draw top talent. (Justus Heger)

Change-overs are always a consideration, but none loom greater on the horizon than the possible replacement of the arena.  There have been almost a dozen different proposals floated on how to supplant the aging structure, but the plans vary in vision, scope, size and location.

With neither a final proposal in hand nor the estimated billion dollars in place to execute the endeavor, the arena survives and, to the shock of many, actually thrives.  As of the end of last year, 1st Mariner’s corporate sponsorship contract expired, but sources tell the Baltimore Post-Examiner that the bank would like the relationship to continue.  Other businesses are also assessing the possible advantages of corporate sponsorship.  Bidding will soon start for naming rights.

The arena also thrives amidst a welcomed renewal of its surrounding neighborhood.  Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore City Office of Promotion and Arts noted that, with the recent state designation of the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District , and the possibility of a redeveloped Charles Center, “Anything good which happens in this area is good for the arena.”

Perhaps most surprising to some is how the old facility stands up to modern music standards.  Remesch recalled once overhearing Bruce Springsteen’s sound engineer tell the Boss, “She’s an old girl but man are those acoustics great!”

Remesch is proud of the history of the arena and its current direction under SMG-Management.  And he is grateful too, for what he describes as, “The best job in the world.”

“For 3 ½ hours, I get to see people who aren’t arguing about politics, religion – they aren’t worried about what’s going on in the world – they’re just feeling good and having a great time.”

A lot like Baltimoreans were doing that night in 1962.

 (The Rockettes is one of the photos on display.  Justus Heger took the feature photo)