Home Sweet Dome
For a half-century, Pittsburgh’s iconic Mellon Arena, an engineering marvel and shining symbol of the city’s post-war renaissance, has hosted championship teams, all-stars, icons and legends. Now, the landmark is ready for a swan song of its own. Join us for a last look back at life under the dome we called home.
A new landmark in an evolving city, the arena foregrounds a 1960s-era skyline.
Photos courtesy Senator John Heinz History Center and Frank Fuhrer Distributors
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Inside the heart of every Pittsburgher is a shiny dome. You know it as the Civic Arena, Mellon Arena or “The Igloo.” Of all the buildings that make up the city’s signature skyline, few have had more of an impact on our lives. If you’ve grown up in the Pittsburgh region, most likely you can name the concerts, games and events you’ve attended beneath its silver dome.
A lot has changed since the Civic Arena first opened its doors in 1961. Throughout that timeframe—nearly a half century—Pittsburgh has become famous for many things. Light opera is not exactly one of them. But that very art form helped to build the structure that fans would later come to know as Mellon Arena and “The Igloo” with its rich, storied and sometimes magical history.
In the mid-1940s, Edgar Kaufmann, the Kaufmann’s department store magnate, grew tired of sitting in the rain during Civic Light Opera performances at the University of Pittsburgh’s stadium. He pledged $1 million of his own money to help build the CLO a new home—but with one condition: The new facility had to include a retractable roof so he and other patrons could enjoy performances under the stars.
At about the same time, Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence was pushing his Renaissance initiative and was desperately looking for a way to show the country that Pittsburgh had shed its “Smoky City” image. What better way than to build a massive, open-air structure unlike any other in the world?
“When it was first designed, it was a fabric-roofed, single-use structure intended only for the CLO,” says Pittsburgh-based architect Rob Pfaffmann, who is leading the preservation effort to save the building. But when they actually thought about what Pittsburgh needed, that’s when they went to the ‘hard top’ design … for a lot of different uses.”
As Pfaffmann goes on to say, “That was the first time people used architecture to show that we had changed as a city. It really put Pittsburgh on the map.” (Check out Pfaffmann’s alternative plan).
The highlight of the design by Pittsburgh architects Mitchell and Ritchey was the retractable roof, which was—and still is—truly an architectural achievement. It’s constructed of eight metal sections, which are supported by a cantilever arm—the half-arch that looms over the dome. Six of the eight sections rest on enormous steel wheels, which roll on top of a monorail-like track. To open the roof, motors pull the six retractable sections underneath the two stationary sections, revealing the Pittsburgh skyline to the audience in just more than two minutes.
big dome … It was unbelievable.”
“I had never even heard of a building where the roof opened up,” says lifelong Pittsburgher Kay Turnbull, 73. “We felt very proud that it was in our city.”
And the roof wasn’t the arena’s only unique feature. What is now known as the West Igloo seating section used to “rise up” to reveal the stage for theatrical performances, complete with lights and curtains pre-attached underneath the structure.
Ironically, after all of the time and effort invested into meeting specifications for light opera, the CLO packed up and left the arena in 1969 after eight seasons in the sun.
The cavernous space of this building might not have been conducive to light opera such as The Sound of Music, but it was perfect for another kind of music: the burgeoning rock ’n’ roll scene of the mid-1960s. And once rock ’n’ roll moved in, it stayed for good.
As the productions got bigger, louder and brighter between then and now, the chance of seeing an open-air performance decreased. That’s because of the maze of steel cables strategically hung from the roof in order to accommodate the need for extra light grids, pyrotechnics, speakers and anything else groups such as The Black Eyed Peas, who visited the arena in March, might want to use to dazzle a crowd.
To open the roof, which was last done in 1994 to complete maintenance, arena management would have to disassemble the maze of cables. Because they’re all hanging at different lengths and at different locations all over the roof, re-assembling would likely take days.
