Thanks for the memories – Sun Sentinel

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As part of our October 2 arts guide, published in PRIME Magazine October 2we thought back to memories of the Miami Arena and what it meant to music and sports fans in South Florida.

Watch for special Arts Guide stories posted online every day this week.

There is a time for everything, says Ecclesiastes, and a season for every activity under heaven. And for one season, there was the Miami Arena.

It was 1988 and the rapidly growing Miami-Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area was ready. Desperate, in fact, for a decent place to see the best music performers of the day.

As in “Field of Dreams”, build it and they will come. Discover the concerts of the first two years of the Miami Arena: Frank Sinatra, in solo then again with Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr.; Julio Iglesias, Robert Plant, Elton John, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Neil Diamond, David Bowie, Billy Joel.

OK, so the $52.5 million that funded the arena was only made possible because city officials and a few prominent Miamians — Broadway producer Zev Buffman and Carnival Cruise mogul Ted Arison — wanted an NBA franchise. Concerts, circus performances, and even the UM basketball team were secondary to the Miami Heat. Do you remember Rony Seikaly? Alonzo in mourning?

So what? Now music fans in South Florida had an all-new arena, a large pink-walled oval building, for the stars of the musical firmament – with great sightlines, acoustics, security and concessions that could accommodate up to 16,000 people. And, thanks to late additions to satisfy initially neglected NBA guidelines, many stalls in both women’s and men’s bathrooms.

The day after the doors opened to the public on July 9, 1988, Miami Herald sports columnist Bob Rubin wrote, “The same assertion can honestly be made about Miami Arena as Joe Robbie Stadium. There is no terrible seat in the house. They were built with the customers in mind, rare with new facilities. They are wonderful. We are blessed.”

He noted that cynics derisively refer to the venue’s Overtown location at 721 NW First Ave. as “Beirut West”. But plans called for a rejuvenation of the area as part of the city’s deal, and new subway and shuttle services brought fans right to the front door. Because Overtown’s crime rate was one of the highest in Miami, all entrances and parking lots, some with tall barbed wire fences, were patrolled by legions of Miami police and hired security.

Diehard basketball fans were thrilled. But so are those who had to endure the Hollywood Sportatorium in Pembroke Pines to see their music idols, maybe even more. This site, Sun Sentinel music writer Deborah Wilker reported in 1988, “was one of the most hated places on the pop and rock music touring circuit”. Awkward seats, poor security and nightmarish traffic problems plagued fans and performers alike. Painful three-hour rides on two-lane Pines Boulevard were common.

Sting blasted the acoustics, saying he’d rather do multiple shows in a smaller venue (like the 4,000-seat Sunrise Musical Theater). According to Wilker, Bruce Springsteen swore he would never go back after fans stood up and urinated on stage during a concert in 1981.

Did I do the case? Prior to the Miami Arena, there was no similarly sized venue in Broward, Palm Beach, or Miami-Dade counties. The options we have today – the FTX (formerly AmericanAirlines) Arena and the FLA Live Arena at Sunrise (originally the National Car Rental Center) – were nearly a decade or more away. Palm Beach County’s option, the Coral Sky Amphitheater, opened in 1996.

As the Sun Sentinel’s Entertainment Editor, I’ve had the good fortune to see Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Prince, Sade, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, and REM, and most tellingly to me, Frank Sinatra, in the new arena.

I had mostly heard Sinatra when my mother had the radio on. Several years later, living in Manhattan, I happened to tune into an all-Sinatra radio station. Frank won me over with a song: “When I was twenty-one/ It was a very good year/ A very good year for the city girls/ Who lived on the stairs….”

At the arena show, Sinatra held the crowd in the palm of his hand, an unparalleled crooner. (You could never tell Dylan or Bowie were singing.) The round stage was perfect for his nightclub style. Indeed, he was carrying what appeared to be a cocktail in his hand.

Legendary crooner Frank Sinatra was among those who performed at the Miami Arena.

City & Shore magazine editor Mark Gauert witnessed Sinatra’s second appearance in the arena during what was billed as “The Ultimate Event” in January 1989.

“Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli all tried to outdo each other that night,” Gauert recalled. “Frank was Frank, lighting a cigarette – can you imagine that happening on stage today? – before ‘One for My Baby’. His voice was only gravel and smoke, and the crowd sold out the listened with respect. It was a masterpiece.

