RHODE ISLAND AUDITORIUM
ARTICLE BY MICHAEL HAMEL 2012
The Rhode Island Auditorium (c) Michael Hamel, 2012
For sixty-three years, the Rhode Island Auditorium stood at 1111 North Main Street in Providence, Rhode Island, just steps away from the city's expansive North Burial Ground, and less than a half mile from the neighboring city of Pawtucket.1 The location, away from the congestion of the center of the capital city, was ideal for hosting large events. When the Auditorium opened on February 27, 1926,2 North Main Street had recently been designated as part of the new US Highway system as Route 1,3 and was also served by public streetcars, two factors that spurred development in the area. The previous summer, the Providence Cycledrome, a 13,000 seat bicycle racing track, opened just up the street on the city line.
The front facade of the Auditorium was dominated by its large gable end, adorned with the word "ARENA" painted in large bold letters, between dramatically sloped roof lines. A smaller, and much more ornate, "head house" sat in front of the utilitarian main structure. Patrons entered through five sets of double doors framed by a gentle archway that encompassed a marquee; the marquee would eventually be topped by a neon "R.I. AUDITORIUM" sign.5 Inside, during the Auditorium's glory days, fans passed through a set of turnstiles in a small 40x40 foot vestibule, then congregated in a 150 foot-long, smoke-filled foyer flanked by concession stands on both sides.6 Finally, patrons would pass through one of a pair of lobbies to reach the arena itself; if it was a hockey night, they would see a hockey rink encircled with chicken wire, illuminated with fifty-five 750-watt lighting fixtures, and, looming overhead, a hanging scoreboard (with analog dials) that proclaimed it was "Bulova Time."7
Opening night featured fourteen events on the program, which was also broadcast by WJAR radio beginning at 8:15PM. Following a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," Auditorium Corporation president John A. "Duff" Gammons presided over the dedication ceremonies.8 Speakers included U.S. Senator Jesse Metcalf, Providence Mayor Joseph Gainer, and outgoing Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Nathaniel W. Smith. Then the entertainment began, with Cathleen Pope, of Iceland, New York taking the ice for a figure skating exhibition.9 The headline attraction was the figure skating duo of Theresa Weld Blanchard and Nathaniel Niles, natives of Brookline, Massachusetts, who had competed in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics and combined to win eighteen United States skating titles.10 At the conclusion of the evening, which also included such eclectic fare as barrel jumping and a "burlesque hockey match," patrons who had paid between 85 cents (general admission) and $3.30 (box seat) for a ticket were allowed onto the rink for a public skating session.11
The first regular tenants of the Auditorium were the Rhode Island Reds hockey team, founded in the fall of 1926 by Judge James E. Dooley. Dooley was a prominent attorney with strong political ties and a taste for sports. He served as a judge in the Eighth District Court for a year after his predecessor, Willis S. Knowles, was shot to death near his summer home in North Scituate, Rhode Island in September, 1915.12 In 1922, Dooley ran an unsuccessful campaign for Lieutenant Governor as a Republican.13 Meanwhile, Dooley was part of a group which owned and managed the Providence Steam Roller football team; the club hosted games at the Cycledrome and captured an NFL title in 1928 during a brief seven year membership in the league.
In 1926, Dooley's Reds joined the Boston Tigers, New Haven Eagles, Quebec Beavers, and Springfield Indians in the new Canadian-American Hockey League.15 This led to a few complex relationships – some would say "conflicts" – since Hubert Milot, who managed the Auditorium, also controlled the Beavers,16 while Dooley, his tenant and competitor, would serve as the president of the CAHL.17 Former Major League Baseball player Jean Dubuc was the Reds general manager for their first fourteen years of existence,18 while juggling a series of other jobs; Dubuc coached the Brown University baseball and hockey teams from 1927 through 1929,19 and later worked as a coach and scout for the Detroit Tigers.20 The Reds had affiliations with many NHL teams over the next five decades, including the Montreal Canadiens from 1928-1933 and two stints as a Boston Bruins farm team during the 1930's and again in the late 1950's and early 1960's.21
In 1929, Paul De Wolfe, a "Brown trustee and member of the Auditorium Board of Governors," offered Lou Pieri the job as General Manager, which set the course of the arena's future.22 Louis Arthur Raymond Pieri was born in Franklin, Massachusetts on February 23, 1897, and graduated from Franklin High School, where he met his future wife Mildred Arnold.23 He was named captain of the basketball team at Dean Academy24 before moving to Providence25 and enrolling at Brown University. Pieri's interest in sports and his organizational ability made an immediate impact at the institution; in 1918, Pieri re-constituted the basketball team, which had been disbanded six years earlier, and served as coach that season and captain for two seasons.26 Pieri graduated in 1920 with Masters of Science and Bachelor of Philosophy degrees, and earned a $750 grant from E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company to stay at the University and pursue his doctorate in Chemistry.
