All have appeared at Cincinnati’s 25,000-square foot landmark sports and entertainment arena in Bond Hill/Golf Manor built on the corner of Seymour Avenue and Langdon Farm Roads. Literally hundreds of the world’s biggest name entertainers, celebrities and athletes have appeared at the Gardens in it’s illustrious 65-year-run. Fact is; it’s hard to find a veteran resident of Greater Cincinnati who hasn’t seen at least one event at the Gardens.
Gardens Opened in 1949
The Cincinnati Gardens opened February 22, 1949; the first event was a hockey exhibition game – the Dallas Texans (whose nucleus would form the new Cincinnati Mohawks of the American Hockey League) versus its parent club, the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens, which featured Hall of Fame right wing Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.
The first week of events at Cincinnati’s newest sports and entertainment center was staggering: following the exhibition hockey game was a U.C. vs. Butler basketball game, a Xavier vs. Kentucky basketball game, and a heavyweight boxing match between Cincinnatian Ezzard Charles and Cleveland’s Joey Maxim (Charles won in 15 rounds to become the #1 contender to Joe Louis’ title).
Since that flashy beginning, the Gardens has hosted an exalted array of diverse events, including major-and-minor league sports, rock concerts, comedians, symphony orchestras, broadway-style musicals, political rallies, rodeos, roller derby, tractor pulls, circuses, ice follies, dog shows, dirt track auto racing, auto and baseball card shows and more.
7th largest U.S. Arena at the time
The brick and limestone Gardens – with its six distinctive, three-dimensional carved athletic figures decorating the buildings facing – was built on 22 acres in Cincinnati’s north and was modeled after the popular and historic Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Ontario. At the time of its opening in 1949, Cincinnati Gardens was the seventh largest indoor arena in the U.S. with a seating capacity of 11,000. Stock in the Gardens was widely held throughout the U.S. Cincinnati Gardens Inc.’s first president was Cincinnatian Charles Sawyer, U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
Cincinnati Gardens was built using some 325,000 man-hours by the Frank Messer & Sons general contractors for a cost of $3 million. It was constructed with no interior pillars or columns obstructing sight lines. Some 2,200 tons of structured and reinforcing steel were used in the project, and it was said that a 10-foot story tall building could fit under the Gardens’ roof. A Cincinnati newspaper reported at the time: “The answer to Cincinnati’s appetite for indoor sports and spectacles, Cincinnati Gardens by its great expanse of uninterrupted space, will awe the thousands of first-nighters.”
The Gardens current owner is Gerry Robinson of Cincinnati. His son, Pete Robinson, serves as president of the arena. A real estate developer, Gerry purchased the Gardens in 1979. “It looked as if the grand old building would be destined for the wrecker’s ball,” he says, “and I didn’t want that to happen. As so many others, I grew up in Cincinnati with great, great memories of Cincinnati Gardens with hockey, the NBA Royals and concerts. I loved the building’s rich history and knew it was a tremendous Cincinnati asset to be saved for future generations.”
Hosted Countless Sports and Concerts Events
As a sporting venue, Cincinnati Gardens has hosted minor and major league hockey, professional, college and high school basketball, amateur and professional boxing, professional soccer, professional wrestling, indoor football, roller derby, auto and motorcycle racing, karate championships, even swimming exhibitions.
As for entertainers, the Gardens has hosted, literally, hundreds of the biggest names in show business – Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Sammy Davis Jr., Tom Petty, Neil Diamond, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Kinks, Alice Cooper, Metallica, Bon Jovi, Pearl Jam – and even Lawrence Welk. Country singers appearing include Reba McEntire, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams Jr., Randy Travis, Statler Brothers, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Alan Jackson, Wynonna Judd, and many more. Though he didn’t perform on stage, Garth Brooks visited the Gardens to enjoy some public ice-skating. So did actor Alan Thicke.
For kids and families, there have been circuses, ice follies, and shows featuring Sesame Street, Snoopy, Bugs Bunny and Barney (the dinosaur, not Rubble). There have been horse shows, dog shows, and baseball card shows with the sport’s superstars such as Mickey Mantle. Evel Knievel performed death defying motorcycle jumps at the Gardens, and the arena has even hosted political rallies – Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge spoke to the largest throng ever in the Gardens history with 19,000 on hand as they spoke October 25, 1960, and Barry Goldwater September 29, 1964, while seeking the nation’s top office. There was also an indoor “aqua-parade” starring Olympic swimmers and Tarzan movie star Buster Crabbe, and the musical play “Jesus Christ Superstar” was performed there, too.
