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Untold stories of Mellon/Civic Arena

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In anticipation of the Penguins playing their final season at Mellon Arena, I spent much of the past two weeks working on stories about the dome with the retractable roof.

The assignment was for me to come up with a list of 10 things to do at The Igloo before it closes and the Penguins move across Centre Avenue to Consol Energy Center.

Then, I went to the season-opener against the N.Y. Rangers, where the Penguins had a pregame ceremony to unveil and raise their Stanley Cup championship banner.

Only upon completion of these stories did my mom, Cathy, tell me that she and my father went to see Nat King Cole perform at Mellon Arena — I imagine it was in the early 1960s, as he died in February 1965 —and heard his soft baritone with the roof opened and under the stars.

Figures.

As for the top-10 list, one that I think would be interesting is to spend a day with Mellon Arena general manager Jay Roberts, who has worked at there since the early 1990s, when it was known as Civic Arena.

So he has seen the building from top …

“The general fans can’t do it,” Roberts said, “but walking up the cantilever arm to get to the crow’s nest, you feel like you’re in a submarine.”

… to bottom…

“One other item that’s somewhat unique to this building is the ice floor, although it’s seen better days,” Roberts said. “That surface is actually terrazzo. I think we were probably one of three built with terrazzo ice floor. Normally, it’s just concrete. When we were bringing people in to try to repair our floor, the guy said, ‘I’ve never seen a floor like that.’”

…and everything in between:

“There are some interesting items all throughout the building,” Roberts added. “There’s still the original electrical tracks running through portions of the storage area that were used for exhibits, almost like track lighting in your house. If you come down past the Zamboni area, they’re still hanging above. It was built for when they had trade shows here. That’s something unusual you don’t see at very many places.

“Everybody can see the way we rig a rock ‘n’ roll show, with the three-eighths-inch-thick cable that hangs from the roof. You don’t see those anymore. Almost every other building in the country has a grid system that they climb on and drop from there. For a major building, that’s definitely something different.”

Speaking of something different, Roberts suggested that the Trib do a follow-up story on the 10 things Consol Energy Center will have that Mellon Arena doesn’t (things that make the GM’s life much, much easier):

“There’s a lot of things unique to this building that we don’t have,” Roberts said. “We don’t have a loading dock, which is rare. They come through that Gate Two garage. Not only is that where all the stuff goes through the floor for the shows, but it’s also where everyone else goes through. We don’t have a rigging grid. We have the ring cables.

“It’ll be nice to get chairs that weren’t installed in 1961. A lot of those are original. The only ones that aren’t original are the ones we added in the E level and F level, and the blue-backs (club seats) were in the ’97 renovation.”

As for the most frequently asked question he gets, Roberts said it’s about whether the retractable roof still opens. That’s debatable, depending on whom you ask — I’ve heard there are worries that it couldn’t close again — but Roberts said the primary concern preventing it from happening is the workload involved in taking down the cables and scoreboard to open it.

“The WWE will have an event near the very end. Wrestling has had a long and storied history here as well. We’re hoping to do something here, still hoping to get some big concerts here. The goal is to have several concerts to send the old lady on her way at the very end.”

Although Mellon Arena won’t close until Consol Energy Center is ready for operation, there’s already a petition circulating to recycle Mellon Arena by reusing it.

So don’t be surprised if people protest its impending doom.

“We’ll be running this one until right up near the opening of the new building,” Roberts said. “The Sports & Exhibition Authority is in charge of demolition. I can’t imagine they would implode it. The roof is stainless steel. I’m going to guess they’ll recycle what they can.”

By then, all that will be left are memories.

I’d like to hear your favorite stories about events at Civic/Mellon Arena. Please send e-mails to kgorman@tribweb.com, and include your name, age and hometown, as well as contact information to verify if you would like it published. I plan to put the best stories together on this blog.

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Comments

  1. Bernie May says:

    Would like to know exactly when the “Civic Arena” opened. I lived in Pgh. during part of 1958 and 1959 and think I went to a summer program with the roof partially open during that time.
    Thanks.

  2. Ben Metz says:

    I think we should be celebrating the demise of the Civic Arena. When the arena was built, it destroyed the Hill District by demolishing a huge amount of residential housing that met up with the city, and removed major ingress and egress in and out of the Hill. The project was unveiled gentrification of the African American community in Pittsburgh and is one of the city’s worst chapters. It was the same horrible era that ruined Allegheny City on the North Side and East Liberty with the development of Penn Circle. Although I have great memories of events at the arena, I can’t wait to see the Hill District reclaim the space.

  3. Laurie W says:

    I remember when my brother and I were kids, we went to see a truck and tractor pull with our parents at the Civic Arena and the roof was open wide. It was cold outside so the Arena was freezing col as I believe it was held in early November but it was really amazing to just sit there and look up into the sky!

 
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