By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
The opening of the Casper Events Center in April 1982 signaled the beginning of a new era as Wyomingites finally had their own space to hold large concerts, major conferences and sporting events.
With a 28,000-square-foot arena, 8,000 seats and 6,400 square feet of meeting space, the Events Center (now the Ford Wyoming Center) in Casper transformed the way the Cowboy State is entertained.
Until that time, people would have to drive to Denver or Salt Lake City for major music acts or sporting events.
“And that’s a long drive, obviously,” said Larry Dittloff, who was the general manager overseeing the construction of the center from 1979-1983.
No Place Like It
He said the opening of the Events Center has added a “special quality” to life in Wyoming.
“It’s fun to go see things and participate in events, and there was no place like that,” Dittloff told Cowboy State Daily. “(Casper) College had a small gymnasium that did some stuff, but not on the scale or the professional level that we brought to the Events Center.”
The Ford Wyoming Center, as the building was christened through a paid sponsorship in January 2021, has been celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, culminating in a celebration on Dec. 10 that featured country music acts Sawyer Brown and Chancey Williams.
And there has been much to celebrate over the past four decades.
Dittloff credits city officials in the late 1970s for having the foresight to create a large venue to attract larger events to Casper.
“They expressed a desire to add something special to the area,” he said. “The job opportunities were there, the oil was booming at the time, uranium was booming at the time, coal was booming at the time. And then we needed something else.”
Dittloff had plenty of experience overseeing construction of large arenas. Prior to the Events Center project, he had supervised the creation of the LaCrosse Center in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and has done similar work with large-scale buildings in Orlando, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; Sioux City, Iowa; and Minneapolis, Minnesota, among others.
But he said Casper was absolutely his favorite project.
“I’ve worked on 13 different buildings in various phases, some from complete to end, some just at the end, some in the middle,” said Dittloff. “But Casper was great because the city gave us the latitude to achieve excellence, and I mean that in all sincerity.”
The Events Center project was awarded to general contractor Peter Keiwit, whom Dittloff had worked with during construction of the King Dome in Seattle. Together, they made modifications that added to the versatility of the venue.
“It was a modified fast-track construction project, in that the building wasn’t totally designed when we started the construction,” said Dittloff. “And we added things as we’re going along to make it a more complete facility.”
One of the aspects of the construction that Dittloff said he was most proud of is the facility’s half-house configuration.
“I know that not all shows are going to sell out at 10-11,000 people,” he said. “Like, we do Broadway shows, things such as that, and you do it in a half-house configuration, where one end of the facility is sort of a horseshoe, and that fits perfectly for that concept.”
Lyle Bothel was a foreman for the iron workers that erected the massive skeleton that anchors the massive structure.
Having previously worked on the Dave Johnston Power Plant outside Glenrock, as well as other major projects such as the Kennecott copper mine near Salt Lake City and the Rocky Flats manufacturing complex near Denver, Bothel knew his way around the process of building large venues.
The now-86-year-old said being part of the crew erecting the Events Center from 1979-1981 stands out as a particularly proud moment in his career.
“It’s got good sound, it’s got good seating for viewing, and (I’m proud) just to say I was part of to help build it so the people would have a place to come see concerts and other stuff,” said Bothel.
Bothel pointed out that because of the scale of the building, the materials they were working with were particularly large – and heavy.
“We put the (roof trusses) up in two sections, and half of one weighed 42 tons,” said Bothel, adding that there are a total of eight full trusses that make up the roof.
Bothel was one of more than two dozen iron workers on the Events Center job, along with electricians, carpenters, cement finisher operators, plumbers and fitters, and other skilled tradespeople.
“Everybody worked together so well,” said Bothel. “We did a lot of work, but while we’re working, we’re enjoying each other’s company. You didn’t hate to go to work in the morning, you really enjoyed it.”
Dittloff pointed out that the workers doing the construction put in a great effort, braving challenging weather throughout the course of the project.
“They had to work in some pretty inhospitable conditions,” he said. “The first iron, I think, went up in January. And there were some great guys – we actually hired some of them to work in the building after the project was complete.”
From Black Sabbath To College Rodeo
The honor of being the venue’s first performers goes to Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass with the Casper Symphony, who played for the center’s grand opening Saturday, April 17, 1982.
But the concert that proved what the Events Center was built for happened less than a month later on May 5, when legendary heavy metal band Black Sabbath took the stage.
The band was led by Ronnie James Dio in those days and the act remains one of the few examples where a change in lead-singer, or founding member for that part, of a popular band did not result in a decrease in popularity.
On the evening of the show, concertgoers were greeted with protestors warning that the band was satanic and by merely attending the show, Hell would await. It didn’t matter. The show sold-out.
Metalheads rejoiced. Finally a location in Wyoming that was big enough and central enough to attract hard rock bands.
Later that year, the Events Center hosted Rush, Ted Nugent, Heart, Blue Oyster Cult, and Barry Manilow.
Just over year later, the venue sold out again when Def Leppard performed in “the round.”
Attendees waved Union Jack flags and donned Union Jack shirts in a nod to lead singer Joe Elliott’s attire of the day.
For fans of hair-metal and hard rock, the Casper Events Center provided temporary solace to country music which filled the airwaves across the state.
All Ages And Tastes
The venue’s star-studded lineup that first year held entertainment for all ages and tastes, Dittloff said.
“We had Bob Hope and Black Sabbath and Ice Capades and a whole host of other events that started rolling through that we’d been working on for years to get them lined up to come in,” he said. “We had a pretty impactful first year.”
Over the decades since, the Events Center has hosted thousands of acts and activities.
“We have major concerts, we have major conferences and banquets,” said Brad Murphy, the current general manager for the Ford Wyoming Center. “We have the College Finals Rodeo and then we have all our state high school tournaments as well. We’re by far the most diverse building in this state.”
Perhaps the largest audience ever at the Casper Events Center was last May’s rally for former President Donald Trump.
While official attendance numbers weren’t released by the event’s organizer, Trump’s Save America PAC, it was reported an estimated 10,000 people were inside the arena and thousands more were outside watching on television screens.
Still Going Strong
Dittloff, who attended the anniversary celebration Dec. 10, said that after four decades, his original vision of what the Casper Events Center could do for the city of Casper, and the state of Wyoming, is still alive and well.
“The guys, and the women, that are running it now are doing a great job,” said Dittloff. “It’s in good hands after 40 years.”