With the Assembly Hall closing in on 50 years old, we asked PAUL KLEE to tell her story:
I always thought it was funny how Mr. Sinatra would not sit down.
His requests were few: a modest spread, just cheese and crackers to snack. My gift to him was a white Illini jacket. He thanked us, saying, "Usually all I get is warm beer."
A charmer, that man. Mr. Sinatra dressed, you see, in my spare changing room. And over the hour before he took the stage, he stood.
They say it was his vanity at work; he didn't want to wrinkle his suit.
I prefer to think he was nervous for our first date.
He sang to me that night. I'll never forget that voice — oh, that voice — that tickled my 614 miles of steel cable. For the life of me I can't remember the song list. You've heard them all, though. And no one seems to remember; that's how memorable it was.
We split after that. Mr. Sinatra liked to travel. I'm a Midwestern girl at heart.
Other men have come and gone through my life. Saturday is the 49th anniversary of the first University of Illinois basketball game played on my floor. I'm built of enough concrete to stretch a sidewalk from here to Bloomington. But love kept me here.
There was that country gentleman, Garth. My sweetheart in boots. We clicked so well he stayed three straight nights. All 48,899 tickets sold in one hour. I'll never forget how he cared; before the second show he climbed up near my roof to rig lights himself.
It's 120 feet to my roof, 80 feet to the lowest bar of steel.
Garth's promoters put a stop to that quickly.
I had a soft spot for those Aerosmith boys, as genuine as they were rowdy. Unique bunch, too. The band brought its own showerheads. Our building engineer switched out the original showerheads in my bathrooms and replaced them with Mr. Tyler's. After the show, their showerheads were removed, packed away for the next stop, and I got mine back.
These are entertainers, after all. They have their quirks.
There was that one fellow who later changed his name. I knew him as Prince. He was the last act to perform in the round, the audience surrounding the stage from all angles. And his production tested my limits.
Prince required nearly 90,000 pounds of rigging. I'm a strong woman and can handle 10,000 more. Aside from Def Leppard — bless their hair, and their hearts — Prince was the largest production I've hosted. My floor measures 188 x 160 feet. His stage barely fit.
For a man with such small feet, Prince sure needed a lot of space to roam.
My social calendar has always been a busy one. My friends like to joke I'm the grandmother who still runs half-marathons. And I was never busier than on Oct. 26, 1976.
That was the night Mr. Presley broke more hearts than this town has seen. That night I welcomed 17,177 friends, a record attendance that will never be broken. The size of today's stages wouldn't allow it. Most of the visitors that night were like me, swooning at Mr. Presley.
Colonel Parker, his manager, had only one request that day. "He needs a six-pack of Coke," Mr. Parker said. No more, no less. "If you bring a 12-pack, he's going to want it the next day, and I don't want to go through that."
Mr. Presley stayed on his airplane, a few miles down Highway 45, before coming to my dressing room before the show. He drank his Coke. And he put on a marvelous show. At the end the lights flickered out, he swiveled into his Cadillac and returned to Willard.
A voice said, "Elvis has left the building."
That's me. I'm the building. I am the Assembly Hall. So good of you to visit.
My Illini boys will play their 682nd game on my floor Sunday (5, BTN). I'll do my best to help us beat Iowa. I know, I know. My first team will tell you I wasn't much help at all.
The Illini were in a Big Ten race when my doors opened for the first game on March 2, 1963. And sure enough, a visiting player scored the first basket. Northwestern guard Rich Falk. Huff Gym, my ol' neighbor, still gives me grief. I think he's mad I took his basketball team.
We won both games on my floor that season — 79-73 against Northwestern and 73-69 against Iowa. My boys didn't play particularly well, and perhaps that's because we had only one hourlong practice before the first game.
Practice was on a Friday. The first game was on a Saturday. Honestly, and those boys would tell you as much, I was quite stark for the two games that season; court smack in the middle, concrete all around, no bleachers, no blackboard in the locker rooms.
And little to no shooting background, as Dave Downey points out. David would know about scoring. Three weeks earlier he had 53 points in Huff Gym.
