Off the Leash: Hara today, gone tomorrow—arena from my youth to be shuttered

(Photo courtesy Dayton Daily News) Note the Pub at the entrance to the arena. I never had the guts to go in there.

Hara Arena was authentic before “authentic” was a buzzword and unpretentious before I even knew what that word meant.

The dingy, 1960s-era arena was arguably the center of suburban north Dayton in my youth during the 1980s and early 1990s, with the exception of perhaps the nearby Salem Mall. Back in the day, big-time events were either held at Hara or at the slightly larger and (somewhat) nicer UD Arenaº.

Hara is holding its last event Aug. 27 after being open for more than 60 years. Even though I left my native Dayton 10 years ago—and believe me, Hara even then had seen way better days—news on July 29 that the arena on Shiloh Springs Road was finally closing, just as the once-mighty Salem Mall did, is still quite sad to me.

The arena is a major part of Dayton history, and I am sad, but not surprised, that it is going away—I’ve seen used ashtrays in better shape than Hara, which is ironic because Hara kind of was an ashtray itself.

I can remember going to the 5,000(ish)-seat Hara to attend Ice Bandits and Bombers hockey games¹ as well as a Skyhawks indoor football game, a Toughman Contest², probably professional wrestling, a rodeo a friend and I covered for the Flyer News while at UD, several car shows, craft shows with my mom and even a Bill Goodman’s Gun and Knife Show³. Could I be any more Midwestern?

We drove by it every time we went to the now-razed Salem Mall, and some outrageous event was always seemingly being advertised on Hara’s marquee, a display on which, before electronic signs became cost-efficient, someone had to go out and physically remove the huge plastic letters from and then add, one by one with a long pole, lettering for the next upcoming event.

Wanna see a monster truck show? Hara was probably hosting one in the next month or two.

Thinking of entering the annual Toughman Contest to see if you can beat up fellow Daytonians? Hara was the place.

If it’s January, the rodeo’s in town, partner, and only at Hara Arena.

Springtime? Carl Casper’s Auto Show was coming to Dayton, and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, was signing autographs—all at Hara Arena.

Need a gun? Or five? Wait a week—there’s probably a gun show of some sort then at Hara.

The arena was the kind of place that was far from fancy—kind of like Dayton itself when I was young—but that was its charm. Before everyone got all health-conscious, a seemingly perpetual haze of cigarette smoke hovered near the worn-out ceilings in the hallway surrounding the arena itself, and in the winter, ice turned the parking lot into what seemed like a demolition derby—which was probably also being hosted inside. Then there was the mysterious bar at Hara, which I never had the guts to go into, but I assumed pro wrestlers, rodeo clowns and monster truck drivers hung out there with the chain smokers.

The best part about Hara Arena, like most old buildings we know, is the experiences had there. Some peers of mine worked their first jobs there selling beer and popcorn. I can remember multiple dates there in high school as we watched our rowdy Dayton Bombers fight play hockey against a team from some other random down-on-its-luck Midwest town. I smile a little when I think of metal-flaked paint jobs on custom Corvettes and getting my little hand stamped to prove dad paid my admission at one of the many car shows I went to at Hara. I think Guns N Roses even played there when their album “Appetite for Destruction” was new.

Again, could I be any more Midwestern?

So I guess Hara Arena is becoming just like Pontiac cars, our first family dog and flashlight tag with my neighbors—bygone. I will miss you, old friend, and your happy lack of sophistication, your appreciation for pro wrestling, and aroma of cheap food and cheaper beer.

Hara Arena and me in college had a lot in common.

___

ºUD Arena, near the campus of my alma mater, the University of Dayton, itself was once a place only its mother could love before it was renovated. We used to go there, too, when I was little and watch the Flyers basketball team. Now it’s so nice that it hosts annual play-in games for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

¹Best hockey fight ever: A member of the Dayton Ice Bandits and some player from the other team dropped their gloves literally 7 seconds into the game and turned each others’ faces into a dentist’s dream. The Bombers, who I believe filled the void after the once-mighty Dayton Gems (Dayton is known as the Gem City) hockey team disbanded, eventually moved to the fancy Nutter Center at Wright State University across town, leaving Hara Arena without a team. The Ice Bandits, who were an even lower-tier team than the Bombers, took up residence at Hara and basically were boxers on ice skates; in between fights, they managed to play hockey, and the soused crowd loved the battery. What’s an Ice Bandit? I think it was a raccoon or something. Anyway, the Ice Bandits soon folded, and so did the Bombers.

²Ah, the Toughman Contest. How were these legal? Basically two amateurs with maybe some training would get in a boxing ring, and whoever didn’t run out of breath or get knocked out won. Needless to say, the multiple fights in the stands among patrons who overindulged in adult beverages were just as entertaining. I think the year I went with some friends of mine, one of the competitors died from in-ring trauma, sadly.

³From the first note of the banjo, I always knew when a commercial for the Bill Goodman Gun and Knife show was going to play on the radio. For my younger readers, if there are any: Radios are these things in cars that play music, and at one point they were a luxury item. Anyway, many of my friends from Dayton know the jingle backed by multiple banjos:

“Bill Goodman’s
Gun and Knife Show:
Call a buddy,
bring a friend!”

The jingle worked. I begged my dad to take me to the gun and knife show, if only to satisfy my curiosity about what went on at the show. This was in 1992 or 1993. I know that because dad relented and took me to the show, and while I was there, I saw several large, clear, barrel-shaped bins stuffed full of money next to a sign that read “Impeach Billary fund.” I guess the folks at the show were opposed to our then-new president, Bill Clinton. I’m sure they’re now thrilled about Hillary.

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