If Those Thick Concrete Walls Could Talk: The Erwin Center Celebrates 40 Years

Nov 29, 2017

The Frank Erwin Center opened its doors to the public on this night in 1977. In the 40 years since, the building has churned out basketball games, concerts, monster truck shows, circuses and memories. More than 30 million people have crossed through the doors for a wide variety of acts.

As the building enters its twilight years, it’s doing its best to not show its age.

In its earliest days in the late 1970s, the Special Events Center, as it was known, was another sign of the city’s growth. (It was renamed in 1980 after UT regent Frank Erwin.) 

It was designed by B.W. Crain and Ralph Anderson, who helped design the Astrodome and the Houston Post building. In addition to hosting Longhorn basketball games, the event space also served as a venue for the biggest touring acts of the time, like Earth Wind and Fire, Bob Dylan and Lawrence Welk, who played the first concert at Erwin in 1978.

Jimmy Earl, director of the Erwin Center, says there were still a few kinks to work out before the big-band leader’s sold-out show.

The escalators were not working, which was not great when you consider the type of crowd at a Lawrence Welk show, Earl says. “You have to get people into their seats and up to different levels.”

With big events, he says, it’s easy to overlook details.

“The impossible, we do right away, but some of the other things may take a little time,” he says.

Earl should know; he was the original events manager when the building opened. More than 30 million people have crossed through the doors for a wide variety of acts since then. 

The largest crowd ever at the Erwin Center was for a John Denver concert in 1978. The highest grossing show was Paul McCartney’s four years ago. George Strait has performed there the most: 13 times.

It hosted a Davis Cup semifinal in tennis in 2011, arena football in the 2000s, and professional wrestling since the '80s.

But, soon enough, all that fun will end.

The ground the Erwin Center has stood on since 1977 is slated to be part of UT-Austin's Dell Medical School, which has been built, to this point, around the iconic drum-shaped building.

UT President Greg Fenves said in April that current plans are to build a new arena across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium.

UT staff is looking into the cost and feasibility and expects construction to begin within the next five to seven years, but Earl says he isn’t thinking about the end.

“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that have been put into this building by a lot of people,” he says. “I’m sure it will be an emotional time. We don’t think about that too much. We just continue on. We know that the only constant in life is change.”

And the work continues.

Before the end of the year, the Erwin Center will host members of the Grateful Dead, Lady Gaga and another tour of Disney on Ice.

The arena will mark its 40th anniversary tonight with a men’s basketball game against Florida A&M University. Members of the 1977 team will be there at halftime, along with a giant birthday cake for everyone at the game.