Rock ’n’ Roll Moves In
The Civic Arena and those who frequented it couldn’t have had better timing when it came to hosting or witnessing live music. The 50-year lifespan of the building coincided with the golden age of rock ’n’ roll. You’d be hard-pressed to find a nationally known act that did not play there: From Sinatra to Madonna, from Elvis to Eminem, from AC/DC to ZZ Top, anybody who was anybody wailed “Helllllo, Pittsburgh!” from the arena’s stage.
Case in point: The Beatles invaded the United States in 1964, and only one place in Pittsburgh was big enough to accommodate the madness. “[The Beatles’] management said, ‘Where can we make the most money with the least aggravation. Who has the biggest capacity?’” says Pat DiCesare, now 72, who was then an up-and-coming concert promoter.
But DiCesare had one problem. Five thousand of them, actually. “Their agent said, ‘If you want The Beatles, you’ll have to come up with $5,000 in cash and leave it at a bar in Brooklyn in a paper bag, and we’ll consider you.’ At that time, we did not have that kind of money.”
So the promoter-meets-prodigy explained the problem to his father, who intently listened during dinner but did not respond. The next day, the elder DiCesare went to the Westinghouse Credit Union and secured a loan for his son’s business proposition even though he didn’t know John Lennon from Vladimir Lenin.
The money was delivered; the Brooklyn bartender came through, and the Civic Arena hosted its first blockbuster event, although it didn’t look very “blockbuster” to the man in charge of the band’s setup.
“There were only two people needed to set up their equipment: me and one other guy,” says Bob Miller, who was the head of a stagehand’s union for more than 40 years. “They played and sang through the P.A. system that was used for hockey games. But sound didn’t mean much with all of the screaming and excitement.”
The audience was delirious, but it didn’t rub off on the band’s veteran drummer, Ringo Starr. “I remember being backstage, looking up at Ringo Starr, and he looked bored to death … just drumming away,” Miller says.
A few years later, the buzz was palpable in the arena for another big concert, but this time for an entirely different reason. On May 2, 1970, The Doors visited Pittsburgh, not long after frontman Jim Morrison was arrested for allegedly exposing himself during a concert in Miami. Security was tight, and so was the arena’s management.
“The fellow who ran the arena said, ‘Bob, we can’t have him exposing himself onstage,’” Miller recalls. “He said, ‘Keep your eyes on his crotch. If anything happens, bring the houselights up.’”
Fortunately, Morrison’s clothes stayed on, and the houselights stayed off. The band even recorded the concert and recently released a CD of that show titled, appropriately enough, Pittsburgh Civic Arena (The Doors Album).
From Music to Movies
The arena’s clear sightlines made it the perfect place to be a spectator. Those sightlines, combined with the unique shape of the dome, even lured producers of two future “cult classics” to film there.
The first was The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh released in 1979. The plot read like this: A professional basketball team in Pittsburgh had spiraled into last place despite having the league’s best player (portrayed by the real Julius Erving), so the team’s ball boy finds an astrologer who decides to surround Dr. J’s character with players all born under the sign of Pisces, which obviously works, and the team wins the championship.
“When it came out, you saw that it was hokey,” says sports talk-show host Paul Alexander, who went to the Civic Arena to be part of the crowd. “The movie was pretty bad. But we were just high school kids, and we got to be close to Dr. J all day. It was pretty cool.”
Years later, the arena was once again center-stage for the filming of another movie: Sudden Death, which was released in 1995. Jean-Claude VanDamme starred as a troubled Pittsburgh firefighter who takes his kids to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals and uncovers a terrorist plot to blow up the building and kill all 17,000 inside. That is unless VanDamme can send the game into overtime by masquerading as the Penguins’ starting goalie.
This time, there was no Dr. J around to draw locals in for the crowd shots, so producers (including the Pens’ then-owner Howard Baldwin) had to pull out all the stops to keep Pittsburgh from looking like a town that couldn’t fill the stands for Game 7.
“They ended up doing a little of everything, like giving away free hot dogs and sodas,” says Jay Roberts, the Mellon Arena’s general manager. “But they were worried that after people ate their hot dogs, they would leave. So they raffled off a car.”
The recently released She’s Out of My League also included scenes from the arena that were shot at a real-life Penguins game. Luckily for those producers, no raffles were necessary as the game was a sellout.