The stadium was partially demolished in 2018, but in the 1980s and 1990s, it hosted some of the biggest bands in the world.
By Brandon Meola
When the Works Progress Administration broke ground for the Rubber Bowl in 1939, they intended on building a stadium in which the University of Akron could hold its football games, so the University wouldn’t have to use Buchtel field, a literal field. In the process, they also created an amphitheater for musical legends. From The Rolling Stones to Grateful Dead, Black Sabbath to the Eagles, rock bands hit the stage and filled the Rubber Bowl to its brim.
But how? What brought them to Akron? Let’s start from the top.
With construction completed in 1940, Akron finally had a stadium to call their own. Although the University of Akron’s football team began its almost seventy-year tenure that fall season, they weren’t the only team to use the stadium. Surrounding high schools, Kent State, the Cleveland Rams, the Cleveland Browns and the disastrous Dallas Texans all took to the field at some point. It wouldn’t be purchased by the University, from the city of Akron, until 1971.
Besides a performance from Liberace in 1956 for which the city of Akron paid $35,000 (roughly $300,000 in today’s money with inflation), the Rubber Bowl wasn’t viewed much as a music venue until the early 1970s.
It was then that Jules and Mike Belkin of Belkin Productions saw potential in the stadium.
Belkin Productions played a pivotal role in bringing big acts not only to the Sixth City, where their work began, but to all of Ohio. When the company took its first steps in 1966, like most, it was lessons before profit. According to a Plain Dealer article, The Mamas & the Papas were meant to perform a heavily advertised show in Cleveland, but they canceled. Although the canceled show put a financial strain on the business, Belkin Productions persevered and within the next few years they were booking major acts like Frankie Valli and Johnny Mathis. The momentum snowballed and, in the summer of 1972, they brought their talent to the Rubber Bowl.
Three Dog Night with a special guest, Kent’s very own James Gang, claimed the first concert of the summer on June 16. Then, on July 3, Rod Stewart brought the Faces with Badfinger as the opener. Although both concerts were a hit and, no doubt, provided fond memories, it was in the weeks to come that the Rubber Bowl truly solidified itself as a music venue. A barrage of stardom turned the city on its head.
On July 11, The Rolling Stones, with special guest Stevie Wonder, pushed the Bowl to its limits. A Plain Dealer article from 1972 said Belkin Productions estimated roughly forty-two thousand people attended the show. But with every inch of the field packed and the seats alone fitting thirty-five thousand, it’s safe to say this figure is far from accurate. Obviously, the police and security were heavily outnumbered, which resulted in a few scuffles. An article in the Beacon Journal the next day stated that seven Akron police officers were injured and twenty-six attendees were arrested on offenses ranging from public intoxication to assaulting an officer.
Nevertheless, in less than a week, another legendary band took the stage. Just a few days shy of Master of Reality’s one-year anniversary and a couple months before the release of their Volume Four album, Black Sabbath brought chaos and outrage to all of East Akron. With them came Humble Pie, Edgar Winter and The Groundhogs.
The concert started a half hour early, the crowd of eight thousand was enjoying the show and everything was under control. Then, just as Humble Pie took the stage, they ran into problems with their equipment, delaying the show. Mike Belkin told the Beacon Journal that they were already concerned with the lengthy four-band lineup, but due to contractual commitments, all bands had to perform. It was after midnight by the time Black Sabbath got to play, but they didn’t let up.
Considering that councilperson William Grimm, who lived nearly two miles away told the Beacon Journal that “it was coming in loud and clear,” it’s safe to say there was no recourse for anyone sleeping in a wide radius of the Rubber Bowl. That’s why, at a quarter after one in the morning, the power to the stage was cut off. Police officers, city officials and Beacon Journal reporters collectively received hundreds of phone calls complaining about the commotion. Akron’s then-mayor, John Ballard, received so many calls that he told the paper, “It was the first time that I have actually taken the phone off the hook.” Mike Belkin told the paper that he apologized for the noise and that they always aimed for concerts to end by midnight.
Then, to close out the month, on July 21, the Osmond Brothers came and went without a hitch. With the height of summer behind the Belkin brothers and a few problematic shows associated with them, you might have thought they’d slow down, but they didn’t. Instead, they went full speed ahead through the end of August.
Starting the month off on the fifth, Alice Cooper rocked the Bowl with special guests the J. Geils Band and Dr. John. The only noteworthy event, besides the good time had by all, was during Cooper’s performance of his newest hit “School’s Out.” Akron native Chrissie Hynde, lead vocalist for The Pretenders, told the British newspaper The Times that it was one of her first concerts. She recalls a helicopter hovering above the crowd and dropping undergarments to the rowdy fans below.
On August 11, Yes shared the stage with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and a little-known band, at least at the time, by the name of the Eagles. Having just released their debut album the same year, the Eagles had yet to build their reputation and mount a fan base. Though they would become one of the most successful rock bands of the ‘70s, they wouldn’t peak until the release of Hotel California in 1976. A year prior to the release, Joe Walsh, Kent native and previous member of the James Gang, would join the group.
