This past week, the evening news and social media have been filled with pictures of a wrecking ball and giant claws ripping apart a landmark building that symbolized happy times in my life. Cincinnati Gardens, a 25,000-square foot indoor arena in Bond Hill on the corner of Seymour Avenue and Langdon Farm Roads, sat just beyond the boundary line of my hometown of Norwood, Ohio.
The red brick building with the carved athletic figures outside its doors was better known as The Gardens. Built in 1949 as one of the largest indoor arena facilities in the United States, it was convenient, affordable, had good parking, and always held a promise of a good time within its walls. If offered a place for people like me to see big-name entertainers, celebrities, and athletes practically in my backyard.
A picture of that building with a big gaping hole as they started demolition had my husband and me tossing out memories like they were confetti. Our recollections covered a lot of years; encompassing our long-ago dating days, shared good times with family and friends; taking our children there. So many special memories deeply rooted in our lives.
Tom had his own personal experiences of being a ball boy for the Cincinnati Royals, and working in the parking lot, or inside at concerts to earn extra dollars.
During its 67-year history, The Gardens offered a rich variety of sporting events that proved to be very popular with folks from all over the tri-state area; hockey, college and professional basketball, boxing and wrestling matches with big-name stars, rodeos, monster truck events, motorcycle racing, Roller Derby, indoor football, indoor soccer and probably a bunch I don’t remember.
I saw my first circus there when I was a young girl. Mesmerized by the trapeze artists flying fearlessly through the air, and wondering how all those clowns fit inside that tiny little car, I was fascinated and didn’t know where to look first.
Tom told me the performers arrived in trailers they parked behind the building. Those trailers functioned as their home away from home during circus season.
In my teens, the circus invited regional high school majorettes to twirl during intermissions. After completing the paperwork, I went to our band director for his signature and he refused to sign saying he didn’t approve of the venue so I couldn’t participate. I was crushed.
Tom took me to see a few hockey games to root for the Cincinnati Cyclones in the 90s, but we never really got into the game. Tom remembered the Cincinnati Mohawks as the first hometown team when he was a kid. Did I forget to mention he is much older than me?
Going to see the Harlem Globe Trotters every year between Christmas and New Year’s became a family tradition. Although the show was basically the same every time, it never became boring. It always started with the permanent opposing team, the Washington Generals, being introduced to polite applause. Then the lights would dim and the familiar music of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ blasted through the speakers. Everyone jumped to their feet as Meadowlark Lemon and the Globetrotters ran on to the court. It was great family entertainment watching the comedy, trickeries, and silliness of the Globetrotters.
College basketball is legendary in Cincinnati. Locals loved watching UC and Xavier basketball games in that arena over the years. The Gardens served as home court for both UC and X at different times (while fieldhouses were torn down and new facilities were being built), but it always seemed a neutral court for countless years of Crosstown Shootout games.
Most people are familiar with Cincinnati being home to the Reds and Bengals for so many years, but some may not remember it was also home to a pro-basketball team called the Cincinnati Royals from 1957 through 1972. Watching famous pro-basketball stars play at The Gardens was a thrill.
During his sophomore year at Norwood, Tom was a ball boy for the Royals, working with the visiting teams. “To a fifteen-year-old boy getting to be around the big stars of pro-basketball was the job of a lifetime.” As he rattled off a list of his favorite basketball greats, he could have been talking about a job he held last week, not over fifty years ago. “All of the players were nice guys without attitude and giant egos. It was a different era, a different kind of athlete.”
Once when the circus was performing at The Gardens and filling every inch of the arena, the Royals needed a temporary practice court. For one week they used the old fieldhouse at Norwood High School with the Royals showing up after the Norwood varsity team finished for the day.
As fans in the stands, we saw some of the true greats like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West. Of course, we rooted for The Royals and our hometown favorites like Jack Twyman, Wayne Embry, Ohio State star Jerry Lucas, and University of Cincinnati favorite Oscar Robertson. Oscar was a joy to watch. For ten years Cincinnatians got to see the most consistent, versatile, generous player up close every game. And seeing the duo of Oscar (Big O) and Jerry Lucas play together was pure magic.
Jack Twyman was a Hall-of-Fame basketball player, but his selfless act of stepping up to serve as legal guardian for teammate Maurice Stokes after a brain injury rendered him a quadriplegic proved Jack Twyman was a man of valor, a true hero. As a dedicated, devoted guardian, Jack organized benefits, golf tournaments, and countless fundraisers to help the Stokes family deal with their son’s overwhelming medical and personal expenses for almost thirteen years.
After the Royals were purchased and moved to Kansas City in 1972, pro-basketball was never quite the same ever again to me.
I spent so many hours at The Gardens during my teens and early twenties, it was the only place to attend rock & roll concerts. Having been designed basically as a big cavernous sports arena, the sound wasn’t always top-notch for music groups, but it didn’t really matter. We saw so many shows, so many groups. The 60s shows often combined a number of artists on one bill, including one-hit wonders on their way up and a few acts headed in the other direction.
