At the Willie Nelson concert, they searched my brother Josh for drugs. They frisked him, lifted his cowboy hat from his head, ran a finger around the band, and ruffled his hair, as if he were hiding quaaludes within his corn-blond locks.
Lucky for Josh, he wasn't holding that night. He was 8 years old.
The year was 1982, and my parents had decided to take me, Josh and my youngest brother, Joe, to our first arena concert. It was a big deal. In our house, god had red pigtails, hailed from Texas, was best friends with Waylon Jennings and smoked a tremendous amount of marijuana. But to me, the man who was playing that night was only slightly more important than the venue: the Hollywood Sportatorium, a concrete hangar on 500 acres of a then-undeveloped stretch of Pines Boulevard. With its churchy roof, prisonlike walls and highway-motel landscaping, the place looked as if it had been designed on a cocktail napkin by an architect who'd lost a bar bet. A lyric little bandbox of a concert venue it was not.
But no one went to the Hollywood Sportatorium to admire its architecture, and even at 10 years old, I'd already heard enough sordid, shocking tales about the place for it to have acquired near-mythological status.
Twenty-five years after the last guitar chord was struck, the last parking-lot punch was thrown and the last joint was extinguished at the 15,500-seat Sportatorium — the Sporto, as it was affectionately known; the Vomitorium, as it was not — the place remains almost too bad to be true. "Bad" not in the awful sense — though many awful things certainly transpired there — but "bad" meaning "tough," "dangerous" and "cool."
Led Zeppelin played there. So did Pink Floyd, Thin Lizzy, the Grateful Dead, Black Sabbath, Rush, AC/DC, the Police and, six months before he died, Elvis Presley (a show my parents attended sans kids). The stories I'd heard from my teenage uncle and my stoner schoolmates made the Sportatorium sound like a modern-day Colosseum, where the gladiators were groupies, the chariots were El Caminos and the emperors went by the names David Lee Roth, Robert Plant and Geddy Lee. And, as security informed my family the night of the Willie Nelson concert, adults routinely used children to smuggle drugs into the venue.
The final concert took place at the Sportatorium on Oct. 21, 1988, and for a venue known for hosting the most louche rock 'n' roll acts of the age, it went out not with the bang of Alex Van Halen's gong, but with the high-lonesome whimper of the Desert Rose Band, a post-Byrds country act led by the singer-guitarist Chris Hillman. Bulldozers and wrecking balls finished it off five years later.
"It was the best place to be, and it was the worst place to be," says Scott Benarde, the Sun Sentinel's rock critic from 1982 to 1987. "There was something about the nature of that place — its location, its vibe — that made it a great place for rock 'n' roll. But at the same time, it was lawless. I mean, even the security guards were getting stoned."
Benarde, now communications director for the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, was on hand for some of the Sportatorium's most-notorious concerts. He was there on June 30, 1985, when rain poured through the venue's long-deteriorating roof, forcing Robert Plant to cancel that evening's concert and giving him cause to quip at the makeup show: "This is the first gig I've ever done that was rained out inside the building." Benarde saw Madonna deliver a "terrible" performance on May 11, 1985. His review said the show featured "enough smoke to cure a ton of salmon for a year."
Worse than the Madonna episode, worse even than the Def Leppard concert in 1987 that another music critic described as "nothing but a big joke," was what happened to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on Feb. 20, 1981. Touring to promote "The River" album, Springsteen was four songs into his set when the Sportatorium audience revealed itself to him in all its glory.
"He's playing 'Independence Day,' " Benarde recalls. "It's not about the Fourth of July. It's about a relationship with his family. This is a very quiet ballad, a quiet, thoughtful, reflective song. Suddenly, there are these firecrackers going off. Springsteen stops the show and says, 'I want whoever did that to go to the box office, get their money back and never again come to one of my shows.' "
Springsteen probably wishes he'd left with the guy. Before the night was over, several fans pulled off the simultaneously repulsive and impressive act of urinating on the stage from the front row. Springsteen kept his promise to never play the Sportatorium again.
