By ANNE LUNDE
Journal & Topics Reporter
The Allstate Arena in Rosemont may have opened its doors with the legendary rock group, Fleetwood Mac, but the circus was a big part of how it started.
Rosemont’s founding mayor, Donald E. Stephens, father of current Mayor Bradley Stephens, was looking for ways to help the village grow.
“We have to tailor this community to be compatible with the outside influences that have been brought upon us,” the elder Mayor Stephens explained in 1985. “We must do the best we can with the areas we have left to us to develop.”
The village had already annexed a piece of previously unincorporated Maine Township northwest of Higgins and Mannheim where several hotels wanted the access to Chicago water which Rosemont could offer them. North of them were a couple of streets of houses, a small industrial district, and a few blocks of apartment buildings near Touhy.
And just over the horizon of the Higgins Road curve was O’Hare International Airport. The elder Stephens dreamed of taking advantage of that location to bring business here.
He conceived a stadium, originally known as the Rosemont Horizon, as a place to draw crowds. The first plan, in 1974, was to host the Chicago Cougars hockey team, but the team went out of business.
When Donald Stephens announced revised plans in 1978, many were sure it would never happen, in a nearly rural suburban area.
Stephens was already talking to owners of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. Their show already made an annual visit to Chicago, and there was a proposal to split their time and come to Rosemont too.
When that deal was made, Rosemont was on a tight time table. Homes south of Lunt Avenue west of Mannheim were bought by the village. Construction started on the stadium.
To house elephants and other large animals, a factory north of Lunt was purchased, and an underground tunnel was built to bring the animals back and forth, safely away from the crowds.
The roof was partially completed on Aug. 13, 1979 when it collapsed in a tragic accident. Rosemont decided to rebuild.
The stadium was able to open with Fleetwood Mac on May 14, 1980, and to be ready for the circus a few months later.
It was a good advertisement to host the Greatest Show on Earth.
The Horizon continued to grow, with a current capacity of about 18,000 seats and 48 private boxes.
Another early regular attraction was DePaul University’s Blue Demons basketball program, then led by the legendary coach Ray Meyer.
Although the Horizon originally was managed by an outside agency, Franklin Fried, the village brought in its own management staff, led in succession by Rick Bjorkland, Harry Pappas, and now Patrick Nagle, who joined the staff 26 years ago.
Increasing numbers of events led the village to start its auxiliary police force to direct traffic around the venue.
Its mix of attractions has always been a bit eclectic, from rock concerts to monster truck pulls.
Somehow the airport noise, approaching overhead, doesn’t bother those inside.
President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush came to the arena for a reelection rally, riding around the main floor on a fire truck.
Musical acts probably drew bigger crowds, from Elton John, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, Prince and Michael Jackson, to Andrea Bocelli.
There were many family-friendly shows. There were nationally televised boxing matches and some popular WWE events.
The Grateful Dead were frequent visitors during their touring years, accompanied by a portable village of fans.
These days the parking lot is more likely to sprout booths for Wolff’s Flea Market.
During the first decade, 112 hydraulic jacks were installed below the concrete floor to raise it and provide better sight lines for Chicago Sting’s indoor soccer games.
To bring in celebrity ice shows, such as Disney on Ice, the capability was added to install ice when needed. This would later allow Rosemont to become the home ice for the Chicago Wolves hockey team in 1994.
The WNBA Chicago Sky basketball team plays at the arena now.
Along the way, naming rights were sold by the village to Allstate Insurance, which now displays “Allstate Arena” to travelers passing both directions on the Jane Addams Tollway.
The exterior was renovated, from a simple gray exterior to a more decorative patterned look.
Some favorite shows will not be back. The circus closed operations last fall, ending more than a century of American performances. The Blue Demons decided to move elsewhere, but had not been as big a draw here in recent years.
Nagle said they were able to fill the two weeks which the circus had occupied for 36 years but the loss of the circus left a void.
Northwestern University’s men’s basketball team, the Wildcats, will replace the Demons as a basketball draw. They play bigger schools, Nagle said, and Rosemont is well positioned by roads and planes for visiting fans from Wisconsin and Michigan.
Some events are too small to fill the arena, and some are too big. Nagle said they also took a pass when Donald Trump’s people inquired -- it would have meant rescheduling too many bookings.
The Allstate Arena ranks regularly among the top 10 of its type of venue nationwide, in fifth place last year and in third the year before.
Coming later this year will be Hall and Oates, Barry Manilow, New Kids on the Block, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran and Janet Jackson.
Recently, tickets sold out in five minutes for Enrique Iglesias and Pit Bull, who will be appearing in June.
The continued success at the arena also has led to a renaissance in parts of the old industrial area north of Lunt. Anchored by a Target store are several blocks of sit down and fast food restaurants, several small hotels and some shops.
A block further west, north of Lunt, space was converted into a small park area, the Barry Recreation Center with activities, wall murals and community gardens for residents to use.