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St. Louis Arena Corporation

View of the Arena in 1951.

Soon after purchasing the building, Wirtz and Norris formed the St. Louis Arena Corporation and appointed Emory Jones to run its operations. Looking to recoup their investment, one of the first moves the new owners made was to raise the rent for events, such as the Police Circus and the Firemen's Rodeo. Both were charitable ventures. Both threatened to move their shows to other locations.

Of course, that was far from the end of the Arena's circus history. In October of 1950, when the Cole Brothers Circus moved in to make its winter quarters at the Arena, residents of surrounding neighborhoods complained of roaring lions and animal keepers that whistled at housewives.

The animals - seven lions, 13 elephants, about 100 horses, plus zebras, llamas, camels, a bison and a water buffalo - were kept in tents. Some of the neighbors became alarmed when Louise, a four-ton elephant, tore away for a visit with the elephants at the Saint Louis Zoo. Other neighbors were more offended by the behavior of the circus hands than of the animals.

By this time, the popular and lucrative boat and sports shows attracted crowds to the Arena to browse the latest innovations and test their angling skills. Every year, the giant fishing tank, another George Carson idea, was a favorite attraction.

The St. Louis Arena Corporation installed a new $25,000 sports clock in 1951. The three-ton timepiece took a crew six weeks to install. But once in operation, it took complete charge of boxing, hockey and basketball events. The new clock had a four-faced timer. Each side was 13 feet long and 7 feet high. On each side was a clock that gave regular time. Below that was the event or game clock and on each side of those were the penalty clocks for hockey and basketball. One man controlled the clock's 30,000 feet of wire, 1,200 bulbs, 120 relays and 1,300 circuits. In 1953, Ben Kerner put the clock to good use when he brought professional basketball to the Arena.

On June 6, 1958, a crowd of 9,777 fans watched hometown athlete Virgil "Honey Bear" Akins win the world welterweight championship. The 30-year-old Akins, who began his boxing career on Carr St., took the crown in a fourth-round TKO over Vince Martinez of Paterson, N.J.

At 146 pounds, the St. Louis boxer overwhelmed his opponent with terrific right-hand jabs. By the fourth round, the crowd was yelling for the referee to stop the match. Akins stopped it for them 52 seconds into that round with some quick blows that put Maitinez down for good. It was the fourth successive victory for Akins and his 28th knockout in a career of 68 contests to date.

Calling St. Louis a city with great bowling potential, Dick Miller, head of an Indianapolis promotional firm, announced on Jan. 13, 1957, that he would build a 48-lane bowling alley adjacent to the roller-skating rink and call it the Arena-Bowl. The plush lanes, boasting air conditioning and automatic pin setters, ushered in the era of "Bowling for Dollars" in St. Louis.

Apparently, Miller wasn't the only one looking to move into the Arena in 1957. After that spring's Midwest Sports Show closed, the hunt was on for an escaped raccoon. At large in the huge building for a week, the 25-pound raccoon had been sighted from time to time climbing among the ceiling rafters but had repeatedly eluded capture. Humane Society officer Frank Schlueter, called in from the society's nearby shelter, finally corralled the wily creature near the main entrance.

The '60s superstar Danny Thomas came to town once a year with a showcase of rock 'n roll bands to play for teenagers who raised money for St. Jude's Hospital. Radio station KXOK sponsored the concert that, according to Dr. Daryl Ridgeway of O'Fallon, Mo., included one big-name band after another. Dr. Ridgeway, a bucdding musician himself, always took part in the event, even covering them in his teen-beat newspaper column. Here's an excerpt from one of his articles:

It started with the national anthem, conducted by Bob Kuban. He gave the show to the No. 1 D. J. in this area, Johnny Rabbit, who introduced the rest of the KXOK disc jockeys. The Monteforte Mission then gave a great show and introduced Danny Thomas with the tune `Danny Boy.' Danny announced the Alsca Drive had topped its goal with $104,000. Walter Scott then gained a large applause as he sang his new hit ‘Just You Wait,' along with a few of his other hits. Following Walter came Bobby Vee, who also sang his latest. Next in line came the fabulous Mitch Ryder, who was backed by his own stage group. Mitch did songs which included `Sock It to Me' and `What Now My Love.' The crowd then applauded wildly as the Turtles appeared on stage to do `She'd Rather Be With Me,' plus many others.

