February, 2006.

The defunct Pontiac Silverdome...

After Super Bowl XL’s hype was over with, things pretty much went back to normal in Detroit. Money problems, incompetence, and corruption on the part of local government, followed by an announcement that the renowned Detroit Zoo might be shut down.

Also, there were announcements that the long-defunct Tiger Stadium and the nearly-defunct Pontiac Silverdome would be demolished soon—each had fulfilled its final use during XL; Tiger Stadium was hastily cleaned up to host the “Bud Bowl” party, and the Silverdome served as the warm-up facility for the Pittsburg Steelers. Whether the money to actually demolish these gargantuan buildings would materialize remained to be seen.

How fitting—the last real function the ‘Dome would serve was to take part in Stupor Bowl XL, a game that is supposed to help save Detroit from poverty and its endless spiral toward oblivion. We all already knew about the Silverdome’s impending fate, as it has been on the way out since, well, Super Bowl XVI—which was, as it turns out, the last time a Super Bowl was held here—an event that was supposed to financially rescue Pontiac. And look what a fine city that sh*t-hole has turned into! If anything it’s worse-off now than it was back in 1982. If having a Super Bowl in your town also means that all its political offices will also be cleansed and refilled with competent individuals, then I could definitely see myself getting excited for that.

But enough about that; it was time to punch the clock & go to work. 

I had seen a couple Detroit Lions games at the Silverdome when I was a kid, but what I really loved to go see there as a young tyke were the monster truck pulls. SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY!!! Yep, those are the ones…the events that draw every toothless, mulleted, Miller-swilling stump-jumper out of their mobile homes in Taylor-tucky to see hot-rods pull heavy stuff through dirt while shooting flames out their tailpipes, or to watch monster trucks with tires the size of swimming pools jump over and crush Dodge Monacos and other assorted ghetto barges. Now that’s f#$%ing entertainment, buddy—not the weak-ass reality TV we got now. If you don’t go home with your eyes stinging from high-octane exhaust, you just aren’t living right. 

I even had some of the monster truck scratch & sniff stickers they had back then that smelled like diesel if you scratched ‘em. I remember that stuff reeking so bad you almost retched, but it was the coolest f#$%ing thing I had ever seen. That was back when 'Merica was 'Merica—we ate Big Macs from styrofoam containers, and paid like 89 cents for a gallon of gasoline and didn’t much care if our kids played with real-looking toy Rambo knives. The only thing that worried us was Russia, and the only thing that pissed us off was Toyota...and that’s the childhood context in which I remember the Silverdome. How things have changed…so you’ll understand it is a bit weird to go back to the place now, seeing as I haven’t been there since those days—a span of two decades.

Well, one thing hasn't changed—the Lions are still just as good as ever ;)

As I have said, the City of Pontiac is still basically a ghetto, since it underwent the same auto industry collapse as Detroit (hence the nickname Ponticrack). It lies north of Detroit, and has similar levels of blight, though on a smaller scale. But I was blown away to hear that the Silverdome itself was finally going down for the count (due to pretty much the same municipal incompetence and bickering that reigned in Detroit), although the explorer part of my brain kicked on with the faint hope that I might be able to get in there once more before it met the wrecking ball.

Then again, it resided deep within Oakland County—home of the dreaded 1200 North Telegraph, and a judicial system whose sphincter is puckered so tightly that it has almost collapsed back onto itself, forming a black hole. So I considered myself inconceivably lucky when I learned that a certain newfound friend of mine used to work at the ‘Dome. He still had his keys, and was willing to take me in—provided they still worked; he had seen a locksmith in there the other day, and feared the locks were already changed.

We met in the parking lot, and noticed that there was some kind of little league practice or something going on in there, but no matter; the place was still empty enough to allow us near total privacy as we wandered the entire stadium. The formal cease-of-operations was in two days, and it showed. He had helped himself to informal tours of the building’s lesser-seen areas a couple times in the past when he wasn’t busy with his job (thanks to the Silverdome’s municipal ownership, security was much more lackadaisical than if it were privately owned). 

As we approached the employee entrance at the rear of the dome, I held my breath, then breathed a sigh of relief when his key turned freely in the lock, allowing us in. He had a huge ring of keys—one for just about every lock in the place. The second set of doors we had to pass also opened thanks to his key ring, but when we opened them a huge gust of wind pushed me back. My friend explained that this was because the building was pressurized in order to keep the dome inflated. Many of the lights were off inside, and we had to use my Maglite to avoid bumping into stacks of tables and chairs that were readied to be shipped out. 

The first place he took me was the press boxes where sportscasters, statisticians, and their ilk were stationed during games, overlooking the field. 

There was even a VIP-only restaurant on the press level, which now sat darkened and locked up. We could see some kids casually hitting baseballs around down on the turf as I sat and listened to my guide tell me all about the history of the stadium and what led to its untimely demise. I could tell he was very disgusted over the issue; angry that this place he had invested so much of his labor to maintaining, and which was still in prime condition was going to be basically thrown away. 

