Thursday, February 14, 2008

Albuquerque's Civic Auditorium went from a landmark to the dustbin of history

by Mo Palmer

This is a tale of two domes: one a behemoth and full of hopes; the other an echo of it in miniature — a few dustpans full of vague memories of what went wrong. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust and all that philosophical stuff.

Albuquerque battled for 25 years to create a new performance space — one that would attract big names to what the glitterati probably considered to be a cowtown. Sites were suggested and rejected; designs devised and debunked. All the while, those who deigned to perform in Albuquerque did so at the old Armory at Fifth Street and Silver Avenue Southwest. Even Elvis gyrated his pelvis there in 1956.

At last, the land was chosen — just east of St. Joseph Hospital and beside I-25. In essence it stood between the staid Downtown settlements and the upstart Northeast Heights. Everyone was more or less pleased.

An entire center was planned, with a new City Hall, theater, library and museum. The excitement was palpable as Phase 1 took shape — the Civic Auditorium. Ellen Ann Ryan's dad, Charles Lembke, and his contracting partners undertook the project — one of the biggest buildings of its kind in the country.

Its kind was an enormous mound. First, they made a huge, round pile of earth, then poured concrete over it. When it set, they dug out the dirt to create the interior. It was so unique — at the time it seemed ubermoderne and sophisticated. When I see photos now it reminds me of those bomb shelters we were so mad for.

Inside were highly polished floors, sparkling glass, tall columns and plush seats. Fit for a king, it opened to much fanfare in April 1957. It was to die for. You dressed up to go to its events — women wore high heels and fur stoles, which were de rigueur for the decade. Mom had one that was stuffed animals, with their tiny feet hanging down — sables, I think. Hated that thing.

The Civic became an instant landmark. Today, I date images by its presence or absence — in aerial views it looks like a huge, white, upside-down bowl, or maybe a UFO. Very individualistic and extremely snazzy.

In no time, such luminaries as pianist Jos‚ Iturbe and Frank Sinatra graced its stage.

The auditorium seated 6,000 and had parking for 1,200 cars. Little math problem there, but maybe everyone rode together. Ol' Blue Eyes liked compact audiences and the main floor filled, so everyone got to sit closer. His representative feared he might not croon if the crowd was scattered. Frank was temperamental. The priciest seats were only four bucks or so.

The American Ballet Company danced Aaron Copland's "Billy the Kid." The Albuquerque Symphony played. The Shrine Circus delighted children. Dick Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys — a local Western band, including a very young Glen Campbell — packed the house.

Not to be left behind, promoter Mike London wrote a check for $10,000 to move his Monday night wrestling show from the Armory to the Civic. We all called it "wrastling" and I thought it was totally for real -------------- I was crazy about Gorgeous George. Remember him?

Everybody has a favorite Civic memory. Kathryn Bennett's father, Dick, took her to see Chuck Berry. Pretty nice, considering the attitude du jour toward rock 'n' roll. My brother saw Peter, Paul and Mary — and boxing matches. Ellen Ann recalls the Junior League Follies and the Ice Capades.

Don't tell anyone, but I got my first kiss at the Civic. My friend and I were bouncing around the huge hall, ignoring the entertainment and flirting with boys, and this typical juvenile delinquent in ducktails planted a wet one right on my lips. I was 14. I'm not surprised I kissed a stranger, but I am shocked to realize we were at the Grand Ole Opry. In the age of Elvis, Bobby Darin, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly? We'll never know why. Maybe Faron Young was the attraction.

Despite all that star power and our devotion, the Civic had problems. Apparently, the acoustics weren't great and the symphony was unhappy — couldn't hear one another, which seems like a distinct disadvantage. Twice, the city bought sound shells, the second costing cost more than $4,000. The orchestra was pleased, but the times they were a-changin'.

In 1964, two local gangs, the River Rats and the Businessmen, rumbled at the Civic over an incident during a teen dance. Very "West Side Story." Although Pat Boone overloaded the place with his religious revival show, pianist Van Cliburn found the venue "dirty." Rock aficionados polluted the air with pot. Police were pelted with rocks and bottles, and tear gas was released. In hindsight, we know it was the era and such incidents happened all over the country, but at the time this was scary stuff for our town.

The city banned rock concerts and the Civic's future was questioned. Someone suggested using fire hoses on troublemakers. An upset reader, who was fond of the auditorium, asked the Albuquerque Journal whether the landmark would be torn down. Someone responded that were it to be razed, only Frank Lloyd Wright would care — it was the single edifice he praised during his local visit.

The city had a terrible time maintaining the Civic as Popejoy Hall, Tingley Coliseum and University Arena — The Pit — became more popular for shows.

The Civic Auditorium was demolished in the late 1980s. When I worked at the museum, Joe Sherwood photographed old landmarks biting the dust — what a great thing to do for the community. Comings are always documented, but goings seldom are.

The bulldozers left this tiny mound — a distant echo of the grand dome that once held so many dreams.

Originally published in The Albuquerque Tribune, February 14, 2008.
The Tribune articles are used with the permission of Scripps Howard.

The Missing Photos:

(Tribune file photo)

In its heyday in the '50s and '60s, the Civic Auditorium was an entertainment palace. The massive concrete dome seated 6,000 people and featured top entertainers such as Frank Sinatra.

(Courtesy of Joe Sherwood)

By the late '80s, the Civic Auditorium had become outdated and difficult to maintain. This photo shows the remains on the site after the dome's demolition.

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