Me during the broadcast of "Much On Demand" outside in front of the Muchmusic building in Toronto, ON on September 25, 2003.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Winnipeg's Arena Area (AA): The Magic Is Gone

Winnipeg Stadium. Polo Park. The Red River Ex. Chi-Chi's. McDonald's on St. James Street. And the grande dame of all, the Winnipeg Arena.

The demolition of Canad Inns Stadium, the successor moniker of Winnipeg Stadium, is now finished. That now completes the long, drawn-out end to the wonderful era people my age have been fortunate to live through (and be the right age for), the era when this unofficial entertainment conglomerate comprising the two largest Winnipeg music venues, combined with the best shopping and fast-food Winnipeg has to offer, added to the magic and excitement that your favorite world-class music acts visiting Winnipeg, brings.

This conglomerate never had an official name, did it? At least a name for Winnipeg Arena and Winnipeg Stadium together. Everything in this area was just described as being "around the arena." I ponder whether, had everything stayed, someone would have finally come up with, like Black Friday and the SHED, a formal or informal moniker for this heavenly area. So for this blog post, we'll just refer to it as "The Arena Area (AA)."

What made this AA so special? Some things that were obvious, some not so obvious.

Obviously, the fact Winnipeg Arena and Winnipeg Stadium, the two biggest places in town to attend concerts by music's hottest stars, were across the street from each other was the most obvious factor. (And I'm not going to use the "close proximity" term because that sounds like they were 2 blocks from each other; No, they were friggin' ACROSS THE STREET from each other.)

Winnipeg Arena had such a comfortable, down-home quality to it. It was like an old shoe that fits just right. You could go anywhere, downstairs or upstairs. During AWA wrestling cards, you could go downstairs and see the barricaded area that contained the hallway the wrestlers would walk through in the centre of the building to get to the arena bowl. You could peer through the cracks and maybe see the wrestlers! Maybe you could hear them. One time, there were too many people crowded around "the cracks" but I could hear Mad Dog Vachon's voice from the barricade's other side loud and clear from a few feet away from that barricade. When you are in the concession area, and you walked around to the portion that was behind the stage, there were no curtains or security guards like MTS Centre today has: You could walk right into the section and peer at the gear being stored behind the stage. Who knows, maybe you'd see one of the band members talking to a crew member if you were lucky! And up to probably well into the '80s, there was only ONE entry point into the floor area (split into two, actually - one at the left, one at the right). The ticket checker couldn't catch everybody, so if you maneuvered right and picked your spot when he was busy looking at the ticket of someone who took too much time, you could sneak through, and that was it! YOU MADE IT INTO THE ENTIRE FLOOR AREA! There were no ticket checkers stationed all over the floor area back then, checking your ticket five times as you made your way up to your third-row seat, should that be your legitimate seat. I did this for Van Halen's 1984 tour when my ticket was for an upper deck seat. Instead of sitting way up there, I was smooshed and squeezed in like sardines up front with a thousand other people in the first-few-rows area with my feet kind of resting on chairs when they could. Who cares? I WAS RIGHT UP THERE, JUST FEET AWAY FROM THE MIGHTY VAN HALEN!!!!!

Then you had the thing that joined these two music behemoths in the AA into one once a year for almost two weeks: The Red River Exhibition. All the games, rides, and music you could shake a stick at. At the Ex, you could walk into Winnipeg Arena, where booths of displays and vendors were kept, anytime all day long, not just the time period before a concert starts, and actually go through the doors and walk anywhere in the building FOR FREE!! What a novelty! And you could walk through the areas fans were normally barred from, the area the performers hung out in. That entrance in the middle of the building that the wrestlers walked out of on AWA wrestling cards that I mentioned last paragraph, I COULD WALK THROUGH!! Wow! The Stadium had the Ex's free concerts, and those are really my most memorable concerts I saw at the Stadium: Donny & Marie, Starship, The Monkees, Burton Cummings, Cheap Trick. At night the Ex was free after 11:00 p.m. (formally closed but everyone knew you can still walk through the gate and just not pay), and the combination of the darkness of the night, the Ex's rides and their lights, the warm-but-cooling-off night summer air, and the people made this the summer's most attractive and passionate environment to be in.

And parking was almost always free at the Polo Park lot. Polo Park never cared enough to stop AA parkers from parking on what was technically their lot. In later years, they tried for Winnipeg Jets games, but never for concerts or wrestling. So you could go to the Ex and park for free, unlike now. Are there any side streets or shopping mall parking lots where the Ex is now, past the Perimeter, where you can park for free? In fact, I have no idea if what I say above, where you could still get through the gates past 11:00 p.m. when they stopped charging for tickets, still applies at the Ex today in their new location. It might. But to find out, you have to pay for parking first in their lot. Then you find out the Ex really is closed and are out the money you paid for parking. Or maybe they don't let you even park, saying, "The Ex is closed for the night." So you've driven all that way for nothing. Not nice. Not good. Not cool. The Ex's new location stinks, pure and simple. (Back to the Ex at the AA: They did charge for parking at the Polo Park lot on Sunday afternoon, because they could. No Sunday shopping or all those restaurants like Earl's or Joey's back then, so you'd have no other reason to drive onto the lot. So I parked for free on St. James Street south of Portage for those Sunday afternoons, by where Olive Garden is now.)

