Blackhawks only part of story at Chicago Stadium
Chicago Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz is well-versed in Chicago Stadium legends. His family’s bloodline ran through the old arena for almost 60 years, starting with his grandfather, Arthur Wirtz, who bought the building in the early 1930s as a showcase for live entertainment and years later bought the Blackhawks.
“The best story is one time some pigeons got into the building and the arena manager had a clever idea that he would take his .22 rifle and shoot the pigeons,” Wirtz said. “But he didn’t figure out that it wasn’t that great until all of a sudden, the first rain came … right through the roof. We had to repair the roof. It was a clever idea that didn’t work, obviously.”
Years before public venues enacted no-smoking policies, Chicago Stadium officials, in conjunction with the city’s fire marshal, would announce during Blackhawks games that it was a nonsmoking building. Hockey fans disregarded the notice, though, and by the start of the third period, a smoky haze would form off the second balcony.
“Then I went to the concession stand and saw that we were still selling cigarettes,” Wirtz said, laughing. “This was when Sportservice ran the food. My grandfather and [Delaware North Cos. founder] Louis Jacobs were good friends. He was the concessionaire for all our buildings.”
|The scene inside Chicago Stadium, circa 1960s.
Food vendors, which later included the old Bismarck Enterprises, owned by the Wirtz family, faced the challenge of operating in a building with no elevators. Concession workers would form a line to manually lift kegs of beer to the upper levels, which was quite a feat, Rocky Wirtz said.
But after expending so much energy to get the heavy steel containers to the balconies, those same workers would take the easy way out when bringing the empties downstairs.
“The building manager came to us and said that the stairs were deteriorating going up to the first and second balcony and he couldn’t figure out why,” Wirtz said. “Well, what they used to do was take the [empty] kegs and bounce them down, literally roll them down the stairs.”
Bill Wirtz, Rocky’s father, took over the Blackhawks and Chicago Stadium after Arthur’s death in 1983. The United Center opened in 1994, and Chicago Stadium was torn down soon afterward.
On the first day of demolition, Rocky took Bill, who would die in 2007, to watch the wrecking ball strike the old arena.
“All of a sudden, there’s a police officer next to me, and I heard over his radio that they were towing a car with license plate WRW6,” Wirtz said. “I realized that’s my car. Tears are coming down my father’s face as they’re tearing down the building. I told the cop, ‘Get my damn car back. I know there’s no parking but you could at least let the owner see his building being torn down and not tow his car.’” The car stayed.
“It was a very sad day for my father because he had spent so much time there growing up,” Wirtz said. “His father — my grandfather — spent more time at the stadium than he did at home.”