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History of the Bangor Auditorium, Part II: Bangor’s economic engine

Posted Jan. 16, 2013, at 9:47 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 12, 2013, at 9:24 a.m.
The steel frame of the Bangor Auditorium is up in this 1954 photo.
BDN File Photo
The steel frame of the Bangor Auditorium is up in this 1954 photo.
An interior shot of the Bangor Auditorium under construction in 1954.
BDN File Photo
An interior shot of the Bangor Auditorium under construction in 1954.
This aerial shot from April 1955 shows the auditorium well on its way to completion in time for its October dedication. The 1897 auditorium is at the right, with the Bangor Daily News building directly above it.
BDN File Photo
This aerial shot from April 1955 shows the auditorium well on its way to completion in time for its October dedication. The 1897 auditorium is at the right, with the Bangor Daily News building directly above it.

Click here to read all four parts of this series.

Editor’s Note: In 2013, the Cross Insurance Center will become the third structure to serve as the community auditorium since 1897. This is the second in a four-part series to tell the historic tale of those three structures, and their importance to the Bangor region for the past 116 years and beyond.

The Volpe Construction Co. of Malden, Mass. began construction of the new Bangor Auditorium in 1954. The first 155 days included 48 days of rain and two hurricanes, but the crews persevered. As construction neared its end in the summer of 1955, and the city had no landscaping funds, several of architect Eaton Tarbell’s employees volunteered on summer evenings to pull weeds, plant shrubs, and rake the lawn.

Construction took 17 months and cost $1.7 million (more than $12 million in 2012 dollars), but the new Bangor Auditorium opened to great fanfare on Oct. 1, 1955. Except for Boston Garden, it was the largest indoor sports and entertainment venue in New England, with a claimed seating capacity of 7,200 for events like basketball and circuses, and 8,000  for concerts and stage shows (likely an exaggeration, even with the old bleachers and cramming extra people in; the modern-day official seating capacity is about 5,400).

The massive auditorium was 320 feet long and 146 feet wide (nearly the size of a football field), not counting the stairwells and lobby. It stood 71 feet outside with a center ceiling of 46 feet. Its exhibition area was 14,952 square feet, and it claimed parking for 2,000 cars.

The auditorium floor could be flooded and frozen, thanks to 8.5 miles of subsurface piping, for ice skating. A popular myth is that the rink was as little as a foot too short, but the truth was the rink was dramatically smaller than the existing official NHL rink size of the day. However, it was ideal for figure and public skating.

On opening day, there were exhibitions by New England junior women’s figure-skating champion, the Eastern Senior men’s and women’s champions, and members of the Skating Club of Boston.

The dedication kicked off with the Bangor Band playing a concert and the national anthem. Several people, including Norbert X. Dowd, the executive secretary of the Bangor Chamber of Commerce and the master of ceremonies at the event, spoke to the crowd.

On Dec. 22, 1955, the new auditorium saw its first basketball games, two Bangor-Old Town contests. In the first game, the Old Town J.V. team beat the Bangor J.V. team 63-44. The Bangor varsity team, the defending state champion, made up for the loss by beating Old Town 65-52.

Eight days later, the auditorium hosted an NBA game as the Boston Celtics beat the Syracuse Nationals 110-103.

The auditorium became the regular-season home for both Bangor High School (until its new school, also designed by Bangor Auditorium architect Eaton Tarbell, opened in the late 1960s) and John Bapst Memorial High School (which still uses it today), and the University of Maine played home games there for several years while the Alfond Arena was being renovated to accommodate basketball.

The Continental Basketball Association enjoyed two stints there: the Maine Lumberjacks from 1978-83, and the Maine Windjammers from 1985-86. And, of course, the Bangor Auditorium was the longtime home of the Eastern Maine basketball tournaments.

A regional center

In 1959, Normand Martin’s famous Paul Bunyan statue went up in Bass Park, standing proudly before the auditorium as a symbol of history, culture, and pride. Concerts, conventions, trade shows, ice shows, and the annual Anah Temple Shrine Circus became fixtures.

As a side note, the old auditorium continued to operate for the first 10 years of the new auditorium’s reign. But in 1965, having stood as a center of community activity for 68 years, it was demolished. The new auditorium would become an epicenter of business and culture in the Bangor region.

Long before presidential candidate Barack Obama visited there in 2008, President Jimmy Carter visited for a town meeting in 1978. That was the same year that the Civic Center was built at a cost of $1.5 million (about $4.78 million in 2012 dollars). Even that was a challenge; voters struck down the original proposal to construct the Civic Center.

Local businessman Larry Mahaney brought a handful of other businessmen together for a meeting and wouldn’t let anyone leave until each had pledged enough money to raise the $50,000 application fee to apply for federal money. It worked, and the funding came through, and the Civic Center was built. But many voters were furious over this, as they perceived it as an end run around the word of the voters.

That was also the year that legendary comedian Bob Hope appeared at the Bangor Auditorium and reportedly said, in his opening comment, “Are there any more cow barns like this in the area?” It might have been a more apt joke about the 1897 auditorium, but Hope had a reason to crack it: His contract included specifics, including a reclining chair, according to local businessman Bill Miller, but instead Hope got a locker room full of toilets.

That was just the beginning of the auditorium’s woes. Built in 1955, the auditorium had an expected life of 20 to 30 years, which was typical for such a building. Right on schedule, in February 1986, Tarbell’s inverted roof became a problem. A nor’easter hit Bangor, piling snow on that roof. During the Eastern Maine Class B basketball finals, it began leaking onto mid-court. A worker had to be hoisted to the rafters to hang a bucket. That was later replaced by tarps, which became a regular sight thereafter.

The most famous incident was in 1988, when country legend Kenny Rogers was performing — and the roof leaked on his head. When Rogers returned to the Bangor Auditorium in 1990, he joked to the crowd, “I thought I’d do a free show here, so you could get your roof fixed. But I’d have to come on a day when it wasn’t raining.”

Other problems surfaced. Despite Tarbell’s roof reducing heating space, at one point the auditorium burned as much as 90,000 gallons of oil a year, although by 2008 it held steady at 55,000 gallons. In the summer, the lack of air conditioning meant unbearable conditions in the upper seats.

As well, the auditorium no longer served a Bangor Region that had grown and changed since 1955. When the old auditorium had opened, there was no Bangor Mall; downtown was the city’s business center. Populations were increasing in a broad region, with Bangor at its heart.

And there were many things beyond leaky roofs and heating bills: It just wasn’t the right building anymore. It wasn’t big enough. It wasn’t modern enough. It couldn’t support events that would bring people, business, and money to the city.

Something needed to be done. But as everyone learned, there was a sharp divide between what the citizens of Bangor believed was the best solution.

Next week, in Part III: Citizens Divided, it’s clear the auditorium isn’t viable, but Bangor taxpayers are at odds over what to do.

Click here to read all four parts of this series.

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