Bob Ford: Spectrum transcended its unremarkable structure

Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider walks off the stage before the wrecking ball strikes the Spectrum. He was one of several speakers at the event.
Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider walks off the stage before the wrecking ball strikes the Spectrum. He was one of several speakers at the event.
Posted: November 24, 2010

By 1 p.m. Tuesday, a good half-hour after an orange, four-ton wrecking ball began tapping the south side of the Spectrum - first gently, then grimly - the hole in this piece of Philadelphia sports history was still not much bigger than the ones Darryl Dawkins left in a couple of backboards way back when.

The wrecking ball was mostly for show, anyway, which was fitting for a place that was all about putting on a good show. It served as the tolling bell to close a ceremony that marked the beginning of the demolition process of this city's first "modern" sports venue.

Ed Snider spoke, Bob Clarke spoke, Mayor Nutter spoke, Julius Erving spoke and spoke and spoke. They brought essentially the same message, which was, "Things that mattered happened here." In the end, the "things" were more important than the "here," because the Spectrum was an unremarkable architectural structure, but nevertheless that is where they happened.

Once the show wrapped up on Tuesday and the small crowd of curiosity seekers dispersed, the wrecking ball stopped its slow, Pat Burrell swing and the real work was given over to an enormous mechanical claw that will gouge and bite the Spectrum with greater efficiency. On a somewhat somber day, it wouldn't have been appropriate to end the commemorating speeches - assuming Doc has finished by now - and then watch the building get attacked by something out of a Japanese monster movie. The claw will do its work without fanfare, and soon enough the Spectrum will be nothing but rubble.

Snider said he wasn't going to stick around for the wrecking ball show and he didn't, climbing into a car and leaving before the first blow was struck. The Comcast-Spectacor chairman said he was too emotional about losing the Spectrum, although he will sell you a brick if you send in a few bucks.

The business side of things has to be served, and that is what finally got the Spectrum. It had been in use for 42 years, and things were starting to go. Was it worth putting in new electrical and plumbing systems and other necessary infrastructure improvements for an outdated building that was used merely for overflow or small revenue events? "Not really," was the answer, and as much as Snider might regret the reality of the decision, he was the one who made it.

Tuesday's ceremony was more anti-climax than climax. The Spectrum has been closing so long, it might have been the Benny Goodman Orchestra that played the farewell concert. There were a lot of sentimental "lasts" - the last hockey game, the last basketball game, the last concert, the last guy to throw up in a restroom sink. They killed it softly and slowly, then let the looters inside - for $25 a pop - to cart out the detritus of broken red chairs and cracked signs reading, "EXIT."

Five years ago, when Convention Hall was demolished, there very nearly wasn't a peep about it. They just closed the doors and knocked it down. It was merely the place where Wilt and Russell staged half of their incredible wars, where an NBA All-Star Game was held, where the Beatles and Rolling Stones performed. The Pope played Convention Hall.

Unlike that muted closing act, the Spectrum got the full send-off and, to be honest, it was deserved. It wasn't until the Spectrum was constructed in South Philadelphia, adjacent to JFK Stadium, that the concept of a "sports complex" took hold. The groundbreaking ceremony for the Veterans Stadium construction took place two days after the Spectrum opened.

The complex created a focus for sports in Philadelphia, a communal gathering place that became tribal grounds for the fans of the four professional teams. That sense is what remains after the Vet came and went, replaced by two stadiums, and after the Spectrum was overshadowed by the new arena, which stepped into the old, faded footprint of Municipal/JFK Stadium, the place that started it all.

You can debate the beauty of the location - this was mostly a boggy wetlands before being reclaimed and reformed for the 1926 Sesquicentennial world's fair - but Philadelphia could have done a lot worse. Bob Carpenter bought land near Garden State Park in the late 1950s and might have moved the Phillies to New Jersey if things had gone a little differently. (He was particularly unhappy he couldn't sell beer on Sundays in Pennsylvania at the time.) Harold Katz also came close to moving across the river with the 76ers as he and Snider butted heads on the financials of a new arena. Leonard Tose very nearly sold the Eagles to Phoenix in 1984 after another bad night at the craps table.

Instead, they somehow stayed together, and the sports complex rose and matured around the Spectrum, a low, sort of average building that became a site for exceptional happenings. Six Stanley Cup Finals, four NBA Finals, two Final Fours, and on and on. It hosted moments that mattered and will continue to matter even after whatever is built in its place is also knocked down to make way for the next hot new idea.

Bruce Springsteen played the Spectrum many times, including the night after John Lennon was murdered in 1980. "It's a hard thing to come out and play, but there's just nothing else you can do," he said. More than three hours later, he closed the show with "Twist And Shout," which is all about living while you can.

On Tuesday, they played "Wrecking Ball," Springsteen's ode to Giants Stadium, as the ball struck the Spectrum. That was appropriate in an artistic sense, but it was a song for the passing and not for the living that came before, which is the part that matters.

The Spectrum was crowded and loud and hot and smelled of burned popcorn. There was gum under the seats and the concrete stuck to your soles sometimes. One narrow concourse served all three seating levels and there weren't ever enough bathrooms. But great things happened there. All the time. Maybe they would have happened somewhere else, but maybe not. Maybe the Spectrum just knew how to open the doors and then get out of the way.


Bob Ford:

More Coverage

Decades of memories left behind as the Spectrum is taken down. A1.

Thousands of fans come to see the demolition. A12.

Watching Dr. J as a 13-year-old fan: Oh, what a night. D5.

Flyers recall the building's historic impact. D5.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read

his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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