The International Amphitheatre--Host to the World
By Joseph Feldman
The following account of the history of the International Amphitheatre is from a parking lot attendant, turned publisher, with 50 years of experience parking cars at the International Amphitheatre.
Originally the ``Amp'' was rebuilt 65 years ago after the Stock Yards fire, to house the International Livestock & Exposition Show. At that time the Union Stock Yards & Transit Co. property, where the ``Amp'' was built, was the largest meat distribution center in the world. Such household names as Swift and Armour had a major presence in the stockyards. Chicago Blackhawk star Bobby Hull, who was also a cattle rancher, exhibited his prize cattle at the Stock Show.
In a cooperation between the Valentine Boys Club and the stockyards, many of the kids from the immediate neighborhood raised steers and paraded them around the livestock arena.
The International Livestock Show was so successful that other major trade shows started coming to the City of Chicago. Shows like the Restaurant Show, the Housewares Show, and Heavy Construction Equipment Shows brought hundreds of thousands of people to Chicago where they spent millions and millions of dollars.
This track record and the realization of a need for a bigger, more modern convention center led to the building of McCormick Place and the start of the first demise of the ``Amp.''
Then in the mid 1960s, McCormick Place burnt down and the ``Amp'' stepped in to fill a major time gap for keeping trade shows and conventions in Chicago. If that gap had not been filled many of these conventions probably would have been forced to sign long term contracts at other venues in other major cities in the country, possibly lost forever to the city of Chicago.
After McCormick Place was rebuilt the ``Amp's'' major shows were dominated by rock groups and heavy metal concerts. Then came the building of the Rosemont Horizon and the start of the second demise of the ``Amp.''
However, during construction of the Horizon, its roof collapsed and delayed its opening for some time. The ``Amp'' got a new lease on life and continued booking events.
After the Rosemont Horizon finally opened, the ``Amp'' was closed for a few years. It was bought at auction by speculators who were not very successful in booking events, and the ``Amp'' closed again in the early 1990s.
Then the bankruptcy court intervened and with the cooperation of the City of Chicago, the ``Amp'' was sold to its present owners. The new owners tried competing with the other venues for major events, but because of the entertainment tax structure in Chicago, were not successful in attracting shows from the suburban arenas, of which there are now several.
The new owners started developing their own shows and concerts, many of which were extremely successful. A few of these shows drew large sell-out crowds which caused some hard feelings with a few of the surrounding neighbors, thus starting the third and final demise of the International Amphitheatre.
In early 1999 the City of Chicago bought the ``Amp'' and will take possession of the property in June. Ironically after the city bought the ``Amp'' the city council realized that Chicago's Entertainment Tax was not conducive to bringing entertainment to Chicago, and reduced the entertainment tax. If that tax had been reduced a few years ago, the ``Amp'' probably would have been successful in bringing a variety of events to the city.
Over the years the ``Amp'' has had thousands of entertaining events. There are very few Chicagoans and suburban residents who have not attended one or more of these events which included circuses, car shows, boat shows, sport shows, flower shows, ice shows, motorcycle shows, and custom car shows, to name a few.
Top notch entertainers who have performed in the Amphitheatre include Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Liberace, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Tom Jones, Evel Knievel and Steve Martin. Rock stars, blues singers, folk singers, and rap performers have entertained generations of Chicagoans. Mexican singing star Selina gave her last major performance at the ``Amp'' a few days before she was murdered.
Sporting events included professional wrestling, professional boxing, professional rodeos, roller derbies, dog shows and horse shows.
The World Hockey Organization, which later merged with the National Hockey League, got its start at the ``Amp'' when the Chicago Cougars played to a sell-out crowd coming to see ex-Blackhawk star Bobby Hull play against them in the new league.
Modern professional basketball in Chicago played its first game at the ``Amp'' and later moved to the Chicago Stadium. Every Chicagoan knows the fame and fortune brought to the city by the Bulls and Michael Jordan.
The Bulls were so successful that a new arena, the United Center, was built.
Many religious, social and cultural leaders and organizations held events at the ``Amp'' including the Boy Scout Jambories, Operation Push & Black Expo, American Indian Pow Wows, Elijah Muhammed, Louis Farrakhan, Pro Life rallies, Union rallies, Political Fundraisers, and Israel Bond rallies. Also numerous religious evangelists took their messages to the Amphitheatre stage. Ceremonies for swearing in new citizens were also held in the building.
Locally, St. Gabriels Catholic Church, the parish in which the ``Amp'' is located, celebrated its 75th anniversary with a dinner dance that filled the ``Amp.'' City high school basketball championship games were played there. De La Salle Institute held many of its graduation ceremonies in the main arena. The State of Illinois gave nursing exams in the complex, and many fundraisers for local causes were held in the huge building.
On the national scene, five political conventions headed by both major parties and some independent third party rallies were held in the ``Amp.''
Supporters of General Douglas MacArthur tried unsuccessfully to get him nominated for president there.
American political leaders including both Stevensons, Eisenhower, Nixon, Dirksen, the Kennedys, Johnson, George Wallace, Taft and Hubert Humphrey attended political conventions and rallies at the ``Amp.''
At the request of Chicago's most famous Mayor, Richard J. Daley, the 1968 Democratic Political Convention was held in the huge arena without incident in the surrounding community. Canaryville residents paraded around the ``Amp'' carrying ``We Love Daley'' signs when the national media began blasting the city and its mayor for riots that occurred on Michigan Ave. by protestors of the Viet Nam War.
With the ``Amp's'' demise there is no mid-size arena in the city to accommodate crowds between 5 and 10 thousand people. A person could conclude that today, without the International Amphitheatre's contribution to Chicago's convention and tourism industry, there might not be a McCormick Place, a Rosemont Horizon, or a United Center.
Over the years the ``Amp'' and its surrounding parking lots have provided hundreds of part time and full time jobs for neighborhood residents, from concession stand workers, to Andy Frain ushers, to maintenance employees, and to parking lot attendants like me.
Personally I have been priviledged to work with people who went on to become a doctor; a lawyer; bank owners, some of whom are presently starting a Swiss bank; school teachers; stockbrokers; engineers; entrepreneuers; and many very independent and proud free thinkers, and yes, great family people who were
helped in their lives by the jobs provided at the ``Amp.''
My family and I will always hold close in our hearts the people we worked with, laughed with and became friends with during my 50 years of involvement.
It's sad to think the memories and history of the Chicago International Amphitheatre will be replaced by warehouses and trucks. It's hard to understand how that's called progress.
For my own part, the ``Amp'' has enabled me and my family to give to and sponsor the many churches, schools, Little Leagues, Pony Leagues, Volleyball Leagues, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Boyce Park tournaments and its annual Halloween parties, senior citizens groups, and myriad local charitable and political causes and fundraisers. I will be forever grateful to God for giving me these 50 years.
Lastly, in reading about the final transition of the International Amphitheatre, I have to laugh at some of the editorials and publications that did not even spell its name correctly.
Trivia, trivia, not so trivial to me.
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