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The Capital Centre assumed an Abe Vigoda existence years ago—everybody assumed it was already dead. Now, it really is about to die.
“You going to watch it get blown up?” John Heyn asks me. He’s a local filmmaker who, with partner Jeff Krulik, made Heavy Metal Parking Lot, the fab 1986 documentary that turned the scene at the Capital Centre parking lot before a Judas Priest concert into a metaphor for something big and scary and funny and American. I learned only by chance that the demolition of the arena, a project that has been buzzed about for years, was actually well underway. I parked in the Cap Centre lot for the Skins/Colts game—Dan Snyder has for several years leased the property and charges $25 per car on game days—and saw some of its guts smashed and twisted and piled high in the entrances all around the building’s perimeter. The Web site of the Cordish Company, the Baltimore firm overseeing the project, says an $85 million retail establishment called Boulevard at Capital Center (not “Centre”) will open on the grounds next fall.
I called Heyn and Krulik to make sure they were aware that their movie’s set was being torn down to make way for a shopping mall with a Linens ‘n Things and Pier 1 Imports. They were. I also wondered if they were as surprised as I was that the demolition of a building where so many former suburban dirtballs misspent so much of our youth (I saw Jethro Tull at the Capital Centre five times. Enough said) was taking place almost unnoticed. They were.
“That’s a pretty important place for me, obviously, and I’ve always tried to follow the progress of what was going on with the Capital Centre. But the demolition started a few weeks ago without me even knowing about it,” says Heyn, who visited the site last week after hearing the news. “To see it being gutted, and to see these giant machines grinding up the asphalt and pulverizing the dirt there, really saddened me. And I was really surprised at how quiet the whole thing was, as far as a news story. No matter what you thought of the structure—and I know a lot of people thought it was a white elephant even back in the day—going to the Capital Centre was a formative event, a rite of passage, for everybody who grew up in this area.”
Heyn and Krulik want to make sure the demolition doesn’t go totally unnoticed. Heyn brought a camera with him to the Cap Centre last week and intends to use footage of the destruction as a coda to the DVD version of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, due out next year. Their storyboard has the DVD ending with a scene of the arena getting blown up. Though no schedule has been announced, they’ve heard that an explosive implosion of whatever’s left will take place next month.
The demolition of arenas or stadiums in other towns is usually accompanied by some sort of ceremony or public outpouring of grief, where grown-up fans and former stars can relive whatever heroic deeds they witnessed or performed. That’s what happened, for example, when the wrecking ball visited Memorial Stadium and Boston Garden.
There is, however, a tradition among Washingtonians of paying little or no respect to this sort of building. There’s nothing at Georgia Avenue north of Florida Avenue, where Howard University Hospital is now, to let folks know that Griffith Stadium—home of Walter Johnson’s Senators, Josh Gibson’s Homestead Grays, and Sammy Baugh’s Redskins, and a site where Joe Louis fought—once stood there. And somewhere along the line, the Washington Coliseum, a structure not far from Union Station where Red Auerbach coached Washington’s first NBA team and the Beatles played their first U.S. concert in 1964, was converted into a garbage dump.
And now the Capital Centre is dying a lonely death.
The Building That Looks Like a Pringle opened in December 1973, just off the Beltway in an area of Prince George’s County that was then called Largo, but at some point morphed into Landover. Nobody ever confused the arena with the Boston Garden, but it had its moments.
Some trivia: It was the first arena with luxury suites, as well as the first to have an in-house, closed-circuit television system, dubbed the Telscreen, and computer ticketing. Its first event was an NBA game in which the Capital Bullets (a name used only during the franchise’s first season after the move from Baltimore) defeated the Seattle SuperSonics, on Dec. 2, 1973. The first concert came a few nights later, with the first band being Lynyrd Skynyrd, at the time an unknown Florida combo serving as the opening act on the Who’s “Quadrophenia” tour. Nils Lofgren, long before becoming a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, wrote and sang the Bullets theme song, “Bullets Fever,” which debuted during the 1977-1978 season, the year that ended with the franchise’s only championship. President Reagan spoke before a gathering of Holocaust survivors in 1983 that drew about 20,000 people. Moses Malone played there as a high-school kid, just before going pro. So did Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Ralph Sampson. Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe played there just before retirement. Allen Iverson played college ball there when it was called USAir Arena.
There were plenty of lowlights, too. In the Washington Capitals’ first season, 1974-1975, the team suffered through by far the worst season in NHL history, with records for fewest points, fewest wins, and lowest winning percentage that may never be broken. Muhammad Ali fought 30 lackluster rounds in the building, outpointing Jimmy Young in April 1976 and Alfredo Evangelista in May 1977. (Reports in the Washington Post said that only 8,327 tickets were sold for the Evangelista fight, even with Roberto Duran on the undercard, and 3,127 of those were bought by Ali.) Elvis Presley also worked the room twice, to poor notices. (The King’s first Cap Centre gig, in June 1976, inspired this from Washington Star critic Charlie McCollum: “The lean, mean Elvis is long gone and, in his place, is a William Conrad figure wearing a Sonny Bono wig. Instead of the lithe movements of a panther, this Elvis moved with the grace of a pregnant water buffalo.”)
Jordan and his Bulls beat the Wizards in the last NBA game there in 1997. Afterward, in the locker room, even the hometown players slammed it. “Tear it down,” Wizards forward Tracy Murray said in his final postgame interview at the Capital Centre. “It’s been a hex on me. Tear it down.” Some patrons, however, felt different from Murray, whose career indicates that he’s never gotten rid of the Cap Centre hex. The Most Infamous Fan in the arena’s history, Robin Ficker, wishes the downtown MCI Center had never been built. Ficker had season tickets for the Bullets right behind the visitors’ bench for the team’s last decade at the Cap Centre, and his nonstop heckling often led to shouting matches with visiting players. Charles Barkley was his top nemesis.
“Chuckie Barkley wouldn’t just sit there and take it from me, like most players I [yelled at],” Ficker says. “We went chin to chin a lot. Once I said, ‘Chuckie, before I vote for you for governor of Alabama, I need to know your views on health care, NAFTA, and the economy!’ And he yells back, ‘I’ve got a view on the death penalty: They should use it on you!’”
Ficker probably won’t be going to the blowup. “There hasn’t been any news about it being razed, and that’s probably a good thing,” he says. “It’s like the way in the obituary section they usually use pictures when the people were young. We’ll remember not how the Capital Centre died, but how it lived—the NBA championship, the Ali fights, all its grandest moments.”
That’s how Abe Pollin, the Man Who Built the Building That Looks Like a Pringle, says he’ll remember it.
Pollin, who attributes the low-key nature of his old haunt’s demise to the success of its replacement, the MCI Center, and the desire of Landover residents to see a top-flight shopping center built in the neighborhood, says he’s not dwelling on the demolition, either.
“I’ve got this new building to run,” he says.
I put Heyn’s question to Abe Pollin: Are you going to watch the Cap Centre get blown up?
“Oh, I don’t know. Probably. But I’ve got mixed feelings about seeing it all come down,” he says. “I spent a good portion of my life in that building.”—Dave McKenna