As the story goes, then-Gov. John McKeithen was uncharacteristically silent while he was considering businessman and sports visionary Dave Dixon’s proposal for a domed stadium in New Orleans.
Then suddenly, McKeithen brought his fist down on his desk and thundered, “My God. That would be the greatest building in the history of mankind!
“We’ll build that sucker!”
And so they did, although it would take a decade for the dream to come to fruition.
Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the day in 1975 when the Superdome opened its doors, greeting the public attending an open house with message boards flashing “Welcome to the Future.”
And to this day, the facility continues to evoke responses like McKeithen’s, even from someone who probably knows the place inside and out better than anyone else.
“I remember the first time I walked in there. I went out on the floor, looked up and went, ‘Wow,’ ” said Brian Brocato, the Dome’s director of operations and engineering and its last remaining original employee. “And it still gives me a tingle today.
“It’s part of me, it’s part of New Orleans and it’s part of Louisiana.”
That’s because in a city where preservationists fight tooth and nail to retain the architecture of the past, a structure that looks like a giant flying saucer plopped down on Poydras Street has become our most iconic image.
“There’s nothing in the world that looks like the Superdome,” said Bill Curl, who was the stadium’s spokesman from 1977 to 2010. “It should be a National Historic Landmark.”
Many would argue that the Superdome as the symbol of the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina should qualify for special status on that basis alone.
In the morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, the storm ripped away part of the building’s roof, flooding the interior and adding to the misery of the 30,000 people who had taken refuge in and around the facility, even though it never was intended to be used for that purpose.
If there was an indelible image for the area’s devastation, that was it.
But little more than a year later, on Sept. 25, 2006, seemingly against the odds, the Dome reopened. Like many homes — and lives — the building’s recovery wasn’t complete.
But at least it was “football ready.”
And when Steve Gleason’s blocked punt — now immortalized by a statue on the building’s plaza — sparked the Saints to victory against the Atlanta Falcons, it released feelings that still reverberate today.
“If you were a season ticket holder, you were probably seeing the folks who were your football neighbors for the first time since the storm,” Curl said. “So there was a lot of hugging and exchanging of stories about what you’d been through.
“Then the game starts, and there’s this uplifting event right off the bat. There was ultimate joy in that building that night that was an incredible thing to see.”
The catharsis of that evening created a local emotional tie to the Superdome that had never existed before.
‘Smelled like a new car’
In the early days, it was more wonder and discovery, for the eyes, ears and even the nose.
“I was 12 when it opened, and I remember running up and down the ramps and for some reason smelling the carpets,” said Jay Cicero, president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation. “It was amazing.”
Added Doug Williams, who was a sophomore quarterback at Grambling when the Tigers played Alcorn State in the first college game in the Dome, “It was brand-spanking-new, and it smelled like a new car.
“We were all a bunch of country boys, and most of us had played in cow pastures in high school. At Grambling, coach (Eddie) Robinson had us playing in some big stadiums, but he loved the Superdome.”
Later that season, Grambling and Southern would stage the Bayou Classic in the Superdome for the first time. It remains an annual staple in the stadium.
“One thing that made the Superdome perfect for the Classic was that back then, the ladies made it a fashion event,” said Williams, who later had two stints as coach at his alma mater after his NFL career. “Playing indoors, you didn’t have to worry about the weather.”
Playing in a building where there was no difference between night and day could cause confusion, though.
Archie Manning, the Saints quarterback during that inaugural season in the Dome, recalled how punt returner Bivian Lee had problems with the lights in the first preseason game, a 13-7 loss to Houston.
Lee told Manning the regular season would be different. “We’d be playing at noon then,” Archie said with a laugh.
Memories like that help make the Dome special.
Indeed, it would be hard to find a local resident who has never been inside the Dome.
Maybe it was for a Saints game. There have been 370 of them — and, remarkably, the locals are dead even in the building at 185-185.
Or maybe it was for Endymion. Or a Sugar Bowl. Or the papal visit. Or the “No mas” Leonard-Duran fight. Or the Essence Festival. Or a high school game. Or maybe even a high school prom.
