Before it ever hosted schoolchildren at the first Mobile International Festival and before the roar of a monster truck show ever echoed under its dome, before any graduate ever walked across its stage to receive a degree or before the first touchdown was scored by an arena football team, the Mobile Municipal Auditorium opened to high expectations with an inaugural event.
Before the doors opened for the first audiences in July 1964, managers of the 150,000-square-foot arena, theater and expo hall had already booked two circuses, 31 Mardi Gras balls, several graduation ceremonies, dozens of basketball games, the Junior Miss Pageant and concerts from Ray Charles, Liberace, the Mobile Symphony and the Vienna Boys Choir, among others. But the managers, eager to display the arena’s most modern facilities, wanted a grand opening no one would forget. Cue “Holiday on Ice,” a 90-minute ice skating show pairing some of the country’s best skaters with holiday-themed music pumped over the PA.
The show’s $3 admission charge beckoned anyone and everyone to escape the stifling heat of the Mobile summer and witness the spectacle of synchronized athletes gliding around on a three-inch thick, indoor floor of ice.
In the following years, the building’s entertainment profile increased significantly. A 1970 Elvis Presley show was heavily promoted regionally and the 10,000-seat arena, managed by city employees under the direction of a board of directors, was oversold.
A file in Mobile’s Municipal Archives details the ensuing melee after dozens of people who had either ordered tickets by mail or waited in a long pre-sale line were shut out of the concert. Still, the show was considered a resounding success, with balance sheets indicating the arena grossed $91,587.50 in box office receipts and the show’s promoter was paid $55,948.
Before his death in 1977, Elvis would return to the arena four times. After his death, a petition circulated to rename the building in his honor.
Michael Jackson performed there too, once with The Jackson 5 in 1971 and again with The Jacksons 10 years later, just before he went solo and later became the King of Pop. In its first 20 years, Mobile Municipal Auditorium hosted a steady lineup of the music industry’s top acts, including Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, KISS, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Diamond and Prince.
But despite its drawing power, the facility struggled to earn revenue. A 12-year financial forecast published before construction started indicated it wouldn’t see any profits during that period. But by 1976, original manager W.C. “Buddy” Clewis was defending himself from accusations of poor performance anyway.
A year earlier, Clewis was acquitted of federal extortion charges stemming from inflated service fees at the auditorium, but while the forecast predicted it would be operating within $80,000 of a profit, there was actually a $361,234 net loss for the fiscal year, up from $300,541 the year before. Board members blamed rising utility costs, unexpected repair expenses and inexperienced, out-of-town show promoters.
When it opened, rental rates at the auditorium were $500 for commercial use of arena, or 10 percent of gross ticket sales, whichever was greater. Management charged $350 for the use of the theater and $150 for the expo hall. Civic rates, usually about $100 less, were available for religious, charitable or educational organizations. In 1974, rates were raised to $1,250 for commercial use of the arena, $450 for the theater and $600 for the expo hall. Rates were raised again in 1980, 1988 and 1992, just before the building was rebranded as the Mobile Civic Center and turned over to an outside management agency.
The most recent numbers, compiled by management firm SMG for the city in September, indicate the Civic Center lost $848,114 in fiscal year 2014, up from a $695,951 loss in 2013.
In a not-so-cryptic message about the facility’s future, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said his administration met with various Mardi Gras societies recently and told them to change their plans for 2016 and find new venues for their balls.
Stimpson said allowing the Civic Center’s ongoing loss is “not something the city needs to keep doing.”
“To me, we’ve got to stop the bleeding,” Stimpson said, adding “ultimately, whoever develops the property will eventually demolish (the Civic Center.)”
City spokesman George Talbot said the administration has heard from interested developers, but Stimpson said “we don’t have anyone in the wings with a wrecking ball.”
A glimpse at the list of concerts throughout its history indicates the Civic Center fell out of favor with performers around the mid-’80s, around the same time another indictment ensnared and eventually convicted the facility’s newer management of a sweeping extortion scheme. Battling cancer, Clewis resigned in 1980. He was replaced by George Juzang as general manager and David Gwin as assistant manager.
The Municipal Archives’ records on the auditorium — which date back to land purchases at the turn of the 20th century — end with a single piece of storied paper: a June 1984 grand jury summons for then-City Clerk Richard Smith, who was called to testify about irregularities in the auditorium’s finances. By the end of the investigation, then-District Attorney Chris Galanos turned the case over to federal authorities, who secured guilty pleas and key testimony from Juzang and Gwin, who claimed a possible multi-million fraud was directed by former mayor and finance director Gary Greenough.
Recalling the case last week, Galanos called the convictions a “seminal moment in the history of the city.”
“It would be pure speculation on my part, but I think that that investigation buried the auditorium and it never rose from the grave,” Galanos said.
Bob Brazier, who joined the Civic Center as assistant manager after Gwin’s plea in 1985, continues to manage the facility today as an employee of SMG. He has similar memories of the scandal’s effect, but blames other factors for the Civic Center’s more recent struggles.
“The prosecution definitely had an effect,” he said. “Promoters were afraid they would get caught up in an indictment or court proceedings so around the country it wasn’t the best kept secret. All the promoters knew what happened here. My first job was to go around the country to all the major promoters and labels to let them know Mobile was still a viable market and to a degree, it worked.”
After the auditorium’s construction in 1964, Mobile became a mandatory stop on the Gulf Coast concert circuit that also included Jacksonville, New Orleans and Houston. But Brazier said newer auditoriums in Biloxi and Pensacola eventually competed with the Civic Center, while the music industry also evolved. Then when the city built the Convention Center in 1993, it essentially went into business against itself.
“Since you’ve had Biloxi and Pensacola, now three buildings are vying for the same concerts,” Brazier explained. “Plus, the situation now is there is not that many acts touring. My personal opinion is that acts now have so much exposure on TV, the Internet, on YouTube, on awards shows, in advertising — people that would ordinarily go to concerts, they have seen these artists so many times the interest is not there like it used to be, where you didn’t see them unless they came to your city and you had a ticket.”
Brazier said major acts have also recently gravitated more toward music festivals, larger stadiums or even smaller, more intimate venues than the Civic Center. He said he has not spoken with Stimpson about 2016, but predicted an increase in bookings over last year.
Comments on the facility’s budget report attributed its six-figure loss last year to “no concerts held October-December & February-March & June” and “family shows did not occur in November, January, February, April & May.” A $58,000 loss was attributed to “budgeted sporting events in May, August and September that did not occur.”
For his part, Greenough, who was sentenced to 25 years for the fraud but served only five, said “he was not going to argue [his] case,” but admitted the scandal “caused everybody to shy away from [the Civic Center].”
“There’s no question it had effect on bookings,” he said. “So it was ballyhooed as if there were millions and millions missing, but that was hogwash. Once that perception is out there, it’s hard to change.”
Regardless, Greenough said the building was more of success when it had a full-time, dedicated staff manager.
“In my time, we aggressively tried to book every meaningful act we could and every decent act in the country came through Mobile — you name the shows that were touring and we pretty well had them,” he said. “The city needs to do more promoting. If you really want to get events in your building you have to go after them. They are not going to come just because we are here.”
But Brazier suggested either way, revenue may remain elusive.
“Very few facilities are there to make money. It’s to bring in entertainment for the quality of life in the community,” he said. “As far as the mayor’s decision, I haven’t been involved or spoken to him about it. We are attempting to be more competitive with the major events that are on tour. We’re talking and visiting with promoters and have some good leads and relationships.”
Dale Liesch contributed to this story.