By Richard R. Shaw
Special to The Weekly
When construction crews begin razing the Bangor Auditorium in May, I’ll hear the unmistakable voices of Karen Carpenter, Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald, and all the wrestlers, circus performers, politicians and evangelists who put that oddly endearing landmark on the map during the last 58 years.
I was 3 when the “new” auditorium opened in 1955, so its weird roof and funky acoustics have defined most of my life. I skated on ice there, sang in choruses, and graduated from high school there in 1970. But I never dribbled a ball inside “The House That Basketball Built,” so allow me a few non-sports memories.
With a maximum seating capacity of 6,800, the largest in northern New England, the auditorium attracted all manner of entertainers. Life was simpler when performers stored all their equipment in one van or station wagon and played through the house sound system.
Singing cowboy Gene Autry was the first act to sell out the venue in 1956, and the celebrities kept coming. Liberace and Victor Borge brought their own pianos; the Rev. Billy Graham preached to a capacity crowd; and for $10 or less, fans could see such classic rock bands as Aerosmith, Jethro Tull, the Beach Boys, Three Dog Night, Heart, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
The auditorium’s inverted roof drew many jokes. Lawrence Welk was rumored to have quipped, “I think someone put-a the-a roof on upside-down!” Garrison Keillor appeared in the audience before a live broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” and cracked to people seated in the nosebleed section, “Oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling in 10 seconds.”
Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Review opened with a rocker crowing, “Welcome to the Grand Canyon.” Kenny Rogers famously performed holding an umbrella when the roof leaked.
Concert duets were always a delight. There were Rogers and Dottie West; Carole King and James Taylor; Jim Seals and Dash Crofts; Karen and Richard Carpenter. Seeing Dylan and Joan Baez singing “The Times They Are a-Changin'” sent shivers up my spine.
Oddball moments were many. Teen heartthrob David Cassidy requested monogrammed pillow slips for his backstage nap between shows. Sly and the Family Stone arrived late and drew hisses when it was announced that Sly was in the auditorium’s Green Room “resting.” An ill Bob Hope was still in top form, especially when he described Bangor as “… a suburb of Veazie.” And country crooner George Jones drew howls when he held up a plastic bottle and said, “I’ve discovered a new drink. Suits me just fine. It’s called water.”
Sometimes the best show was outdoors. Fans of the jam band Phish scaled the roof and listened for free. Seeing musicians’ tour buses roll into Bass Park was a thrill. Willie Nelson’s was dubbed Honeysuckle Rose, Conway Twitty’s The Twitty Bird.
Through the window of Dylan’s coach, fans spied the Tambourine Man sipping a cup of java. Crosby, Stills and Nash arrived in three buses, proving that sometimes harmonies don’t mix so well on the road.
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign rally packed the auditorium, so he addressed an overflow crowd of 1,000 in the parking lot. It reminded me of the day in 1960 when I dragged my mother to Bass Park to see another Democratic hopeful, U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, speak by the grandstand. Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon spoke inside the auditorium later that September, marking the only year in Bangor history that both party nominees campaigned here.
Jimmy Carter, the only sitting president to speak in the auditorium, held a New England town meeting in 1978. It’s true that when you shake a chief executive’s hand it feels super-sized. Glad-handing the 39th president is one experience I will never forget.
Thanks for the memories, Bangor Auditorium. I hope the new Cross Insurance Center begins creating its own magic after it opens in the fall.