Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead performs at University Hall in September 1982.

Concerts were an important part of University Hall’s story from the beginning. The University of Virginia venue’s very first event, on Nov. 13, 1965, was a concert by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

But it wasn’t until its rock concert heyday of the mid-1980s that U-Hall hit its stride as a music destination for UVa students and townspeople alike.

Chris Munson served with Al Hinton as co-chairmen of UVa’s student-run PK German programming committee during a pivotal 1981-82 season that demonstrated how carefully chosen concerts could not only break even, but make some money. U-Hall soon became the quirky little venue that could.

With an official capacity of 8,457, U-Hall was the largest available local venue for rock concerts. Students wanted to hear high-profile bands, but the space was built for basketball, and when programmers contacted promoters, U-Hall could be a hard sell.

“It was not the best space for concerts; the sound was never very good,” Munson said. “This was, in its way, a tiny little venue for rock concerts then. It made it sort of difficult to book bands. The big bands everybody wanted to see needed bigger places to play.”

Munson and Hinton persevered, because their mission at PK German was “to suit the needs and wants of the student population,” Munson said. They sought out bands that students wanted to hear, and they felt sure that the venue’s energy when it was packed with fans could win over promoters and performers.

“The sound was not very good. That was a limitation,” Munson said. “But the more people that were in there, the better it sounded.”

Being good stewards of the space was critical. “We had to put a covering on that beautiful wooden basketball floor” before concerts, Munson said. “The [UVa] Athletic Department was very accommodating. They were always welcoming, but we had to protect the floor.”

Success took a long, strange trip to arrive.

“We sold out the Grateful Dead,” Munson said. “The Grateful Dead ticket was $12.50. That was in 1982. Then, The Pretenders was the first show that made money for UVa. We sold out The Pretenders, and the university was ecstatic after that.”

Munson’s PK German successors iced the cake with a well-received Talking Heads show that “led to it becoming more of a concert stop on the map,” he said. Other stars and name-brand bands soon made their way to U-Hall: The Ramones, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby and the Range.

U-Hall’s hard-won success as a rock venue helped to build a loyal audience and eventually helped to pave the way for the John Paul Jones Arena, Munson said. “This is a viable concert stop,” he said.

Bands that brought their own cutting-edge sound equipment generally overcame U-Hall’s acoustic issues and thrilled student audiences.

Charlie Pastorfield heard plenty of concerts in the venue during his years as a UVa student; he mentioned a high-energy circa-1970 show by Sly and the Family Stone as a standout.

“They almost tore it down themselves,” Pastorfield said with a chuckle. “They almost ripped that place to shreds.”

Pastorfield also enjoyed the hit-packed Talking Heads show in which frontman David Byrne wore his famous Big Suit.

“They literally ran on the stage the entire show,” Pastorfield said. “It was an incredible show. They actually sounded good in there.”

So did The Beach Boys. Pastorfield said the band’s excellent sound system made up for any acoustic deficits.

“The Beach Boys sounded amazing, because it was their music with a little more reverberation on it,” he said.

Pastorfield had another important reason to savor the Beach Boys’ sound in U-Hall: As bass player for the Skip Castro Band, he helped to open the 1986 show.

“It was cavernous and reverberant,” Pastorfield said of U-Hall. “If we hadn’t had a lot of experience with reverberant rooms, we’d have been doomed.”

Pastorfield had the chance to hear not only the packed venue’s cheers that night, but also its capacity for deafening silence. When the beloved local band warmed up the stage for The Beach Boys, “people were nice, and they applauded for us,” he recalled.

Once the musicians got backstage after their set, however, the concert promoter had a question for them. The Beach Boys’ flight had just landed, so the headliners still hadn’t left the airport for U-Hall. Could the Skip Castro Band go back out for just a few more numbers until The Beach Boys arrived?

They returned to the stage, but the polite applause they had received earlier didn’t.

“Maybe two people clapped in the whole stadium,” Pastorfield said, recalling “a slight little clap here and there. We said ‘thank you very much’ to dead silence.”

Backstage once more, the musicians’ mood improved in a hurry because The Beach Boys were in the building. Pastorfield said the headliners thanked the Skip Castro Band members profusely for filling the travel delay. When guitarist Carl Wilson, whom he admired, walked over and thanked him, Pastorfield felt honored.

“That was the thrill of a lifetime for me to have him come up and shake my hand,” he said.

A different kind of thrill drew thousands of fans over the years when U-Hall played host to professional wrestling events. Area fans relished chances to cheer on their favorite heroes and boo the villains from the National Wrestling Alliance and the World Wrestling Federation.

A 1988 event brought interesting storylines for NWA stars Ivan Koloff, known as the Russian Bear, who surprised the crowd by defeating the Italian Stallion, and for Midnight Express — the tag team of Beautiful Bobby Eaton and Sweet Stan Lane — which tackled its own manager, the tennis racquet-waving Jim Cornette. Many of the women in attendance swooned over heavyweight heartthrob Kendall Windham when he peeled off his cowboy vest to wrestle.

During a WWF event in 2002, a fan was kicked out for grabbing superstar The Undertaker from behind.

Over the years, U-Hall also was a destination for trade shows, charity events and speakers — including presidents.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush spoke at U-Hall during his education summit with the nation’s governors. One of the governors in attendance — Bill Clinton — later beat Bush to become president himself.

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Jane Dunlap Sathe is the features editor for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7249 or jsathe@dailyprogress.com

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