When the Prairie Capital Convention Center opened its doors in 1979, local officials had high hopes for a cultural renaissance in Springfield. In the 30-plus years it has been open, the venue's fortunes have waxed and waned.
When the Prairie Capital Convention Center opened its doors, local officials had high hopes for a cultural renaissance in Springfield.
“No longer will we find it necessary to travel great distances — at increasing expense — to St. Louis and Chicago or elsewhere to attend major cultural or entertainment events,” the editorial board of The State Journal-Register wrote in October 1979. “The center will provide them right here at home.”
And for a while, it did just that. The roster of acts that played the PCCC in the early years reads like a who’s who of American entertainment: Johnny Cash, ZZ Top, Hall & Oates, Aerosmith, AC/DC and INXS.
It was a state-of-the-art venue, though not exactly a landmark architectural achievement. Bob Hope, who was the first entertainer to perform at the center, began his show by thanking everyone “for inviting me to open this gorgeous garage.”
In the 30 years since Hope drew 6,000 people to the PCCC, the venue’s fortunes have waxed and waned. Back in the day, there were often one or two major shows every month; now there are a handful a year.
The concerts of 1980 featured big-time acts such as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Tammie Wynette and George Jones, Journey and REO Speedwagon.
So far, 2010 has yielded Friday night’s concert by Jeremy Camp and Natalie Grant, a pair of contemporary Christian music singers brought in by the organizers of a CCM singing competition; and a show next Thursday with acts that haven’t been atop the charts in years: .38 Special, Styx and — wait for it — REO Speedwagon.
Springfield resident Bill Wheelhouse was at that first REO show in January 1980. He was a high school student living in Rushville and commuted to Springfield for many of the big shows, both at the State Armory and later at the PCCC.
“I remember being just off the main floor,” Wheelhouse said.
“They had the huge following in the Midwest, so they were able to pack the convention center pretty good. ... It seemed like hard-rocking acts did pretty well here,” he said.
Len Trumper promoted many of the shows in the early years of the PCCC. He had been in the business since putting Mason Proffit into the Coliseum on the Illinois State Fairgrounds in August 1971.
Trumper went on to promote many shows at the Armory and Nelson Center throughout the 1970s, and like the SJ-R editorial board, he had high hopes for the PCCC.
“I kept thinking that was going to be the beginning of where we were going to start making some money and do some bigger shows, because the Armory capacity was only 4,700 people and the Nelson Center was 4,300,” Trumper said in a recent telephone interview.
But the cost of using unionized, professional stagehands and having to pay for catering through the PCCC significantly raised expenses, Trumper said, and eventually led him to get out of the business.
Wendy O. Williams was ‘pretty scary’
Trumper’s last show at the PCCC was KISS with opening act the Plasmatics in February 1983.
“They had peaked and they had really come down, and that show was a tough one to sell,” Trumper said. “We ended up barely making it break even, but I cut KISS’ price in half. The day before the show, I negotiated a price reduction just to keep the show going and save several thousand dollars that way.”
Area resident Nicolette Pawelczak won tickets to that show from WDBR-FM (103.7).
“For a junior in high school to see KISS and see somebody like Wendy O. Williams, with some black electrical tape, was pretty scary,” Pawelczak said in a telephone interview.
The electrical tape is a reference to the Plasmatics’ lead singer’s wardrobe, described in detail by Bob Mahlberg in the SJ-R: “Williams — dressed in only a four-inch strip of electrical tape across each breast, a studded leather belt around her waist, tiny lace panties and a few strands of shirt that covered absolutely nothing — pumped her fist high in the air and ran across the stage, leaving most of her anatomy bouncing for all to see.”
Williams ended her set with a sledgehammer and a chainsaw, smashing a black-and-white TV into a sparking mess and carving an electric guitar into three pieces.
Pawelczak said the show was incredibly loud and had fire cannons flanking the stage. She still has a towel KISS front man Gene Simmons used to wipe blood from his mouth.
“My mom would let us spend the night out and wait for the tickets,” Pawelczak said. “It was great; it was cool. She used to drive down to Sonrise Donut Shop and bring us doughnuts.”
“They need to bring back the big names that they used to,” Pawelczak said.
New kids on the block
When it opened, the PCCC was a cutting-edge facility.
“The facility is beautiful,” Brad Wavra, who promoted that first Bob Hope show, told the SJ-R in 1979. “Six- to eight-thousand seats is a real good size for the kind of entertainment we can bring in. The state of the industry is that a lot of acts prefer a small hall to taking a chance and filling half a large one.”
But that calculus has changed over time, according to Jay Goldberg, who has been promoting shows in central Illinois for decades.
“In the late ’70s or early ’80s, we used to do quite a few shows in there — Rick Springfield, Ted Nugent, Van Halen, quite a few shows,” Goldberg said in a recent telephone interview. His most recent show was Mudvayne in February 2009.
“Because it’s a nice venue, probably the biggest thing is the size,” Goldberg said. “It’s not really a small venue and it’s not a large venue. And so it’s hard to find the acts that are looking for that 6,500- to 7,000-seat venue.”
And there’s now competition in central Illinois that didn’t exist 30 years ago — larger venues such as the Peoria Civic Center and the U.S. Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington.
