Though often credited to Governor John McKeithen, the birth of New Orleans’ domed stadium owes much to the efforts of Mayor Victor Schiro
by Edward F. Haas
Editor’s Note: The relationship between Louisiana’s governors and mayoral administrations in New Orleans provides a crucial window on the political and economic history of the state. From Huey Long and Semmes Walmsley to Kathleen Blanco and Ray Nagin, the dialogue between Baton Rouge and New Orleans shaped the evolution of both cities and Louisiana. In his new book, Mayor Victor Schiro: New Orleans in Transition, 1961-1970, author Edward Haas examines Schiro’s role in the establishment of the Louisiana Superdome and the mayor’s negotiations with Governor John McKeithen, who championed the investment of state funds for the New Orleans stadium.
Victor Schiro wanted his city to be big-league. In 1963 the mayor had created a municipal sports commission within city government; named the businessman Dave Dixon, a rabid proponent of professional football, as its chairman; and charged the organization with two missions: to attract a professional football franchise to the city, and to construct a modern, all-weather sports facility to house the team. Two years later, the fiasco of the AFL All-Star game boycott [cancelled after African-American players boycotted in protest of ill treatment in the French Quarter] and Schiro’s deplorable mismanagement of the aftermath dealt a serious blow to these dreams. Schiro, ever the optimistic salesman, and Dixon, an equally inveterate pitchman, however, remained persistent in the face of adversity.
Their first action was to neutralize the negative perceptions of race relations in the city that pervaded the American mind after the unfortunate incident. Schiro and Dixon luckily had the foursquare backing of the local black community and the African American press. Black leaders wisely understood that major-league professional sports, particularly the NFL, operated on an integrated basis both on the field and in the stands. Black sports columnists commonly wrote about the excellent treatment that they regularly received from NFL officials, coaches, and players in the press box and in the locker room during the exhibition contests. In their minds, a pro football team would make a sizable contribution to the continuing struggle with segregation and racial discrimination in New Orleans. The local chapter of the NAACP agreed. It issued a formal statement that wholeheartedly endorsed awarding a pro football franchise to the city, and the African American media never wavered in its support for this goal. The NFL also investigated the city for potential difficulties in the awarding of a franchise to New Orleans and “turned up no racial problems of any kind.” Schiro and Dixon once more had the ball in their hands.
The pursuit of a pro football team and the construction of a modern sports complex were forever intertwined, but the stadium held a special place in Schiro’s heart. He repeatedly contended, “That’s always been my baby.” For future generations of New Orleanians, however, Dave Dixon would become the “father of the Superdome.” On September 25, 2006, for example, the Times-Picayune proclaimed, “Dome Sprouts from Dixon’s Big Dreams.” Dixon, indeed, played a major role in the ultimate success of the project, but the idea originated in the mind of Victor Hugo Schiro.
• • • • •In June 1963, Schiro had created the Mayor’s Sports Advisory Committee and named Dixon the chairman. Schiro was fully aware of Dixon’s intense interest in professional football because the promoter had approached him a few years earlier to obtain municipal authorization for the use of City Park Stadium to stage his early exhibition games. Schiro charged Dixon and his committee with the twin goals of building an all-weather stadium and obtaining a pro football franchise. Dixon now had municipal support in his quest for a football team, and like any good salesman, he recognized the potential for a domed stadium and quickly embraced the idea as his own. In the minds of many, Dave Dixon’s name and the domed stadium became forever linked.
Those who were inside the planning process, however, knew better. On February 6, 1966, a time when the pro football dreams of New Orleans began to crystallize, Scoop Kennedy, a member of Schiro’s city hall staff, reminded Peter Finney, a writer for the States-Item, where the concept of a domed stadium had actually originated. Kennedy admonished Finney sternly that Dixon had no thought of a stadium until Schiro created the sports advisory committee. According to Kennedy, “At that time, Dave Dixon hadn’t as yet proposed a stadium. He was then plugging for a franchise and nothing else.” The intent was to play the pro games in Tulane Stadium, the home of the Sugar Bowl. Kennedy recalled, “Dave and I had just returned from Paris, where both of us were living, early in 1963. We often met and discussed the franchise in Paris, but a new stadium was never mentioned.” Kennedy concluded, “None of this, of course, is intended to minimize Dave’s part in the enterprise, but I do believe that, historically, Mayor Schiro should receive the credit, sometime or other, for first proposing an ‘all-events sports stadium.’ Okay?” On June 12, 1966, Andrew Olivere suggested that the new stadium should be named the “McKeithen-Schiro Dome” (by that time, governor John McKeithen had become a major advocate of the project). Dixon himself acknowledged Schiro’s importance to the endeavor. On July 6, 1966, he wrote that “they will remember you and your role in passing our Superdome legislation. The stadium will be built during your administration and it will be a monument such as few American mayors have ever possessed.”
