On opening night, Oct. 23, 1962, the Baltimore Arena was called the Civic Center. Mayor J. Harold Grady threw out a ceremonial first ice puck at 8:33 p.m. for the contest between the Baltimore Clippers and the Providence Reds. A capacity crowd of more than 10,000 was expected; 7,760 showed up. Baltimore won, 5-4.
The workhouse arena is about to undergo a refurbishment to renew the place that hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Beatles, Luciano Pavarotti and decades of returning circus elephants and lions in its six decades.
The structure at Baltimore and Howard streets was never fancy. It is more of a better-grade gymnasium lined with masonry walls and a roof once described as being Body by Fisher, a reference to General Motors automobile design.
Over the years, graduates of City, Poly, Eastern and Western high schools and the University of Maryland received their diplomas here. But the arena also had a strong identity in entertainment — Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross sang here.
Generations of Baltimoreans have arena memories. There were four landmark shows — The Beatles’ appearance on Sept. 13, 1964; film star and singer Judy Garland on Feb. 18, 1968; The Jackson 5 on Aug. 5, 1973; and Elvis Presley on May 29, 1977.
Presley died at age 42, less than three months later. Other performers who died shorty after appearing in Baltimore at about that time include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.
Presley was a capacity draw. In a 1992 Sun story, Frank Severa, who worked as a ticket seller in the box office for 30 years, recalled the king’s advance sale: “Elvis sold out in 2 1/2 hours. It was the only show I can remember where no tickets were sat on — held back. Elvis gave orders to offer every ticket, starting with the best seats. There was nothing kept back for privileged people.”
After back-to-back 1964 Beatles concerts, Baltimore police brought out their mounted cavalry patrol to try to clear Howard Street of rapturous enthusiasts.
On April 22, 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered a speech called “Race and the Church” at the arena as part of a gathering of Methodist clergy.
Judy Garland appeared on a bill with Tony Bennett and a then-aspiring New York comic, Woody Allen. Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli stood behind the curtain. Garland’s adoring fans jumped their seats and stormed the stage with bouquets.
“Judy was the last one to come out, and when she did, she was on Tony’s arm. The instant I saw that, I knew she was in trouble,” said a fan, John Eggen, in a Sun story. “She flashed that big smile. She wore a white sequin pant suit. She never got to ‘Over the Rainbow.’ You could feel the response in the audience. She just couldn’t do it.”
Other fans observed Garland on her Baltimore visit. She enjoyed a bottle of Blue Nun wine at the old Schellhase’s Restaurant on Howard Street.
The Clippers ice hockey team was joined by the Baltimore Bullets basketball team, known for star players Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld. The Bullets franchise moved to Washington, D.C., in 1973.
When the Ringling Brothers circus arrived — always a big springtime attraction — venders sold brightly colored souvenirs from carts along Howard Street. The ice shows, the old Holiday on Ice, the Ice Capades and the Ice Follies, also drew patrons downtown.
Baltimore Sun stories said that soul music resounded throughout the arena in the 1960s. James Brown was a regular at the Civic Center.
An event billed as the “Last Soul Session of ‘67″ (Dec. 10, 1967) featured Gladys Knight & the Pips, Peaches & Herb, Junior Walker & The All-Stars and The Manhattans. Masters of ceremony were local deejays Rockin’ Robin and Al Jefferson. Admission was $2.50
When the place still seemed new, it hosted the big names of the day, including Sam Cooke in April 1963, Ella Fitzgerald in August 1963, The Rolling Stones in November 1965, Ray Charles in July 1967, Jimi Hendrix in May 1968 and Janis Joplin in December 1969.
“To me, the finest show of all times was Diana Ross after she’d gone out on her own. It was all great technology and illusion. It looked like she had walked out of a screen,” said Clifton Johns, an arena employee, in a story of 30 years ago.
Baltimore fans also loved professional wresting.
“People will buy a wresting ticket before they’ll buy a pair of shoes. I’ve seen them with their toes sticking out and ask for the best seat in the house,” said Severa, the ticket seller.
When budget-conscious Baltimore politicians were discussing whether Baltimore needed such an arena, they talked about placing it in Druid Hill Park because the city already owned the land. Former City Comptroller Hyman Pressman (seriously) suggested no air conditioning to save on the bill.