February 10, 2013

The last hurrahs for the Bangor Auditorium

The Bangor Auditorium, a stage for so many graceful high school basketball players through the years, prepares for a graceful exit.

By Tom Chard tchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BANGOR - The Bangor Auditorium has been the place every Eastern Maine high school basketball player has wanted to be in late February for the last 57 years.

click image to enlarge

It was a place to be part of a community, to convene each school vacation week in February and root for a high school basketball team. The Bangor Auditorium became a place for memories, a wonderful place to see a game. It became The Mecca. Soon it will be no more.

Kennebec Journal photo/Jeff Pouland

click image to enlarge

The Bangor Auditorium has been a fixture of the city’s skyline since the mid-1950s. It will be replaced by a 6,000-seat building with all the amenities, but it will never be replaced by those who treasure its architecture and hours watching basketball inside its walls.

Michael C. York photo

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A CHANCE FOR THAT ONE LAST SHOT

To commemorate the Bangor Auditorium, there will be a shoot-around at the Auditorium on March 16-17. All former players are being invited back to take one last shot or shots on the court. The invitation also extends to the public. Former players Bill Burney of Augusta and Steve Pound of Greenville are organizing the event in conjunction with the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame.

"We're going to have different shooting games," said Burney. "We want to send the Auditorium off in good fashion."

So make sure you bring your sneakers and your shooting eye.

The Maine Principals' Association is planning a tribute to the Bangor Auditorium. On the cover of the Eastern Class C tournament program, there will be a picture of the Bangor Auditorium at the top and the new Cross Insurance Center on the bottom. Then, before the Class C girls' state championship game March 2, the MPA will present a plaque to the city of Bangor in appreciation of all the Eastern Maine tournaments held at the Auditorium.

- Tom Chard

BANGOR AUDITORIUM MEMORIES

Cindy Blodgett:

"I really think it's our equivalent of Madison Square Garden."

Matt Rossignol:

(As a kid) "you went there dreaming about when it would be your time."

Missy (Belanger) Tracy

"Once you go there as a player, you dream of getting back."

Jim Bessey

"You couldn't audible. Your players couldn't hear. You had to have visuals."

The dream of playing in the tournament in the famed building has encouraged generations of youngsters to take a few more shots at the basket in the driveway.

Driving along Interstate 395 or standing across the Penobscot River in Brewer, there's no mistaking the unique V-shaped roof of the building. It's been a part of the city skyline since 1955, but this winter will be the final time teams will travel to the venue often referred to as The Mecca.

One last time. One last set of tournaments that will start Friday.

The building that has stood sentinel to the Paul Bunyan statue on Main Street will be razed in late May in favor of the 6,000-seat Cross Insurance Center that will open Sept. 20.

While time has passed the Auditorium by, the memories remain.

There have been concerts, pro wrestling and boxing matches, political conventions, trade shows, the Shrine Circus, the Bangor State Fair and other events. But the annual high school basketball tournament has given the building its folklore status. Fans from Aroostook County, Down East and other Eastern Maine areas make the pilgrimage each February school vacation. For many, it's a community event.

"Most people feel that the Auditorium is as much a part of the tournament as the tournament itself," said Peter Webb, the state basketball commissioner.

Webb, 74, of Stetson, has been part of the tournament scene since 1956, first as a player for Houlton High, then as an assistant coach, a referee, and for the last 23 years as the commissioner who selects and evaluates referees for the Eastern and Western Maine tournaments.

"I've been to state tournaments along the Eastern seaboard, in the South and the Midwest, and the excitement generated for a tournament at the Bangor Auditorium can't be replicated," said Webb. "The Auditorium was built for basketball at a time when there was no ESPN or March Madness. Television was fairly new. The spectators are close to the court and the noise seems to funnel down to the court.

"You feel like you're right on top of the action. It all adds to the excitement. I'm going to miss the building and all of the intricacies associated with it."

MEMORIES, SO MANY MEMORIES

The Auditorium is where Barry Tapley, a standout for Easton High, scored eight points in 30 seconds late in the 1956 Eastern Class S final against Beals, only to have his team lose by a point.

It's where Morse beat Stearns 61-60 in two overtimes for the state title in 1963. Two weeks later, Stearns beat Morse for the New England championship at the Boston Garden.

It's where Mike Thurston of Caribou made arguably the most famous shot in Auditorium history. His half-court heave at the buzzer beat Westbrook 65-63 for the Class LL state title in 1969.

The Auditorium is where Matt Rossignol of Van Buren and Cindy Blodgett of Lawrence sold out the place most every time they played.

It's also where country singer Kenny Rogers had the roof leak on him during a 1988 concert. President Obama visited in 2008, and President Carter held a town meeting there in 1978.

"Anyone who has been to the Bangor Auditorium has a special memory," said Adam Smith, the Yarmouth High boys' coach who grew up in Newport, and played and coached in the building.

"Spending February vacation in the Bangor Auditorium is what you did. If you wanted to meet someone from your town, you would go to the Auditorium."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

The welcome sign remains out at the Bangor Auditorium, although there are precious few days remaining to welcome visitors. This year’s Eastern Maine tournament will be the final one at the venerable building.

Michael C. York photo

click image to enlarge

Watching your step has been a key part to watching a game at the Bangor Auditorium. Steep inclines prevail and the higher you go, the smaller the players appear on the court. But that has always been part of the fun in a building that has provided so much fun to so many over the years.

Michael C. York photo

click image to enlarge

Bill Burney



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