The first time Randy Carrillo saw the Leaky Teepee, he was about to interview for a job there. He wasn’t sure what he was looking at.
“I pulled up with the taxi driver and said, ‘What is that? It looks like a spaceship,’” remembers Carrillo, who for a time was the executive director of the West Palm Beach Auditorium, which garnered its nickname because of its pointed roof and the tendency of that roof to let in water. “He said ‘It’s the auditorium’ and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
What Carrillo would learn was that the facility, which opened 50 years ago on Sept. 3, 1967, may have been odd-looking but was “a focal point of the community, this great public facility…To this day, it’s well missed.”
From 1967 to 1998, the 7,000-seat multipurpose venue on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard was the place where local kids graduated high school, where huge elephants and Hulk Hogan held court, when there was ice skating, hair bands, tractor pulls and even the King of Rock and Roll. It’s now owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but for decades it was the place Palm Beach County went for fun.
“There wasn’t Coral Sky, there wasn’t a Kravis Center,” explains Cinde Martin, who was the marketing director. “The community loved its uniqueness. Palm Beach was a little quirky, and the Leaky Teepee was, too.”
From the Grand Prix to Jimmy Buffett (who reportedly said the place was too dirty for him), from ice shows to U2, generations of locals created memories. Below are some of those stories.
How leaky was this teepee?
“In actuality, the West Palm Beach Auditorium did have a leak but was repaired,” remembers George Quick, who with partner Bob Havey owned H & Q Enterprises, which ran the concessions and catering operations there for about 20 years, which “were the best years of my life.”
Former West Palm Beach Mayor and county commissioner Carol Roberts agrees.
“The Leaky Teepee unquestionably leaked! One evening I attended a concert given by a young up and coming violinist Itzhak Perlman. I was sitting very high up in the auditorium and getting dripped on. After a while I was getting rained on and opened up my umbrella. Soon the whole upper sections had their umbrellas open. After a while, more and more people, a few sections below, also opened up their umbrellas. It was very strange sight, to see a sea of umbrellas unfolding, as this exquisite violin music enveloped all of us in its magnificent reverberations.”
Water wasn’t all that leaked. Nancy Upchurch Novoa of Jupiter, but then of Miami, drove up to West Palm Beach with other recent Jackson Memorial School of Nursing graduates to sit for their state board exams. During the two days of testing, “luckily (there was) no rain, but I recall pigeons flying overhead and ‘dropping’ little splats on our test papers!”
Brushes with greatness
Cinde Martin’s connection with the celebrities that played there was behind the scenes, where the marketing director got to see them up close and personal. She remembers that the big-haired guys from Warrant and Firehouse were “crazy and fun,” and that Harry Connick, Jr., who had been given an agreed-upon signal to alert Martin to when he wanted to end his meet-and-greet with fans, “signed a couple of autographs and then gave me the signal because his girlfriend (now wife Jill Goodacre) walked in and he hadn’t seen her in months. He kept giving the signal and I kept ignoring him. He said ‘Did you not see me giving the signal?’ and I said ‘I did, but you have to be here at least 30-40 minutes.’”
On the other hand, country superstar Reba McIntire, who played the auditorium more than once, “never gave me the signal. She was so warm and genuine and real,” Martin says. “She said ‘Let’s meet everyone.’ I told her that she made me feel special, and she looked me in the eyes and said ‘Honey, you are special. You’ve helped 6,000 people have a good time.’”
That new band opening for J. Geils Band
“My favorite show was the J. Geils Band with a new band as the opener. The seating was open, so everyone stood around the outside porch waiting for doors to open. Then we careened down steep stairs like a herd of cattle…When the opening band came out, the majority of the floor seat people rushed the stage to hear U2. I was surprised that there were so many fans as it was hard to get those British records then. But here we all were squished together by the wire fence attached to the stage. And, even though I had visions of being cut to ribbons, the music was absolutely fabulous. Many times you see the best concerts in some of the strangest venues.” — Betty Jane Zedonek, Royal Palm Beach
Let’s get ready to rumble!
“My best memories are of my very elderly grandmother and I going every Monday night to the wrestling matches. Boy she just loved Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper and Andre the Giant. Because she was old they would let her in by the bottom entrance and as she walked in she greeted all the wrestlers. Her name was Sorena Rodriguez and was in her 70s at that time. She loved her wrestling and didn’t speak a word of English as we are Cuban born. Grandma was a quiet , meek, docile old lady but when she got to the wrestling matches the cane went up in the air and the next day she had no voice.” — Sorena Sodupr, Lake Worth
The circus gets underfoot
“Following a three day stay of the Barnum Ringling Circus , where the animals were housed in the Teepee’s often rain-flooded parking lot, my mother and I attended a memorable evening of classical ballet performed by the fledgling Miami City Ballet. Having to walk through the not always cleaned parking area to reach our seats, we inadvertently carried some elephant waste on our shoes into the arena. That distinctive odor in the Teepee and our embarrassment over the cause, remains in my memory to this day.” — Harriet Pashman, Jupiter
Elvis was in the building!
Fans who came to see the King of Rock and Roll at the Leaky Teepee in 1977 had no idea that this would be their last opportunity to do so, because he tragically died months later. That bittersweet fact makes having been in his presence all the more meaningful.
“No one ever expected Elvis to play in West Palm Beach, but my husband at the time came home and said ‘Guess who’s playing at the Leaky Teepee?” remembers Vicki Webber of Palm Springs. “The night the tickets went on sale, (my husband) and our neighbors and another couple and I all tag-teamed standing in line. It was the end of January, and it was so cold. The guys got there, and the ladies came out at 4 in the morning so the guys (could go) home to sleep, and we stood in line and got the tickets. It was just so crazy.”
For Cindy Stanton of Palm Beach Gardens, the best moment of the actual show was being “bent over the balcony as Elvis was below me, and a woman came flying up behind me, hitting me and nearly sent me flying over the rail. She also snatched the scarf that passed through my hand. I was only a skinny, little 15 year old kid. What was I to do?”
Webber remembers that Presley “only sang for an hour but it seemed much longer. It was like seeing a demi-god. We were seeing this person I’d heard about since I was a litlte kid, and there he was and he was singing to me,” Webber says.
“He was chunky, and it didn’t matter. He was sweaty, and it didn’t matter. He was Elvis.”