However, the pull of sports was too strong. Pieri left Brown and became a science teacher and coach at Rutgers Prep for two years, then spent five years in a similar role at Central Falls (Rhode Island) High School.28 He continued to show a talent for promotion. As early as 1921, Pieri had organized a Providence Steam Roller semipro basketball team that played against other local squads for several years.29 Pieri later manned one of the ticket-taking stations at the Auditorium on its opening night,30 and in 1928, while at Central Falls, Pieri formed the Rhode Island Interscholastic Athletic Conference by linking the school with thirteen other districts which had been excluded from the decade-old Rhode Island Interscholastic Athletic League.
As General Manager of the Auditorium, Pieri was responsible for booking events, and filled nights when the Reds were absent with boxing, wrestling, hypnotists - anything that would draw a crowd. The Reds became frequent winners, capturing three CAHL titles between 1930 and 1934 and an AHL Calder Cup in 1938.32 By then, Judge Dooley was busy with his newest venture, horse racing at the Narragansett Race Track in East Providence.33 In October 1939, the Auditorium purchased the Reds from Dooley and Dubuc – with an assist from concessions magnate Louis Jacobs, who financed part of the deal in exchange for a sixty year contract to provide Auditorium patrons with peanuts, popcorn, and soda.34 The Reds won yet another championship that season, and soon Pieri took over ownership of the Auditorium and the Reds.
Pieri's promotion skills allowed him to rise to a prominent role among his fellow arena owners and managers in the new Arena Managers Association of America. Together with colleagues Walter Brown (manager of the Boston Garden) and John H. Harris, Pieri was a founder of the Ice Capades which debuted in the fall of 1940.35 The AMAA included thirty arenas from coast-to-coast and nearby Canada, booking major acts such as Bob Hope, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, and a series of "Biggest Show of <insert year here>" events, including the 1951 version with Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughn, and other incarnations headlined by Rock 'n Roll icons like Bill Haley and the Comets.36 Pieri's connections improved the quality of events that were held in the 5000+ seat Auditorium, despite its frequently ineffective heating system and lack of air conditioning.37 The Ice Capades and Ice Follies, and derivatives such as the Water Follies made regular visits, along with Wild West shows including "Gene Autry's Flying A Ranch Stampede," and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
College sports also proved popular, in an era where on-campus facilities were primitive or non-existent. The Providence College basketball team played a game or two a year at the Auditorium from 1932 through 1954, before the new Alumni Hall opened for the 1955-56 season. The college's hockey team played seven games in the Auditorium in 1927 before disbanding, and then played all of their home games there from 1952 to 1972. Pieri also maintained close ties to Brown University, regularly hosting Alumni events at his home in Pawtucket39 and at his summer place on Lake Damariscotta in Jefferson, Maine.40 When the university's hockey team restarted play in 1947, Pieri offered the squad the use of the Auditorium.
In 1946, several members of the AMAA formed a pro basketball league with a familiar-sounding name: the Basketball Association of America. Lou Pieri borrowed the familiar "Steam Roller" moniker for his club, christening them as the "Providence Steamrollers." Pieri planned to adopt the fast break style popularized by Coach Frank Keaney at Rhode Island State, and hired five of his former players (Ernie Calverley, Armand Cure, George Mearns, Earl Shannon, and Bob Shea) but was unsuccessful in his quest to land Keaney, settling for Pawtucket High School coach Robert Morris.42 For three seasons, the Steamrollers struggled on the court, and Pieri lost as much as $200,000 before folding the team as part of the BAA-NBL merger in 1949 which created the modern NBA. Walter Brown then negotiated an agreement with Pieri for the two men to buy the Boston Celtics from the Boston Garden; Pieri secured a few Celtics games a year in Providence as part of the deal.Pieri remained committed to the success of the Reds and the Auditorium. Even when he flirted with putting the Reds on the market during lean years, he did so on the condition that a local owner or partner could be found,43 even when his focus began to shift during the 1960's towards his burgeoning blueberry empire in Maine. Pieri's love of food and cooking was well-documented, particularly by his waistline, and, after selling his stakes of the Ice Capades in 196344 and the Celtics in 1965,45 his blueberry farm became the fifth largest producer in the state.46 But the Auditorium was growing old and losing its charm. After Pieri's death following a heart attack in June 1967, the Reds and the Auditorium were sold to George Sage. Attendance stayed solid, but the arrival of the new downtown Providence Civic Center in 1972, with its 11,000+ seat capacity and modern amenities, rendered the Auditorium obsolete. Various attempts were made to keep the building alive, including subdividing the structure into two levels, placing tennis courts where the hockey rink had once been. Later, a club named "Main Event" was opened in part of the building, and hosted smaller concerts, including U2's fifth show in the United States on December 12, 1980.47 In 1989, the Auditorium was demolished and a parking lot now occupies the site, with only a plaque as a visible reminder of the decades of entertainment that took place there.