Twilight has come for the Omaha Civic Auditorium. The main ring is empty of events, its website taken over by some sort of erotic online service out of Asia. The city put the building up for sale last year, seeking someone who would both demolish the cement-and-glass entertainment venue and develop something new in its place. The once massive structure, seating as many as 10,960 people, has become overshadowed by CenturyLink Center, which can seat close to 19,000. The arena once known for sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll may soon become home to the suits and ties of corporate America.
The auditorium should not pass without comment. This was, after all, where Elvis Presley performed one of his most disastrous late-period concerts. It’s where a vice-presidential debate between Democrat Lloyd Bentsen and Republican Dan Quayle entered the history books.
The auditorium opened its doors in December 1954, built by the city at a cost of $6,500,000, according to an Omaha World-Herald ad for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the first act to appear in the auditorium’s smaller music hall. The New Year’s Day edition of the World-Herald was filled with ads from local businesses congratulating the city on its new auditorium. Peter Kiewit Sons’ ad stated “Omaha can be justifiably proud,” saying the auditorium will “stand as a symbol of a forward-looking leadership of our city.”
According to newspaper records, the first major event in the civic auditorium was a “boxing blitz,” the Golden Gloves Omaha City Tournament in January 1955 and the Midwest Championship in February, which promised “entertainment—with plenty of socks appeal!” The auditorium would often welcome sporting events, including Bluejays men’s basketball, Creighton women’s basketball and volleyball, the UNO hockey team, and the current Sacramento Kings NBA basketball team, known as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings between 1972 and 1985.
The arena served as the longtime stomping grounds for Omaha wrestling, with a record 10,310 people filling the stadium to see the taping of WWF Superstars of Wrestling on April 26, 1989. This event featured such legends of wrestling as Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and Randy Savage.
The popular music venue held concerts by the Rolling Stones, who appeared in July 1966, and Bob Dylan, who appeared in 1978. Virtually every band known to draw a large audience appeared at the civic, including REM, Van Halen, KISS, and, more recently, Beck, and the Foo Fighters.
The building also contained an exhibit hall and events venue that served as one of the epicenters of Omaha arts and culture—if that is what one calls the Guinness Book of World Records 1983 bean-eating contest. Better examples include coin shows, cat shows, and antique sales.
If something happened in Omaha, and it had any sort of following, there was a good chance it wound up at the civic auditorium. That building houses 60 years of memories, which people will hold on to long after the deconstruction is finished.
Notable Civic Auditorium gigs
April 19, 1963: Yetta Wallenda, a member of the famous Wallenda family of circus aerialists, performed a daring feat that involved “skirting on the borderline of eternity.” She climbed to the top of a 45-foot fiberglass pole and stood on her head. Losing her balance, she tumbled all the way to the ground. Doctors pronounced her dead by the time she reached the hospital.
March 4, 1968: Civil rights protestors confronted segregationist governor George Wallace. Upon arrival, they suffered violence from counter-protestors, then the police, resulting in the shooting of one protestor, a high-school student. The aftermath nearly incited a riot quelled by community leaders, including future state senator Ernie Chambers.
March 25, 1972: Council Bluffs heavyweight boxer Ron Stander lands a title match against world champion Joe Frazier. The resulting mayhem was brutal, with a ringside doctor stopping the fight after the fourth round, when Stander required 32 stitches.
June 19, 1977: Elvis Presley plays his second-to-last touring show. The suffering King of Rock and Roll notoriously forgot the lyrics to songs he performed for years, and died a few months later. The legendarily terrible performance was filmed for the television special Elvis in Concert, shown posthumously. Bootlegs of it circulate to this day.
November 8, 1988: Vice presidential hopefuls Dan Quayle (Republican) and Lloyd Bentsen (Democrat) faced off in a heated debate. Irritated by Quayle comparing himself to John F. Kennedy, Bentsen snapped: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”