What do I remember about that first game? First, that it finally arrived. Bill Small, a favorite on that team, reminds me how long it took me to show up. As a high school senior, Bill attended the All-State banquet. There was a miniature model of me.
I have been many things to many people. One of those was a recruiting tool: Be on the first team to play at the Assembly Hall! Those high school seniors — Dave and Bill among them — were told I would be completed by their sophomore year.
Sorry, guys. The union strikes and steel shortages delayed my opening. I was constructed over four years, the first concrete dome in the world. With an annual itinerary of roughly 100 shows, expos and graduations, plus the 30-plus Illini men's and women's games, I hope we made up for the lost time. I only cost $8.3 million, you know.
What else about that first game? Oh, sure, the whistles. My concrete roof is 3 1/2 inches thick, and those whistles seemed to echo off the dome for days. The officials called 57 fouls — it is the Big Ten — and our boys combined with Northwestern to shoot 88 free throws. That's only seven shy of my alltime record.
The visiting player who scored the first basket — Mr. Falk — later became the coordinator of officiating in the Big Ten. I do wonder if he took my first game to heart.
Since then I have hosted the biggest stars in all of life's genres; Presidents (Mr. Clinton) to preachers (Billy Graham, who brought the largest crowd for a multi-day event) to ice shows (Disney, Capades) to Broadway ("Les Miserables," "The Sound of Music," "Oklahoma") to comedy (Bill Cosby, George Burns and Red Skelton, who autographed a bag of Pamper's at Target on the day of his act) to music (U2, Johnny Cash, Jay-Z, Elton John and Cher, who brought her farewell tour... twice).
And I've welcomed the best on every level of basketball.
For 32 years I hosted the IHSA boys' basketball tournament, with Isiah, Cazzie, Frank and about as many more names as I have permanent seats (15,864). State was electric. Even while winning his first of three consecutive championships in 1995, Peoria Manual coach Wayne McClain says his boys got chills in my tunnel.
I welcomed the pros, too, including the greatest of all. Mr. Jordan brought the Bulls for an exhibition game on Oct. 24, 1989. He enjoyed my court so much that his son, Jeffrey, came to play for my Illini 18 years later. Mike sat in the bleachers to watch Jeff on four occasions, parking a different car in the tunnel each time.
I was partial to the silver Ferrari. From Chicago, he said, it was a two-cigar trip.
My basketball heart belongs to the Illini. We're close enough they paint me orange.
There was Eddie's shot to beat Magic in '79. There was Andy's shot to beat Iowa in '93, three zeros on the clock over his shoulder, the ball inches from his fingers.
And I wouldn't be me without the ones we loathed.
Steps down from the visitors' locker room was a janitor's closet. That's where Mr. Knight used to, ahem, vent his frustrations. I should have shown that closet to Mr. Sampson. My friend Jim Sheppard says I was loudest when Kelvin took the floor in 2008. A soundman in the tunnel measured the decibels of our boos that day. He agreed with Mr. Sheppard.
But even the most hardened men softened in my presence. I am a lady, after all. On Jan. 16, 1993, Mr. Knight again brought his Hoosiers to play. Earlier in the week his colleague Henry Iba had passed away. Mr. Iba was honored over the P.A. before the game.
After player introductions, Bobby hunched slowly toward Mr. Sheppard, who wasn't certain what to expect. This was, of course, the big, bad red sweater.
"I wanted to thank you very much for reading that tribute for Mr. Iba." he said.
That had never happened before.
For 22 years Mr. Sheppard's booming voice was my basketball soundtrack.
I won't forget the night in 1999 we honored the late Matt Heldman, a player who gave nothing less than his all. He died in a car accident, too young. The rain that drips from my dome, those are tears for the Illini I've lost.
Prior to tipoff that night, Mr. Sheppard touched us all by reading a tribute to Matt.
Empty or full, I've never been so quiet.
It turns out that elephants don't ride on elevators.
That was a problem for Mr. Parkinson. At 6-foot-4 and strong, he struck an imposing figure. Mr. Parkinson entered a room and it stopped. He was brilliant, too, an icon in the touring industry.