Incredible Sports History
Of course, Cincinnati Gardens will forever be linked to great sporting events, especially hockey, basketball and boxing. The long hockey history includes the Cincinnati Mohawks (’49-’57), the popular Cincinnati Swords (’71-‘74), Cincinnati Cyclones (’90- ’97) and the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks (’97-’05).
But another professional hockey team played at the Gardens, too – one perhaps lost in the annals of history. The Cincinnati Wings of the Central Hockey League played twenty-eight games at the Gardens in 1963-64. The Indianapolis Capitals team moved from that city to the Queen City during the season with the Indiana Fairgrounds Coliseum in Indianapolis – the team’s home arena – exploded and caught fire, killing 74 people and injuring more than 300 – thus the Cincinnati Wings were born. The Gardens played the quasi-home for the Wings that season, but the tragedy was hard to overcome as the team amassed just a 12-53-7 record and a fifth place finish that season, including 8-20 at the Gardens.
The Cincinnati Mohawks, a Montreal Canadiens affiliate, played three seasons in the American Hockey League and six in the original International Hockey League. From 1952-1957, the Mohawks dominated the IHL, winning five straight Turner Cup championships, an IHL record that stood until the original league folded in 2001.
The Cincinnati Swords were an affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres and were immensely popular with fans in the early 1970’s with players like Gary Bromley, Rick Dudley, Rocky Farr, Billy Inglis and Ray “Spider” McKay. The Swords won the Calder Cup in their second season in 1973. The Cincinnati Cyclones performed successfully on and off the ice in both the ECHL and IHL over a seven-year span before choosing to vacate the facility in 1997, paving the way for the AHL to return the Queen City after a 24-year absence with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. Following an eight-year run – the longest by one franchise in the same league and same arena in Cincinnati pro hockey history – the Mighty Ducks were forced to suspend operations following the 2004-05 season due to the lack of an available NHL affiliate. Hockey remains alive and well at the Gardens, however, with both high school hockey and youth hockey playing in the grand old barn.
In addition to hockey, basketball – high school, college and the pros – will be forever linked with Cincinnati Gardens. One of Cincinnati’s favorite teams, the NBA Cincinnati Royals – with such stars as Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Sam Lacey and Nate “Tiny” Archibald – called the Gardens home from 1958-1972. The Royals franchise still exists today as the Sacramento Kings. The Gardens even hosted the NBA All-Star Game in 1966, where the best of the best competed and the Royals’ Adrian Smith was named game MVP. Another professional basketball team – the Cincinnati Slammers of the Continental Basketball League – played in the Gardens from 1985-1987.
College basketball has had a rich tradition at the Gardens since the arena’s inception, with both the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University playing on the Gardens’ hardwood. The Gardens was the home to dozens of Bearcats games and was the Musketeers proud home from 1983-2000.
Boxing has always been a favorite with Gardens’ fans, and they’ve seen the best from Golden Gloves championships to professional champs like Ezzard Charles, Wallace “Bud” Smith and Aaron Pryor, all hometown products.
As for other sports and entertainment, consider the Gardens legacy of the ever popular wrestling, with such stars as Georgeous George, The Sheik, Handsome Johnny Barend, Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and hundreds of other big time wrestlers who have entertained ardent Gardens’ crowds for decades. Other sporting events hosted by the Gardens include indoor football, as the Cincinnati Commandos began play in the spring of 2010. In their two season’s of existence, the Commandos captured their league championship (Continental Indoor Football League) twice. Professional soccer has also called the Gardens home. The Cincinnati Silverbacks played from 1995-1997 and the Cincinnati Kings moved to the Gardens in the fall of 2010. In addition, roller derby, rodeos, monster truck rallies, horse shows and indoor auto races on cement and ice, have also played the historic building.
Not Resting On Its Laurels
Cincinnati Gardens is not resting on its laurels. For its 50th year of operation, the Gardens underwent a beautification program to take it into the new century. Outside the building, there is new landscaping, with dozens of trees and flowerbeds, new lighting and wrought iron fencing and a 50th anniversary logo etched in marble in a courtyard area. Inside, visitors will find a fresh new paint scheme throughout the lobby and concourse area. Improvements have been made to the arena’s sound system and a videoboard was installed in 2011. The concession stands continue to offer new menu items. There are also modernized restrooms, new lighting and a remodeled press box, with full wireless internet capabilities.
One of the most exciting new additions to the Gardens in the recent years is Legends Museum. Legends Museum is a virtual memorabilia treasure trove of the thousands of exciting events that have taken place at the Gardens during its extraordinary 65-year history. Located on the second floor of the building’s east side, Legends Museum is open to the public free of charge before and during all events.