Mar 19, 2008 Staff Writer Uncategorized
Pete Napier, former director of downtown’s Onondaga County War Memorial, died March 16 in Florida. He was 83.
Pete, whose real first name was Donald, ran the 7,500-seat arena for 21 of its best years, 1964-1985.
First concert I ever attended there was Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass long about ’65. Blood Sweat & Tears was the soundtrack for my first concert date (after the show I pilfered a good-bye kiss on her porch!). And when Led Zeppelin played and Jimmy Page took a long, languid electric guitar solo, the future unfolded before me. The cops, or maybe it was Pete, turned up the lights on Zep’s half-filled house and I saw hippies for the first time, boogying to a heavy-metal beat.
The War Memorial was a versatile venue. It also hosted plenty of sports.
Tough to say who caused more blood to flow: welterweight champion Billy Backus or Ray Crew’s bellicose Syracuse Blazers hockey team? And there was everything else you could think of, from high-school wrestling to the Harlem Globetrotters, from boxing to box lacrosse.
Other events there included the Festival of Nations where I always enjoyed a cup of Iroquois corn soup and the Syracuse Auto Show where I once caught Gap Mangione jammin’ on solo electric piano.
But the concerts are what remain most alive in our memories as we gaze from our seats sheathed in darkness at the singers in the spotlight, Freddy & The Dreamers, Elton John, Peter Paul and Mary, Johnny & Edgar Winter, ZZ Topp, Merle Haggard and the Judds, The Grateful Dead, Cheap Trick, the list could go on and on.
It was on Pete’s watch in 1966 when the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones grabbed an American flag in an underground hallway, which brought the band into the arena. Using the flag as cape, Jones dragged a corner of the Stars and Stripes across the floor.
War Memorial ushers, or someone in authority (I don’t think it was Pete) apparently took issue with the rock star’s cavalier treatment of Old Glory, and police were notified. Legend has it that the whole matter was dropped after autographs were gathered by the offended Americans.
Elvis Presley played the War Memorial in the mid-1970s and was booked to perform there a few days after he died in August 1977. Some people around here still have their unredeemed tickets to that show that never happened.
Pete ran the big ol’ barn with class and dignity and a certain tolerance of the changing times.
What would Pete do?
What would Pete Napier think about local veterans dis-inviting a Skaneateles Middle School Band from performing in Memorial Hall before a Crunch game recently?
I think he would have sought a compromise. Why not have the kids play in the basement “Crunch Club,” where a family atmosphere invariably prevails?
By the way, Pete was a veteran too. During WWII he served in Europe with the 440th Engineers Corps, and was involved in both the Normandy Invasion and Battle of the Bulge.