He made me what I am today — one of the few arenas of my era developed for multipurpose use. That was rare. Nebraska was researching for a new facility, and athletic director Bob Devaney toured me. He thought I was OK, I guess. But Mr. Devaney sought more of a sports-specific arena, a basketball palace as they were called.
In most ways — and not to sound immodest — there is nothing like me.
Tom Parkinson was my first director. And where he found a problem, he promptly found an answer. He was a circus buff and wanted to share his love with children, most of all.
And elephants don't ride on elevators. So he had my Kirby Street ramp built at a grade that elephants could walk down. Not too steep; just steep enough to get the job done.
It was Mr. Parkinson's vision that I provide diverse programming for all audiences, a forum as comfortable with Disney on Ice (it takes three days to freeze over my floor) as WWF (with the small ring, in the round, I can pack in 17,000).
The further you traveled from my hometown, the greater Mr. Parkinson's reputation. The people that knew him, he touched. The people he didn't know that still visit me, he touched them, too.
One of the final acts he booked was Whitney Houston. "The voice of an angel," he said.
Mr. Parkinson passed away Nov. 14, 1993. His memorial service is the only I've hosted.
Change has helped me reach this chipper age. I wasn't a drinker until two years ago. And I was losing shows to my neighbors in nearby cities because of it. Now we can have a beer together at certain concerts.
Change, you see, is good. It has always done me well.
Nat King Cole brought a single UHaul truck. All he needed was a microphone, really.
Others needed more space to unpack their bags.
Metallica rolled in with 15 truckloads of heavy metal. My old ramp — the elephant ramp — was too slight to fit more than one truck. So trucks would back down, one at a time, unload and drive out. Then the next truck could unload. The bigger productions — Bon Jovi was a prayer, Janet Jackson an escapade — took a while.
So I got a facelift. Don't judge. It was the best thing I ever did, honestly. The $12 million renovation finished in 1998. You can't see its impact from the roughly 2,000 seats in A Section, 4,000 in B and 10,000 in C. The floor adds 618 seats for basketball.
(If you ever wondered, there are 1,000 seats in my top row.)
No, the renovation was backstage. With the extra space and wider tunnel, it took me just two hours to load Jason Aldean after his sold-out show for 16,500 earlier this month.
I've come a long way since my groundbreaking on May 25, 1959. And my longevity was questioned. The week before my doors opened, Wayne Hecht, one of my directors, was fitted for a sportcoat in a clothing store on campus. He asked the salesman if he planned to attend the first game. I'll wait until the next one, he replied. "Just to make sure it's still standing."
I'm due for another facelift. The people in charge are meeting soon, possibly this week, to discuss their plans: more bathrooms, luxury boxes or suites, entertainment areas, escalators and elevators, a memorabilia hall to display my grand tradition, permanent concessions.
As a child I wasn't much of a cook. I came without a kitchen. For my first IHSA tournament, they made hot dogs over on campus at 5 a.m. We served the same hot dogs all day.
You may not know this, but I've always had air-conditioning ducts. The thing is, air conditioning was never installed. At this age I do get hot flashes; in the next renovation central air is a must.
It's like an oven in here, Deron told me at the alumni basketball game in August.
The Rolling Stones stopped in. Mr. Parkinson told me they weren't allowed to come back. Mick and his buddies later left their rental cars scattered all over Chicago. Kids those days.
Alabama played its first of six shows in '83. Those boys stayed until 3 a.m. to sign photographs. Back then we didn't have YouTube or iPhone cameras. I don't have much of a private life any more. And that's OK. I was built without computers, you know.
Barry Manilow and Diana Ross valued their privacy. I hung curtains on both sides of the tunnel for their separate shows. Mr. Manilow asked that my employees stand behind the curtain so they couldn't see him as he took the stage.
Bill Cosby drank coffee only from Starbucks. Those cute boys from New Kids on the Block had a unique request. It's a long tour, I guess, and they asked for new socks and undergarments on the day of the performance. They played one of my loudest shows; not from the music, but from the hollering schoolgirls who filled every seat.
Mr. Sinatra would not sit down.
The Chief danced last on Feb. 21, 2007, but not without an encore.
Let's everyone sing.
I have another dance still in me. Care to join?