Some of the things he told me about it that made it historic were that it had been completed in 1975, was the NFL’s largest stadium until 1997, and that it had once hosted an incredible Pink Floyd show years back, heheh.  It had also been the location of the FIFA World Cup Soccer games in 1994, the 1979 NBA All-Star Game, and it was where the historic WrestleMania III was held in 1987, which set the largest recorded attendance for a live indoor sporting event in North American history.

The stadium's revolutionary design was even drawn up by a hometown Pontiac boy, C. Don Davidson.

When Led Zeppelin played there on April 30, 1977 for 76,229 fans it set a new world attendance record for a single indoor act, edging out the attendance figure of the infamously crowded show played in 1975 there by The Who. On October 18, 1979, the Silverdome was the site of the first ever NBA game against two teams entirely comprised of African American players--the New York Nicks and the Detroit Pistons.

The Silverdome was also the scene of a pretty hilarious stunt in 1979, according to author Gary Barfknech. An insurance salesman from Southfield named Barry Bremen had made a name for himself by popping up unexpectedly at high-profile sporting events, and getting on national TV. During the 1979 NBA All-Star game, Bremen suited up in a jersey with the number 13, participated in warm-ups, and sat on the bench with the players for the entire first half before anyone figured out he didn't belong there. He pulled similar stunts at several other venues in 1980, even successfully disguising himself as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. His antics earned him interviews on the Tonight Show and the Today Show.

After sitting for awhile my partner explained that he wished it were a cloudy day, because with the direct sun shining down on the inflatable dome, we would be totally visible while walking on the roof, due to our silhouettes showing through perfectly. While it wasn’t really illegal for us to be in here, we didn’t really have any business being up on the roof, and he didn’t want to violate the trust of his bosses, whom he had become good friends with over the years. Also, he wouldn’t be able to show me the locker rooms, because they were probably also being used by the baseball teams on the field today.

The next place he showed me to was the infirmary. In order to get there, we had to take an employees-only elevator in a restricted area that was operated by key only. Tee-hee!

Inside, you had to use a key again to gain access to whatever levels you were allowed to go on:

We went up to level 2. There were some hospital beds and (lonely) wheelchairs in the infirmary, but all the drugs and cool stuff was gone. Again, we had to turn the lights on to explore it.

Every single door we walked through in these areas required a heavy key or pass card to open. Eventually we ended up at the maintenance employees’ entrance, where a security desk sat unattended, and a punchclock sat next to some forlorn looking timecards. 

It is rare that even I get to see a building like this; most people see buildings in their everyday operation and usefulness, and I of course often get the different perspective of visiting buildings while they’re abandoned, but who gets to see places like these when they’re just on the verge of closing down? It is a weird, melancholy feeling, like visiting someone on their deathbed, especially when accentuated by the stories of a long-time employee.

Inside a maintenance shop I saw tons of weird odds and ends, and a golf cart that was branded with the Silverdome name and logo.

After playtime was over, we started up to the roof.

My guide was still a bit nervous about it, since even though he had been up there on the cement skirt of the roof several times already, he had never actually ventured out across the suspended dome itself. To get to the roof access, we had to ascend all the way up into the nosebleeds on foot, then unlock the gate that led to the catwalk behind the massive scoreboard. 

Some iron stairs led up from there to a door in the darkened hollow areas of the dome’s upper reaches. It was an arduous climb, and we made it—even without the help of Sherpas. It was a dizzying height, and the horrifically steep incline of the stands made it seem as if I might fall backwards and tumble down if I were not sure-footed enough.

Upon reaching the fence, my guide whipped out his keys again and quickly undid the padlock securing the gate, and we headed up the stairs before we were noticed. Behind the scoreboard was terribly dusty, and I saw a styrofoam Coke cup that looked like it’d been sitting back there since Reagan was in office. As we reached the actual door to the roof, my guide warned me that once we opened it, to expect a massive gust of pressurized air to blast me backward, so I better bundle up and hang onto something. We steeled ourselves, gripped the railing tightly, and he said, “Ready?” while undoing the lock.

He yelled “Now!” and threw the door open, skillfully jumping through it and clear. I however, was not used to this routine, and of course was caught off guard. As the door flung open I could feel a titanic pressure change as my whole body was shifted against my will; I strained forward to try and get though the door, then suddenly it all changed direction and I was catapulted forward by hurricane-force winds and thrown flat against a wall just beyond the door. Now I knew what one of those bank teller vacuum tube thingies feels like.

As I regained my composure and realized I had just been literally thrown five feet, he began closing the door behind us, which was still expelling a deafening, roaring wind nearly strong enough to keep me pinned against the wall; it was as if the whole friggin stadium was deflating through this one portal. It took all of his weight to push the thing closed again, but it finally slammed-to.

