Seasoned concert-goers who walk into the resurrected Forum in Inglewood after it opens Wednesday with the first of six Eagles concerts may be struck as much by what's missing as by what's been added to the 46-year-old former sports palace.
The overhead electronic scoreboard and basketball backboards that were integral to the Forum during its 31-year reign as Southern California's premiere sports arena? Gone.
Hard-plastic sports-arena seats? Gone — replaced by movie theater-style high-back upholstered seats.
The blue exterior color added in 1988 when Great Western Bank secured naming rights? Gone, replaced by gleaming coats of the original shade now known as "Forum red."
All the missing elements add up to what the revamped Forum is: a new kind of arena, one thoroughly reconfigured with music and live entertainment as the top priorities, rather than subservient to resident sports teams.
It's the outcome of a $100-million investment by Madison Square Garden Co. as the New York firm's first West Coast venture. In some respects, it's a $100-million gamble as MSG rolls the dice in hopes that it can create a viable business at the arena level without a sports team to anchor the calendar, as has been the rule at arenas across the country.
"We don't know how things are going to go," said MSG Executive Chairman James L. Dolan, who has overseen the recent $1-billion overhaul of Madison Square Garden itself and major rehab efforts on other historic New York venues, including Radio City Music Hall and the Beacon Theatre. "But I'm very hopeful. We've tried to think of everything we could that would make it [work], and if it does — if we are right — I think it does change the game."
The return of the Forum may well represent a game-changer both in the healthy concert business, if aging arenas in other cities can be profitably retooled for live entertainment, as well as for the city of Inglewood and its environs, which have struggled as fortunes faded at the Forum and neighboring Hollywood Park.
Absent any resident sports teams, the Forum has been redesigned to maximize the concert-going experience. Concrete walls and partitions have been dressed up with black fabric to absorb sonic reverberations that can wreak havoc with music.
As for the luxury corporate sky boxes that help newly built arenas pay the bills, but which push upper-deck seating for fans even farther from the stage on concert nights—the top row of the Forum is 80 feet above the arena floor, compared to 110 feet at Staples Center--they never existed at the Forum, and none have been added.
Musicians will find that in place of the athletic locker rooms they've often had to use as makeshift dressing rooms, the Forum has reinvented those backstage spaces as elegantly appointed artist rest and relaxation spaces. For today's elaborate stage shows, crews will now have the ability to hang 350,000 pounds of equipment from the ceiling, to which 230 tons of steel support have been added.
Now the gussied-up Forum is positioned to compete with the venue that once stole its fire. Not that Staples Center will be rolling over.
"It's another large venue coming into an already crowded market," said Staples Senior Vice President and General Manager Lee Zeidman. "I don't know how many shows they'll have to have to make a profit, but at the end of the day, I think we still have the best artist and fan ameninties. Coupled with two hotels next door, 19 restaurants in the L.A. Live complex and three more ready to open up and our location downtown, I think Staples Center is going to continue to be the region's preferred chioce for arena and concert entertainment."
The Forum was designed by architect Charles Luckman (he also designed the original Madison Square Garden arena) and built by Lakers' owner Jack Kent Cooke. After opening in 1967, it reigned as the region's premiere sports arena for more than 30 years, until billionaire developer Philip Anschutz's Anschutz Entertainment Group opened Staples Center 10 miles away.
During the 2000s, the Forum saw only sporadic activity while it was owned by the Faithful Central Bible Church, which sold it to MSG last year for $23.5 million.
Today, however, the Forum could take a serious bite out of its competitor's concert business because many of Staples calendar dates are consumed by its resident NBA and NHL sports franchises: the Lakers, the Clippers and the Kings. Those teams keep Staples busy more than 120 nights a year, although Staples officials downplay any limitations sports activity presents for concert bookings.
"We put on 53 concerts last year," Zeidman saidbesting the arena's previous high of 38. "We're going into our 14th year, and We've never had a problem routing in an artist who wanted to play Staples Center."
Even more than spurring increased concert activity in the Southland, which Forum officials are saying will easily top 90 events during its first year of renewed operation, it stands as a a blueprint for a new kind of concert facility.
"Nowhere else in the world do you have a venue of this size that is truly not a sports venue first," said the head of the world's largest concert promotion company, Live Nation President and Chief Executive Michael Rapino. "Any time you have that amount of resources focused purely on the concert experience, I think it's a win."
