A sad end to a proud edifice: The Spectrum

The wrecking ball brings finality to the long process of laying the storied Spectrum to rest. For more than a year, Philadelphians honored the Spectrum with last concerts and last games, last dances and last wakes.

Bill Lyon

is the author of Deadlines and Overtimes: Collected Writings on Sports and Life

It weighs four tons and it is utterly without mercy.

It knows precisely where to hit to hurt the most, where to inflict the most damage.

So each time one of those left hooks from the wrecking ball slams home, the building shudders and buckles and begins to crumble. At 43, it is defenseless.

And thus, two days before Thanksgiving, before an audience of the melancholy and the mourning, there began the process of bringing down the arena known as the Spectrum. Sometime in the chill of coming winter, it will be reduced to rubble, another piece of history punched into dust and oblivion.

Such is the way of what we like to call progress: Move over, heads up, coming through. New and improved replacing old and no longer useful.

America's Showplace. A chesty claim, to be sure. But that was the Spectrum. America's showplace. It said so, right there in bright lights.

Circus bears danced there. Dr. J walked on air there. Frank Sinatra crooned there. The Ice Capades swirled and whirled there (and wasn't that a bit of inspired genius, putting wood over ice and thus creating a venue for hockey in the afternoon and baskets in the evening?) Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

They played soccer there. And indoor football, too. They played tennis there. And they rode bulls there, too. They played lacrosse there. And they boxed there, too. And the Flyers punched out the Red Army there. And the Grateful Dead played 53 - count 'em, 53 - concerts there. Imagine that, all that, under one roof. What a concept. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

But now, ah, now, as is the way of things, America's Showplace is no more, shoved aside for newer, glitzier.

And once again that sweeping swatch of acreage in South Philadelphia, the city's playpen for going on a century now, will get some altering.

From the bones of the Spectrum will arise Philly Live, which is billed as a new retail, restaurant, and entertainment venue, to be located cheek by jowl next to our current sporting pleasure palaces - Lincoln Financial Field, Citizens Bank Park, and Wells Fargo Center. It is a handsome, compact, efficient array, the envy of other cities. For all that our teams may have done wrong over the years, this, this complex, they got exactly right. For now, to be able to see the Eagles, the Phillies, the Flyers, and the 76ers you need do nothing more than simply walk across the street.

What we do know for sure is that it will not last. The wrecking ball will come 'round again, 40, 50, 60 years from now, and what we find so prideful now will, one day, be found somehow lacking. The way of things . . .

In the beginning there was Municipal Stadium, later to be renamed JFK. At the height of what was christened the Golden Age of Sports, in 1926, in a savage rainstorm, 120,557 assembled there to watch Gentleman Gene Tunney separate the wolfish Jack Dempsey from the heavyweight championship of the world.

Forty-two Army-Navy football games were played there . . . 42 Saturday gloamings filled with the haunting echoes of cannon fire, brother against brother, but only until the final snap . . . and then, then they would become a band of brothers, and be off to distant lands, to be placed squarely in harm's way.

In 1992, JFK came tumbling down, a parking lot and the Center - now working on its fourth name - ascending from those ashes.

And then in the '70s there came Veterans Stadium. The Vet. It was considered the model of its time. Imagine, a stadium in which you could play both football and baseball. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

This was made possible by carpeting. Artificial turf was all the rage. God blew it, we generally agreed, when He invented grass.

Alas, the carpet was laid over a surface that was roughly the equivalent of the interstate. The Vet became a career killer. Opponents regarded it as sports' version of the Black Hole of Calcutta. That gave the home team a significant psychological advantage, but unfortunately, the trade-off was booming business for orthopedic surgeons.

The Vet went down after just 33 years. There weren't many mourners.

The sheen has not yet worn off the Linc and the Bank. They glisten like the morning dew, and their teams strut and preen and, most of the time, win.

But, one day, their day will come, too.

Meanwhile, we finally arrive at the end of the Long Goodbye. The Spectrum is gone. No, really. It took more than a year, a year of last concerts and last games, last dances and last wakes, but last week the deed was done at last.

But before the wrecking ball wheeled into position, there was one final foray. The carcass of the Spectrum was made available to the scavengers and the souvenir hunters and the memorabilia seekers.

If you can carry it, you can keep it was the enticing invitation. And they came in droves.

Ike Richman, the spokesman for Comcast-Spectator, dubbed it: "Wing Bowl meets Black Friday."

Doors opened at 9 a.m., and the first to arrive hit the parking lot at 11:30. The night before. Two longtime Flyers zealots who live in Toronto drove eight hours nonstop overnight. What wasn't bolted down wasn't . . . no, wait, the inventive found a way around bolts and rivets. One man walked out with a nachos dispenser. ("Now I gotta find cheese," he said.)

A thousand showed up, and what struck Richman was their deportment.

"They were really well-behaved," he said. "It was like they were treating the building with respect. They wanted it to end with respect. They all had their own special memories."

Yes, yes, they did, and those memories are forever beyond the reach of any wrecking ball.


E-mail Bill Lyon at lyon1964@comcast.net.