VINTAGE ST. PETE: From the Bayfront Center to the Mahaffey Theater


Vintage postcard image (1960s) of the Bayfront Center complex. The present-day Mahaffey Theater is on the left side; the City razed the arena (right) in 2004. The Dali Museum was erected on the arena site seven years later. Photo: Florida Memory Project.

VINTAGE ST. PETE is a series focused on our city’s illustrious (and occasionally notorious) past. Many of these features have appeared in the Catalyst over the past two years, and new stories will be added as time goes on. This one was originally published in October 2018.

The Duke Energy Center for the Arts Mahaffey Theater has been part of the downtown St. Petersburg landscape since 1965, although it’s changed considerably in appearance and stature.

For 22 years, it was a boxy little part of the city’s ambitious ($5 million, in early ’60s money) Bayfront Center complex, attached at the hip to a 7,000-seat arena where families gathered to see Holiday on Ice, the Lipizzaner Stallions and the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus, where sports fans cheered on soccer’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, and the Suncoast Suns ice hockey team, and where – later on – the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, Elton John and the Grateful Dead attracted massive amounts of enthusiastic fans.

All the big “adult” spectacle acts – Elvis, Liberace, Lawrence Welk and TV-era Sonny & Cher – performed in the big hall, too, which everyone referred to as simply the Bayfront Center.

The Bayfront Theater, as the Mahaffey was known, was reserved for smaller crowds (the original venue had slightly fewer than 2,000 seats) and more “sophisticated” entertainment like orchestras, operas and ballets.

The Bayfront Theater, 1960s. Photo provided by the Mahaffey Theater.

In the early years the theater was programmed almost exclusively for St. Petersburg’s older population – easy listening acts such as Ferrante and Teicher, Sandler & Young, Peter Nero and Roger Williams made annual appearances.

Louis Armstrong, who in previous years had performed at both the Manhattan Casino and the St. Petersburg Coliseum, headlined at the Bayfront Theater in December, 1966.

The City was slow to put popular music acts on the stage. The first “rock groups” to play the theater were the Turtles and Bubble Puppy in March, 1969 – nearly four years after the place had opened.

Victor Borge

By the mid 1970s, “soft” artists along the lines of Gordon Lightfoot, Melissa Manchester, George Benson and Chuck Mangione were infiltrating the lineup, interspersed between the bread and butter acts – the Fred Waring Orchestra, the Lettermen, Johnny Mathis, the Vienna Boys Choir – and septuagenarian Victor Borge, whose cornball comedy mixed with classical piano-playing was such a hit with the St. Pete oldsters the Bayfront Theater was on his touring itinerary every year for decades.

Because the Bayfront Center was city-owned, the two venues were also booked for high school graduations, business conventions, political rallies and other civic events. (Richard Nixon famously spoke to a packed arena in October, 1970, the first time a sitting U.S. president had ever visited Pinellas County.)

The major rock artists began to make regular stops at the arena – mega-acts of the mid to late ‘70s including Jethro Tull, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Jimmy Buffett, the Police, Rush, Cheap Trick and Journey.

Things began to change in the 1980s. Competition for those big touring dollars meant newer, more state-of-the-art venues like the USF Sun Dome in Tampa and the Lakeland Civic Center began to tear away at the Bayfront arena’s business.

The little theater, on the other hand, had fans with deeper pockets.

In 1987, St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey family spearheaded a $24.5 million renovation of the Bayfront Theater, which had become seriously outdated. Among other significant physical changes, “window box” seats were built, to give the newly-plush venue the appearance of a European opera house. The name was officially changed.

By 2004, the aging arena next door was hemorrhaging money, and the City decided to tear it down. The Mahaffey Theater was left standing on its own, the anchor property on big, open and otherwise vacant waterfront acreage.

Things went well for the Mahaffey for a few years, until poor programming choices and the waning interest of the public delivered yet another showdown. It was either admit defeat and shut it down, or try to bring it into the future.

The Mahaffey Theater Duke Energy Center for the Arts today. Photo provided by the Mahaffey Theater Duke Energy Center for the Arts

In 2011, businessman Bill Edwards was granted a contract to manage the facility through his Big3 Entertainment. Edwards also kicked in for upgrades and expansion of the lobby – today, you’d never know it was once bolted to an ice-skating arena – and the construction of the trademark glass atrium windows.

That same year, the new City-owned Salvador Dali Museum building opened, across the grass courtyard from the Mahaffey (today, the museum, and the courtyard, rest on the former site of the Bayfront arena).

The city has extended Big3’s management contract several times, as more high-end shows – from the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Tony Bennett, Diana Ross, Steve Martin and others – and a growing reputation for both quality and luxury have generated profits and positive word-of-mouth.

It became the Duke Energy Center for the Arts Mahaffey Theater in 2013.

Find official website here.

Sidebar story: Making history

The Bayfront Center was officially dedicated on May 6, 1965. Comedian Jonathan Winters emceed a glitzy gala, co-starring singer Nancy Ames, the Highwaymen and a TV-style orchestra.

The St. Petersburg Times covered the event with three next-day stories. “Both the young and old attended,” said one, “choosing a wide array of outfits – from sporty shifts with sequined cocktail dresses, with sport coats and dark suits for the men.”

Buried on a back page of this same edition of the Times was a story with the headline Near-Riot Cuts Short Teen Program:

CLEARWATER – A group of screaming teen-agers climbed out of the bleachers at Jack Russell Stadium last night and tried to rush the bandstand where the Rolling Stones were belting out rock and roll music.

On the very same night St. Petersburg was formally dressed and applauding – for the first time in its history – Hollywood show business on a local stage, music history was being made in a ratty Clearwater baseball stadium. The two events could not have been more different – nor, as the Times’ choice of coverage made clear, did anyone recognize the significance of the “near-riot.” Teens, of course, were just teens, and the choices they made were fickle and unimportant.

The Stones’ performance had been cut short that night, the band members directed to a waiting station wagon and hustled back to their hotel. They never finished the concert. “There will never be another show like this as long as I am here,” the head of Clearwater’s recreation department was quoted as declaring.

Afterwards, in his room at the Fort Harrison Hotel, Keith Richards came up with the music for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics the next day, at the pool.

“Satisfaction,” of course, became the Rolling Stones’ breakout record in America, in the summer of 1965, and one of the pillars of mid ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll. After “Satisfaction,” many, many things would never again be the same.

And so the grand opening of the Bayfront Center was headline news, but not a watershed moment in popular culture – no, that was happening up the road in Clearwater.

About the author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was a St. Petersburg Times correspondent at the age of 17. He went on to a 30-year career at newspapers in Florida and Georgia. He is the author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down and Phil Gernhard, Record Man. He loves the Beatles and is, more or less, a cat person.