A key ally who Dolan and MSG have leaned on in bringing the Forum back to life is Irving Azoff, manager of the Eagles, Christina Aguilera and other acts and whose latest business venture, Azoff Music Management, is a partnership with MSG. Azoff is taking a leading hand in booking acts into the Forum.
"We're overwhelmingly, pleasantly shocked and surprised by the amount of holds there are on the building — shows that are confirmed and shows that are holding," Azoff said.
Declining to identify performers coming into the Forum besides the 14 dates currently on sale, Azoff said "It looks to me like it's a slam dunk that we'll have 90 shows" spanning rock, country, pop, R&B, hip-hop and electronic dance music. It's expected that the MTV Video Music Awards will take place this year at the Forum, which also is negotiating for other award shows.
The Forum's storied history is part of the appeal for some of the younger acts that have signed on to play in the venue that has hosted shows by Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Barbra Streisand, Queen, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Prince, Stevie Wonder and many more.
The names of all the artists who played the Forum are now painted — in chronological order — on a loading-dock wall where new acts can see them.
"It's a place with such a rich history," said Mac Reynolds, manager for Imagine Dragons, the rising Las Vegas rock band that scored the best-selling rock album of 2013 and that is booked for a Valentine's Day performance at the Forum. "The guys in the band are Led Zeppelin fans, and they know that Zeppelin played there something like 15 or 16 times, and a lot of other iconic bands played there. It's always a thrill when you can kind of rub shoulders with the people you've idolized."
After Staples upstaged it, the Forum quickly lost its luster. While still hosting concerts periodically, the Forum fell victim to the ravages of time and weather, its paint badly peeling, its amenities reduced to bare minimum while officials at the Faithful Central Bible Church struggled to keep the doors open.
The hit taken by surrounding businesses and residents was already severe from the downturn at Hollywood Park racetrack next door. After California approved off-track betting on horse racing in 1987, the number of visitors to the track plummeted — Inglewood Mayor James Butts said Hollywood Park's parking lot was filled with about 34,000 cars a day on average before off-track betting; soon that number dropped to 1,000.
Now, even before a note of music has sounded from the Forum's stage, its return has brought more jobs to the area — from those who worked on the rehab to the hiring of hundreds of new employees (a significant chunk of whom are Inglewood residents) to work the concerts.
Dolan and Azoff have lauded Inglewood Mayor James Butts for cutting through bureaucratic red tape to facilitate the Forum reboot.
"We knew that if we could bring back the Forum in a grander scale, it would have a tremendous spillover effect to many different interests in the city," Butts said. "Because of where we were economically, and because we had lost all our retail anchors, that adds to the economic uncertainty of a billion-dollar company placing its only West Coast operation in the city of Inglewood."
Butts said that MSG's commitment to the Forum, and the city, has triggered new investment capital for the long-delayed Hollywood Park Tomorrow development designed for the beleaguered race track next door. Butts said developers are scheduled to break ground on the nearly $200-million project in March, and that there's new developer interest in a long-fallow 57-acre parcel formerly the site of Daniel Freeman Hospital.
And you need look no farther than across the street to find one of the first ripples of this grand experiment.
"We opened 13 years ago — the year after the Lakers left," said Sean Mitchell, co-owner of the Bourbon Street Louisiana Fish and Grill restaurant, where he and partners Derrick and John Brown have repainted the exterior, expanded their menu and are in the process of hiring six to eight new employees in anticipation of increased business.
"We've made it through some hard times," Mitchell said. "With the Forum back, we hope it's going to be 'Happy days are here again.' "
Date opened: Dec. 30, 1967
Seating capacity: 17,500
Architect: Charles Luckman
Cost: $16 million
First concert: Aretha Franklin, Jan. 22, 1968
Reopening date: Jan. 15, 2014
Cost of revitalization project: $100 million (including $23.5 million purchase price)
First concert: The Eagles
Number of concerts on sale: 14
Acts scheduled: The Eagles, Justin Timberlake, Alejandra Guzman, Imagine Dragons, Paul Simon and Sting, Tobymac, Kings of Leon, Chelsea Handler, DJ Armin van Buuren
Least expensive: Tobymac ($20 to $85)
Most expensive: Paul Simon and Sting ($50 to $255)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun