Memorial Auditorium provided 38 years of entertainment

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The 5,400-seat Greenville Memorial Auditorium opened in 1958. It was dedicated to the "men and women of this community who in time of war gave freely of service and even life itself in order that this government and those freedoms might be perpetuated."

Four years before Textile Hall held it last major event, Memorial Auditorium began serving as the host for sports events and concerts.

The cozy arena at 401 East North Street, whose 5,600 seats welcomed competitors and entertainers from close range, provided Greenville with entertainers and fond memories for 38 years.

Architects Joseph G. Cunningham and Lewis J. 'Dutch' Walker began planning the auditorium in 1935 and submitted their first sketches of the facility in 1939.

The dedication plaque read, "Greenville Memorial Auditorium. This building was erected by the citizens of the Greenville community as a tribute to that glorious heritage which inspired the development and formation of the American government and the freedoms to which it aspires, and is dedicated to the men and women of this community who in time of war gave freely of service and even life itself in order that this government and those freedoms might be perpetuated."

The auditorium opened amid fanfare on Dec. 1, 1958, with a college basketball game featuring two consensus All-America players who were already legendary – Furman University’s Frank Selvy and West Virginia’s Jerry West. It closed quietly with a lightly-attended Gene Watson concert on Aug. 16, 1996.

In between, the auditorium hosted 29 Miss South Carolina pageants, 27 consecutive years of concerts by Conway Twitty, and a wide range of other entertainers that included, in their 1960s heyday, groups as memorable as The Drifters and Little Anthony & The Imperials. The auditorium hosted rodeos, circus acts, exhibition wrestling, craft shows, high school graduations and even auto racing.

Gospel music played a major part in the auditorium's history. Then-Greenville County Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown held annual benefit gospel singalongs there, and promoter Charles Waller brought his Grand Ole Gospel Reunion to the auditorium for many years.

Legendary gospel singer Bill Gaither played the auditorium nearly every year for 20 years.

Alabama seemed to adopt Greenville as its second new home after Myrtle Beach, and Hootie & the Blowfish had one of their first big gigs at the auditorium in 1994.

Nights to remember

Perhaps the most tragic distinction in Greenville Memorial Auditorium's history is being the site for the final performance of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Lead singer and co-founder Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, back-up vocalist Cassie Gaines, were killed the next day in a plane crash on Oct. 20, 1977. The band was enroute from Greenville to Baton Rouge, La.

"They went through all their hits and finished with `Freebird' and jammed on that for probably 20 minutes before they quit," recalls Martin Keene, who was 17 when he went to the show.

Keene was "extremely shocked" when he first heard news of the crash.

"It felt very weird. It was almost like a personal thing," he says.

Spartanburg's Mark Frank was a survivor of the plane crash. He was serving as equipment manager for drummer Artimus Pyle, also a Spartanburg native. Frank says there were already concerns about the plane and an "eerie" mood seemed to prevail at the concert. "It was a good, tight show," he recalls. "On the stage, things were great. Off the stage, as far as the planes and pilots and stuff, there were a lot of indications that something should probably have been changed."

Others vividly remember the death of an auditorium worker, Johnny Addington, just before a Kiss concert in 1985. A small fire had erupted on a wooden catwalk. Addington went to extinguish the fire, but before he could get to it, he slipped through the ceiling and fell 48 feet to the auditorium floor, according to news reports from the time.

Edwin McCain, who has since gone on to his own recording career, remembers the Kiss concert and the confusion that set in when fans were asked to clear the auditorium.

"Everybody was slamming against the doors trying to get back in because it was general admission. It was pretty crazy," he remembers.

A lighter moment came in 1991, when a hooded visitor with a scruffy face tried to get into the auditorium. His name was Bob Dylan and he happened to have a performance scheduled that night.

"He just came walking up the back alley," remembers a laughing Rodney Neely, who was working security that night, but couldn't blame the guard who turned Dylan away. "I would have never thought it was Bob Dylan. I can recognize him by his voice, but otherwise..."

It was in the 1970s that controversial funk musician Rick James came to town. James had been warned not to smoke marijuana on stage. Not only did James smoke the plant, but he showed up dressed as one, Auditorium Director Walt Atkins recalls with a laugh. The auditorium never had James back.

Safety was the primary concern of auditorium officials during a visit by the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1968, says Fritz Cappell, who was ticket office manager at the time.

"We didn't breathe there for two or three hours until we got him out the back door" safely, he recalled.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson remembers playing host to King for the visit, which took place "not long" before his death on April 4. King ate dinner at Jackson's house and spoke at the auditorium about the state of civil rights.

"Everywhere he went there were threatening telephone calls and all kinds of hostile expressions made," Jackson said. "He was a man of peace and reconciliation."