And what of Polo Park, which still stands today? Well, does anyone remember when Polo Park was the only shopping mall in Winnipeg? There's magic right there. To those of us who grew up thinking of downtown as Winnipeg's shopping mecca, a far-off mouth-hushed-in-wonderous-amazement anomaly of an indoor enclosed shopping mall where you aren't outside between stores and subjected to the elements or the mundane, down-to-earth qualities of sidewalks, street signs and outdoor storefronts (all of which could be dirty) was ultra-sleek and shiny in comparison to begin with. When I was a kid in St. Vital, Polo Park was a place my mother and I had to transfer buses downtown to get to. Then later there was the even more far-off Unicity Fashion Square, by the Perimeter Highway, where you still transferred buses but the second bus ride was REALLY long. It all seemed exotic. And this was long before St. Vital Centre opened. But to add to that the fact Polo Park was right beside Winnipeg Arena? Electricity unparalleled. If you had the time to go through Polo Park before a concert, you could cut the buzz in the mall surrounding tonight's upcoming show with a knife. Especially in the record stores. The one drawback was attempting to buy albums by tonight's performers. What do you do with them? Who wants to lug them around the arena? If you took a car, you could leave them in the car only if it was winter. If it was summer, they'd warp. I used to think about those poor albums by tonight's artist that are left in the store unsold; The store and the mall are closing by the time the headline act hits the stage, and that act's albums have to stay and sit there, lonely, in the quiet, closed store. They can't be part of the action next door. Nowadays, of course, Polo Park is still there, but without the arena and stadium there, it's just another mall. And today, it's a mall that has been slowly eroding the spaces devoted to record stores, book/rock magazine stores, ice cream, and stationery stores in favor of clothes, clothes, and more clothes. But I digress.

The buzz before the show at Polo Park? Well, that was actually secondary. The biggest buzz was, of course, at the nearby restaurants. I mentioned Chi-Chi's. I have actually never eaten there, but walked in there once to look for someone. But certainly that was the place to go and to see and be seen before a concert or any arena event. But me, being a self-respecting jean-jacketed or black-leather-jacketed and long-haired hard rock fan back then, I went to McDonald's across St. James Street instead, where Future Shop and Old Navy are now. Again, electricity unparalleled. Everyone wearing band shirts bought from previous tours or Solar News or Dominion News downtown or through the mail from the ads in rock magazines. Guys playing air guitar. Denim, leather and hot chicks (in denim and leather) everywhere. Rock and roll ecstasy. THE place to hang out before and after the show. Long lineups don't matter when there's hot chicks in front of you to look at and maybe talk to, if they're actually there with no guy standing next to them. Is there anywhere like that close to MTS Centre? Is McDonald's at Cityplace still open before a concert or does that whole food court perhaps close at 6:00 p.m., perhaps dating back to when MTS Centre was Eatons? I guess there's Moxie's, but that's a real restaurant where you don't have the freedom to be on your own; you still have to wait for the server to bring you your check, wait for her to come back to accept payment, etc. Is that the price we pay for the mini-skirted-and-black-high-heels environment Moxie's at least provides?

And now, mainly precipitated by Winnipeg Arena's closing and demolition and replacement by the downtown MTS Centre, the AA is now gone. All being replaced by retail, offices, and more general ho-hum everyday stuff. We can sit in our parked cars in the Marshall's parking lot, where Winnipeg Arena stood, and reminisce of Winnipeg Arena concerts and how our car is parked IN THE VERY SAME SPOT THE WINNIPEG ARENA STAGE WAS ON! THE SAME SPOT THAT ALL THOSE LEGENDARY PERFORMERS PLAYED MUSIC ON!!! We can go inside Marshall's and go to the menswear section - more like old men's wear section, but whatever - and say, "This spot was where Gagne & Brunzell beat Duncum & Lanza for the AWA tag team titles on July 7, 1977," or "This is where Chris Jericho won the WWE Musical Chairs Championship live on Monday Night Raw on July 5, 2004." But the magic is gone. The ONE element that still exists today is the parking lot at the back where I used to park for Winnipeg Arena concerts and wrestling; I still enter the Polo Park lot from Portage Avenue and make the trek to the back today, except now it's for the Silver City movie theatre that now stands where Chi-Chi's mexican restaurant used to. Silver City opened before Winnipeg Arena closed in 2004, so the timelines intersect. I still think I'm parking in "Winnipeg Arena parking" when I go to Silver City for a movie now.

MTS Centre is downtown, Investors Group Stadium is in south Winnipeg, and the Red River Ex is in very extreme west Winnipeg. All at extreme ends from one another. All fine venues in and of themselves, but all with serious flaws contained in the experience of seeing shows there. (And I live in Osborne Village, right by downtown.) Some of that is written about here, but this blog's purpose is mainly be a tribute to, and celebrate the memory and nostalgia of, the AA, and to point out the uniqueness of all the elements of this area that had been huddled together, and how we had it so good in Winnipeg while it all lasted. And now it's over. And I thank my lucky stars I lived through it. Future generations will not.

Concerts weren't $100 back then, either. I think I've only seen around ten or twelve shows at MTS Centre. Well, at least I can see today's shows for free on You Tube. Thanks, all you guys that do that with your cell phones! I appreciate it. Well, there's something that's changed that's actually good.