Rock in memoriam
The newly renovated Memorial Auditorium is where The Rolling Stones, Ronald Reagan and prizefighters made history
Memorial Auditorium’s legend is varied and complex. But its pipe organ helps define the J Street monolith’s unique story.
About 30 years ago, organ historians renovated the 1926 Estey Opus concert model, which had a seriously mangled flange and a crushed top. It hadn’t been played for a decade. Like the building, it was old but still worked.
As for the damage, blame an overzealous elephant and a rock guitarist. According to the 1997 book, Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium: Seven Decades of Memories, elephants were stored with other animals in the basement when the circus came to town, beginning in 1935 and for more than 50 years. This one lodged its tusk into the machinery, although the exact circumstances are fuzzy. Decades later, the top of the organ was crushed by a rocker who jumped on the instrument with unfiltered enthusiasm during a show.
Presidential speeches, rock concerts, high school graduations, roller derby exhibitions—Memorial Auditorium is the city’s brick, mortar and terra cotta keeper of cultural history. It has withstood protests, possible demolition and environmental concerns. Inside, operas and orchestras once ruled, boxing championships were well-attended and immigrants en masse became citizens.
Following a nearly yearlong face-lift, the 92-year-old facility will reopen May 21 with a rock concert by the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Los Lobos. The auditorium’s upgrades are part of the city’s two-and-and-half-year undertaking called the C3 Project, which also includes expansion and renovation of the Community Center Theater and Sacramento Convention Center down the street.
Last September, the City Council unanimously approved the issuance of as much as $350 million in bonds to finance the project. The Community Center Theater and the Convention Center will close for construction this summer and will reopen in late 2020. Shows normally housed in those venues will be held at Memorial meantime, city officials say.
Memorial Auditorium’s $16 million in upgrades include a new ground floor and refurbished upper-floor seating, enhanced acoustics, upgraded theatrical lighting and sound equipment and new concession stands and lobby monitors. For the performers: new stage flooring and renovated dressing rooms.
“The biggest challenge is trying to preserve the historical aspect of the building,” says Sabrina Tefft, a C3 Project manager. “We wanted to make sure that what we added to it … [matched] the historical intent of the design and the aesthetic.”
The biggest additions to the building were a loading dock to the I Street side for Broadway tour shows, and temporary restrooms on the first floor, Tefft says. As for the organ: it’s being restored and digitized.
The auditorium opened in 1927, dedicated to local World War I veterans. The San Carlos Opera performed Aida in its first commercial event. Jack Benny played the violin at Gov. Ronald Reagan’s inaugural in 1971.
It occupies a place with other iconic structures including Sutter’s Fort and the Elks Tower, says Sacramento historian William Burg.
Then there’s the rock ’n’ roll lore.
“I was interviewing one of the founders of KZAP and he saw The Who there,” Burg says. “He thought it was great, but the mothers who took their pre-teen daughters there were kind of shocked when the band was smashing their instruments, and there was smoke billowing from the stage.”
During the 1960s and ’70s, the auditorium hosted stars including The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Jefferson Starship, Ted Nugent, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Frank Zappa. It had a double bill of Cream (Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce) and the Grateful Dead in March 1968.
Beach Boys Concert, recorded at Memorial in 1963, was the first live album released by an American rock band. The Beach Boys returned a year later, and fans rushed the stage. Police couldn’t control the crowd, and the show was canceled.
In December 1965, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was rushed to the hospital after nearly being electrocuted when his guitar touched a non-grounded microphone while playing a new song, “The Last Time.”
Mick Martin—the longtime area musician, broadcaster and former rock critic for the Sacramento Union newspaper—has told many times of his attendance at Richards’ ordeal.
“I was right there in the front row, in front of Keith,” Martin said in a 2013 Huffington Post interview. “I saw the blue light. I literally saw Keith fly into the air backward. I thought he was dead. I was horrified. We all were. Silence fell over the crowd. They carried him out with oxygen tubes, and he was semiconscious. I patted him on the shoulders and said, ’I hope you’re going to be OK.’”
Richards recovered, of course. The Rolling Stones played Memorial again in 1966, adding another memory to the building without incident.