They still have those in the ballroom-sized quadrants that have been converted into club lounges.
Or maybe one of the hundreds of other events over the past four decades, some successful, some not.
The Rolling Stones drew more than 80,000 fans to a 1981 concert. But a closed-circuit fight that also was being broadcast on HBO attracted just 83 paying customers. That’s believed to be the all-time low turnout for a Dome event.
While the flexibility of the Dome is what has made all of those concerts, boat shows, flower shows, trade shows and conventions possible, major sports events are what it does better than just about anyplace else.
Until last season’s College Football Playoff championship game at AT&T Stadium in suburban Dallas, no other facility had been the site of the Super Bowl, the Final Four and college football’s title game.
There have been 18 of those events in the Superdome. “Jerry World” has hosted one of each, so it’s got a lot of catching up to do.
And even with newer stadiums under construction, such as the ones in Minneapolis and Atlanta, it’s doubtful that any other facility — past, present or future — will see the variety of events that have taken place at 1500 Poydras St.
‘An iconic stadium’
“Being in the Superdome has been invaluable at allowing us to continue to compete at the highest level,” said Paul Hoolahan, chief executive officer of the Allstate Sugar Bowl, which was one of the first tenants of the Superdome and whose offices remain there today.
“The Sugar Bowl had its own history before the Dome was built,” he noted, “and New Orleans is a great destination city. But you can never overestimate the impact of having an iconic stadium.”
That goes for nonsports events, as well.
Dixon once predicted that a president would one day be nominated in the Superdome, and in 1988, George H.W. Bush was the recipient of just that honor.
“People tell me it’s the best convention they’ve ever been to and wonder why we don’t bid for it again,” said Roger Villere, of Metairie, who was a transportation volunteer in ’88 and is now the vice chairman of the Republican National Committee. “We’d love to go for it next time (in 2020).
“It’ll be a chance to put the spotlight on New Orleans again and show how nobody beats us at putting on world-class events.”
Some of those events were the products of early imagination.
Dixon came up with the notion of four simultaneous basketball games on the main floor with the officials using different-sounding whistles to avoid confusion.
That never happened. But in 1996, the AAU Junior Olympics used the entire floor space to stage martial arts, gymnastics, wrestling, trampoline and tumbling all at once — along with basketball.
And something doesn’t have to be conducted on a national stage to be memorable for its participants.
Otis Washington, the St. Augustine football coach whose team played Carver in the first high school game in the Dome, described his players as “awestruck” by the experience.
“Our kids couldn’t get over it,” he said. “And playing there now is still something special.
“Kids don’t talk about playing for the state championship. They say, ‘We’re going to the Dome.’ ”
Youngsters aren’t the only ones impressed.
Endymion founder Ed Muniz brought the superkrewe’s parade into the Superdome in the early 1980s, and the spectacular parade plus the extravaganza that follows is a one-of-a-kind event.
“Our new members tell us the highlight for them isn’t the ride down Canal but when they come into the Dome,” Muniz said. “And when people come from out of town for the first time, they tell us they get two shows — just being in one of the greatest buildings in the world and then the parade.
“The Superdome made Endymion special.”
Vision to reality
The Superdome also transformed its surroundings.
In the 1960s, Poydras was a two-lane street lined by railroad tracks and warehouses in the area where the stadium later was built and by aging, nondescript storefronts closer to the Mississippi River.
Today, Poydras has equaled or surpassed Canal Street as the city’s major commercial thoroughfare.
Imagine, then, if the original plans for the stadium had been carried out — a no-frills, 50,000-seat facility located either near the lakefront or in then-undeveloped New Orleans East.
Or if Memphis, Birmingham, Nashville or Jacksonville — all cities in pursuit of NFL teams in the 1960s along with New Orleans — had built a Superdome-like stadium first?
Atlanta eventually got a domed stadium, but 20 years after New Orleans, and it took landing the 1996 Olympics to make that happen.
The Astrodome was made insignificant by the larger Superdome, and Houston didn’t get a replacement for it until Reliant Stadium (now NRG Stadium) opened in 2002.
How different would the history of sports in America be without the Superdome?
How different would the history of New Orleans be?
