Over the years, Cincinnati Gardens has seen great stars in music and sports
But those events didn't draw its biggest crowds
Gil Kaufman, WCPO contributor
5:00 PM, Jul 12, 2016
Since it went up on the corner of Seymour Avenue and Langdon Farm Road in 1949, Cincinnati Gardens has played host to some of the greatest stars of music and sports.
Following its recent sale to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority and an expected demolition of the 67-year-old building in the coming year, WCPO reached out to the building's unofficial/official historian, John Perin, and Don Helbig, former PR director for the one-time Cincinnati Mighty Ducks hockey team, for some of their favorite Gardens memories.
Though it has long since been eclipsed by U.S. Bank Arena and other venues in town with more modern amenities, the Gardens hosted some of the world's greatest entertainers in its heyday, not to mention Broadway musicals, boxing matches, political rallies, professional soccer and wrestling, indoor football, circuses, dog shows, comedy performances, dirt-track auto races, tractor pulls and even a swimming competition.
Once the seventh-largest arena in the nation, the 25,000 square-foot Gardens was modeled on Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, and the list of talent it drew was a testament to its size and pull. The Beatles touched down for a show in 1964, followed by Jimi Hendrix in 1968, the Jackson 5 in 1970 and Elvis Presley in 1971 and 1973.
"The first event I ever went to, I was 7 years old during the last season the Cincinnati Royals (basketball team) played there, when Oscar Robertson came back and my dad wanted to see him play," Helbig said of the 1971 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks that featured an appearance by Lew Alcindor (not yet known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
But it was the next sporting event he went to — a Nov. 11, 1972, a minor-league hockey game between the Cincinnati Swords and New Haven Nighthawks — that made a lasting impression on Helbig.
"I fell in love with hockey right then," he said. "There was a lot of atmosphere in the arena that was different from the faceless Riverfront Stadium where the Reds played."
To this day, Helbig, now the public relations area manager for Kings Island, can remember the exact seat he sat in for that game: section 20, row 18, seat 4.
‘Built for the blue-collar fans’
Once the Swords left town, they were followed by the Cincinnati Slammers, a minor-league basketball team. In 1990, minor-league hockey returned to the Gardens with the Cincinnati Cyclones, whose first hires included Helbig.
"That first night in the press box watching a hockey game wasn't like going Downtown to see the Stingers (at Riverfront Coliseum) … that didn't have the same energy or excitement and it didn't take long before [Cyclones games] became the place to be," Helbig said.
By their second season, Helbig said, the Cyclones were selling out the Gardens on a nightly basis, including 26 of that year's 32 home games, regularly drawing 10,000 or more fans a night. What made it special was how close fans could get to the action in the close quarters of the Gardens, with its clear sight lines (all the columns are at the back of the seating risers), plus the easy access to players for autographs.
"By that time I was going to newer, nicer arenas around the country, and they just didn't have the charm. They weren't built for the blue-collar fans," Helbig said. "The Gardens was a throwback to the 1950s and '60s, kind of like the Cincinnati version of Wrigley Field or Fenway Park."
Other memories stick in Helbig's mind as well. There was his cousin's graduation from Glen Este High School in 1980 (where he sat in the same seat as he did at that first Swords game), the Madonna/Beastie Boys show in 1985 and, of course, the Cyclones game in 1992 where he met his wife.
"It's definitely the end of an era," he said. "I spent almost 20 years of my life in that building. … There's that part of you that feels sad and at the same time you have to respect history, but you can't revere it. Everything has an expiration date."
Hockey, basketball, boxing
In addition to hosting hockey teams — the Mohawks (’49-’57), Swords (’71-‘74), Cyclones (’90-’97) and Mighty Ducks (’97-’05) — the building was also well known as home to the NBA Cincinnati Royals ('57-'72), the NBA All-Star Game ('66), high school basketball and dozens of Cincinnati Bearcat and Xavier Musketeers games from 1983 to 2000.
Golden Gloves boxing champs including Ezzard Charles and Aaron Pryor took to the ring over the years, and such professional wrestling icons as Gorgeous George, Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin also entertained fans. Crowds also came out for Cincinnati Commandos indoor football (2010-2013).
Perin, a retired child-support enforcement worker, has spent more than five years researching the history of the Gardens, collecting attendance records and conducting interviews about historic moments. He also vividly remembers the first time he walked in the doors.
"It was March 4, 1958, for a UC-Dayton basketball game, and we went for my dad's birthday," he said. "Oscar Robertson was a sophomore and when we got there I was not prepared for the crowd they had, which (at 15,000) stood as a record for the state for many years." With no prompting, he recalled sitting right behind the basket in a $2.50 seat, as well as the final score: 70-66, UC.
The Gardens was the only place in the late 1950s and 1960s to see big rock acts in town, which explains why the Beatles (1964) and Hendrix came through, though Perin said not all of them drew well. A Rolling Stones show in 1965 had around only 5,000 paid attendance, due, in part, Perin said, to a local movement among church and school groups attempting to warn teenagers from going. That scared some of their parents.
"The Beatles drew around 14,000, though on a $3 ticket, and it was hard to even get close to the Gardens on that August afternoon," he said, also reminiscing about seeing hometown singer Andy Williams there in the 1960s, Lawrence Welk in June 1961 and Gene Autry in 1958.
Other acts who have come through over the years include Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd, Bon Jovi, Pearl Jam, Metallica, George Jones, Tom Petty, Pearl Jam and, in a memorable 1985 double-bill: Madonna and the Beastie Boys. Though some of those acts now draw crowds that fill arenas two or three times the size of the Gardens, or even stadiums, Perin said they don't even break into the top 30 all-time attendance at the Gardens because of fire laws and attendance caps that were put into place after the 1979 Who tragedy at Riverfront Coliseum.
"I think for what was a pretty small fee, people could see acts that were really well-known around the country and the world in what is basically a pretty small space," he said.
15 largest crowds in Cincinnati Gardens history
Oct. 25, 1960: Richard Nixon/Henry Cabot Lodge campaign rally: 19,000
Sept. 29, 1964: Barry Goldwater campaign rally:16,025
Oct. 21, 1968: Richard Nixon campaign rally: 16,000
March 7, 1959: Pro wrestling: 15,299
March 4, 1958: UC-Dayton college basketball: 15,011
Oct. 28, 1956: Festival of Faith religious service: 14,500
Feb. 17, 1959: UC-Miami college basketball: 14,353
Feb. 19, 1956: Xavier-Dayton college basketball: 14,284
May 16, 1953: Pro wrestling: 14,164
Dec. 27, 1963: UC-Xavier college basketball: 14,133
Feb. 28, 1949: Ezzard Charles/Joey Maxim pro boxing match: 14,062