Sporting traditions

The Furman Paladins lost, 76-67, on Dec. 1, 1958, the auditorium's first event, to a West Virginia team that included future NBA All-Star Jerry West, but there were many special basketball moments at the auditorium. College and textile tournament games were regular tenants.

The Southern Textile Basketball Tournament was held at the auditorium for more than 30 years.

In 1964, the Paladins pulled a huge upset over a nationally-ranked Davidson team.

And long before Magic Johnson, there was Frank Selvy, the legendary 100-point scorer who coached Furman teams from 1966 to 1970 at the auditorium. During the glory years of Joe Williams in the 1970s, Furman won several Southern Conference Tournaments.

On Jan. 2, 1959, the auditorium hosted a midget car race staged by promoter Pete Blackwell, who once co-owned the Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

"We filled the building with fumes and smoke. You couldn't even see the people. From the dress circle up to the ceiling was just a solid cloud," Blackwell says with a laugh, noting that the ventilation problems were solved for future races.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, many fathers and sons - and quite a few grandmothers - came each Monday night to see wrestling, which many labeled as entertainment rather than a sport.

Top wrestlers from around the country, such as Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes and the American Dream drew sellout crowds - even on Christmas Day.

"People would come for miles and miles, and it was like they hadn't eaten," says Cliff Wallace, a former assistant manager at the auditorium who began selling food there when he was 12. "Greenville established itself as one of the real wrestling castles of the South."

Old men would throw canes in the ring. Women hollered and screamed. "It was almost like part of the show," Wallace remembers.

Another of the auditorium's most consistent events was the Longhorn Rodeo, which also provided one of the staff's scariest moments in the late 1960s. Walt Atkins, now manager of the auditorium, was a teen working in its concession stands when a bull got behind the boards that were used to keep it in the arena. The bull pushed on the doors behind the concession area, where workers frantically pushed back.

"Everybody was terrified, but all they were trying to do was keep those doors closed," he says. Fortunately, everybody came away with no injuries - but a great story to tell.

Greenville grows up

Many children as well as adults also will remember their performances at the auditorium - not as musicians, but as dancers. Palmer School of Dance held its recitals there for 30 years.

"For the majority of the children, it was their day to shine," says the dance school's owner, Patsy Riddle. "When they hear that audience applaud, their faces just beam and they look so proud of themselves. It was really sad this past May having our show there and knowing it was our last one."

The bright smiles of children also filled the auditorium during performances by the Ice Capades, Sesame Street Live and dozens of circuses - first the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey and later the Royal Hanneford.

"It's a family gathering place that's fixin' to succumb to the wrecking ball," says Joe Sanders, who worked on the crew that built the auditorium.

Sanders would later oversee the Miss South Carolina Pageant, which brought hundreds of young women filled with hope and ambition to the auditorium. Many shed tears upon defeat, others cried tears of joy, including Kimberly Aiken, who went on to become Miss America.

And 38 senior years worth of jubilant students said goodbye to childhood and hello to responsibility when they walked across the auditorium stage to receive their high-school diplomas.

It's those personal memories that seem so strong.

Country star and Blue Ridge native Aaron Tippin speaks not only of his own auditorium shows, but also of Cold War worries.

"I remember when it was a fallout shelter in the 1960s, and when the air-raid sirens went off that's where we were supposed to go," he says.

Tippin, who held homecoming shows at the auditorium on New Year's Eve for three years, says he's just glad he got to play at the same place where he saw the circus, cheered at concerts and took in gun shows with his dad.

"I'd rather play there than the Taj Mahal," he says. "I'm one of those old-fashioned guys that's full of nostalgia and want to defend history, and I guess that's how I feel about that old building. It's just been such a major part of my life."

Many local fraternaties and sororities sponsored dances and banquets at the auditorium. And thousands more would flock each year to the Hill Skills arts and crafts shows.

For a few, the auditorium fills a lifetime of memories. Earl Morgan, 82, of West Greenville, worked there almost its entire existence. He remembers earning 2 cents for each Coke he sold and having his picture taken with dozens of stars, including Johnny Cash. His favorite performer was Barbara Mandrell.

"She'd come up there wearing blue jeans and was just a regular girl. But when she went up on stage ..." a suddenly speechless Morgan recalls.

"I've done everything in that auditorium that could be done.

By 1996 the 5,400-seat Memorial Auditorium had become too small to draw the larger events. The building once played host to Elvis Presley but promoters said most touring artists wouldn't play at buildings that seat fewer than 11,000 people.

Memorial Auditorium attracted more than 350 shows each year in the late 1970s, but housed less than 200 in 1995. During that time, the Ringling Brothers circus left for Asheville, pro wrestling dropped Greenville and other concerts turned to Clemson or outdoor venues or skipped over Greenville.

The auditorium was imploded Sept. 20, 1997, 15 months short of its 40th birthday.

It was soon replaced as an entertainment venue by the Bi-Lo Center, later renamed the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.