As part of our Arts Guide on Oct. 2, which published in PRIME Magazine on Oct. 2we looked back at memories of the Miami Arena and what it meant for South Florida music and sports fans.
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There is a time for everything, says Ecclesiastes, and a season for every activity under the heavens. And for a season there was the Miami Arena.
The time was 1988, and the fast-growing Miami-Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area was ready. Desperate, actually, for a decent place to see the top music performers of the day.
As in “Field of Dreams,” build it and they will come. Check out the concerts in the Miami Arena’s first two years: Frank Sinatra, both solo and then again with Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr.; Julio Iglesias, Robert Plant, Elton John, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Neil Diamond, David Bowie, Billy Joel.
OK, so the $52.5 million that financed the arena were made possible only because city officials and a couple of prominent Miamians — Broadway producer Zev Buffman and Carnival Cruise magnate Ted Arison — wanted an NBA franchise. The concerts, circus shows and even the UM basketball team were secondary to the Miami Heat. Remember Rony Seikaly? Alonzo Mourning?
So then what? Now South Florida music fans had a brand-new arena, a big, pink-walled oval building, for the stars of the musical firmament — with great sightlines, acoustics, security and concession stands for crowds of up to 16,000. And, thanks to late additions to satisfy initially overlooked NBA guidelines, plenty of stalls in women’s and men’s bathrooms.
The day after the doors opened to the public on July 9, 1988, Miami Herald sports columnist Bob Rubin wrote, “The same claim can be made truthfully about the Miami Arena as Joe Robbie Stadium. There isn’t a terrible seat in the house. They were constructed with the customers in mind, rare with new facilities. They are gorgeous. We are blessed.”
He noted that cynics derisively referred to the venue’s Overtown location at 721 NW First Ave. as “West Beirut.” But plans forecasted a rejuvenation of the area as part of the city’s deal, and new Metrorail and shuttle bus services brought fans right to the front door. Because Overtown’s crime rate was one of the highest in Miami, all entrances and parking lots, some with high, barbed-wire fences, were patrolled by legions of Miami police officers and hired security.
Die-hard basketball fans were ecstatic. But so were those who had to endure the Hollywood Sportatorium in Pembroke Pines to see their music idols, maybe even more so. That site, Sun Sentinel music writer Deborah Wilker reported in 1988, “was one of the most intensely disliked venues on the big-time pop and rock music touring circuit.” Uncomfortable seating, poor security and nightmarish traffic problems were a bane to both fans and performers. Three-hour exit slogs on then two-lane Pines Boulevard were common.
Sting blasted the acoustics, saying he’d prefer to do several shows in a smaller venue (like the Sunrise Musical Theater with its 4,000 seats). According to Wilker, Bruce Springsteen vowed he would never return there after fans got up and urinated on the stage during a 1981 concert.
Have I made the case? Before the Miami Arena, there was no similar sized venue in Broward, Palm Beach or Miami-Dade counties. The options we have today — the FTX (formerly AmericanAirlines) Arena and the FLA Live Arena in Sunrise (originally the National Car Rental Center) — were almost a decade or more away. The Palm Beach County option, the Coral Sky Amphitheatre, opened in 1996.
As the then-entertainment editor of the Sun Sentinel, I was fortunate to see Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Prince, Sade, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young and R.E.M., and most revelatory to me, Frank Sinatra, at the new arena.
I’d mainly heard Sinatra when my mother had the radio on. Many years later, living in Manhattan, I happened to tune into an all-Sinatra radio station. Frank won me with one song: “When I was twenty-one/ It was a very good year/ A very good year for city girls/ Who lived up the stair….”
At the arena show, Sinatra held the crowd in the palm of his hand, a crooner bar none. (You could never say Dylan or Bowie crooned.) The stage in the round was perfect for his nightclub style. Indeed, he carried what appeared to be a cocktail in his hand.
City & Shore magazine editor Mark Gauert attended Sinatra’s second appearance at the arena in what was billed as “The Ultimate Event” in January 1989.
“Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli all tried to outdo themselves and each other that night,” Gauert recalls. “Frank was Frank, lighting up a cigarette – can you imagine that happening on stage today? – before “One for My Baby.” His voice was all gravel and smoke, and the sold-out crowd listened reverently. It was a masterpiece.
“Liza was LIZA that night, too; but really, if the three of them had taken a vote, I think they would have agreed Sammy Davis Jr. stole the show. His energy was breathtaking – not just to us, but, literally, to him too. He left it all on stage.
“None of us had cameras with us back then to record all this, of course, like we do today,” Gauert says. “But that Miami Arena show will stay burned in my memory forever.”
When Billy Joel came to the arena in 1990, it was for not one but four nights. Opening night, music writer Wilker was there: “Twirling his mike stand, shaking hands with ringsiders and generally reveling in the heady applause, Joel returned for several encores, among them ‘Big Shot’ and ‘Keeping the Faith,’ before calling it a night with the signature set-closer, ‘Piano Man.’”
One thing about a live performance: You never know what might happen. During one song, Joel abruptly stopped singing after a disturbance down front. “Excuse me, could you do that later?” Joel said to the security guards. When he resumed singing, the crowd of 15,175 roared.
The Grateful Dead date I attended was more of an event than a concert. Caravans of Deadheads coming from near and far partied all day and night long, with both aging and fresher flower children in bellbottoms and long, tie-dyed flowing skirts. Some had tickets, many didn’t. I remember young women walking around with bare feet. In Golden Gate Park, sure, but on Overtown streets?
The lineup in the arena’s heyday reveals that Latin heartthrob Luis Miguel had the most appearances, with 10 from 1994 to 2002. Gloria Estefan had eight; Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Elton John and The Dead had seven each; and Neil Diamond, six.
Concerts spanned the musical spectrum, with everybody from AC/DC and Mötley Crüe to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and LL Cool J. Tina Turner, Shakira, Mariah Carey rocked there. Country found a place with Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn and Reba McEntire. Nine Inch Nails, Blink-182 and System of a Down did shows. Since not all performers could command 15,000 to 16,000 seats, other configurations were available for seating 7,000 or 11,000.
Over 120 different acts played there, providing untold numbers of enduring memories for South Floridians.
The Miami Heat debut came on Nov. 5, 1988, when the team lost its home opener to the Los Angeles Clippers. They didn’t manage to win a game for a month and a half. Glory came years later after Pat Riley arrived, and all-stars like Dwyane Wade, Shaq, LeBron James and Jimmy Butler.
Five years after the Heat debut, the arena birthed another major sports franchise. Like the Heat, Wayne Huizenga’s Florida Panthers started slow but took off after only a few seasons, reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 1996 (played and lost at the arena). Those who were there remember the plastic rats thrown on the ice – and John Vanbiesbrouck.
But the party didn’t last. Though the arena was not even 10 years old, other ships were sailing. The seating capacity was one of the lowest of any NBA or NHL venue. It sorely lacked luxury seats, skyboxes and updated facilities that could help counter rising player salaries.
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The Panthers were first to abandon ship in 1997, in a bitter, lawsuit-threatened parting, for the National Car Rental Center in Sunrise, another Huizenga-involved project.
The Heat exodus followed a similar path, after the organization demanded a new downtown arena, threatening to leave the city. The Miami Arena management proposed renovations, but it wasn’t enough. On Jan. 2, 2000, the Heat moved into a splashy new arena five blocks away, with lush bayside views. Then called the AmericanAirlines Arena, it was designed in part by Arquitectonica – and seated up to 20,000.
Yet from one Heat season ticket holder, there was a lament: In the old arena, unlike the new one, his kids could get high-fives and autographs from the players courtside.
The Miami Arena, now with competition from venues in all three South Florida counties, soldiered on with increasingly smaller events like indoor football. Buffman unsuccessfully sought to make it an aquatic center.
In 2004, it was sold to an investor at public auction for half its $52.5 million cost.
The “Season of the Miami Arena” was long gone, except for the memories. And then, in 2008 (thanks, Joni Mitchell), they demolished the former concert-and-sports paradise — and put up a parking lot.
John Dolen was the arts & entertainment editor of the Sun Sentinel from 1986 to 2007.