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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Raising and Razing Roberts Stadium

Remembering the iconic site 10 years after it was demolished.

“Sunday night television’s ratings in Evansville must have dipped to an all-time low last night as more than 8,500 persons — either curious, skeptical, impatient, or fun-loving — turned out to overflow Evansville’s beautiful new Municipal Stadium for its inaugural attraction.”

Bill Robertson’s article in the Oct. 29, 1956, issue of the Evansville Press chronicled how a crowd of thousands feted Roberts Municipal Stadium at its opening event, a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game sponsored by the Press Youth Fund, on Oct. 28, 1956. Mesker Park Amphitheatre, The Centre, and the Victory Theatre co-managed the multi-purpose arena, drawing headlining music acts and sports events — and spectators — to Evansville.

Roberts Stadium hosted many seminal “I was there” moments, such as when the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, visited Evansville twice during the 1970s or when a choir of local vocalists joined pop singer Michael Bolton during a 1990s tour stop.

Robert stadium ticket
Image provided

Roberts Stadium perhaps is best known as the beating heart of basketball in Evansville, particularly as the longtime home court of the University of Evansville team. Sell-out crowds of 12,500 fans often cheered on the Aces or packed the stands when Roberts hosted the NCAA College Division — now known as Division II — men’s basketball national championships from 1957 to 1977.

The hardwood court was the vehicle for the team’s much-hyped entry into Division I in November of that year and, soon after, held thousands of people as they mourned the 29 lives lost when the team’s airplane crashed Dec. 13, 1977, shortly after taking off from Evansville Regional Airport on the way to a game in Tennessee.

Sports fans got their fill at Roberts Stadium, which hosted high school semi-state basketball tournaments and a few now-defunct professional teams, such as the Evansville Thunder of the Continental Basketball Association and the Evansville Bluecats of the National Indoor Football League.

Roberts stadium more recent
Image provided

“I was covering the Evansville Thunder in the mid-1980s, and it was eerily quiet because the Thunder usually drew around 1,000 fans per game,” says Gordon Engelhardt, a longtime local sports reporter. “However, I got to see Albany Patroons coach Phil Jackson — who later guided the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to several NBA titles — throw a clipboard across the floor after a last-second loss to Evansville. That was pretty cool.”

It may have seemed impossible for Roberts to reach an age of obsolescence, but times and tastes change. Near the end of the first decade of the 21st century, designs for a new multi-purpose arena in Downtown Evansville were taking shape, and rather than undergo a costly retrofit, the stadium on the East Side was winding down.

Many Tri-State residents, Engelhardt included, were present for Bob Dylan’s performance on Aug. 2, 2011, the next-to-last concert Roberts hosted. Kenny Chesney closed it out on Aug. 7. The Ford Center opened in Downtown Evansville later that year, and the stadium was shuttered soon after. It finally was torn down in January 2013. Efforts since have failed to revive the old stadium site near Wesselman Park or give it purpose.

Roberts stadium demolition
Image provided

“I loved Roberts,” Engelhardt says. “It oozed history and charm, kind of like an indoor Bosse Field. It’s so sad to see it has been gone for so long.”

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