• • • • •There were those who criticized both the acquisition of a franchise and the construction of a new stadium. One of the most vocal foes was Hap Glaudi, a television sportscaster and columnist who had criticized the actions of the black players during the AFL All-Star game boycott the previous year. From the outset, Glaudi questioned the willingness of New Orleanians to support a pro football franchise that would probably be a loser in its early years (Glaudi had no idea how long it would be before the New Orleans team produced a winning record). He also had reservations about the costs necessary to build a domed stadium. Another issue that Glaudi and his friend Louis Boasberg raised was a belief that a local professional franchise would eliminate the televising of pro football games in New Orleans. He maintained that politicians would eliminate the telecasts to prevent competition with the home franchise. Such action would, according to Boasberg, deprive over a half million viewers of enjoying pro football on television, “one of the greatest things in life.” Boasberg also noted that only a limited number of people could afford to attend a pro football game in New Orleans.
• • • • •Schiro and Dixon clearly had their hands full, but they also discovered that they might have a powerful supporter. Governor John McKeithen, like Dave Dixon, recognized a good thing when he saw it. On December 29, 1965, the governor declared that an all-weather, all-purpose sports stadium would be built in New Orleans before he left office. He argued that “New Orleans needs and deserves a new stadium—the best in the whole United States. I am enthusiastic about the project.” McKeithen, however, contended that his “stadium proposal had nothing to do with the one suggested by New Orleans promoter David Dixon, to be built on ground offered in New Orleans East by developer Marvin Kratter.”
On January 3, 1966, however, Schiro declared that the governor’s statement was erroneous. To the contrary, Schiro asserted, “The governor is going to cooperate with me and with all the people who are going to help us build the stadium in two years.” Schiro stated that the completion of the project would be with the assistance of Marvin Kratter.
The mayor would until May 1966 continue to proclaim that local funding would be available to build the domed stadium in New Orleans, but Schiro also realized that John McKeithen would be a powerful ally. Schiro traveled to Baton Rouge to meet with the governor and took Dave Dixon with him. McKeithen and Dixon would in time become major partners in the enterprise and deserve all the acclaim that would pour forth from the construction of the domed stadium, but initially Dixon was merely a good salesman and Schiro’s sidekick. Schiro was the mayor of Louisiana’s largest city, head of the Crescent City Democratic Association, and creator of a potentially powerful biracial political organization. For McKeithen, a popular governor who wanted a second term and needed electoral strength to alter the state constitution to allow him to achieve that goal, Schiro was a cooperative political leader who could potentially deliver the votes that the governor needed. Schiro also had a friend in the White House, as well as receptive allies in the Louisiana congressional delegation.
No mean salesman himself, Schiro wasted little time on selling the project to the governor. Schiro presented the plan as an opportunity for the people of Louisiana to rally behind the construction of a fabulous sports complex in New Orleans and the procurement of a professional football franchise for the state’s thousands of sports fans. Schiro contended that McKeithen could use the stadium and pro football “to transcend the old [Louisiana] political divisions of north versus south, urban verses rural, Catholic versus Protestant and the anti-New Orleans antipathy.” For McKeithen, a high-flying politico with lofty political ambitions, it was an easy sale. The governor, like Schiro, had a craving for the big leagues.
The New Orleans press corps was also quick to enlist the backing of the governor. On January 10, 1966, Peter Finney of the States-Item pointed out the stadium plans of the Crescent City’s rivals for a pro football franchise, notably the promises of governor James Rhodes of Ohio, who wanted a team for Cincinnati, and implored McKeithen to take action. Finney brushed aside the local discussions of a new stadium to assert, “YOU KNOW AND I KNOW, IF NEW ORLEANS IS TO HAVE A MODERN SPORTS ARENA, APPARENTLY VITAL FOR MAJOR LEAGUE STATUS, YOU WILL HAVE TO MARSHAL THE CITY AND THE STATE FORCES, MASTERMIND THE FINANCING AND SEE THE JOB THROUGH.”
The governor did not need a hint. On January 13, 1966, McKeithen announced that he intended to have a proposal for financing the new stadium within ten days. However, he indicated that “building of the stadium hinges on the acquisition of a professional football team for New Orleans.” This implication quickly drew criticism from WDSU-TV, which declared on January 14, 1966, “We believe Governor McKeithen, Mayor Schiro and others interested in a domed stadium for New Orleans must look to the future and New Orleans’ potential.” An editorial added, “We hope the governor’s pledge to the NFL to build a stadium will be enough to a win a franchise for New Orleans. But if it isn’t, we urged him to continue with the project.”