Tony Landa, a Hialeah-based musician and photographer who operates the concert-news website Dig Under Rock, ticks off the shows he saw at the Sportatorium like a mountain climber enumerating peaks he's summited: "I saw [Iron] Maiden three times. Judas Priest three times. I saw David Lee Roth a couple of times. I saw Van Halen. ZZ Top twice."
Landa, 44, wishes he could have seen more. "It wasn't just an event — it was a major event to go to a show there," he says. "You didn't want to miss a show. [With] the big rock shows, you'd go, 'Oh, damn it. I can't believe I'm going to miss that.' "
One show his friends saw but he didn't was the Rush concert on Nov. 28, 1981, when, after the Sportatorium failed to open on time, the Canadian trio's fans went berserk.
"The Rush incident is probably the most famous of all Sportatorium moments, the riot," Landa says. "Apparently, [Rush drummer] Neil Peart was late because he was watching a baseball game. They wouldn't open the doors, so people were jumping over the walls."
By the time it was over, Hollywood police reportedly had tear-gassed the crowd, the concertgoers had returned fire with rocks and bottles, and 11 officers had been injured. It wasn't the arena's first riot: A year earlier, a melee at a Ted Nugent show involved nearly 500 people and sent one police deputy to the hospital.
To be fair to the Sportatorium, South Florida was lousy with deplorable venues in the '70s and '80s. The Sunrise Musical Theatre— a 3,900-seat hall that from 1976 to 2002 hosted U2, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Soundgarden, the Clash and Barry Manilow (thankfully not together) — provided an intimate forum for abysmal behavior. During another Cline family outing, I had the good fortune to watch Waylon Jennings give the bird to a group of heckling teenagers, drop his guitar to the floor and stomp off the Sunrise stage, only to return to it awhile later drunker than he'd left it.
"I saw a lot of crazy [stuff] at Sunrise," Landa says, "but it was a smaller venue. I think the thing about the Sportatorium, besides that it was the ['80s], was the fact that it was so much bigger. But I also think the fact that it was kind of in the middle of nowhere, it made people a little more free."
While that freedom may have brought out the worst in some concertgoers, the performers often absorbed that energy and redirected it. Benarde still describes a U2 concert he saw at the arena in near-spiritual terms, and Landa talks about Iron Maiden's "Powerslave" and Judas Priest's "Defenders of the Faith" tours as if they were formative experiences. The celebratory Hall and Oates concert I saw at the Sporto in 1985 — listen, I was nowhere near as cool as Benarde or Landa — partly inspired me to become a music journalist. Billy Joel's cathartic, marathon set the year before almost makes me wonder why I can't stand his music today.
It would be an act of charity to say the Sportatorium was acoustically challenged. Sound ricocheted off its walls like gunfire, and the vocals were unintelligible to the point that you couldn't tell if David Lee Roth was running with the devil or rutting on an anvil. But like the air of danger that hung over the place, the obstructed-view seating, the precipitation that fell from the rafters and the Lake of Urine that formed in the post-show parking lot, the crummy dynamics were part of the Sportatorium's wicked charm.
The Sporto was special not simply because it was there, and not just because there was nowhere. For many South Floridians, the Sportatorium was the site of a first concert, a first beer, a first night out alone. For others, it was where they landed their first kiss, their first punch or their first arrest.
Money woes, mismanagement and malfeasance chipped away at the Sportatorium's lifespan almost since the day it opened in 1970 as a low-rent sports arena for fans of rodeo, boxing, motocross and professional wrestling. Developers coveted the property for years, and public officials went to bed at night praying for its demolition. The opening of the larger, more-modern Miami Arena on July 13, 1988, signaled the end for the Sportatorium, and touring acts — Robert Plant not the least among them — relished the opportunity to play a South Florida venue where fans, and Mother Nature, were less likely to pee on them.
"[The Sportatorium] is an eyesore, an antiquated, ugly, obsolete building whose time came and went a long time ago. Most people who have memories of that place probably want to forget those memories," developer Walter Hollander told the Sun Sentinel in 1992, speaking like a man who never saw Bruce Springsteen lose his cool, who never heard Motley Crue shout at the devil, who never stood on the shores of the Lake of Urine, and whose 8-year-old brother was never profiled as a drug mule.
Twenty-five years gone, the Sportatorium still rules.