WORCESTER — In the years after the Centrum opened its doors nearly four decades ago, there was a steady sound of music coming from the city arena, with close to 60 concerts a year for the first five years.
And close to 40 concerts annually in the five years after that.
In 1986, Pollstar named the Centrum the second most popular entertainment facility in the country, with 11 of the 200 top-grossing concerts in the nation. The top money-grossing entertainers at the Centrum were Neil Diamond ($911,983), followed by Van Halen ($762,386).
In August 1987, the band Boston played nine sold-out concerts, which translates to $1,962,000 in gross sales. A combined 104,209 in attendance help make it the longest run of sell-out shows ever at the Centrum, now known as the DCU Center.
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But over time, the venue’s stranglehold on concerts — and its standing as a go-to tour stop for some bigger acts — started to lose its volume.
In the 10 years before COVID-19 upended normalcy, the DCU Center hosted, on average, between eight to 12 music shows in a good year and a low of three shows in a bad year.
In the decade that followed its 1982 opening, the Centrum hosted 469 concerts, compared with 70 concerts at the DCU Center in the 10 years before COVID.
Many factors contributed to the fading of the music at the Centrum/DCU Center. Notably, there are more concert locations, among them shed venues (beginning with what was then the Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts and now Xfinity Center), the construction of a newer, bigger Boston Garden and, in recent years, something no concert insider could have predicted — the popularity of summer concerts at Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium.
“We were doing an average of 60 concerts a year, which back then was just unheard of,” said Richard A. Krezwick, general manager at the Centrum in the early years, starting in customer service. “The Centrum was a phenomenon. It really was a perfect storm in the ‘80s and competition was a lot less than what it is today.”
In its four-decade existence, Worcester’s premier concert arena has had a small handful of names — the Centrum, the Worcester Centrum, the Centrum of Worcester, Worcester’s Centrum Centre and the DCU Center.
Sinatra gets it started
Frank Sinatra opened the Centrum in grand fashion on Sept. 2, 1982.
“Sinatra opening up a building, he had never done that. He never opened up an arena in his career, yet we (the Centrum) got him to do that,” said Antonio G. Tavares, the Centrum’s first general manager. “That was not an easy pull. We called in a lot of favors and had to make a lot of assurances.”
The momentum continued after the Chairman of the Board headed out of town.
“If you (were) doing 30 concerts in a year, you were a good arena. A great arena was doing 40 concerts a year,” Tavares added. “We did 63 concerts in our first year. So we were red-hot.”
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Krezwick gives credit for the Centrum’s success to Tavares.
“Tony was very aggressive. He had great experience and he knew a lot of people,” Krezwick said. “When other buildings would get a Neil Diamond show, we were getting four. Van Halen would play somewhere else but we get three Van Halen shows and that was Tony’s aggressive deal making. And I learned a lot from him and he turned out to be the No. 1 mentor in my career.”
Tavares explained the Centrum’s winning game plan.
“We were bigger than Providence. We were bigger than New Haven. We were bigger than Hartford, although they added seats after the fact, and smaller than Boston. But, we were cost-effective,” Tavares said. “We made the argument that Boston people for the right shows will come to Worcester and certainly Hartford and Providence people would come here. So why not play multiple shows, cut down on your traveling expenses, stay in the same spot and we’ll sell out multiple shows for you and that’s exactly what occurred.”
Rob Barnett was the program director of WAAF 107.3 FM when the Centrum opened.
“We had the greatest artists in music on that stage almost every night. As a fan, it was heaven. As the program director of the rock radio station, it was perfection,” Barnett said. “Worcester was always out in the burbs from the big city but now we got the biggest big-city entertainment. We were the center of the rock ‘n’ roll universe and that was really magical.”
In addition to Sinatra, the Centrum welcomed Blue Oyster Cult, the Boston Bruins, Fleetwood Mac, Anne Murray, Ted Nugent and Rick Springfield in its first month alone.
When the month ended, the Centrum had topped $1.25 million in ticket sales and, with 19 events, out-booked any comparable arena in the country.
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On Sept. 22, 1982, Tavares said the Centrum was averaging ticket sales of about $30,000 a day, which was higher than those recorded during the same period at Philadelphia’s Spectrum, said to be the most successful arena in the country at that time.
In its second month, October 1982, the Centrum hit more than $1 million in ticket sales and, during November 1982, the Centrum’s third month in operation, the Centrum generated gross ticket sales of more than $2 million.
For the Centrum’s first three months, gross ticket sales topped $4.3 million and the arena had 432,249 patrons attending events.
In its first year, the Centrum was used 197 times. There were 158 events scheduled for the main arena, 63 concerts (compared to the Boston Garden’s three) and 39 events in the exhibition hall. A total of 1,126,304 people passed through the doors, including 60,473 in the exhibition hall. Gross ticket sales for events through the first calendar year came to $11,432,322.
