Big Wheel Keep on Turning: Arena Theatre's Strange Staying Power

Categories: Only In Houston

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Rocks Off recently ran a blog recalling some of the numerous music venues which have come and gone in our fair (albeit fickle) city. We listed more than two dozen and readers offered many, many more. By the time we wiped away our collective tears, it was clear how much we miss and love our departed former music spots.

REWIND:

Houston's Top 25 Closed Music Venues


One venue that thankfully was not on that list is the Arena Theatre. The longtime Houston showcase is alive and kicking, still tucked safely between neighboring office buildings on the Southwest Freeway.

It could easily have been just another remnant of Houston's musical past. In 2004, the space -- known for its intimate, in-the-round layout -- stopped booking shows. The circular stage was dark for several years, but new ownership swooped in and revamped the theater, with an updated sound system, video screens and fresh carpet. It also retained a lot of its old charm, with concession stands inside the auditorium and aisle markers that recalled its earliest days as a venue.

Best of all, the music returned (and also an occasional mixed-martial-arts event or standup comedy tour) and has kept the rotating stage moving ever since.

If the little Arena with the big round heart could do it, why couldn't other shuttered venues return? If their original edifices remain upright and not demolished to the ages, could they not rise like badass, ca-cawing rock and roll phoenixes from their ashes on Washington Avenue or Westheimer?

In honor of all that once was briefly endangered, but returned with new life, here's a list of my five favorite nights at Houston's Arena Theatre, hoping they'll inspire other former nightspots to see that everything old can be new again.


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The Temptations, Four Tops
June 8, 1984

Motown was hip again in the early 1980s. The Big Chill dusted off some Hitsville, USA classics like "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and a whole new generation learned the songs. When The Temps and Tops "battled" on the 1983 Motown 25 TV special, it set in motion a joint tour that came to Houston in the summer of '84.

Even without David Ruffin or Eddie Kendricks, The Temptations looked great. They moved in unison, never missing a step, the living and breathing blueprint for boy bands to come. They sounded fantastic, too, singing some personal favorites like "I Wish It Would Rain" and "Get Ready."

The Arena seats just under 3,000 people. The furthest seat from the stage is only 60 feet away. Listening to the entire room sing along to "My Girl" was entrancing.

The Four Tops were still a unit of original members at that time. Seeing Levi Stubbs and company throw down on songs like "I Can't Help Myself" is still a highlight of my concert-going lifetime. The best single moment of the entire show was watching him work up to that one moment where the entire song goes silent for a full second, and resumes with his soul-wrenching plea -- "Bernadette!"


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James Brown
March 14, 1986

In 1986, James Brown was one of the inaugural class members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He didn't need a comeback tour -- he was already the legendary Godfather of Soul.

Nonetheless, he rode into Houston that spring high on his sudden hit, "Living in America," from the Rocky IV soundtrack. Was he proud of his return to pop prominence? I'm pretty sure he opened and closed the show with the song.

In between, though, the Arena's mini-dome shook with the repeated stops and count-offs Soul Brother No. 1 was known to command of his airtight band. Fortunately for us, that night his band included sax legend Maceo Parker. They played the good stuff - "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," "Get Up Offa That Thing."

Occasionally, Rocks Off will reach out to Bruce Kessler's amazing rockinhouston.com photo archive for art from these old school shows. Go there to find two dozen sweet pictures of the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business recalling his glory days for us that night in 1986.


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Ray Charles
October 4, ????

I admit, I don't recall the year this show took place; I'm sorry, I'm not Rain Man. But I do remember being a little disappointed in this one because Brother Ray slighted the soul music of his Atlantic beginnings this night for more sedate stuff, which suited many of the gathered just fine.

With a full tuxedo-clad orchestra onstage, the Arena's setting made it seem like we were at The Sands in Vegas. Songs like Charles' rendition of "America the Beautiful" and "Georgia on My Mind" dominated the night.

I'd already seen Charles live once before this show and I preferred that outing better, since it was in the tight-knitness of Rockefeller's, where I could see the sweat form on his brow as he bore down on the electric piano during "What'd I Say."

At the Arena, his between-song patter sounded better than most of what was being sung on the radio at the time, so why quibble with song selection? In the end, it was one of two nights I spent breathing the same rare air as The Genius of Soul.


Location Info

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Arena Theatre

7326 Southwest Fwy, Houston, TX

Category: Music

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20 comments
EtotheG
EtotheG

I saw the Jacksons at the Arena Theatre on the Destiny tour back in 1978 or '79. I think my mom must've made my older teenage sister & cousin take me with them... The promoter actually pulled us out of the audience and took us backstage to meet the group (I guess the fact that I was with two attractive, teenage girls had something to do with it)! I remember everyone being really nice & talkative, except for Michael who was shy, quiet and sat in a corner by himself. This was back when he was still rocking a 'fro and his original afrocentric nose! I also remember Muhammad Ali being in the building and walking through the crowd to the stage during the show! I'm sure this all sounds crazy, but it's 100% true! I've still got my autographed picture of the Jacksons.

