It is The Forum. The Los Angeles Forum. The Great Western Forum. And it is, as it once was and forever shall be, the Fabulous Forum, celebrating its 50th birthday on December 30.
It was designed by Charles Luckman, who graced the cover of Time Magazine as the “boy wonder of American business” when he was only 27 years old and went on to design Madison Square Garden, Aloha Stadium, Lever House, the Johnson Space Center, Cape Canaveral Space Center, and much, much more, often to great controversy and debate. “I am firm in my belief,” he told The New Yorker, “that architecture is a business and not an art.”
The Fabulous Forum was built in 54 weeks, costing Jack Kent Cooke $12.2 million on top of the $4 million that he had paid to purchase 29.5 acres for its site. It was called The Forum to connect it with its spiritual antecedent, the Roman Forum, which also featured entertainment for the masses, the exploits of larger than life men, and, most significantly and unsubtly, a row of massive columns for the spectators to behold and then walk through. (It also continued Los Angeles’s historical Roman theme; the L.A. Coliseum had been around since 1923.) “The most innovative part of the Forum’s construction, though,” Emily Hummel observed for LAKings.com, “was its tension ring suspended roof construction, unprecedented at the time, which meant that the building had internal support columns. This led to unparalleled views of the action, especially considering no seat was more than 170 feet from the ice.”
The 1967-1968 season was an important one in NHL history. The Original Six of Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, New York, Detroit, and Boston now had company in the form of an all-expansion division, the West Division, which introduced the Cooke’s L.A. Kings along with the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars, and Oakland Seals (who became the California Golden Seals and Cleveland Barons before merging with Minnesota).
When the facility was at last ready for its debut, December 30, 1967, the Kings had already played 34 games. No matter: The Philadelphia Flyers flew in and CBS was on hand to broadcast the game around the nation. The Kings lost, 2-0 — “Gad, was I disappointed,” said Cooke to the Los Angeles Times twenty years later —and the Forum was officially open for business.
The next day, while the Kings were losing 9-1 in Philly, the 21-17 Los Angeles Lakers showed up for their first game in the Forum. These Lakers were no expansion team. They dated proudly back to 1948 in Minneapolis, when they started a run of five league championships in six years. They relocated to Los Angeles in 1960, were purchased by Jack Kent Cooke in 1965, and sat annually atop the Western Division. In their first Forum affair, the Lakers cruised past the expansion San Diego Rockets on New Year’s Eve, 147-118. And then, wrote Bob Oates in the Los Angeles Times, “when the game was over and the crowd had dispersed, Cooke’s electrician turned off the master switch and went home. Upstairs, entirely in the dark, reporters cussed and shouted about deadlines and tried to carry on by lighting matches at their typewriters. ‘We finally found the light switch,’ Cooke’s former publicist Hank Ives recalled. ‘But some guys did miss a deadline.’”
The Forum’s entertainment wasn’t restricted to ice and hardwood (or even hard courts – it was the home for Chris Evert’s L.A. Strings in 1975). The first concerts on site were held in October 1968, with Deep Purple opening for Cream on its farewell tour. In 1969, the Rolling Stones kicked off their Fall tour at the Forum, their first tour in three years, and the resulting spectacle was credited for birthing “arena rock.” The Doors, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Steppenwolf, Jackson 5, Elvis Presley, The Who, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney & Wings, Neil Diamond, all played at the Forum. Led Zeppelin rocked 16 concerts at the venue in the 1970s, Diana Ross hosted a 1981 television special, and Prince dazzled in show after show in 2011. A grand re-opening in 2014 following a renovation was celebrated by six Eagles concerts, succeeded by Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Tom Petty, and onward.
Jack Kent Cooke wasn’t around for the majority of the music. The Squire sold his teams and arena (and 13,000-acre ranch) to Dr. Jerry Buss in 1979 in the largest transaction in sports history to that date, amounting $67.5 million. Cooke saw one Lakers championship at the Forum, in 1972. Buss celebrated titles at the Forum in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988, as the Lakers became the NBA’s preeminent franchise. Then the Lakers left, too, departing the Forum in 1999 in favor of Buss’s new STAPLES Center, where they captured five more rings in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, and 2010. They did come back once, in 2009, celebrating their 50th birthday as a franchise with an exhibition game at the Forum
While Buss continued to own the Lakers, he did not share Cooke’s passion for hockey. Bruce McNall purchased majority holdings in the Kings in the late 1980s, acquiring 100% control of the team in 1988. Great Western Bank purchased naming rights, and the arena was renamed the Great Western Forum. As part of the agreement, the Forum’s exterior color of “California sunset red” (or “Roman red”) was painted blue.
On August 9, 1988, McNall’s Kings landed Wayne Gretzky, the top player in the sport, in a five-player, three-draft-pick deal with the Edmonton Oilers. The Great One played the next eight seasons in Los Angeles, leading the league in points three times and bringing the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup Final. The Kings brought a 1-1 tie series to the Great Western Forum, but lost back-to-back home games in overtime and dropped the series in five games. It was as close as Gretzky’s Kings would come to greatness. Gretzky was traded to St. Louis in 1996.
Three years later, the Kings were skating in STAPLES Center, the site of their eventual Stanley Cup wins in 2012 and 2014, at last attaining the first titles in franchise history. The Forum, their former rink, was not quite how they left it: Purchased by the Madison Square Garden Company, it had been upgraded with a $50 million renovation that added new lighting, new seating, and new video boards… and restored its California sunset red exterior.
As the Forum heads into its golden year, it continues to look forward. The Olympics returns to Los Angeles in ten years’ time. In 1984, the last time the Olympics came to L.A., the Forum hosted basketball. This time, gymnastics — perhaps the Summer Olympics’ most-watched events — will be held inside the columns.
Image courtesy The Forum.
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