The Rocking History of the Long Beach Arena
The Long Beach Symphony kicks off its 2022-23 season on October 29 with “Remember When Rock Was Young: The Elton John Tribute,” a retrospective on the spectacular career of one of rock’s true icons. But it could also stand as a testament to the venue where it will be performed, the Long Beach Arena, which has hosted many music icons and made so much rock history itself over the decades.
In fact, when the symphony, under the direction of Eckart Preu and Craig A. Meyer, who will portray Sir Elton, take the stage, it will have been 49 years since the Rocket Man played to a sold out crowd at the arena: September 8, 1973, a show he opened with “Bennie and the Jets” and closed with “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” Sounds like a sweet gig.
As the title of “... When Rock Was Young” suggests, rock was relatively young in 1973. It had been just 10 years since the Beatles released their first album – ”Please, Please Me” – and just nine since they made their historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. And yet, by then, Long Beach Arena had already established itself as one of the most sought after spaces for rock’s biggest acts.
The year before, 1972, the Rolling Stones played the arena in support of their recently released “Exile on Main Street” considered by many their greatest album. Opening for them that night? Stevie Wonder. Go ahead, take a moment to catch your breath.
Yes, Stevie Wonder, already a huge star in his own right, opened for the Stones at the Long Beach Arena. And you could have seen it for, wait for it, $6.50. Even if you adjust for inflation, that works out to about $44 today, which probably won’t get you a tank of gas.
Elton, the Stones and Stevie make up just a small part of the jaw dropping, seemingly ceaseless, A-list lineup of bands and performers that have played the arena: Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Linda Rondstadt, Van Halen, Metallica, Run D.M.C. – with opening act Beastie Boys – and the list goes on and on and on.
Elvis? Yeah, Elvis played, and *left* the arena, for two shows in 1972.
The reason for Long Beach Arena’s popularity is obvious in some ways: it’s a large venue in Southern California. But of course, so is the Forum. What distinguished the arena is that its slightly smaller capacity, about 15,000 compared to the Forum’s 18,000, made for a cozier environment, one that many performers credited with creating an atmosphere that allowed for a better flow of energy between themselves and their audience.
“It has great arena seating,” said Preu, who performs in the arena multiple times each year as part of the Pops program. “So, despite it being a huge space you feel close, you feel connected to the audience.”
Given the energy that accompanies such a connection, it’s not surprising that accompanying the long list of arena performers is a long list of live albums that have been recorded there.
Everyone from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Leon Russell to Boston to Rick James to Deep Purple to ELO to No Doubt have released material recorded in the arena.
In 2003, Led Zeppelin put out “How the West Was Won” recorded at the arena in 1972 at a time when Zeppelin was arguably the biggest band in the world and, according to guitarist Jimmy Page, performing at their absolute best.
One of the most acclaimed live recordings was Iron Maiden’s “Live After Death.” You can literally hear the connective energy Preu spoke of as Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson is heard through the album exhorting the assembled to, “Scream for me, Long Beach!” which became a catchphrase–and a T-shirt.
For all of its history, the fact is that Long Beach Arena was never intended to become a sought-after rock venue. When it opened 60 years ago, the very idea of rock ‘n roll arena shows was simply not a thing. Remember, “Please, Please Me” was still a year away.
The first event in the arena, in October of 1962, was the Ringling Brothers Circus, soon followed by what would become another arena staple, an ice show; The Ice Capades eventually giving way to annual, popular performances by Disney On Ice.There would be Harlem Globetrotter and LA Shark hockey games, trade shows, figure skating championships and the National Square Dancing Convention. The arena has been the site of the NCAA basketball tournament and, during the 1984 Summer Olympics, hosted the Game’s volleyball competitions.
The variety continues to this day. Before the Symphony’s Elton John show, the arena will host a Bellator mixed martial arts competition.
Then it will be time for the symphony to take the stage, something Preu says he does with some mindfulness about who has taken it before him.
“It's always a thrill to be on that stage,” he said. “Being in front of thousands of people is a special feeling. Being aware that other greats have performed there makes it even more special.”
Special, though different from symphony performances in the neighboring Terrace Theater. For example, because of the size of the arena, all string instruments have individual microphones which are then blended together in a sound booth. Then again, a gig’s a gig, so when the symphony takes to this historic stage in October, they’ll be looking to make some history of their own.
“I don't think that we channel the performers of the past,” Preu said. “But there has been a high level of musical quality that had been established here a long time ago. We have to live up to it.”