Not only did Worcester have the hottest concert venue in New England, it arguably had also one of the hottest venues in the country. And for the next several years, Worcester was a popular destination stop for every major concert tour that trekked through North America.
Centrum vs. Boston Garden
When it opened, the Centrum’s only competition was the old Boston Garden, which was notorious for poor acoustics, lack of air conditioning and obstructed seats.
David R. Mawson — who was a rock columnist, concert reviewer and entertainment writer for the Worcester Telegram from 1982 to 1989 and then became the features editor for the newly merged Telegram & Gazette in 1989 and served in that capacity through August 2001 — said the old Boston Garden couldn’t compete against the Centrum.
“The old Garden was a terrible place to see a show,” Mawson said. “The acoustics were horrible and the sight lines were terrible. So if you sat in the balcony, you just weren’t seeing the show. You’re seeing the people’s heads in front of you.”
When it came to concerts, the Centrum certainly owned the 1980s.
While the head-to-head comparison of gross ticket sales for September 1982 (its first month) to September 1983 favored the former, $1,257,218 to $745,741, the Centrum was still a sophomore success.
According to Centrum figures, its box office had a better October in 1983 ($1,133,365) than it did in October 1982 ($1,084,459). Overall, from September 1982 through the end of October 1983, the Centrum amassed gross ticket sales of $13,311,438.
On Billboard magazine’s list of top-grossing concerts for the month ending Dec. 13, 1983, two Centrum shows made it in the top five — at No. 3, Kenny Rogers’ three-concert stay Nov. 26-27, 1983 ($537,964) and at No. 5, the return of Frank Sinatra ($301,510 on Nov. 25). Furthermore, two Genesis shows on Nov. 28 ($193,204) and Nov. 29 ($131,260), combined with the Sinatra and the Rogers, shows gave the Centrum $1,099,648 million in tickets (and $200,000 in profit) for just five days.
On July 21, 1985, Tina Turner kicked off her U.S. “Private Dancer” concert tour, marking the first of six successive nights of concerts at the Centrum, followed by two Huey Lewis and the News concerts and two Robert Plant concerts.
Great Woods makes debut
After dominating the concert scene for several years in New England, the Centrum suffered a business setback in the summer of 1986 when the new 15,000-seat outdoor amphitheater, Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in Mansfield, established itself as a popular summer concert venue.
“Don Law was the rock promoter in New England for the last 50 years and Don owned Great Woods. So, of course, he wanted to put as many shows on as he could at Great Woods because he was the landlord and the tenant,” Krezwick said.
“The outdoor amphitheater had much more seating capacity. Don Law could put more people on his lawn and seats than we (the Centrum) could,” Tavares added. “He was controlling all of the revenue stream so he had a vested interest in trying to see as much go there as possible.”
In the summer of 1986, the Centrum had only three shows booked in June, nothing booked in July, but for August had four sold-out Van Halen shows and two Stevie Wonder shows.
The Centrum took in $1.3 million in gross receipts from the four Van Halen dates and two Stevie Wonder shows, making “almost a summer’s worth of business in one week,” and one of its top weeks, then Centrum General Manager Neil R. Sulkes said at the time.
While they had serious competition for the summer with Great Woods, the Centrum still owned the fall. And in the fall of 1986, the Centrum bounced back in a big way with shows from David Lee Roth, the Moody Blues, Lionel Richie and Journey, as well as two sold-out shows by Bob Seger and two sold-out shows from Billy Joel, just for October.
The Dead, Huey Lewis and U2
The period from March 28 and May 10, 1987, was the most profitable six-week period in the history of the building, with gross ticket sales of $4,135,194. During the 44-day period, the Centrum hosted 17 concerts, 14 of which were sellouts, including three sold shows each by the Grateful Dead, Huey Lewis and the News and U2.
The Centrum’s peak years came between 1986 and 1990, when annual ticket sales topped $12 million for five straight years, reaching a high of $16 million in 1990.
The Centrum came out of the Reagan era in a good position and on track to do the same in the 1990s.
In fiscal 1992, the Centrum also topped $12 million.
Then in 1995, the Centrum faced its biggest setback since Great Woods.
Tired of playing second fiddle to the Worcester Centrum, the 20,000-seat FleetCenter (now the TD Garden) opened its doors, replacing Boston Garden. The FleetCenter, now boasting 5,000 seats more than the Worcester arena, immediately became fierce competition. And Worcester has been feeling the repercussions ever since.
“The 15-year-old Centrum is replaced by a brand-new, bigger building in downtown Boston. You can’t compete with that. That’s impossible competition,” Krezwick said. “So the Garden does their shows. Worcester does their shows and Xfinity does theirs.”
The advantage of the TD Garden having 5,000 more seats than the DCU Center is only an advantage if the artist is going to sell 5,000 more seats, said Sandra L. Dunn, the current general manager of the DCU Center.
“If you’re going to sell 10,000 seats, then economically they are better off to come here because I’m less expensive,” Dunn said. “But if you’re going to sell 18,000 seats, you’re better off to go there (to the TD Garden) because I don’t have enough seats.”