“It’s very competitive now for the arena-level shows. And in the early days, the Prairie Capital Convention Center was really the place,” Goldberg said. “Unfortunately, Springfield has probably gotten the shorter end of the stick when it comes to the amount of concerts.”
Crowding out capacity
Trumper also said the size of the average rock show has outgrown the ability of the PCCC to accommodate the ever-increasing amount of lighting, sound and video production equipment.
PCCC general manager Brian Oaks said shows sometimes could be talked into cutting back the size of the production in order to squeeze another date in between major cities, but not everyone is willing to compromise a big, modern lighting and sound rig.
“We were looking at somebody like a Kenny Chesney, who did stop in Bloomington. It was going to cut our capacity down to like 5,000 seats with as big as their stage was, and then the numbers just don’t work,” Oaks said.
The capacity and break-even points vary depending on the shape and position of the stage and how the seating is arranged. At Cher’s 2004 concert, capacity was 7,700; Elton John in 1999 drew 8,800, but that concert was in the round (that is, seats could be sold on all four sides of the stage instead of the usual three).
The upcoming REO Speedwagon/Styx/.38 Special show would have a capacity of 6,900 to 7,000, Oaks said. As of last week, the show had already sold more than 4,000 tickets and was past the break-even point.
‘An uphill battle’
“We miss out on quite a few concerts because of our date availability,” Oaks added. “We do a good job of booking conventions, but conventions a lot of times book anywhere from eight months to multiple years in advance, whereas concerts typically are booking just a few months in advance.
“We’ve missed out on the opportunity to put offers in on some really good shows. Even in the last year or two: KISS, Megadeth, Darius Rucker, James Taylor, Doobie Brothers.
“Those were all shows that we had talked with the agents and they were willing to look at our offer, except we didn’t have the dates available when they needed to route through Springfield.
“And I think that’s a good problem to have, obviously, because the conventions are good for the city, too. They’re just not as high-profile as the concerts are,” Oaks said.
Oaks said the expansion plan for the PCCC — currently stalled amid the city’s budget crisis — would add to the convention space, opening up more dates for concerts in the arena.
He also said the staff was working to put the convention center back on the concert map.
“When I took over, we decided that we would take on that role as promoter, to try and prove to the entertainment world that Springfield is a viable venue to draw people in,” Oaks said.
Since then, the PCCC has hosted Lynyrd Skynyrd, Poison, Montgomery Gentry and the two-day country music showcase Y’allapalooza.
It’s an uphill battle at times, Oaks said, but he hopes this is the start of a new era of “glory years” at the PCCC, with more and more concerts.
“We’re putting in the time and the effort and the dollars to show the entertainment industry that we are still a viable option, and we think that our annual number of concerts is going to continue to grow as we put in that effort,” Oaks said.
Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or email@example.com.
PCCC memories from readers of The State Journal-Register and sj-r.com
BOB HOPE, 1979
“My husband and I along with another couple drove from Beardstown to Springfield early to have dinner before the show. ... great decision! While we were eating, Mr. Hope walked in and was seated at a table right next to us. I could look into his eyes!” — Sharon Pine
“When I first started going to concerts at the convention center, there was something wrong if there wasn’t a concert every three months. ... The best concert I ever saw there was Styx, that still included Dennis DeYoung and John Panozzo, during their ‘Kilroy Was Here’ tour. ... The concert itself was like a play. Its theme was ‘Big Brother’ and its stranglehold on anyone and anything related to rock ’n’ roll, with Kilroy as the savior of the genre. And even though I’d never been a fan of the center’s acoustics, Styx was able to overcome them with flying colors.” — Bill Payne
“(Lead singer) Stephen Tyler was wasted and fell off the stage. We were up on the bleachers and could see him thrown back.” — Kent Gray
(A radio interview with Angus Young led to an invitation to stand with the bodyguards at the front of the stage.) “It also happened to be in front of the speakers, and I am confident that I left that concert with a permanent hearing loss, but great memories!” — Liz Willis
DEF LEPPARD, 1988
“After the show, I grabbed two Rick Allen drum sticks as a roadie threw them on the ground in front of the stage.” — Kevin Eckhoff
Shows this year at central Illinois venues
ASSEMBLY HALL, Champaign
- Jeff Dunham, March 4
- Martina McBride and Trace Adkins, March 5
- tobyMac and Skillet, March 11
- Daughtry, April 18
PEORIA CIVIC CENTER
- Shinedown and Puddle of Mudd, Feb. 13
- Rascal Flatts and Darius Rucker, Feb. 18
- Willie Nelson, March 14
- Carrie Underwood, April 7
PRAIRIE CAPITAL CONVENTION CENTER, Springfield
- Opening Act Quarterfinals with Jeremy Camp and Natalie Grant, 6 p.m. today
- REO Speedwagon, Styx and .38 Special, Thursday
- Eric Church with Josh Thompson, March 21
U.S. CELLULAR COLISEUM, Bloomington-Normal
- Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert, Jan. 24
Back in time
The big act headlining at the PCCC in January 1980 was REO Speedwagon, led by Kevin Cronin. Fast forward 30 years, and the headliner is ... REO Speedwagon, along with Styx and .38 Special.
If you want to relive those big-hair days, here’s your chance.
8 p.m. Thursday
$61/$51/$41, available at the PCCC box office and Ticketmaster locations, 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com