It’s a frigid mid-December night in Back of the Yards, but there’s a wealth of activity outside the International Amphitheatre.
The gravel parking lots surrounding the old auditorium at 4220 S. Halsted are packed with cars, and the sidewalks are full of people–teenage girls and young women wearing spike heels and miniskirts, young and middle-aged men in cowboy attire, and vendors selling everything from hot corn on the cob to Chiclets.
The attraction is a dance sponsored by WIND radio featuring Grupo Limite, Ramon Ayala Jr., Ritmo Rojo, and Banda Movil. It’s one of 65 or 70 events to occupy the Amphitheatre over the past year. But in the near future–maybe by the end of 1997–these events might disappear.
The Amphitheatre could very well be demolished by then. Mayor Richard Daley wants to raze the structure–built in 1934–in order to add 13.5 acres to the Stockyards Industrial Park, which runs from Pershing to 47th Street and from Ashland to Halsted.
The City Council has approved acquisition of the property, and the Department of Planning has begun negotiations with its present owner, the Chicago Sports & Entertainment Complex Limited Partnership–a group with six principal partners, four of whom are Latino.
City officials want to clear the land because of its attractiveness to developers. The Amphitheatre is located in the south side’s federal empowerment zone–which means extensive tax write-offs. And the land also is part of a city tax-increment financing district, which means property tax increases resulting from development can be used to pay back the bonds that helped finance that development.
“The greatest demand for real estate is probably industrial real estate,” says Greg Longhini, spokesman for the city’s Department of Planning and Development. “And the stockyards area is probably the number-one spot in the city for industrial space.”
That leaves the six partners looking to negotiate a deal for the property. “We began initial discussions with the city about the property in the past few months, but we’ve basically been following this in the newspapers,” says Eugene Dibble, an African-American partner who’s general manager of the Amphitheatre. “I’m sure they have their reasons for wanting to demolish this building, just as we had our reasons for coming into the area. If the city is determined that they have other plans for this area, so be it. We always try to see the glass as half full. So we’ll continue to book this facility until we’re told otherwise and an agreement is reached.”
Despite this note of resignation, the owners feel some regret over the possible demolition of their building. The Amphitheatre fell into disrepair in the 1980s, when it was owned by the notorious Lou Wolf. But when the partners bought it for $2.15 million in a 1994 bankruptcy auction, their plan was to bring quality entertainment back to the inner city.
“In the last decade or so we’ve seen sports and entertainment events basically move out to suburban areas,” Dibble said. “That’s left a significant void in the urban marketplace. Just as the major retailers and wholesalers have made adjustments and have come back into the inner cities looking for more profitable markets, we saw the same thing happening in the sports and entertainment venues. That’s what we basically pursued.”
The most frequent presentations have been Latino dances with live entertainment, but the Amphitheatre has also hosted hip-hop concerts, African-American and Latino rodeos, boxing matches, and consumer trade shows. Dibble says a Miller commercial was even shot there.
Most of the shows are geared toward the south-side African-American and Latino communities, according to Dibble. “That’s basically our core audience, because that’s who we’re closest to,” he said. “We’ve also made inroads trying to go after the country market, since we also have proximity to the southwest side and the south suburbs. But what we’ve tried to do is identify properties that are conducive to the urban population. Not everyone can go and pay the ticket prices for an event at the United Center, like an elaborate circus. There may be other circuses in the marketplace that would like to come and do something for an audience at a more moderate income level.”
In turn, those nearby communities have developed a loyalty to the Amphitheatre. The dances have become popular despite the building’s generally horrid acoustics, in large part because of its proximity to Mexican communities in Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards, Bridgeport, and South Chicago. Two of the partners, Henry Cardenas and Ivan Fernandez, run a company that has staged Latino events around the country since the early 80s.
“The sound here is terrible, especially when people sing,” says Nancy Quintana, an account representative for WIND. “But if this place closes there wouldn’t be many places to replace it. The Rosemont Horizon is too far and the United Center is too expensive. A lot of our dances that we sponsor would go to the Aragon Ballroom, but it wouldn’t be the same. The Aragon can’t hold a quarter of the people that the Amphitheatre can.”
Patrons agree. “This place is the only place for us to have fun,” says Gabriela Ruiz, who attended the WIND concert and lives in Back of the Yards. “Everything else is on the north side or in the suburbs.”
“It’s old and needs to be remodeled,” adds Gabriela’s sister, Maria. “But we have to come here every time there’s a dance. There’s no place else like it.”
To Dibble, the quintessential Amphitheatre booking was an exhibition bout featuring Mexican boxing hero Julio Cesar Chavez and his sparring partner. “That’s a perfect example of what we do for our audience,” Dibble said. “Fight tickets were $30 and up at the United Center, but he was here sparring for $5. It became an opportunity for the working man to see a great sports star.”
If the Amphitheatre is demolished, expect little outcry from architecture experts. This functional brick structure resembles the other graceless old warehouses that dominate the surrounding landscape. But what the Amphitheatre lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in history.
It was built primarily to be a stockyards exhibit hall, home to such events as the International Live Stock Exposition and the National Dairy Show. But it was also Chicago’s primary convention hall before the original McCormick Place was completed in 1960, and even afterward it attracted major conventions like the auto show, the boat show, and the Restaurant Association Convention. Its history includes five political conventions (the last being the 1968 Democratic Convention), along with numerous pop and rock concerts (including the Beatles’ 1964 Chicago appearance), heavyweight fights, and circuses. The Chicago Bulls even played home games at the Amphitheatre in 1966, their first year of existence.
But by the 1970s, the Amphitheatre and its neighborhood were in decline. Shows moved to McCormick Place, the Stadium, the new Rosemont Horizon–venues larger than the Amphitheatre and more accessible from the suburbs. In 1984 the property was sold to Wolf for a mere $250,000.
When Dibble and his partners bought the site they launched a “moderate renovation.” Dibble said, “We rehabbed the seats without replacing them, reconfigured the lighting, stripped down all the seats and sanded them and painted them.” A new sign in front of the arena that announces “The New International Amphitheatre” cost almost $200,000, according to Dibble.
“We’ve brightened up the whole facility,” he said. “People who’ve been here over the years who have witnessed our transition marvel at the improvements that we’ve made.”
But others feel it’s the same old Amphitheatre with some paint slapped on it. “This place is a health hazard,” says Gabriela Ruiz. “If they did some renovation on it they need to do more.”
Those who visited the Amphitheatre 30 years ago would notice few changes. The configuration remains the same: two tiers of seats–6,500 in all–surround the oval floor, which has room for 4,000 temporary seats and a makeshift stage. The office space is spartan and the drab brick exterior of the arena badly needs tuck-pointing. But there’s only so much the present owners can do.
“We certainly can’t make any major improvements,” Dibble said. “That wouldn’t be prudent considering the situation right now with the city.”
There’s no word on when negotiations will end. “We don’t like to set timetables for projects like these,” says the city’s Longhini. Dibble and his partners will be expecting a decent sum for their property. “If you were to try to build this arena right now it would cost you in excess of $20 million,” Dibble said.
If the Amphitheatre is demolished, Dibble said he and his partners will attempt to create something similar in Chicago. “The concept of developing quality entertainment and sports venues for the inner-city market is worth saving,” he said. “It’s a notion that we will continue to pursue, whether we’re doing it in this venue or in another venue. We think this is a great marketplace with a lot of opportunities .” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Eugene Dibble photo by David V. Kamba.