Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena is closing its doors nearly 50 years after it opened, and many have probably forgotten the arena’s contribution to rock ’n’ roll.
Not Pat DiCesare, the legendary Pittsburgh promoter who has penned an enlightening piece on the venue and the development of arena rock in general.
DiCesare is one-half of Pittsburgh’s DiCesare-Engler – a name as synonymous in Pitt with concert promotion as the Belkins are in Cleveland or Bill Graham in San Francisco. But long before that company was formed in 1973, DiCesare was busy launching the rock era, starting with fellow record business veteran Tim Tormey, who wanted to become the dominant promoter in the city.
But back in 1961, arena rock was as unheard of as space travel.
“When I became involved in the music business in the late ’50s, all concerts were held at the 3,700-seat-capacity Syria Mosque in Oakland or the 2,000-seat Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall across the street,” DiCesare wrote in his piece for the Post-Gazette. “Surprisingly in the early days of rock, it was difficult for one act to sell out these small venues.”
But when the Civic Arena – aka the Mellon Arena – opened in September 1961, there were glimpses of future greatness.
DiCesare has kept good books, noting the first concert – Judy Garland on Oct. 19, 1961 – had 12,325 in attendance and grossed a “whopping” $58,523. Unfortunately, the domed building had to be converted from hockey the night before, and revamped for basketball the following night, which ate up a lot of the profit.
But Tormey saw the Civic as a great place to host an arena concert. The trick, to at least make it break even, was to get the bands to play for free. And because many of the acts were indebted to Pittsburgh DJ Porky Chedwick for giving them their first radio spins, Chedwick was influential in getting the acts to play gratis at the May 11, 1962 extravaganza starring Jackie Wilson, The Drifters and The Coasters.
“Buying [tickets] at the box office had its advantages,” DiCesare writes, “because concertgoers could pick their seats from a seating chart. Moreover, arena staff also held the best tickets to sell at the box office.”
But what about the people who lived out of town? Tormey and DiCesare recruited the Shapiro brothers – Sam, Howard and Jason – who ran National Record Mart. They had 34 record stores in the Tri-State area and their “ticket kiosks” were cigar boxes under the counters at every store. But the Shapiros wanted to be compensated.
“At first, we didn’t want to levy a service charge,” DiCesare said. “We thought it wasn’t fair to our customers. If the ticket price was $2.50, that’s all they should pay. The Shapiros, however, thought that they should be compensated. After a long discussion, we all agreed on a service charge of 25 cents per ticket. It was a hard pill for us to swallow.”
The show was a success, as were the “Shower of Stars” series. Then, in 1964, the Fab Four packed the Civic Arena with 12,000 screaming fans and grossed $75,000.
“Boy, did the concert business change after the Beatles,” DiCesare writes. “That’s when the arena-rock era truly started.”
Eventually, DiCesare and Tormey got exclusive booking rights to the venue, which meant that Bill Graham, promoting The Rolling Stones national tour, called up DiCesare and gave him an earful.
“When we thought that no one could do more than four rock concerts a year in the city, I did nine in 1968, 10 in 1969, 16 in 1970, and 22 in 1971,” DiCesare said.
DiCesare-Engler was sold to SFX in 1998, and its office is now part of the Live Nation fold. But DiCesare said he is still stopped daily by someone who recollects one of the early Mellon shows.
“We as promoters lived in the city and cared for the people who came to our shows,” he said. “We wanted to make it easy for the customer to get a ticket regardless of where they lived. … I noticed that an out-of-town promoter has James Taylor (whom I’ve played many dates) playing the arena in June. The top ticket price is about $400 with a low price of $68. That doesn’t seem right to me.”
Click here for the complete Post-Gazette article.