“Liza was LIZA that night too; but really, if all three had voted, I think they would have agreed that Sammy Davis Jr. stole the show. His energy was breathtaking – not just for us, but literally for him too. He left everything on stage.

“None of us had cameras with us back then to record all of this, of course, like we do today,” Gauert says. “But that Miami Arena show will be etched in my memory forever.”

When Billy Joel came to the arena in 1990, it wasn’t for one but four nights. On opening night, music writer Wilker was there: “Twirling his mic stand, shaking hands from ringside and generally reveling in the intoxicating applause, Joel returned for several encores, including ‘Big Shot’. and ‘Keeping the Faith,’ before calling it a night with the signature set-closer, ‘Piano Man.’ “

One thing about a live show: you never know what might happen. During one song, Joel abruptly stopped singing after a disturbance up front. “Excuse me, could you do it later?” Joel told the security guards. When he resumed singing, the crowd of 15,175 roared.

The Grateful Dead date I attended was more of an event than a concert. Caravans of Deadheads from near and far partied all day and night, with aging, fresher flower children in bell bottoms and long flowing tie-dye skirts. Some had tickets, many did not. I remember young women walking around barefoot. In Golden Gate Park, sure, but on the streets of Overtown?

The Miami Arena was the first home of the Miami Heat and the Florida Panthers.  The venue has also hosted concerts, pro wrestling, and other events.

The lineup at the peak of the arena reveals that Latin idol Luis Miguel had the most appearances, with 10 from 1994 to 2002. Gloria Estefan had eight; Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Elton John and The Dead had seven each; and Neil Diamond, six.

The concerts spanned the entire musical spectrum, with everyone from AC/DC and Mötley Crüe to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and LL Cool J. Tina Turner, Shakira, Mariah Carey rocked there. Country found a place with Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn and Reba McEntire. Nine Inch Nails, Blink-182 and System of a Down performed live. Since not all artists could order 15,000 to 16,000 seats, other configurations were available for 7,000 or 11,000 seats.

Over 120 different acts have been performed there, providing countless lasting memories for South Floridians.

The Miami Heat’s debut came on November 5, 1988, when the team lost its home opener to the Los Angeles Clippers. They failed to win a match for a month and a half. Glory came years later after the arrival of Pat Riley and stars like Dwyane Wade, Shaq, LeBron James and Jimmy Butler.

Five years after the Heat’s debut, the arena has spawned another major sports franchise. Like the Heat, Wayne Huizenga’s Florida Panthers started slow but took off after just a few seasons, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996 (played and lost at arena). Those who were there remember the plastic rats thrown on the ice – and John Vanbiesbrouck.

In this file photo, fans watch as Florida Panthers players warm up before the team's final hockey game played at Miami Arena.

But the party did not last. Although the arena was not even 10 years old, other ships were sailing. Seating was one of the lowest of any NBA or NHL venue. It was sorely lacking in luxury seats, skyboxes and updated facilities that could help counter rising player salaries.

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The Panthers were the first to abandon ship in 1997, in a bitter split and threatened with legal action, for the National Car Rental Center at Sunrise, another project involving Huizenga.

The Heat exodus followed a similar path, after the organization demanded a new downtown arena, threatening to leave town. Miami Arena management offered renovations, but that wasn’t enough. On January 2, 2000, the Heat moved into a splashy new arena five blocks away, with lush views of the bay. Then called AmericanAirlines Arena, it was designed in part by Arquitectonica and can accommodate up to 20,000 people.

Yet from one Heat season ticket holder there was a lament: In the old arena, unlike the new one, his kids could get high-fives and autographs from players pitchside.

The Miami Arena, now in competition with venues in all three South Florida counties, continued with smaller and smaller events like indoor football. Buffman unsuccessfully sought to make it an aquatic center.

In 2004, it was sold to an investor at public auction for half its $52.5 million cost.

The “Miami Arena season” was long gone, save for the memories. And then, in 2008 (thanks, Joni Mitchell), they tore down the former concert and sports haven — and set up a parking lot.

John Dolen was the arts and entertainment editor of the Sun Sentinel from 1986 to 2007.

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