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.

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.The Civic Arena  anticipates a 1974 tennis playoff between the Pittsburgh Triangles and  the Detroit Loves. An open arena was a common sight during these  matches, which were held during the summer months.

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.

“At that time, most arenas just looked like big barns,” says former Pittsburgh Penguins rear guard Duane Rupp. “This one, with that
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.

Spectators cheer on the  Pittsburgh Triangles during a WTT match in the arena.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.Patrons enjoy a CLO performance. The arena was originally built for the CLO with the condition it have a retractable roof so performances could be experienced under the night sky.

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.

Seriously.

“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.”

1962 covers from the Civic Light Opera featuring revues of Carol Burnett and Jerry Lewis.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.

 

Let the Games Begin
The term “multi-use” is sometimes overstated, but not when it came to sporting events. No fewer than a dozen professional sports franchises called the arena home: roller derby in the 1960s, roller hockey in the ’90s, four different minor-league basketball franchises and not one—but two—professional lacrosse teams.

But when it came to unique pro sports, nothing topped World Team Tennis (WTT), the brainchild of Pittsburgh native Chuck Reichblum.

“We wanted to create something that took an individual sport and turned it into a team sport,” says Reichblum, whose local team was called the Pittsburgh Triangles. 

“It really caught on. Many times, our headlines were above the Pirates in the morning paper.”

Legends such as Billie Jean King, Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert graced the hardcourt at the arena, often playing with the roof open underneath the stars. The Triangles’ top two players were Vitas Gerulaitis and Evonne Goolagong, who helped consistently draw crowds by the thousands.

But unlike the normal tea-and-crumpet tennis scene, the paying audience at WTT matches was rowdy. Shouting during serves, jeering opponents and booing poor plays were not frowned upon. In fact, that behavior was encouraged.

“We wanted it to be a sport where fans would pull for their team and root against the opponent,” Reichblum says. “People would yell and scream, even when players were serving.”

The Triangles won the league championship in 1975, but the novelty of team tennis quickly wore off. By year three, crowds had diminished, and the franchise was hemorrhaging money.

In the midst of the final season, team owner and legendary local businessman Frank Fuhrer provided some foreshadowing in a 1976 Sports Illustrated story. “If the league folds,” Fuhrer told S.I. writer Myron Cope, “I’ll take my whipping like a man. I’ll have my pretty green Triangle blazer and my championship ring to show for the million that I lost.”

Fuhrer was a soothsayer. After the ’76 season, Pittsburghers could no longer heckle tennis players at the arena because the Triangles folded for good.

Basketball has always seemed to play rhythm guitar to football’s lead around western Pennsylvania, but during the arena’s half-century in operation, hundreds of thousands of hoop fans went to see basketball of all sorts.

The University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University played many intense games there during their Steel Bowl/City Game rivalry, once with an NCAA berth on the line in the 1981 Eastern 8 Tournament Championship, which Pitt won.

The Harlem Globetrotters dribbled circles around the Washington Nationals there more than 40 times. And from 1963 to 1984, the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) basketball championships were held at the Civic Arena, too.

One Sport Reigns Supreme
Throughout the course of five decades, arena-goers witnessed a myriad of different sports, including boxing and wrestling. But there was only one game played underneath the arena’s gleaming dome every single year: hockey.

The AHL’s Pittsburgh Hornets were the building’s first regular puck-slapping tenants. They had modest success playing to smaller crowds until, unfortunately, their last season in existence. In the spring of 1966, the National Hockey League awarded Pittsburgh an expansion franchise, making the ’67 season the Hornets’ last. They went out with a bang. In the final game of the league championship series, sparsely toothed team captain Billy Harris scored in overtime, then skated around the arena proudly displaying The Calder Cup for everyone to see.

During the 1970s and ’80s, empty orange seats were a common scene at Pittsburgh Penguins games, especially during the 1983-84 season, when the Pens won just 16 of 80 games. But their futility was rewarded with the first overall pick in the 1984 NHL draft and future Hall-of-Famer Mario Lemieux.

It’s simply impossible to mention all of the “Mario Moments” witnessed inside The Igloo in just one article. From jaw-dropping feats like five goals five different ways in 1988 to one-upping Wayne Gretzky in the 1990 NHL All-Star Game, no individual performer lit up the arena’s crowds like Super Mario.

In addition to resurrecting the franchise as a player in 1984, he eventually bought the team and fended off numerous outside investors, keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

Lemieux played his final season in 2005, coincidentally “passing the torch” to Sidney Crosby in his rookie year. One November night that season, a sellout crowd gleefully witnessed the two playing together before watching Crosby make history. The game against Montreal ended in a tie, which brought on the recently enacted “shootout.”

In his first game against a Canadian team, Crosby made a Lemieux-like move and roofed a backhand goal, winning the game and sending the crowd into delirium.

“We’ve been very blessed in this city … to have the best player in the game every year,” says former Penguins head coach Eddie Johnston. “We had Mario, then Jags and now Sid. Some franchises go through a lifetime and never get one player like that.”

Moving the Stanley Cup champions into a sparkling new facility to match their spectacular play makes perfect sense; in fact, it is long overdue. The Consol Energy Center will markedly improve the fan experience, but it faces stiff competition to match its predecessor’s character. And characters.

“Many people still remember a guy named Tiger Paul,” says local hockey historian Jim Kubus. “He used to run through the stands at hockey games, sweating through his shirt and tie. At basketball games, he would run up and down the court, upstaging the cheerleaders. I doubt people like that will be running around at the new arena.”

Over the years, you never knew what you would run into at The Igloo. You could be an extra in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh one day, then go see Harry the Whale the next.

“Harry the Whale was this heavy-set guy who always sat in the balcony at Penguins games,” says FSN’s Paul Steigerwald. “At a certain point in every game, organist Vince Lascheid would play ‘The Gong Show’ theme, and he would get up and do this wild dance. The whole place would go nuts.”

In 10 years, if you ask a thousand people in this region what they remember most about the arena, you’ll get a thousand different responses. That’s the true legacy of the building. Whether it’s the dome, the Pens or that Grateful Dead show in ’73, people will speak fondly of the arena for years to come.

“I think people will remember it as the place where some of the most exciting times of their lives happened,” says Steigerwald.

“There was no other building in the United States like the Civic Arena, and I think that’s what it will be remembered as—a unique facility where a lot of great memories were made.”


Craig McConnell is a coordinating producer for FSN Pittsburgh. He recently produced “Spotlight: The Igloo,” a half-hour documentary about the history of the Civic Arena.

Categories: Features, From the Magazine, Sports