Despite the FleetCenter’s seating-capacity advantage, the Centrum still has had its share of high-profile concerts and triumphs.
Remember the Beastie Boys?
On Aug. 25, 1998, the Beastie Boys played to a Centrum audience of 15,400 attendees, which is still the attendance record for one concert in the arena. On April 7, 2000, Andrea Bocelli grossed three times as much as the Centrum’s previous top-grossing event.
With the help of Bocelli, the Centrum once again topped the $12 million mark in fiscal 2000.
The Centrum ranked fourth in gross ticket sales during 2003 among venues of its size, according to Billboard magazine’s annual venue rankings. Despite dropping one spot in the rankings, the Centrum saw its gross sales jump to $10.6 million from $8.9 million a year earlier. A concert by the band Phish drew the largest crowd, with 14,201 in attendance, and grossed more than $500,000 in ticket sales. However, the venue’s top-grossing act that year was Fleetwood Mac with more than $1 million.
Then in September 2003, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played two shows at Fenway, marking a new era for the historic ballpark and a new thorn in the side of the DCU Center.
Slowly but surely, more and more concerts were being booked at the home of the Red Sox, and more and more of them were sellouts that easily doubled, even tripled, the amount of concertgoers the DCU Center could hold.
“Bands can make more money certainly playing Fenway Park, where 36,000 is their capacity,” said Steve Morse, a former music critic at The Boston Globe. He now teaches rock history at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Barnett, the former WAAF program director, said he never thought seeing an act playing in a baseball field was an ideal way to see music.
“There’s just no intimacy to something like that and you just feel so far away from the act,” Barnett said. “I’m sure a lot of fans must love it because it’s successful but it just seemed like that (playing in a ballpark) should have be relegated to the Beatles’ memory and that’s it.”
Fenway Park not just for baseball
Once Fenway Park put its hat in the concert arena, Mawson, a longtime baseball fan and purist, said he wasn’t surprised either by the ballpark’s overwhelming success because Fenway Park has become a tourist destination.
“I call it Six Flags Fenway,” Mawson said.
It’s difficult for the DCU Center to compete against Fenway Park, Dunn acknowledges. But the silver lining, she said, is Fenway is taking away concerts from the TD Garden, not the DCU Center.
“Saying the DCU Center competes with Fenway Park is like saying a Volkswagen car competes with a Boeing airline jet. … It’s not even in the same realm,” Dunn said.
What is impactful to the DCU Center, Dunn said, are the compilation shows at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, when a half-dozen country or hip-hop artists are packaged together as a festival because those artists, as individuals or a double bill, could have played Worcester. Now those artists are out of the mix.
Still, despite the added competition from Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, the DCU Center still has its share of small triumphs.
With two sold-out Pearl Jam shows and two sold-out Phish shows, in addition to the circus and the Worcester Sharks, October 2013 marked the best single month for the combined DCU Center Arena & Convention Center facility in over 15 years — 87,958 patrons, 49 events and $710,000 in event income.
As for enlarging the seating capacity, Dunn said the city has had and continues to have multiple architects look at the DCU Center but there is no way they are going to match or surpass the TD Garden.
Dunn said the DCU Center is not just competing against the TD Garden anymore. They are also competing against the Xfinity Center, Lowell’s Tsongas Arena, the Leader Bank Pavilion (formerly Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion, Blue Hills Bank Pavilion and Bank of America) and Boston University’s Agganis Arena. And in the plans is the 5,000-seat MGM Music Hall at Fenway.
As a result, the glory days of the Centrum are long gone and will never return. But the Centrum had a good run and a run longer than most.
“The glory days, if you will, are behind us,” Tavares said. “It is what it is.”
“There isn’t any glory days anymore. It’s gone…Let it go,” Dunn said. “The glory days are a strong Evanescence and Halestorm concert (which happened on Jan. 20) and doing Ghost and Volbeat (scheduled for Feb. 11)… We are in the glory days.”
To date, the Centrum/DCU Center has hosted more than 700 concerts since its Sept. 2, 1982, gala opening, including 469 concerts in the Centrum’s first 10 years.
For much of its existence, the Centrum/DCU Center has been a moneymaker, but, in recent years, nothing compared to the glory days of the Centrum.
In the last five year before COVID, the DCU Center’s net operating income was $241,707 in fiscal 2015; $590,882 in fiscal 2016; $1,045,093 in fiscal 2017; $987,548 in fiscal 2018; and $1,001,823, fiscal 2019.
Then, on March 13, 2020, COVID hit and crippled the concert industry and concert arenas across the country.
As a result, the DCU Center experienced something the Centrum in its glory days never did: suffer a financial loss, first $1,020,825 in fiscal 2020, followed by $496,647 in fiscal 2021.
“The Centrum had a great run. All the great acts played there,” Morse said. “But nothing lasts forever.”