The Arena: A sports time capsule for Philadelphia | Frank's Place

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Both Muhammad Ali and Wilt Chamberlain competed in the Philadelphia Arena.

Just before the clattering train dipped and disappeared into the dark  tunnel near 46th Street, the Market Street El passed the most noteworthy stretch of the trip from 69th Street Terminal to Center City.

Sometimes on fall afternoons, if you peered through the grimy windows, you’d see West Catholic’s football team, city champions in 1962 and 1965, practicing behind that school. Then, outside Channel 6’s studio, you might spot the line of American Bandstand’s dancing, teenage stars.

To a sports-crazed kid, though, the real attraction was the Philadelphia Arena. The marquee attached to that tired and neglected facility at 4530 Market St. always touted some fascinating but quirky event — a wrestling card, a rodeo, a minor-league hockey game, a Gypsy Joe Harris fight.

All these years later, West Catholic’s original building has been razed though never forgotten. And outside WFIL-TV’s former home, now a West Philadelphia nonprofit’s headquarters, a historical marker notes  Bandstand’s “impact on the music, dance and lifestyles of American teenagers.”

No such commemoration exists for its onetime neighbor, the Arena.

The story of any urban sports facility is a time capsule. What took place inside those buildings reflects as well as any institution their cities and the eras they served. Their roll-call of performers reveals the music we listened to, the pastimes we pursued, the sports we followed most avidly. How we traveled there, what prices we paid, the food we ate, all are telling historical artifacts.

Better than any other facility, the Arena displayed just how idiosyncratic, parochial, and working-class Philadelphia was. We preferred public transportation to cars, steamed hot dogs to sushi. Sure, we liked baseball and football, but a lot of us were crazy about roller derby and roughhouse hockey, boxing and wrestling, ice shows and religious revivals. And, in the contentious days leading to our entry, many Philadelphians were dead-set on avoiding World War II.

That, and so much more, is what the old building that sat below the El station at 46th and Market told us about Philadelphia, 1920-83.

Built by a Temple-educated contractor for $250,000 in 1920 – the Wells Fargo Center refurbishing project announced last week will cost 1,000 times that – the Ice Palace, soon renamed the Philadelphia Arena, operated in the shadows of the Palestra, Convention Hall, the Spectrum.

But the Philadelphia Warriors won two championships while tenants. Its regular boxing cards were topped by Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Robinson, Bob Montgomery, Joey Giardello, Willie Pep, and Harris. Once, Roy Rogers sang there during a rodeo cowgirl’s funeral. Muhammad Ali wrestled – yes, wrestled — Gorilla Monsoon there in 1976. In 1957, before his Arena concert, Elvis Presley was quizzed by female  high school reporters. It hosted thousands of hockey games, plus ice shows, sportswriters banquets, even an incendiary speech by Charles A. Lindbergh.

Originally, for 75 cents at night, the Ice Palace’s 222-by-101-foot surface was open to the public. Its seating capacity over the years fluctuated between 5,500 and 9,000. Its most noteworthy — perhaps its only — amenity was its proximity to the El.

The first Arena event was no blockbuster, a Valentine’s Day 1920 Yale-Princeton hockey game. Distant Yale, without ice of its own, was one of three college ice teams – with Penn and Princeton – to play its 1920-21 home schedule there.

College hockey and open skating couldn’t pay the bills, and by spring boxing cards were scheduled. Fighters such as Tommy Loughran, Mickey Walker, and Benny Leonard performed there in the Arena’s first decade.

It changed hands often, beginning in 1925 when movie-theater magnate Jules Mastbaum bought it and renamed it the Arena. In 1930, the one and only season of the NHL’s Philadelphia Quakers played out there. Seven minor-league hockey teams would call the building home.

The building’s most controversial moment came on May 29, 1941. That steamy night, Lindbergh addressed a rabid America First Committee gathering. More than 9,000 squeezed inside. Another 6,000 gathered outside to listen on loudspeakers.  They cheered themselves hoarse, the Inquirer reported, when the famed aviator accused President Franklin D. Roosevelt of advocating for “world domination by America.”

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Philadelphia Arena

On a Friday the 13th in 1946, after riding a bucking bronco in the Roy Rogers Rodeo, Jane Anne Greeley collapsed and died. Three days later, her funeral was conducted there. Rogers crooned “Roundup in the Sky” as Greeley’s casket, accompanied by a rose-draped stallion, was carried away.

Pete Tyrell, the wily publicist who ran it from 1934 to 1958, never put much money into the Arena. It was drafty and dank. The concessions and sight lines were awful. But he kept it busy.

In 1946 Tyrell was an original investor in the Philadelphia Warriors, a new basketball team in a new league that soon became the NBA.  The Warriors would be champions in the Basketball Association of America’s first season, clinching the title at a sold-out Arena on April 22, 1947. Though they eventually moved to Convention Hall, the Warriors continued to schedule several Arena games annually, including  their next championship season, 1954.

The Spectrum’s 1967 opening doomed the Arena. Basketball, hockey, and ice shows departed, leaving roller derby, wrestling, and boxing, including cards headlined by Harris, a flamboyant welterweight from North Philly, to sustain it.

A metaphor for its desperation occurred on June 2, 1976. Ali, preparing for one of his career’s low points – a wrestling match with Japan’s Antonio Anoki – jumped into the Arena’s ring for an unscheduled scrap with the 400-pound Monsoon. The giant wrestler gently body-slammed the bare-chested boxer in what, even for that sport’s low standards, was a subpar act

Auctioned in 1977, the building was renamed for Martin Luther King. A Continental Basketball Association team, the Philadelphia Kings, briefly played there in 1980.

In August 1983, a suspicious fire ravaged the abandoned Arena. It was leveled not long afterward. And  like the El train that still dips into that tunnel after it passes the site, its memories are disappearing into the blackness of the past.