Future uncertain, 1st Mariner Arena thrives

Frank Remesch's mission was clear, if daunting. Somehow, he had to convince people that the hulking, cavernous 1st Mariner Arena, a 1960s relic that civic leaders had been talking about razing for years, was still a player — could still attract big-time concerts to Baltimore.

Tough job. But then he had a flash. Maybe the World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band could help? They were in the middle of their 2006 American tour; they'd even played the arena twice before, back in the days when it was still called the Civic Center.

Remesch breaks into a wide grin as he tells the story. He can't help himself.

"I had this kooky idea to bring the Rolling Stones to Baltimore," says Remesch, 43, 1st Mariner's general manager since 2004. "I offered this incredible deal — basically, I'm going to make almost no money. But that's OK, because I had a vision that this is going to mean something long-term."

Sure enough, the Stones' February 2006 concert brought in more than $2.5 million (almost all of which went to the band) and remains the highest-grossing show in the building's 49-year history. Since then, the roster of acts to play 1st Mariner has included Bruce Springsteen, Miley Cyrus, Beyonce, Martina McBride and Usher. Next weekend, Lil' Wayne performs, followed by Elton John on March 26. In the next few months, Rihanna kicks off her The Loud Tour 2011 on June 4 at the arena, and Sade starts her first tour in 10 years with a June 16 show there.

Not bad for a place that's just sitting around waiting for the wrecking ball. And while calls for a bigger, fancier arena keep coming — the latest proposal being studied involves putting a combination hotel/arena/enlarged convention center in the Inner Harbor area — 1st Mariner keeps bringing the big acts into town. In 2009, among concert venues with a capacity between 10,000 and 15,000, it was rated No. 1 in North America by Billboard magazine — No. 5 worldwide — based on ticket sales. Last year, it was ranked No. 2 in North America, No. 67 worldwide.

"This market has become a really good market for entertainment," says Don Wehner of Upfront Promotions, who has been booking acts into Baltimore since the late 1970s. "The building management has become very user-friendly, they want to make a deal. Sometimes, maybe, you have to ask yourself, 'Why do we need a new arena, if everybody's coming to play here?' "

Remesch, who has worked at 1st Mariner since being hired as a building electrician in 1988, has heard all the complaints. The building's old. It's got lousy sound. There aren't enough bathrooms. You spend half the concert standing in line for food. And yet there were the Stones, launching into "Jumpin' Jack Flash" at creaky old 1st Mariner, rocking a sold-out crowd of some 12,500 fans.

"It's the same philosophy that, if you go with your family to a fair and you see a crowd over there, what do you do? You walk toward it, you can't help yourself," says Remesch, whose relentless enthusiasm and unwavering grin must be tough for even the hardest-hearted concert booker to resist. "We had a great act come, a great promoter brought it — Live Nation. Now, people start looking at Baltimore — 'There's something about Baltimore, maybe they can do large events there.' It gave me credentials."

In a way, it's hard to imagine that the arena needs any more cred; few venues still standing can claim a more storied concert history. The project, built at a cost of $14 million, opened in October 1962 as the Baltimore Civic Center with a Clippers ice hockey game. Since then the building has played host to just about every big-name music act there is. The Beatles played there, as well as the Stones, the Who, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and U2. Frank Sinatra sang on stage, as did Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Mathis, Bob Dylan, Prince and Elvis Presley. Diana Ross and the Supremes brought the Motown sound to the Civic Center; so did the Jackson 5. Springsteen played here back in the early 1970s — as an opening act for Chicago.

Just how impressive is the roster of acts that have played the Civic Center/1st Mariner? Last year, VH-1 sponsored a poll in which performers and music professionals were asked to rate the greatest acts of all time. Every one of the artists ranked in the top 10 has performed there. That's something few other buildings can claim — not even New York's fabled Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968, two years after the Beatles had quit touring altogether.