This was when I realized how damned cold it was up here. A dry, bitter February wind whipped across the pure white, endless dome that stretched out before us. Nearby was a surveillance camera, pointed dreamily off into space, instead of down at the parking lot like it should have been, almost as if it knew that its job was now basically at an end:

Off in the distance by the Walter P. Chrysler Freeway was the current Daimler-Chrysler headquarters building, yet another symbol of the slow dismantling of the Motor City. Chrysler was being parted-out like an old dinosaur in a scrapyard back then. Looking south, we could barely see the outlines of the downtown Detroit skyline on the horizon. To the west was Pontiac’s own high-rises, and beyond that, Southfield. Not far from where we stood was the Clinton River, and the former site of the Pontiac State Hospital.

We started out walking around the perimeter of the billowy dome on the solid skirt that had many blowers or heating units on it. Most were shut off. My friend was still hesitant about actually climbing up onto the suspended dome, worried that someone might spot us. But in all reality, nothing could stop us; it was destiny—we had to! Or at least I had to—with or without him. Finally we picked a spot to climb up; it was pretty steep and sure enough, our silhouettes were displayed perfectly right on the thin white canopy as we moved along. 

I began chuckling to myself...people dream of this; there isn’t a kid who hasn’t grown up near a stadium like this without at least once pointing to it and saying, “Daddy, I wanna go up there!” My guide turned to me with a smile on his face from ear to ear saying how he used to be that exact kid. His dad always told him “No.” I too had seen it and wanted to walk on it as a kid.

Now, I was one of the handful of people in the world who had actually done so, and I bet out of all the millions of people down in the stands who had ever looked up in wonder and wanted like us to walk and bounce around on it, none of them ever got to. Once we got to the top I tried bouncing up and down, and though I did feel the roof give a little bounce, it was nothing like a moonwalk. This was one stale marshmallow. But I was still elated nonetheless, it was an awesome sight just to be up there.

In the distance, Chrysler's world headquarters:

After a while of walking toward the high-point at the dome's center, our surroundings became nothing but an endless sea of bright intense white, burning out my retinas like snow-blindness. I could no longer see the solid part of the roof, just billow after billow of white below a sky littered with errant clouds for 360 degrees around us, punctuated by lightning rods stabbing up from the roof seams (which contain a network of large ground wires). 

I also noticed little black rubber stoppers scattered here and there on the roof. He explained to me that they were removable observation portals to allow a photographer to look down into the stadium. That would have made a sweet picture, but he didn’t know how to get them out properly, so we left them be. Plus, we couldn’t stay up here too long, in case security happened to notice our silhouettes plastered all over the ceiling….

We started back down to go inside again because my face was absolutely numb and stiff from the cold, and decked out with horizontal snotsicles. Me, after finishing my Neil Armstrong-esque "moonwalk":

Once inside again, we went around the upper concourse to the other side where the “Diamond Vision” was located. The Diamond Vision is the mega-gigantic TV screen that showed playbacks of the game, etc.

I think most other stadiums have a four-sided unit hanging from the center of the ceiling over the field, but since the Silverdome doesn’t have a solid ceiling, its giant screen is nestled up in the highest reaches of the stands. Standing three-stories tall, the gargantuan television set is about as big as the average two-car garage and angles downward so that people can view it from below. I wish I had pictures of it, but my camera had died by this point, so here's some of my friend's photos:

How annoying must it have been to have your seats right in front of this thing? We climbed up to it and to my surprise I noticed that on the black, seemingly featureless side of the monster TV there was a door leading inside. My guide went right up to it, unlocked the padlock, opened the door, and we both went into the TV—just like in the Dire Straits video.

Inside the Diamond Vision it looked like a weird maintenance room; there were lights on and metal catwalks going back and forth along the backside of the angled screen, which was basically just a bunch of rows of cabinet doors containing old school circuitry. The reason I say it is three stories tall is because inside, it was divided into three levels with a staircase running all the way up, and there was an iron-grate catwalk at each level allowing maintenance of the screen. There were workbenches on the platforms, and some had RBG cells from the screen sitting on them, each cell was about 9"x9" and had all kinds of big red, blue, and green dots on it. Here are the backs of several of them, as they sit installed in the screen:

As you can imagine, there are thousands of these things, each one essentially representing one pixel. We climbed up and looked into some of the cabinets, noticing each cabinet had a bunch of little fan units inside for cooling. In the corners of the walls in some of the lesser-traveled areas of the room was your typical workplace graffiti that only an employee would understand, and on some workbenches were your typical old moldy cups of coffee with hokey old Detroit Lions and Coca-Cola logos from decades ago. After that we pretty much called it a day.

Michillaneous, by Gary Barfknecht, p. 24
Michillaneous II, by Gary Barfknecht, p. 229