For 30 years, the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium skillfully served the city’s convention and entertainment needs. Each year it hosted all sorts of congresses, graduations and concerts, including many memorable ones, such as the opening night of the 26-year-old Liberace’s first world tour in February 1947 and a star-studded 1955 concert by Judy Garland, attended by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Humphrey Bogart, Betty Grable, Lana Turner and Jimmy Stewart. And of course rock and roll, with performances by the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, among others.
But Long Beach grew as the city entered the 1950s and 60s, as did the congressional industry, and Long Beach Convention Bureau chief David Olmsted wanted more room to keep up with other cities that hosted congresses and their guests who filled hotels and restaurants. In fact, Olmsted had wanted more space since 1940, but by 1952 he had become more firm and complained to the city that they were losing business with a quick cut and needed to build an annex to the 1932 Municipal Auditorium to allow for more exhibitions. space and larger crowds.
That was easier said than done. For a decade, the voucher plan was marked by bureaucracy involving the use of Tideland funds, which had been diminished by a lawsuit that gave the state of California half of Long Beach’s oil money. The estimated cost of the so-called Auditorium Annex was estimated at $ 2.75 million. A public vote gave the green light to use it, and voters also OKed the annex at two subsequent elections, when the price first rose to $ 3.4 million and in 1960, when the estimated cost was $ 6 million. It would eventually cost $ 8 million to build.
The city managed to scrape the money together and hired architect Kenneth Wing to design the building at the landfill, which replaced the lagoon inside the arch of the rainbow pier. Wing insisted on the elliptical shape of the annex, which would be broken up by a dozen glass-encapsulated stairs leading to the lodge and balcony sections. Critics complained that it did not fit well into the design of the ornate municipal auditorium – but that case would be dealt with quickly enough.
It was not until 1961, when construction was underway, that the town gave the annex a proper, albeit uninspired, name: Long Beach Arena.
The arena opened in October 1962 with a three-day performance of Ringling Bros. Circus, followed by what would be some long-standing staples at the venue: Ice Capades (and later Disney on Ice) and Harlem Globetrotters as well as a host of sporting events, including the inaugural (and final) season of the professional basketball team, Long Beach Chiefs of the American Basketball Conference and an exhibition game with the expansion NHL team LA Kings, who would continue to play at the Arena until their home at the Forum was over.
The arena’s first trade show was Home-O-Rama, and the venue was already filling its schedule with bookings demonstrating the wide range of uses it could provide: the 1964 National Square Dance Convention, which would bring 10,000 square dancers to the city; 1963 Pacific Southwest Hardware Association Fairs; the American Figure Skating Competition in 1963; Eastern Star Convention; and the California Dry Cleaners Association Convention.
Into the 1970s and 80s, every conceivable rock band (except the Beatles) played Arena. The list is near infinity.
The building’s exterior was originally painted with alternating tan and white vertical stripes, and remained so until 1992, when artist Wyland painted his Whaling Wall mural around the building, touching it and adding a mural of the Earth to its roof in 2009. The whaling wall would later adding much confusion among tourists who continue to confuse the Arena with the Pacific Aquarium.
The large municipal auditorium was demolished in 1975 and may have topped the list of glorious buildings the city has destroyed, but it was necessary to remain competitive in the congress and entertainment industry. Its destruction gave way to the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, which included the Terrace Theater, the Center (now Beverly O’Neill) Theater, and the new and spacious Convention Center.
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