David Bowie at the Tacoma Dome
The year was 1983, and Tacoma saw the unveiling of a significant new entertainment venue.
The Lettermen and Rick Nelson were still on the concert circuit and were the entertainment for the Tacoma Dome’s opening weekend that April as the city celebrated its “dome of our own.”
“Every major city in the United States has something to which they can point with pride,” then-Mayor Doug Sutherland said at the time. “San Francisco has the Golden Gate, St. Louis has its arch. Now Tacoma has its Dome.”
By August of that year, the Dome’s first major concert was rolling into town, none other than David Bowie. His “Serious Moonlight” tour was at the time his longest and most successful concert run.
Since then, the venue has hosted a multitude of graduations, sports events, exhibitions, and concerts. Recent headliners have included Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood and their stretch of five shows.
“My wife and I just moved up from Austin last year. We went to the Garth Brooks show at the Dome as our first concert in Tacoma,” recalled Aaron Bender, who has shot aerials of the venue for his Facebook page, Over Tacoma. “Our family also came down from Seattle and Anacortes to go with us. It was an amazing ‘Welcome to Tacoma’ moment.”
As the Dome marks 35 years as a premier venue in the area, it’s on the cusp of a sweeping interior revamp that will close the site starting in mid-June for about three months.
The $30 million project will bring better seating, additional restrooms and upgrades to existing restrooms on the lower level. Dome officials say there will be enhancements to security and safety, as well as food and beverage upgrades, though details are still to come.
Fans will say goodbye to the hard benches in the upper rafters and hello to more comfortable seating. Though the new seating will add up to about the same capacity, the seats will be wider and provide 6 more inches of legroom.
The new telescopic seats will take three months to install. Once in place, they will allow for quicker turnarounds between events — to one day, down from the current two to three days. That means more event days and an end to the awkward storage of seats in the parking lot.
The site’s heating and air conditioning system, lighting and audio will get attention as well.
With these changes, plus a recent request for proposals for an entertainment district next door to the Dome, the next 35 years could bring yet another transformation to Tacoma and its iconic venue.
UPGRADES ENHANCE ABILITY TO COMPETE
Kim Bedier, director for Tacoma venues and events, said she and the Dome staff recognize the deep connections the facility has with the city and all the collective memories generated from the site’s events.
"People have cheered this building on throughout (its lifetime) and it’s part of the fabric of the community,” she said.
The public also recognizes that improvements to the Dome, are long overdue, Bedier said.
The work will knock the Dome out of summer tours (last summer's acts included Roger Waters, Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga) but it is positioned to come back stronger than ever, new seats and all.
Some of that improved outlook is because of an overhaul planned for one of the Dome’s rivals up the road, Seattle’s KeyArena, with a planned $600 million renovation.
“Our timing is really appropriate with our refreshed Dome,” Bedier said. “We have the opportunity to capture some additional business right off the bat” when the Dome reopens.
“Key gets more concerts than we do, perhaps even getting the first look from promoters, but these changes help us become even more competitive,” she said.
As the facility winds down operations for the revamp, it still has a full calendar — the Tacoma Guitar Festival this weekend, Shania Twain booked for May 3, Chris Young for May 19 and the last major concert before the shutdown, Maroon 5, on May 30.
And, let’s not forget the 30 area graduations that will occupy the Dome through mid-June.
It’s not always been pop stars and graduates pulling in the crowds.
August 1989 brought a young Shaun Scott (now a sports reporter with Sound Publishing) and his father to the Dome to see some ‘80s wrestling superstars.
“Back in my childhood, I was a huge fan of the WWF Wrestling Federation," Scott said. "I was 6 or 7 years old at the time and my dad bought me tickets to the event at the Tacoma Dome.
“The main event was Andre the Giant vs. The Ultimate Warrior. My dad, who figured the main event would be held as the grand finale, went to the concession to get some food for us during the middle of the show. Little did he know, the next match-up was Andre the Giant vs. The Ultimate Warrior.
"The match between the two superstars lasted less than a minute. The Ultimate Warrior beat Andre that fast. By the time my dad got back to our seats with our food and drinks, both wrestlers were already back in the locker room.
“Over the years we always laughed and joked about that. He was standing in line and missed the two superstars.”
Anna Lynn wrote The News Tribune describing working at the Dome in the 1980s. In 1987, she was assigned to work Motley Crue’s dressing room door.
“Motley Crue arrived at the Dome by landing a helicopter in the back parking lot," she recalled. "Motley had two backup singers called the Nasty Habits.
"One of the Nasty Habits had graduated from Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma, Emi Canyn. She had so many family and friends there to see her that she ran out of backstage passes. I allowed her to bring her entire group back stage and she took my address and sent me a signed photograph of Motley Crue!”
Bedier had her own favorite memory from an AC/DC show at the Dome.
“I looked around, and there had to have been 10,000 wearing flashing devil ears,” she said.
For her part, she'll be happy when the Dome returns later this year ready for the next big show.
Justin Timberlake will be its first major concert in November.