• • • • •McKeithen emphasized that the new stadium would be available for the use of local universities and high schools, as well as professional teams. “We want this to be a community effort. The stadium is going to belong to the people.” He then joked that he hoped that “the stadium will be completed while I’m in office. I’d like to get in just once without having to buy a ticket.”
As McKeithen moved to center stage, Mayor Schiro was content to move into the background. Although he would have pursued the project locally, he understood that the prohibitive cost of the stadium would have forced the city to exhaust its bonding capacity for many years and almost certainly prevented the development of several infrastructure projects that were essential to the city’s growth. Schiro consequently took the second chair and worked behind the scenes, as he had during the civil rights battles. One of his foremost contributions was arranging the financing for the project through Jimmy Jones of the First National Bank of Commerce in New Orleans. In Schiro’s mind, however, the primary goal was to build a domed stadium for New Orleans, and the enterprise had a greater possibility for success if McKeithen and the state government took the lead.
• • • • •On November 8, 1966, McKeithen, Schiro, and Dixon realized the fruits of their labors when Louisiana voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that cleared the way for construction of a domed stadium in New Orleans. On December 2, Schiro hosted a meeting that addressed the creation of a domed stadium commission. Governor McKeithen, who presided over the meeting, became the commission chairman. The mayor suggested that Dave Dixon should become the vice chairman, but McKeithen recommended Schiro for that position and offered Dixon for the post of executive secretary. Tom Donelon became the treasurer. The estimated cost was $35 million. A tax on hotels and motels in Orleans and Jefferson parishes would finance the construction. Dixon predicted that the stadium would be in operation within three years. According McKeithen, “Mr. Dixon says he will be in there in the fall of 1969 playing football, baseball and listening to Billy Graham.” On January 3, 1967, Schiro formalized Dixon’s appointment as executive secretary of the commission.
The efforts of Schiro and Dixon to obtain a pro football team also paid off. The mayor may have taken a backseat in the campaign for the domed stadium, but he was front and center in wooing a pro football franchise. On May 24, 1966, commissioner Pete Rozelle of the NFL thanked Schiro for his presentation on the awarding of a league franchise to New Orleans. “We were very honored by the fact that you attended the presentation personally and the intense interest shown by you and all the other sports-minded citizens in New Orleans and the State of Louisiana means a great deal to all of us.”
There was no question that the selling skills of Schiro and Dixon, as well as the promise of the greatest stadium in the nation, had a profound impact on Rozelle and the NFL owners, but the issue ultimately came down to politics. In 1960 the American Football League began operation as a competitor with the established NFL. Armed with a television contract, a freewheeling style of play, and several well-heeled owners, including the Texas oilmen Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, the AFL began to cut into the older league’s action. Both leagues started to compete for players, initially for graduating collegians and eventually for veteran players. Scouts were hiding players in hotel rooms and back alleys until they could obtain signed contracts. Many of those agreements did not stand up in court. Chaos reigned, and player salaries began to go through the roof.
At the same time that Louisianans were hawking a dome stadium to their sports fans, Rozelle and the pro football owners of both leagues were engineering a merger that would end the turmoil. There was, however, a fundamental problem. The creation of the combined league required a change in federal law regarding antitrust restrictions. Here Schiro, McKeithen, and the Louisiana congressional delegation had a tremendous advantage. The delegation’s leaders were Russell Long, the Senate majority whip, and representative T. Hale Boggs the majority whip for the House of Representatives. The two were among the most powerful legislators in Washington; they were also the men who had assisted Schiro with the passage of the Betsy Bill only a few months earlier.
Pete Rozelle was no fool; he understood political clout. On September 19, 1966, he wrote to Schiro, “Knowing your interest in the National Football League in general, and in our expansion plans in particular, I thought perhaps you would like to see the attached explanation of our current needs for federal legislation. . . . As the explanation points out, expansion is one of the vital issues which hinges on the passage of this legislation.”
Schiro had no trouble understanding Rozelle’s play. On September 22, 1966, the mayor responded, “You may be assured that we are in whole-hearted support of the legislation. . . . We in New Orleans are particularly gratified that the Democratic Whips of the Senate and House, our own Senator Russell Long and Congressman Hale Boggs, are among the sponsors of the bill. I am confident that Russell and Hale will, with their colleagues, provide the leadership that will make this effort successful.”
Long and Boggs performed flawlessly. On October 21, 1966, Schiro congratulated Rozelle: “It is a pleasure for me to join Pro Football fans throughout the Nation in expressing satisfaction at the House action which grants antitrust immunity to the National and American Football Leagues for merger into one League.” The mayor concluded, “Naturally, we in New Orleans are proud of the fine job done by Hale Boggs and Russell Long, and we are hopeful that the sixteenth franchise will find its home in this City.” It did. On November 1, 1966, the NFL announced that it had awarded its newest expansion franchise to the Crescent City. The vote among the league owners was unanimous. The New Orleans Saints came into existence, and Louisiana’s largest city took its place in the big leagues.