Chicago performed on August 20. It was yet another concert without a problem in sight.
The next day, on August 21, Jefferson Airplane took center stage and caused an exceptionally troublesome night at the Rubber Bowl. To start, inside the stadium there were just under twenty thousand in attendance, but on a hill that overlooked the stadium sat a few hundred, effectively avoiding the ticket fee. The Beacon Journal reported that once the sun set and the band started to perform, a few ticket-dodgers on the hill began throwing rocks and bottles at the abundance of police officers working the event. In response, the officers launched tear gas into the crowd on the hill.
Just when it seemed as though the police had everything under control, Grace Slick, the band’s lead singer, began egging on the fight, saying things to the likes of ‘get the pigs, fight the establishment.’ In Slick’s autobiography, Somebody to Love?, she mentions the show, saying: “They knew we remembered Kent State and they didn’t trust us. All along the front of the stage stood a row of twenty-five officers, arms linked in riot style, creating a barrier.”
The Beacon Journal reported that, at around 11:30, someone called the Rubber Bowl’s main office and reported a bomb threat. The police shut down the concert immediately.
Also, according to the Beacon Journal, by the end of the night, nine officers were injured and twenty-five people were arrested; including the band’s lead singer Grace Slick, lead guitar Paul Kanter and equipment manager Chick Casady.
Between the conflicts they had with the city and the way the police treated their crowds, it’s easy to think this was reason enough for Belkin Productions to halt all Rubber Bowl shows. However, this wasn’t the only problem facing Jules and Mike Belkin. As it happens, each concert had been illegal. Non-university, profit-making events needed to be licensed by the city of Akron, and they weren’t.
An article in the Beacon Journal from 1972 states that the University wasn’t aware there was a need for such a license. Meanwhile, Belkin Productions believed the University handled all licenses required for the shows.
Although it was a blow to the Belkins, they were still busy with musicians not only across the nation, but worldwide. Specifically, David Bowie, who, thanks to the brothers, made his first U.S. appearance at the Cleveland Music Hall just over a month after the Jefferson Airplane show. You can’t help but think that David Bowie might have played the Rubber Bowl if it weren’t for the license issue.
After an eleven-year absence, Belkin Productions made it back to the Bowl on July 19, 1983. They brought with them Simon and Garfunkel to play the first stop on their first American tour in thirteen years. The thirty-seven thousand people in attendance watched as the dynamic duo performed hit after hit.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened for a shared stage between Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead on July 2, 1986. It was the first time Dylan and the Dead performed together. The highlight of the night was a collaborative effort of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.”
Then came a first for the Rubber Bowl: a two-day event. On June 22 and 23, 1988, the Monsters of Rock tour came to town. Van Halen, Scorpions, Dokken, Metallica and Kingdom Come performed for tens of thousands of concert-goers both days. While Van Halen performed a lengthy hour and forty minute set (on YouTube in its entirety), Metallica had to stop mid-set because fans began rioting to the music. Fans were throwing food, water, clothing, chairs, fences and anything they could find onstage at the security below (also on YouTube). Luckily the security, with help from the band, got the crowd under control and the set resumed.
For Belkin’s fourth and final show of the ‘80s, Bon Jovi with special guest Cinderella performed on July 3, 1989. The audience of twenty-five thousand struggled under the summer sun, but insisted on being sardined near the stage. After the opening acts came and went, Cinderella put on a rather loud performance that seemed to rehydrate the stadium. Bon Jovi was heavily anticipated, but according to the Beacon Journal, a rumor that Cher was backstage made the excitement tenfold. Unfortunately, she never appeared.
After the Bon Jovi concert, Belkin Productions, once and for all, moved on from the Rubber Bowl. However, the stadium still hosted major events. For example, in 1997, on a rainy May day, it hosted the Veterans Memorial Jam. Organized by the Salvation Army, it featured acts such as Aretha Franklin, Ringo Starr and, once again, Three Dog Night. Then in the summer of 1998 Ozzfest came to town. Tool, Megadeth, Motörhead and of course Ozzy Osbourne were just a few of the performers in perhaps the most stacked lineup the Rubber Bowl had ever seen.
It’s important to acknowledge that these were far from the only concerts at the Bowl. Smaller acts and local bands performed throughout the stadium’s existence as well. But, no matter who you saw, when you saw them, rain or shine, the memories fans made at the Rubber Bowl are some they’ve held closest. A place woven so deep into Akron’s history, it was a bittersweet goodbye when demolition began in 2018.
It was a sight for sore eyes when it was built, and an eyesore when it was over. If that’s not rock and roll, I don’t know what is. ■
This story was originally published by the Akron Devil Strip. Reprinted with permission.
Brandon Meola is a freelance writer born, raised, and residing in Northeast Ohio.
Cover photo: View of the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio from the north end zone, August 21, 2020. Photo by Jon Ridinger (creative commons).
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