After the end of World War II, America’s economic vigor and optimism manifested itself, in Milwaukee, in a construction boom of new sports and entertainment venues and cultural institutions; these included a new art museum, a major-league baseball stadium, and a modern sports arena. Construction began next door to the Milwaukee Auditorium in 1948, and the new, 12,200-seat Milwaukee Arena was dedicated on April 9, 1950.
The building’s architecture is characteristic of post-war modernism, trimmed with the stainless-steel curves found on the kitchen tables and drive-in restaurants of the era. It was one of the first arenas in America designed to accommodate the new medium of television, but remains a truly spectator-friendly venue.
The geometry of its interior “bowl” remains to this day one of the Arena’s most notable and inimitable features. The rake and height of its seating, the curve of its barrel roof, the acoustics and the lighting combine to give the Arena a legendary reputation as a very intense venue, extremely conducive to fan fervor – and noise. It has no obstructed-view seats, no “nosebleed” balcony, and excellent sightlines at every angle. Every spectator feels close to the action, and visiting coaches and players speak of Arena games in terms of nightmares and cold sweats. The Marquette University Warriors (now “Golden Eagles”) and the Milwaukee Bucks both maintained virtual dynasties through much of the 1960’s and 1970’s, in a part due to their home-court records in the Arena.
In the ensuing years, the Arena has also hosted presidential speeches from Truman to Obama, as well as corporate assemblies, roller derby, hockey, wrestling, circuses, plays, ice shows, and hundreds of graduations. But, like its fellow Baby Boomers, the Arena came of age with rock & roll, and some of its most memorable events have been concerts by rock legends Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Frank Zappa, later artists such as Green Day, Stone Temple Pilots, Matchbox Twenty, Maroon 5, Lil’ Wayne, Kid Cudi, and Chris Tomlin, other stars including Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavarotti, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, and more.
National stardom also came to the then-“MECCA” Arena in 1978, when a radical new basketball floor was unveiled. Pop artist Robert Indiana applied vibrant colors and bold graphics to the traditional markings, highlighted the “MECCA” name, and made the Arena instantly unforgettable to millions of basketball fans. The floor was perfect for TV: bright, colorful, distinctive, and as outrageous in 1978 as Dennis Rodman’s hair in 1998. The Arena’s new portable floor, installed in 1997, resembles the famous “MECCA” floor.
Another feature unique to the Arena is its super-strong barrel roof. Its curved support trusses are connected by knuckle joints behind the last seats to immense struts that support the seating terraces. These struts actually meet under the below-grade floor, forming a dynamic structure best compared to a giant car spring, which, in a rough sense, gets stronger as it is compressed. As a result, the Arena boasts a spectacular ceiling load capacity of 450,000 lbs. – enough to hang an entire rock tour motorcade of five loaded tractor-trailers and a five-ton merchandise truck!
That ceiling – as well as all of its girders, catwalks and overhead equipment – were painted flat black in 1998, as part of a $12 million Arena improvement project undertaken by the Wisconsin Center District. Beyond this dramatic “black box” treatment, the project included installation of a new scoreboard and giant-screen video, new lights, TV monitors in the concourses, new floors and paint throughout the facility, and an exhaustive refinishing and reupholstering of all of its 8,790 permanent, wood-backed seats. Four 600 Amp stage power supplies were installed, and new AC outlets went in throughout the facilities for use by merchandise stands and exhibits. New wheelchair seating areas, an elevator, new ramps, and lowered box office and concession stand counters were installed to serve disabled patrons, and new telescoping seating risers completed the project in November.
In 2000, the building took on a new identity when the U.S. Cellular wireless phone company invested its name and $2 million in cash and services in a six-year agreement to be the title sponsor of the “U.S. Cellular Arena.” Concurrently, the Arena’s dormant ice making capacity was restored, and the 50th anniversary of the Arena’s dedication was celebrated at the triumphant return of Disney on Ice. The building’s exterior also received a dramatic neon lighting treatment that perfectly accents its 1950’s origins and rock & roll history, earning the District a Design Excellence Award from the Mayor’s office.
In 2001 the District opened a permanent outdoor Wisconsin Athletic Walk of Fame promenade/plaza alongside the Arena. The Walk of Fame contains kiosks that display bronze plaques honoring Wisconsin’s most accomplished athletes and sports figure. The plaques had previously been on view inside the Arena, since the inception of the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1951.
The Milwaukee Wave and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers basketball team both became tenants in 2003, with separate long-term agreements making the facility the teams’ home courts for years to come. To accommodate the teams, the District acquired turf, dasher boards, new risers and other equipment, made significant improvements to dressing rooms, and built out new space for the Milwaukee Wave’s offices. The new risers and dasher boards also better equip the Arena for hockey.
More recently, contract renewal with Feld Entertainment assures that Disney On Ice productions will continue being presented in the Arena, and the Brewcity Bruisers women’s flat track roller derby league came to the Arena. The Bruisers presented their downtown debut season in 2011, and have returned every year since, bringing the league’s National Championships to the building in 2013.
In 2013, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee men’s basketball team returned after a year’s hiatus, and in 2014, the university went even further, acquiring naming rights, and making the newly-renamed “UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena” a focus of their community outreach and marketing. Corresponding investments by the Wisconsin Center District include replacing all of its 8,910 permanent seats, installing a new, state-of-the-art scoreboard, and new exterior lighting and signage.