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I drove past the Mercer Arena yesterday, and those machine pickers had already started to tear it down. Soon, in its place, will be an extension of the Seattle Opera, room for more of their civic outreach, design and staging studios, and more offices.
The arena started life as the Civic Ice Arena in 1928, a large rink for public skating and fun. The exterior was changed dramatically in the early 60s to fit the vibe of the World's Fair, and during the fair it saw some famous faces: Ella Fitzgerald sang there, as did Nat King Cole, and the Count Basie Orchestra, just to skim the cream from the top of the list.
It was a popular mid-sized music venue. Nirvana played their last US show there. Led Zeppelin played there twice, as did Bruce Springsteen, Jane's Addiction, the Melvins, the Cure, Ozzy, Sonic Youth, Everclear, and yes, even Britney Spears. But maybe, if performances can resonate through time and you can close your eyes and feel their ripples, the one we still feel most today is when Elvis came to the world's fair and played the Mercer Arena.
But still, the venue was best known for sports. The Seattle Totems, a local hockey team, played from the late 50s to the mid 70s. The Seattle Reign started their...well, reign, in the venue, as did the short-lived Seattle Smashers (Vollyball) and Seadogs (soccer).
Personally speaking, this is one venue I'm not going to feel nostalgia for. I know I've been to shows there, but for the life of me I can't remember what they were. It is, in my mind, as it has been by the city for years: condemned. Sometimes you hear of a plan for a place, and you mourn the changes that will take something vibrant and leave something sterile. This is not one of those times.
But still, let us take a moment to tip our hat to the building that has sat empty since 2003, but which once held so many individual memories and experiences. Thanks for your service, Mercer Arena. See you in the building afterlife.
1927 — They were clearing the ground before they brought the steam shovels in to do the real digging of the foundation for the new ice arena. Reggie was the first to find a bone, but no way it was human, right? But then one of the other fellows found a skull, and another right next to it. No way they were gonna build this new arena on top of an old cemetery, not with the curses that would follow them all. But then that foreman Jack came in, and that dog just spit on the ground and said "Get the truck. I want this land cleared by sundown or I'm docking your pay."
1961 — Her first architectural review. There were competing plans for the new facade of the Arena, to get it ready for the world's fair. She was presenting after the favored firm, Kirk, Wallace, McKinley & Associates, and rumors were they already had it clinched. But their vision was so pedestrian. She was going to show something novel and new, yes, but also something that would change the way people think about this building. They were showing a new skin, but she was showing a revolution. If, that is, she didn't vomit in front of the committee from nerves.
1968 — It was like she had a spotlight on her. You couldn't take your eyes away. Joanie Weston, the Blond Bomber, right here, skating derby in Seattle. She was fast, wicked, and driven. Nobody could beat her. And you, all of six years old, skinny legs and chubby face, wearing that hideous dress with the bow your Mom made you wear that you hated, sitting next to your hollering jerk brother, and there she was owning the arena with her brilliance. It was then you knew what you were destined for, and it wasn't playing with dolls. And more than that, you knew just what you had to to become a roller derby star, just like Joanie.
1997 — Rock show next door to Opera Night. Just a normal evening at the Seattle Center. But when the doors opened at the same time for both venues, tuxes and gowns found themselves mixed into crowds of flannel and ripped stockings and torn baby doll dresses. It was one dude from each, drunk from contraband flasks they squirreled into their retrospective shows because they were mad they got dragged out on game night. They came face-to-face right outside the Mercer Arena, and after shouldering each other because neither wanted to make way, they turned to face each other, and the shouting and fighting began.
2016 — It was just a dare: break into the old Arena and last the night, win $50 from all of their friends. Dead simple. It wasn't like a haunted house or anything. Some big, old, dumb building like this can't be scary, right? Plus, in the backpack, there was a huge maglite, snacks, and they had the big down puffy coat on, gloves, and even some rope for some reason. They were ready, until, that is, they entered the main hall and heard a child's laughter from somewhere up in the rafters.