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Jim Heffernan column: Former reporter remembers covering progress of Arena-Auditorium, exciting opening week

Jim Heffernan1 / 2
Comedian Buddy Hackett, master of ceremonies at the dedication program of the Arena-Auditorium, describes the fish he caught while in Minnesota to Manley Goldfine, president of the Arena-Auditorium board in 1966. (file photo / News Tribune)2 / 2

You could say I was present at the creation. That'd be the creation of the Duluth Arena-Auditorium, which took a good deal longer to build than the Genesis version of the creation of the universe, also a memorable event.

The dreamers who envisioned building a massive (for Duluth) entertainment complex on the city's waterfront had done their part, and by the time I became involved — peripherally involved — the complex's governing body had been formed and specific plans were being formulated, but site preparation had only just begun.

It was 1963 and as a fledgling reporter for this newspaper I was assigned to cover City Hall meetings of that governing body, called the Arena-Auditorium Administrative Board.

At one of those meetings, Joe Sturckler, the first and longtime manager of the complex, was introduced. He exuded excitement — Sturckler always exuded excitement — over the potential of what Duluth had wrought.

Not as excited was an elderly but prominent Duluth architect who believed the ground and fill beneath the waterfront building site would not hold such a large facility. The whole thing, he repeatedly claimed, would sink or slide into the bay. He campaigned to build the entertainment complex on the solid ground of the UMD campus.

Some three years later, however, the complex became a reality on the waterfront site, and Sturckler was right — it was exciting. For 10 days in August 1966 Duluth said "Hello World" to ... well ... to the world as the doors opened on a spectacular new arena and resplendent auditorium, known today as Symphony Hall. Years earlier, comedian Bob Hope, appearing at the old Duluth Armory on London Road, had called that place a barn. Those days were clearly over.

By the time of the grand opening, I was no longer fledgling, but a somewhat seasoned reporter, ready to cover some of the events of the 10-day Hello World celebration. Much of what went on is recounted elsewhere in this section. I have memories of some behind-the-scenes happenings that never made the newspaper at the time, but stand out for me these 50 years later.

The first involved entertainer Buddy Hackett, a comedian and comic actor almost forgotten today but very big at the time, with frequent appearances on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and roles in movies, such as "The Music Man."

Hackett was engaged here to provide comic relief for the big Grand Opening Banquet on the first night of the celebration, the featured speaker at which was Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Hackett's controversial performance — his off-color remarks in the presence of the vice president and all of Duluth's gentry had not been well-received — is mentioned elsewhere in this section.

Earlier that day, though, Hackett held an impromptu news conference outdoors on the terrace on the bay side of the Arena-Auditorium lobby, clowning around with a few newspaper and TV reporters. I was there but not responsible for covering it, a colleague was. That colleague had remembered a failed TV sitcom that had briefly starred Hackett, and asked him about it.

Hackett cheerfully kissed it off, but the reporter pressed him again, and again. The comedian was not amused, so he turned on his heel and angrily strode off toward a closed glass door, which he thought was wide open. The door didn't break when Hackett slammed into it, but he was so stunned he had to be steadied by nearby reporters.

Then that night he managed to embarrass a huge opening night crowd in the Arena, including the vice president of the United States. It was not a good day for Buddy Hackett.

Later that week, I was assigned to cover "Labor Night," a banquet of assembled local and regional labor leaders featuring one of the most powerful and well-known labor leaders in the nation at that time, Walter Reuther, firebrand head of the United Auto Workers.

Outside the Arena-Auditorium, before the banquet, local union officials and Mayor George D. Johnson had assembled to greet Reuther and escort him inside, when an Oldsmobile pulled up, parked and from it emerged Minnesota Gov. Karl Rolvaag, who had driven himself up from St. Paul.

He was not expected. When we all went inside to the dinner, where a head table had been set up for Reuther and other distinguished guests, no place was set for the governor of Minnesota, nor did anyone hastily make room for him at the head table. Instead, he was seated at a small table toward the back of the room with me. Yes, me. The reporter covering the event.

I don't recall our conversation, but Rolvaag seemed to be taking the slight in stride. He was very gracious as we dined, and listened politely as Reuther expounded on the contributions and importance of organized labor, and so on and so forth. The governor was not asked to speak.

Now 50 years have passed since that exciting week, and the original complex has been greatly expanded with additional exhibition halls, convention facilities and even the larger, more modern, Amsoil Arena, together with parking ramps spreading over the original ground-level parking lot.

Still, when I go to events there now I sometimes keep an eye open for wall cracks or sinking floors or sagging ceilings. No sign yet, though, that the entire complex is sinking into the bay.

JIM HEFFERNAN is a retired News Tribune writer, editor and columnist. He maintains a blog of his writings at jimheffernan.org.

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