GunsandTacos
GunsandTacos

Also watched JB at Verizon Wireless in May '06. Now I'm just bragging.

GunsandTacos
GunsandTacos

Don't recall the exact year, but watched James Brown at Arena Theater somewhere between 2002-2004. It's a great venue. No smoking areas, but the men's room is fair game.  


wordlover
wordlover

You know, I remember going to concerts at the now demolished Music Hall and the Coliseum. I was in awe of how huge everything was to me back then.  Those venues disappeared but the Arena emerged and once again, I was in awe.  This time, not so much because it appeared huge to me -quite the opposite actually.  No, this time, I was in awe of the intimacy and the rotating stage.  I loved it.  Besides the Jacksons, I saw Diana Krall, Chuck Mangione, a few comedians here and there and most recently, I saw Hall & Oates.  It took everything I had in me, to keep myself from rushing the stage!  Ha!  If you were there, then perhaps you witnessed the  woman that DID rush the stage and was taken away by police? Yeah well, that wasn't me, but she was standing right beside me.  It was awesome.  I've seen Joe Cocker before, too.  Not there though.  Hey I didn't even know Devo was in town.  :(  Boo, heads are going to roll in my household in the morning.  ;)  

I don't know why everything old such as buildings, musical venues, or just really cool structures, must die or be destroyed.  I'm partial to not only to the history they may leave but also of all things ahem, mature. And I find it a lil sad that venues besides the Arena, don't survive.

Wait.  You saw the Temptations too?  You're officially a bad ass.  -Have a great rest of the week!

lakers
lakers

Saw The Jacksons there in May of 1979. The encore was "Don't Stop till you get enough". I thought the place was going to explode! One of the first concerts I saw and really one of the best!

MedinaShore
MedinaShore

Nothing strange about their staying power: great intimate venue, fair ticket prices, some good acts that aren't for children. And, next to Fung's Kitchen....

Brian Chestnut
Brian Chestnut

Intimate venue. Wouldn't go without a CHL these days.

Summer Joy Davis
Summer Joy Davis

Brian Setzer's Christmas Show was fantastic there last year and I'm looking forward to going again this year. I agree with Robert that Devo & Blondie were good, but the crowd was boring. I saw Pat Benatar, Joan Jett & The Donnas there. All have been great shows. There's not a bad seat in the house but I do think they're starting to get a little high in their prices.

Kyle King
Kyle King

Saw George Carlin there...and Leon Redbone. Odd venue but very intimate.

Melia Hughes
Melia Hughes

That's one of the worst venues I have been to anywhere in the world. I won't even go to shows there. It's just not worth it.

Robert Medlin
Robert Medlin

Devo & Blondie last year was a phenomenal show, but the crowd was a little too subdued. But yeah it's a cool venue. I used to take my folks there over the years & saw some great shows!

tishsendejas
tishsendejas

@wordlover How did I miss Diana Krall at The Arena?  Now I'm jealous  :(    I was indeed at the Hall & Oates show and did see that woman run onto the stage to maul poor little John Oates. We were sitting along the aisle where the band came in and out of the back of the Arena, something I forgot to mention that also makes the Arena awesome. My wife said she would have fainted had she been arm's length from Daryl Hall 30 years ago.  :)  

wordlover
wordlover

@tishsendejas @wordlover I love Daryl Hall so much that this one time in band camp, no not really.  But this one time, my best friend and I followed their tour bus as it left the Summit (right after they performed) all the way to the Four Seasons, downtown. The tour bus stopped directly in front of the hotel and my friend aka Speed Racer, was in such a tizzy that we may not get to see them, that she gunned her bright yellow camaro, right in front of the bus! Daryl Hall was walking down the steps and had to pull back or my friend would have hit him had he not.  TRUE.STORY.   Shortly after that, we were asked to leave the premises.  But being stubborn and determined, we walked back to the hotel and stood watch for the next seven or eight hours at the corner (since we were not allowed to be near the hotel) until they finally came out.  This time, when we approached them, Daryl Hall looked at us and winked, muttering, "You're the girls that almost killed me"  ----John Oates just thanked us for standing out in the heat for them , signed our TAPES (this was before cds -obviously) and went on their way.  Not before Daryl Hall turns to my friend and says, "Drive safe" -----by far, best celebrity stalking ever!  Your wife would have died a hundred times.  :)  She should have rushed the stage this last time.  I made my way to the front of the stage, on Daryl's side and since I'm super short, it was easy for me to get the guys to let me go in front of them.  I could see his sweat and his wrinkles.  But really, all I wanted to do what run my hands through his hair. -The End.

Join me next week, when I tell my story of having drinks with Kenny G.  LMAO!  -no really.

wordlover
wordlover

@tishsendejas @wordlover ooh almost forgot, diana krall was at the arena in 2004 or 2005, can't remember.  but it was my first time seeing her.  she was amazing!

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