“People love to come to New Orleans,” Muniz said. “And the Superdome gave a lot of them reasons to do that.
“You can’t give enough credit to Dixon, Gov. McKeithen, Buster Curtis and Arthur Davis (the stadium’s architects) for their vision.”
That vision included making the facility large enough and flexible enough that features that couldn’t have been conceived of four decades ago — such as the bunker suites — became possible by converting areas designed for storage.
“We never felt like anything was impossible,” said Danny Vincens, the Dome’s operations and engineering director from its opening until 2008. “When we had the premiere of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ we found a way to hang 125,000 pounds from the roof.
“When we had the Republican convention, we had to deal with several networks instead of one. But we managed to make reality out of everybody’s dream.”
Maybe that’s why 20 years ago, author Steve Blickstein wrote of the Superdome, “It is more than merely another stadium. It is the most usable ‘people place’ in the history of humankind.”
While that may be hyperbole of McKeithenesque proportions, Blickstein was on target when he added, “The Superdome’s flexibility has enabled it to become a home to the nation’s biggest sports and entertainment spectacles while maintaining a schedule of day-to-day events.”
And now, even though the smaller Smoothie King Center — in reality, the Superdome’s annex — hosts events once held in the big room, the Morial Convention Center hosts the big conventions, Tulane has moved its football games to an on-campus stadium and regular-season high school games are a rarity, the Superdome still is in use 80 to 100 days a year.
Memories, bad and good
“It’s really the living room of New Orleans,” said Doug Thornton, vice president of SMG, the Superdome’s management company. “That’s why we’re so comfortable with it. We all have memories of something that happened there.”
Especially the rebuilding and reopening.
“I reflect back all the time about what a miracle it was,” Thornton said. “To think that the roof was destroyed, that we had 4 feet of water in the arena — in my mind, I still don’t know how we did it.
“It took guts, commitment and willpower by all of the people involved. They wanted it to happen, and it did.”
Katrina obviously was the test of a lifetime.
But there were plenty of others.
Political squabbles delayed the start of construction by five years, to 1971, and cost overruns plus construction delays pushed the opening back a year.
Early problems with the quality of security, concessions and other services were a turnoff for visitors.
But the ill-prepared local, politically connected outfits were replaced with a first-of-its-kind private management system that is now the industry norm.
The Superdome also was the first stadium with midlevel suites. (The Astrodome’s skyboxes were just that — glorified cubicles at the top of the stadium.)
It was also the first with TV replay projection (the gondola) as well as the first with special meeting room spaces (the quadrants).
The 5,000-vehicle parking garage (plus an additional 2,000 spaces in the old New Orleans Center garage) meant that surface space, a rare commodity in the heart of a city, was saved.
That, in turn, meant the Smoothie King Center, which opened in 1998 as the New Orleans Arena, could be built next door to the Dome, giving the city a valuable synergy between its two major sports facilities.
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome (which it was renamed late in 2011) and the Smoothie King Center share personnel, portable equipment and even the same air-conditioning system, at a savings of several million dollars a year.
There have been less-serious challenges: the unfounded fear that seagulls would eat the polyurethane roof, a cinematic attack by killer bees (“The Savage Bees,” the “Sharknado” of insect movies) and the real-life lights going out early in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII.
“It was a nightmare then, and I still have nightmares about it,” Thornton said of the lighting failure. “It was not our fault, but it became our problem and we had to deal with it.
“If there’s a darkest moment in my career, that would be it.”
Worse than Katrina?
“Well, they were both bad,” Thornton said. “But to have it happen to you live and in color with 800 million people watching around the world, that’s rough.
“At least with Katrina, we knew the storm was coming and that we might have trouble. (The loss of lights) happened in the blink of an eye, but I am proud of the way we reacted and got the game back underway.”
And so, no matter what the challenge — real or fictional — the Superdome has endured.
Ben Levy, the stadium’s first executive director, would tell the story of how, during construction, when sunlight would come through the girders, he once looked to the heavens and shouted, “Go ahead, world! Top this!”
It hasn’t happened yet.
Just maybe Gov. McKeithen wasn’t so over-the-top after all.