Soundman Brian Snell, a veteran of more than 40 years at the arena, has a cumbersome old mixing-board in his office that has amplified the voices of Elvis, the Beatles and Hendrix. Almost anyone who has grown up in the Baltimore area can wax poetic about some show he saw at the West Baltimore Street address.

"There were several warm-up acts, and every time the curtains at the side rippled, the screaming started and it drowned out everything on the stage," remembers Ron Edwards, 59, a controller for St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center who saw the Beatles back in September 1964.

"The announcer introduced the next-to-last act as 'traditionally, the next-to-last act is the best.' That set off the crowd again, and it stayed that way until the Beatles finally came on. I didn't think it could get any louder, but it did."

Systems engineer Larry Gregory, 59, saw Hendrix in June 1970, just three months before the guitarist died in a London hotel room. "What I saw that night has never been matched," he says. "It was simply amazing to see and hear how a person could get that much sound from a guitar. Then he played 'Machine Gun' and 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Then he just set the guitar on fire. There was nothing else to do."

Remesch has heard scores of stories like these, and he relishes his reputation as the man who is keeping the place going. He acknowledges that the building is nothing fancy ("It's essentially a bomb shelter, that's what it is, really," he says), that it doesn't have the bells and whistles of more modern facilities. There's no fancy green room where acts can wait to go onstage, no premium high-priced seating. Refreshment and novelty stands can be hard to find, and if he could ask for only one thing, Remesch readily concedes, it would be more stalls in the women's restrooms.

"She's not the prettiest thing in the world," he says with affection, "but she was built to last."

Donald C. Fry, president of the nonprofit Greater Baltimore Committee, applauds the job Remesch and 1st Mariner's operators, SMG Corp., have done in keeping the arena vital. But that doesn't change the fact, he says, that Baltimore still needs a bigger, better arena.

"The facility itself is outdated," he says. "The major utilities, heating and air conditioning, are all at the end of their normal lifetime, or beyond their normal lifetime. The corridors are very small in size, the food facilities and bathrooms are old and outdated. We've got to accept the fact that a new area is essential. This isn't a matter of 'Will the current arena last another 12 or 15 years?' As time goes on, we're going to lose the big acts."

Under a proposal being studied by the GBC, an 18,500-seat arena would be built on the site of the existing Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel on South Charles Street, at a cost (estimated in 2008) of at least $300 million.

Remesch insists he's no pie-in-the-sky romantic who vows to keep 1st Mariner going in spite of what everyone says. It is an old building, he acknowledges, and it would be nice to have a fancy new facility to dangle in front of people.

"Do I think we need a new arena? No. Do we want a new arena? Yes," he says. "You have a 1985 Honda you ride to work every day and it runs, fine. If I give you a new BMW, would you take it? Absolutely."

Even Remesch says that getting the big acts to come to Baltimore isn't always easy. He has to be creative, coming up with finance packages to soften the blow of the city's 10 percent amusement tax (one of the highest in the country). He has to be persistent, constantly approaching bookers, sending Christmas cards, always looking for what what might bring the next Lil' Wayne or Carrie Underwood or Simon & Garfunkel to Baltimore.

But sometimes, the building itself can prove an advantage. After Springsteen played the arena in November 2009, Remesch says, he sent the Boss a poster that pictured many of the great acts that have played the arena over the years. He put Springsteen smack-dab in the center.

"He absolutely loved the poster," a beaming Remesch says. "The next day, I was in my garage, working on my car, when I get a text message from [Springsteen's tour manager]. He says, 'I was on a plane with Bruce last night, he did not stop raving about your building. That's what he likes — he likes looking up at the crowd, not seeing people in suites looking at each other.

"The age of the building, in some ways, plays well," Remesch says, sitting back in his office chair, cradling a baseball bat Springsteen signed for him after the show was over. "You have these old-school rock-and-rollers who appreciate that. That makes you proud."