Some of the biggest names to play The Gardens were Elvis, the 5th Dimension, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, the Four Seasons, Righteous Brothers, Rolling Stones, and of course, The Beatles.
In 1964, Tom and I were newlyweds when we got tickets to see The Beatles. Concerts before the Beatles were pretty tame compared to today’s standards. The Beatles changed everything. The screaming was so loud we couldn’t hear much of anything and if we wanted to see, we had to stand. Will You Still Need Me When I’m Sixty-Four
Still proud to say we were there, but nothing had prepared my generation for the huge change about to happen in music because of the British Invasion.
One big disappointment was a Beach Boys concert which was canceled at the last-minute. No one had been admitted inside the arena, so everyone was just standing around waiting for the doors to open. Word had it that the Beach Boys were disappointed that the show wasn’t a sellout and decided at the last minute to cancel. Although refunds were issued, people were very upset and many held a grudge again the Beach Boys for years.
Another concert had scheduled headliner Roy Orbison dropping out at the last-minute because of illness. The promoters substituted Kenny Price, a well-known local performer who starred on a popular Cincinnati TV show called the Midwestern Hayride. In his bright red sports coat, he got an A for effort, but his small repertoire of hits was not enough material to fill Roy Orbison’s spot.
Fortunately, a foursome called The Four Seasons stepped up and stole the show. They had a unique sound and the crowd loved them. Soon thereafter, they hit pay dirt when they released their biggest hit, a little song called Sherry.
Diana Ross & the Supremes were scheduled to perform at The Gardens in 1968. Although a favorite group of mine, I had to take a pass on their concert because the booking was too close to the due date of our first child. As I remember their concert was held the night before our daughter was born.
As I mentioned, Tom worked part-time at The Gardens for a number of years, doing security, maintenance, set up/tear down, collecting money in the parking lot ($3.00 per car), and working at a lot of country music concerts.
Doris Geselbracht and I loved country music and wanted to see George Jones, so Tom arranged for tickets to his concert. Our seats were very close to the stage, off to the side where we had a close-up view of George, aka The Possum.
A few minutes into the concert, our excitement turned into fear that the building might be on fire. Not sure where to report our suspicions, we told Tom. In whispered tones, he assured us the building was not on fire telling us the odor was coming from the row in front of us. Evidently, a few of George’s fans were smoking marijuana, but Doris and I had never smelled it before. We never did live that story down.
While in high school, I envied the Norwood students who worked as members of the Gardens Ice Patrol to oversee the general skating sessions. Friends Karen Barrett Eads and Bev Taylor Downs Sherman spent their time making sure people followed the ice rink rules and skated in the right direction. They said it was a fun job.
Roller skating was more my speed and I never mastered ice skating. However, I do have fond memories of filling my station wagon full of giggly little Girl Scouts and Bluebird troops to go to the annex skating rink for Saturday skate parties. The girls weren’t Olympic material, but at least they were able to remain upright. I usually spent a lot of time trying to get up from falling on my rear.
Although we didn’t attend, I remember Richard Nixon coming to speak there during his 1960 run for president. The news stations warned people to avoid Cincinnati Gardens because the arena was filled to capacity and thousands of people were standing outside the building creating huge traffic jams.
Sometimes events at The Gardens truly had a Norwood connection. A few I recall are:
- Watching our younger brothers’ receive their high school diplomas there in 1967. In fact, Norwood held their graduation ceremonies there for a number of years.
- Going with a group of friends to support Pat Rupert as he auditioned for the American Gladiator television show.
- Going to a wrestling match with Pat Rankin and Doris Geselbracht to watch Norwood’s own Flyin’ Brian. Brian Pilman had played football at Norwood, Miami University, and spent one year with the Bengals before becoming a professional wrestler. His signature move was climbing on top of the ropes, standing for a moment before taking a flying diving leap down onto his opponent. It never failed to bring a cheering crowd to their feet.
- Hundreds of kids from Norwood learned to drive in the big parking lot across from The Gardens. Tom spent hours teaching me to drive his little Nash Rambler there. Me practicing pushing in the clutch, learning to change gears without the grinding noise, and mastering parallel parking.
- Working at The Gardens in the concession stands, parking cars, and doing a bit of everything turned into a family affair. Moms, dads, sisters, brothers were employed there.
As I aged, so did the building. I’m not so naïve as to think a 67-year-old building could last forever. After all, it had already been replaced by a newer model downtown some years before, a big shiny building with lots of bells and whistles where we could watch sporting events, concerts, even the circus. The new place had everything, except the charm from a more simple time.
Sure, we knew it was coming. But I wasn’t prepared to see the first picture of the building coming down. It was difficult to watch. It just hurt.
The era has ended, but the wrecking ball cannot destroy my memories. It will be sad to drive by and not see the familiar never-changing exterior of that red brick building with the big giant letters spelling out Cincinnati Gardens.
But Cincinnati is a city of traditions. People like to reminiscence about old times. Somehow I know people will remember the good times that happened inside those Garden walls. We will remember.