Opening months of Taylor Arena were 'good days'
Roy Sutherland watched anxiously as big-wheel trucks spun their way through the soupy bog on the floor of the Arena, splattering mud across brand new seats, walls and even the ceiling of the pristine arena.
It was Sept. 27, 1986, and one of the first events in the new building was putting Sutherland's nerves to the test.
"This building isn't a temple," Sutherland said that night. As director of the new, $16 million arena, he was under pressure to try anything and everything to fill the seats — including a mud-splattering, big-wheel competition.
"Basically, our philosophy was we would do anything to turn the lights on," Sutherland, now retired, said last week.
The big-wheel show was just one of a variety of events presented to showcase the arena when it opened that year. Concerts, family shows, sports — all were promised in the campaign to get voters to approve the 1-percent sales tax to fund the arena and the city's flood control project.
Now, after several delays, the building finally was up and running, and getting baptized with mud.
"Everything that first year was an experiment," said Donna Drews, the civic center's executive director, who was the newly hired promotions director in 1986. "It was all so new."
As would be expected, there were some aspects of the operation that needed fine-tuning.
That included the catered grand-opening dinner at which, Drews recalled, the baked potatoes were so cold that butter wouldn't melt on them. At the same time, the heat was on Drews, Sutherland and the building staff to make the opening concert by Mel Tillis and Roy Clark run like clockwork. "This was our first big show," Drews said.
That first concert, on Sept. 13, 1986, drew 6,000 people who bought tickets priced at $15.50 and $12.50. The new arena was off and running. As the civic center team got the bugs worked out, the concerts and shows brought in those first months fulfilled Sutherland's goal of keeping the lights on:
• The Lipizzaner Stallions made their first appearance in Rochester on Oct. 10, 1986. The show has returned to the arena several times since then.
• The Ice Capades came to Rochester for the first (and last) time Oct. 15-19, creating a 7,300-square-foot ice rink on the arena floor. The seven performances drew a total of 12,888 people. "Those types of shows, where you're doing a run of days, we didn't have the market for that," Drews said.
• In November, the arena hosted concerts by the Statler Brothers and Anne Murray only days apart, despite concerns about selling tickets. "Ultimately, both shows did very, very well," Drews said. The Statler Brothers drew 4,288 people, and Anne Murray drew 5,085.
• A month later, Andy Williams came calling with his legendary Christmas show. "That was a beautiful show," Drews said. "They cared about the audience, how the show was staged, what it would sound like." An audience of 4,434 attended.
And so it continued, culminating on March 6, 1987, with a concert by the rock band Bon Jovi, then riding high on the charts.
"There was a huge fight between two promoters to get Bon Jovi here," Sutherland said. "Originally, it was going to Duluth. We had to give the building away to get him, and we got him. It was huge."
The concert was recorded for a Bon Jovi video, and 7,500 fans packed the arena for the show. "I don't think I slept for three days," Sutherland said.
More than a concert, the Bon Jovi show was a message to the community and to young people: We now have a building that can bring in the biggest acts in the business.
"Those were the good days," Sutherland said. "When it first opened up, that's when acts were still traveling and playing buildings our size. You think of some of the acts that came here. That was fun."
These days, however, concerts of any kind are difficult to book in Taylor Arena, which might be too big for the acts that will play Rochester and too small for the acts the community would like to see. The city's location close to the Twin Cities, and the ability of casinos in the region to book top acts, further has complicated scheduling.
"We are, without a doubt, struggling for entertainment," Drews said.
The current $84 million expansion/renovation of the civic center won't change any of that. Most of the new space is geared toward meetings and conventions.
The bright star that was Taylor Arena in 1986 appears to have dimmed somewhat at the ripe young age of 30.