Rock Without Jfk? The Stadium Was A Fabled Venue, But The Bands Will Play On.

Posted: July 15, 1989

In its 63-year history, John F. Kennedy Stadium has been the site of presidential visits (Calvin Coolidge), heavyweight boxing championships (Gene Tunney vs. Jack Dempsey) and 43 years of Army-Navy football games.

But nothing has made more history at JFK Stadium in recent years than a procession of rock concerts with huge crowds - and with causes of world hunger and human rights.

Most weeks the horseshoe-shaped brick stadium on South Broad Street, first called Philadelphia Municipal Stadium, sits empty and unused. Once or twice a summer, though, a rock extravaganza fills its stands. Just last weekend it was the Grateful Dead, with more than 50,000 fans in the sun-baked stadium.

JFK Stadium is by far the largest on the East Coast, with a capacity of 102,000. Only the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, Calif., surpasses it in size, with a seating capacity of more than 106,000. But football, not music, dominates Pasadena.

In 1976, rocker Peter Frampton - remember him? - drew more than 100,000 fans to JFK. The next year, Frampton, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the J. Geils Band pulled 90,000 spectators. The last time the Rolling Stones rolled into JFK, in 1981, 180,000 people attended the two shows. And don't forget Michael Jackson and his dancing family in their 1984 "Victory" tour along with Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead in front of big crowds in 1987.

Because of the enormous capacity and its accessible East Coast location - at the Broad Street off-ramp of Interstate 95 and only hours from New York, Baltimore and Washington - rock history was made at JFK.

Two huge (and hugely publicized) events, 1985's televised worldwide Live Aid concert with Madonna, Phil Collins, Hall & Oates, and last year's Human Rights Now! concert with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Tracy Chapman and Peter Gabriel brought global attention.

Nevertheless, "the closing will not be a problem for us," said Christine Haenn, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Amnesty International, which staged its massive benefit concert, Human Rights Now! at JFK last September.

"We won't be doing anything that big again," she said. "In fact, we think the time of the big concerts has come and gone."

Amnesty International may do some small concerts in the future, she said, ''but no more big ones."

Even if JFK closes forever, Joel Ralph, who managed JFK and Veterans Stadium for more than a dozen years, does not foresee any dearth of rock music in Philadelphia. Veterans Stadium can handle 55,000 or 60,000 concertgoers, he says, and has far more amenities than the crumbling JFK with its uncomfortable seats, gloomy corridors and shortage of restrooms.

Artists such as Springsteen, who could fill JFK, have played the newer Vet, as have other rockers who can pull stadium-size crowds.

"I don't think you will suffer a loss of shows. They won't stop coming there," said Ralph, now general manager of the Los Angeles Coliseum.

"The only close competition is RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., or Giants Stadium in northern New Jersey," he said. And groups will want to play Philadelphia as well as those two other big concert markets.

In other cities, which have no alternate stadium such as JFK, bands regularly fit themselves into the sports calendar, playing when the home teams are away. "The groups are flexible enough to work within your schedule," Ralph said.

Philadelphia promoter Steve Starr, president of the Concert Company Presents, which has brought acts including Stevie Nicks and Madonna to town, agrees.

"It won't make much difference," he said. "The big shows are not going to pass up a major market like Philadelphia. They will just play Veterans Stadium, that's all. They won't make quite as much money, or they will play two nights instead of one, but they won't pass us up."

The only possible problem, Starr said, would be that Veterans Stadium might refuse to book heavy-metal rock bands.

"Nobody cared about JFK because it was kind of a wreck anyway," Starr said. "But the Vet might be worried about damage from the kind of crowds that the heavy-metal groups draw. They are not exactly the same folks who show up for a Debby Boone concert."

One other major event affected by the closing of JFK is the Police and Fire Department Heroes Scholarship Fund Thrill Show, which raises money for the children of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty. It was scheduled for Sept. 2.

The Fraternal Order of Police, which stages the annual show, is angry about the entire situation, says its president, Richard Costello.

"Nobody told us," Costello said. "It looks like nobody gave any thought to the Thrill Show. We are very, very seriously concerned."

The show cannot go to Veterans Stadium or to Franklin Field in University City because the motorcycle drill team, a key element of the show, cannot perform on artificial turf.

"It looks like somebody is making some kind of back-room deal to clear the (stadium) land so they can make a new place for the 76ers so they won't move to Camden," Costello said. "I don't care if the 76ers move to Nevada. I care about the families that rely on the money raised at the Thrill Show."

But beyond a tinge of nostalgia, former manager Ralph has few regrets.

"I think the mayor made a wise decision," Ralph said, referring to Mayor Goode's decision, made Thursday night, to shut the stadium for safety reasons. ''It hurts me in particular, after working there for 16 years. It is a very historical place and I hate to see history disappear.

"But is it a prudent investment to pour money into it?" he asked.

"Probably not."

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