Aerial view of the damage caused by the tornado of 1959.

No owner of the Arena would he able to escape disaster. For Wirtz and company, it came in the form of a devastating tornado that ripped through St. Louis in the early morning hours of Feb. 10, 1959. The tornado partly toppled one of the building's distinctive twin towers. But, despite a few gaps, the lamella roof stayed intact, a tribute to its engineering. Through the holes the tornado did rip poured in debris, damaging seats and the floor.

In the Arena-Bowl, the tornado spared 32 of the 48 lanes but completely wrecked the adjacent roller rink. Because bowling was so popular at the time, it was decided to add 24 more bowling lanes instead of repairing the roller rink. That made the Arena-Bowl the largest bowling alley in St. Louis.

Heartbroken over the destruction, Emory Jones was forced to call off an upcoming money-making sports and boat show. The status of that year's welterweight championship fight pitting Vigil Akins against Don Jordan also was put into question. The tornado sucked the financial resources and energy out of the St. Louis Arena Corporation. By 1962, it looked like the Arena would be razed to make room for a new junior college. A spectacular fire that destroyed the Forest Park Highlands on July 17, 1963, all but sealed the Arena's Fate.

The Highlands, originally owned by Ben Brinkman, had been passed along to each consecutive owner. A highly profitable operation, the amusement center had been a popular destination for soldiers and their girlfriends during the war years. Its profits always counterbalanced the Arena's losses.

Wanting desperately to keep the Arena alive, Emory Jones campaigned to resurrect the Highlands from its smoldering ruins. But Wirtz had other ideas. "Wouldn't we be beating ourselves to death going through the chaos of rebuilding that place? Let's enjoy life a little," he remarked. The Forest Park Community College was built on the site of the Highlands and, at any time, it was expected to expand and take over the Arena.

In 1965, Bob Stewart, athletic director of Saint Louis University, invited a NCAA inspection team to St. Louis to investigate the Arena as a possible site for its basketball tournament.

The group arrived unannounced, had trouble finding a door open, had even more difficulty finding someone with a key. They finally peered in one dirty, unkept dressing room, saw nails on the wall instead of lockers, saw dripping faucets for showers. `Forget it,' the chairman of the inspection crew told Stewart.

The Mid-States High School Hockey Championship game became a yearly event at the Arena beginning in 1972, when DesMet won.

Arthur Wirtz didn't want to lease the building. He wanted to sell it and rid himself of the burden of replacing damaged seats, repairing broken-down rest rooms and generally improving its dingy conditions. Salomon agreed to buy the Arena for $4 million and the new NHL franchise for $2 million. With the help of his son, Sid Salomon III - who would eventually become president of the hockey team - Salomon Jr. directed a series of renovations that brought the building back to life.

A widened lobby now housed ticket windows that allowed ticket buyers to come in out of the cold. Improvements were made to concessions and more were added. Rest rooms were refurbished with modern fixtures and colorful decor. A new ice plant was installed. A posh and private Arena Club and penthouse boxes gave the building a dignified air.

Shatterproof glass around the rink and theater-type seats replaced chicken wire and old wooden chairs. A $50,000 sports clock was installed. The building sparkled from a fresh paint job. This $1.5 million wave of improvements included a face-lift to the outside of the building to make it more inviting. New, brightly lit parking lots and additional entrances and exits improved traffic flows.

By the mid-'70s, rumors were flying that Salomon Jr. was seeking a new hometown for the Blues. New Orleans was most often mentioned, but Denver, Miami and Seattle also were said to be in the picture. The owner denied all rumors, while trying to persuade the city to give him assistance for the ever-increasing financial burdens of the Arena. He wanted the city to help out by reducing taxes, removing the tax-subsidized Kiel Auditorium as a competitor to the Arena for sports events and eventually either purchasing the Arena or building a new sports center for the Blues.

Lower attendance contributed to the difficulties. Salomon claimed that he lost 1,000 patrons a game because of inadequate parking. He had tried to get the city to authorize use of a little used area in Forest Park as a parking lot, but to no avail.

Patti Smith Jackson. St. Louis Arena: Memories. GHB Publishers. December 1, 1999.

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