It was hot. The seats were hard. The sound system and acoustics could be sketchy. Despite the hardships, Penn State students of the 1960s and 1970s regularly packed Rec Hall to see some of the biggest names in entertainment. Who did they see for $3 or $4 per ticket? You might be surprised…
Motown and More
The Supremes, one of the pioneers of the Motown Sound, were the countryís No. 1 female singing group in 1966 and had a No. 1 hit single, “You Canít Hurry Love.” And they were coming to Rec Hall for two shows on a football Saturday night. Skip Lange ’67 was one of the social chairmen of the Interfraternity Council (IFC), sponsors of the concert.
“We had roughly 14,000 tickets to sell for the two shows,” he recalled. “We pre-sold about 10,000 to the men in fraternities—remember this was when almost all upperclassmen lived in fraternities because there were few apartments then.” The other 4,000 tickets sold out in 45 minutes. Lange and his co-chair, Art Esch ’66, had promised a local record store 20 tickets. “When we showed up to deliver the tickets there were at least 200 people lined up waiting to buy them,” Lange said. “I think we left the tickets and slipped out the back door!” Those lucky enough to purchase tickets paid $2.50 for the unreserved seats.
One of the many details in organizing the concerts was a visit to the dean of men to request a late curfew for “coeds,” as women students were known then. Women were required to live on campus and were subject to nightly curfews, typically 1:00 a.m. on weekend nights but curfew could be extended to 2:00 a.m. for special occasions. “He initially refused,” Lange said. “We had to admit that weíd already booked two shows and sold all the tickets. He agreed to the late curfew.”
On the big night, ventriloquist Willie Tyler and “Lester” warmed up the crowd followed by singer Jimmy Ruffin, best known for his hit “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” appearing in an orange suit. The Supremes—lead singer Diana Ross and back up singers Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard—dazzled the crowd with their hit songs and white sequined gowns. Between concerts, Lange delivered something to the groupís makeshift dressing room in Rec Hall. “I handed it to Diana Ross, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek,” Lange said. But, he remembers the best perk of being an organizer was the front row center seats he and his co-chair commanded. “We had no trouble finding dates for that concert!”
IFC followed up the success of The Supremes concerts with more sold-out shows in 1967. First up was comedian Bill Cosby, who arrived from Philadelphia by Lear Jet. Six weeks later, The Temptations delivered more Motown with “My Girl” and “Ainít Too Proud to Beg” to cheering students. The Collegian reviewer summarized their concert as “out of sight.” Dionne Warwick swept onto the Rec Hall stage in 1969 before a crowd who paid $5 per ticket to see the woman famous for singing “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” and “Iíll Never Fall in Love Again.” Larry Miles ’69, who was in the audience, said, “It was her first performance after having a child, and she put on quite a show.”
The UCC and the 1970s
Interest in bringing concerts to campus inspired other groups to schedule popular musicians. The Jazz Club booked Janis Joplin and her brand of blues-rock for Rec Hall in 1968. Nearly 6,000 fans bought the $3 tickets (Jazz Club members paid $2) to hear Joplin belt out “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Piece of My Heart” in her signature raspy style.
By 1971, a group of students formed the University Concert Committee (UCC), with the goal of sponsoring more concerts for students. Ticket prices were kept low—often in the $3 to $4 range—since the club wasnít trying to make a profit. One of UCCís first concerts was folk singer Melanie, known for “Beautiful People” and “Brand New Key.” Roberta Flack, whose song “Killing Me Softly” had just sold one million copies, performed in 1973. While successful at attracting some artists, the committee struggled to book “big acts” like the Average White Band, Linda Ronstadt, and Frankie Vallee and the Four Seasons, who all declined. Articles in The Daily Collegian from the mid-1970s regularly cite the small capacity and poor acoustics of Rec Hall and the remoteness of Happy Valley as major impediments to attracting big concerts.
The Boss and the Piano Man
The UCC did succeed in attracting two up-and-coming musicians, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Billy Joel, in the mid-1970s. The shows proved so popular that both were invited back a short time after their first appearance.
Bruce Springsteen, who turns 60 this September, was 25 when he first performed at Penn State on Feb. 19, 1975. In announcing the Springsteen concert the month before, UCC members stressed in a Collegian interview that they were still trying to schedule a “big act” for Rec Hall for February. Springsteenís first Penn State performance was in the smaller University Auditorium (later named Eisenhower Auditorium) where he played for nearly three hours, captivating the capacity crowd of 2,600. When Springsteen returned the following year, this time to Rec Hall, he was riding the wave of success of his “Born to Run” album. Tickets went on sale at 9:00 a.m. at the HUB and were sold out by noon. Collegian reviewer Peter King reported, “The crowd went wild with the first note, and early on Springsteen remarked, ‘Settle down, itís gonna be a long night.’” King also opined, “If Springsteen can expand his lyrical vision into some new areas, he should be on top for a long time.” Of course Springsteen did expand his commentary on American life with the hit albums “Born in the U.S.A.,” “The Nylon Curtain,” and “The River,” among others. His ability to sell out stadium shows on subsequent tours meant it would be 24 years before he returned to Penn State in 2000.
Billy Joel was another musician on the brink of stardom when he performed on campus twice in 1976. Although he pleased the 5,000 fans packed into Rec Hall and was brought back onstage for four encores during that first appearance, a Collegian reviewer branded him “an uncompromising middle-of-the-road singer.” Six months later, Joel was back for an All-U Day concert before 5,800 enthusiastic fans. The slight spike in his fee—from $11,000 for the spring concert to $14,500 for the fall gig—was an early indication of where Joelís career was heading. On that fall night, no one in Rec Hall realized it would be 20 years before Joel would return to campus.
The One that Got Away
So, what was the group—one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time—that could have played Penn State but didnít? Following the success of The Supremesí concerts on campus in 1966, the IFC had a chance at another up-and-coming group, one that was part of the British Invasion that would drastically change music. “We could have had the Rolling Stones,” admits Lange, one of the IFCís social chairmen. “They were the same cost as The Supremes, $20,000. But they also had declared themselves ‘Americaís dirtiest band’ and we werenít sure Penn State was ready for that.” More than 40 years later, Lange said he could still kick himself for letting that one get away.
10 Big Rec Hall Concerts + Cosby
Next Month: AlumnInsider continues looking back at memorable concerts with the big shows that have played Penn Stateís Bryce Jordan Center since it opened in 1996, including the story of two superstars who fell in love during their tour stop in Happy Valley.
The Supremes—Nov. 5, 1966
Bill Cosby—Feb. 19, 1967
The Temptations—April 30, 1967
Janis Joplin—Oct. 19, 1968
Dionne Warwick—May 3, 1969
Melanie—Oct. 23, 1971
Roberta Flack—Sept. 29, 1973
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band—Feb. 19, 1975
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band—April 15, 1976
Billy Joel—May 2, 1976
Billy Joel—Nov. 6, 1976