In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when we are told our friends and neighbors age 65 and older are especially vulnerable, country music legend Kenny Rogers’ recent death hit me hard.
As all of us aged, Rogers perpetually looked like he was about 65 — since before I was born until his final public appearance. He was the quintessential old white guy with a beard.
Perhaps my first recollection of an internet meme — years before the word was commonly used that way — was MenWhoLookLikeKennyRogers.com, a now-defunct website cataloging photos of hundreds of men with beards and hairdos similar to Rogers’. Such men are not hard to find. Rogers was country America’s dear uncle.
I took some solace and struck a smile when I learned last week about the controversy Rogers set off in Eastern Iowa 40 years ago.
In August 1980, Rogers headlined a concert at the former Five Seasons Center in downtown Cedar Rapids, now called the U.S. Cellular Center. It was one of the first big shows at the arena, which opened a year before and was built with taxpayer money following the long-awaited approval of a public bond referendum that had previously failed.
The Cedar Rapids concert came at the peak of Rogers’ recording career, following a string of No. 1 country singles from the previous few years, including the iconic track “The Gambler.” The John Travolta film “Urban Cowboy” — a nod to the soft, counter-traditionalist musical style popularized by Rogers and others — was released the same summer, with a Rogers song on the soundtrack.
Kenny Rogers at the local arena was a big deal. Footage of the show was set to be used in an upcoming made-for-TV documentary, and busloads of volunteers were recruited to appear in staged shots welcoming Rogers to town.
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In a front-page story the day tickets went on sale, The Gazette reported that fans camped out overnight to be in line when the ticket office opened. Underscoring the wide public interest in the event, it was Gazette city government reporter Dick Hogan, not an arts and entertainment reporter, who covered the story.
An estimated 1,500 people were in line when sales opened. Tickets were so hot that organizers scheduled a second show to be played the same day. Shortly after tickets for the 8 p.m. show sold out, tickets for a 4 p.m. show were made available to people waiting in line.
Center managers made a controversial decision not to limit the number of tickets each person could purchase, giving rise to allegations that scalpers were buying up tickets and hiking the price for resale.
Locals were angry about the ticketing process, and the drama played out in the letters-to-the-editor section of The Gazette.
LaDonna Harford of Cedar Rapids wrote to say the arena manager “has no concern or respect for the people of this city,” adding that her friend had waited in line over 16 hours to get tickets.
Hal Nissen of Swisher wrote to complain scalpers were advertising tickets in the newspaper for $25, or about twice face value.
“For whose benefit was the facility constructed — large organizations’ and ticket scalpers’ or individuals’ like you and me?” Nissen wrote.
You could copy and paste that letter into tomorrow’s newspaper and it would be just as relevant.
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Four decades later, people in Eastern Iowa still are debating the proper use of government resources to promote events and tourism.
The same battle lines were firmly in place two years ago when the “newbo evolve” festival flopped and locals were outraged at the lack of accountability from the city government, which helped fund the fiasco.
Rogers is gone, and he picked a fine time to leave us. As we endure the present crisis, we can fondly remember simpler crises of yesteryear.
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