• • • • •Progress with the domed stadium, however, had more fits and starts. A major point of discussion was the location of the facility. Marvin Kratter had offered the city 125 acres of land on Paris Road near the lakefront in New Orleans East. Schiro favored this location because the space would be sufficiently ample for the stadium, parking for 20,000 cars, and the subsequent construction of an amusement park along the lines of Disneyland. The site was also close to the interstate highway system and would not require the realignment of existing streets.
When the governor entered the project, these plans changed. Many came forward in support of a location in downtown New Orleans. On January 5, 1967, the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce made a strong case for a central location, citing proximity to the French Quarter, hotels, and restaurants, as well as adequate parking spaces and additional transportation hubs. Dave Dixon was also on board with the downtown site, as was the governor. Although Schiro believed that a location in the central business area would be both too disruptive and costly, he accepted the decision. His goal was the construction of the building; the site was secondary. In the end, as it happened, Schiro had the last laugh. The final location of the Louisiana Superdome would be on Poydras Street, the thoroughfare that he had rescued from urban decay and dubbed the “Park Avenue of the South.”
• • • • •On September 9, 1968, architects N. C. “Buster” Curtis and Arthur Q. Davis presented a model for a circular domed stadium that would have 73,820 permanent seats. This number could be expanded to 81,320 seats for football and arranged to seat 56,956 spectators for baseball and 16,000 to 30,000 fans for basketball. The structure would hold a 25-story building under its roof. It would be considerably larger than Houston’s Astrodome. The projected cost of construction at the intersection of Poydras and Loyola was $42.7 million. A confidential letter to Schiro, however, pegged the cost as much higher: $50 million for stadium construction, $10 million for the land, $11 million for the garage facilities, and $9 million for demolition to clear the site.
Schiro had apparently gotten Dixon and the architects off the dime, but many problems lay ahead. One of the biggest obstacles was Jefferson Parish state senator John G. Schwegmann. The suburban politician contended, “THE STADIUM belongs on the lakefront, either in Orleans or Jefferson, where the future of the area lies, not downtown where it will just add to the congestion.” Schwegmann asserted that “the central city location was dictated by downtown interests to the detriment of all other citizens.” He also questioned the cost of the project, estimating that the final cost would be between $150 and $200 million. In March 1970, Schwegmann argued that Dixon had gotten “wilder and wilder with his claims, stating that the Dome is going to earn all kinds of extravagant amounts without any cost to anybody.” Joseph Bernstein, a Schwegmann ally, observed, “One thing about Dave. He’s not one to let the facts detract from his presentation.” By June 1971, Schwegmann contended that the Superdome was “a clear case of fraud and deception.”
When Schiro left office in May 1970, construction on the Louisiana Superdome had not yet started. Dave Dixon nonetheless contended that the Superdome was “definite.” On another occasion, he noted, “The faint hearted can always tell you now is not the right time to do anything.”
On April 1, 1970, however, an editorial in the States-Item had raised doubts. The newspaper began with its belief that the stadium cost would be $100 million and that “it is not the lead-pipe cinch that Mr. Dixon would have us believe that it is. . . . We fault the stadium authority, and, in particular, its executive director, David F. Dixon, for overselling the project and refusing to concede the possibility that it will be anything less than a total success.” At least one member of the stadium commission privately agreed, contending that Dixon was vastly overstating the financial promise of the project. The implication was that Dixon sometimes played fast and free with projected figures on stadium costs and revenue, as well as anticipated completion dates. Dixon, with the backing of Governor McKeithen and Moon Landrieu, Schiro’s successor at city hall, nonetheless persevered. In the end, Dixon, pitchman supreme, triumphed over the “hundreds of faint hearts.” The Louisiana Superdome finally opened to the public on August 3, 1975. To the credit of all who supported the project over the years, the massive structure proved as spectacular as promised, but John Schwegmann was not off base. The final cost of the giant stadium was $179 million.
Excerpted with permission from Mayor Victor H. Schiro: New Orleans in Transition, 1961-1970, by Edward F. Haas, published by the University Press of Mississippi, copyright 2014. Visit www.upress.state.ms.us.
Edward F. Haas, Ph.D., is professor of history at Wright State University and the author of numerous books on Louisiana and New Orleans, including Delesseps S. Morrison and the Image of Reform: New Orleans Politics, 1946-1961 and Political Leadership in a Southern City: New Orleans in the Progressive Era.