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Thomas Jefferson wanted the Mississippi River free for navigation, so he sent James Monroe to Paris to buy a little land. Monroe hoped to get it for a few million, but Napoleon drove up the price. We finally paid $11,250,000 for Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas and parts of Louisiana, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, Minnesota and Montana—827,987 square miles. The Superdome cost roughly 15 times as much ($163 million) and sits on 52 acres. Like the Louisiana Purchase, the Dome was financed by bonds and like the Purchase its cost kept escalating (as more and more facilities and functions were incorporated). But such financial agonies are commonplace in history and must be viewed in context. Who could tell a Pharaoh that he couldn't afford a bigger pyramid? It is the spirit behind the Dome that will endure, not recollections of its price. Just ask Dave Dixon.
Dave Dixon is remembered more for his foray into World Championship Tennis than for being the original mind behind the Superdome. In both ventures his imagination distinguished him. In tennis he popularized the wearing of colors and the holding of competitions in public arenas. Now that the pros are drawing crowds of 10,000 and are nationally televised, Dixon may be partially credited with the sudden tennis boom in America. But his role in the Superdome is even more noteworthy.
Dixon was one of a group of New Orleans fans trying to get a National Football League franchise for the city in the early '60s. He was sponsoring NFL exhibition games, trying to interest the league and thinking, of course, of a stadium to house the franchise. Tulane had made it clear that the Sugar Bowl could not be used permanently by the pros, so something had to be done. "I'd been doodling around with stadium ideas, and even making drawings," says Dixon. "They were grotesque and my cardboard models were silly. I couldn't get the cardboard to form a circle or make a model dome.
"Billy Bidwill, owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, was here for an exhibition game, and I showed him my stuff. Back then a covered stadium was proving to be a disaster for football: they were trying to grow grass in the Astrodome with a glass roof, even though football would tear up the natural turf in no time. But Bidwill knew what 3M and Monsanto were up to. As soon as synthetic turf was a reality, I knew we could have a covered dome. I went a little wild with plans."
Trying to privately finance what Dixon then saw as a 60,000-seat stadium was impossible. Even though the price in 1966 was a mere $35 million (a "poor man's Super-dome"), public money was a must. Eventually Dixon offered his idea for a domed stadium to the mayor of New Orleans, who grandly announced city approval. But it eventually had to be the state of Louisiana that became the magnanimous patron of the Dome. Dixon's private dream thus became public property, but his ideas for the Dome never stopped. Though he gave up his job as executive director in February of 1972 having become weary of the hassle, his concepts are retained in the building today.
Giant-screen TV is Dixon's favorite creation and has many ramifications. The Superdome will house a 75-ton gondola rising from field level to the top of the 273-foot ceiling. The gondola will be faced with six TV screens, 22 feet by 26 feet, made in Switzerland. Although giant-screen television is in use in the Capital Centre Auditorium in Maryland, nothing on the scale of the Dome's TV system ever has been attempted.
"Not only will you get instant replay at sports events," says Dixon, "but simulcasts of live events, cable hookups, closed-circuit fights, film premieres. And imagine 97,000 American Medical Association members watching a heart operation!" Dixon feels that simulcasts of popular football games like LSU- Ole Miss, played in Baton Rouge, could fill the Dome in New Orleans. Television makes the size of the Superdome possible. "Imagine Elvis Presley," says Dixon. "He's performing down there on the field. Now a guy in the top row of seats is 16 stories above him. Presley will look like an ant. But with the TV, the excellent acoustics and full theatrical lighting, 97,000 people can enjoy such an entertainment. The viewer will have the best of both worlds: all the physical and emotional excitement of being there and the best seat in the house."
If Presley is going to look like an ant, so will Archie Manning of the Saints. When the transistor craze hit America, fans would sit in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium with radios pressed to their ears, listening to the play-by-play while watching the game. Now they will be able to do the same with television. The roar of the crowd, the smell of polyurethane and instant replay.
For years sociologists have been poor-mouthing television, noting that it separates people. Americans don't gather socially anymore because they are in apartments and detached houses watching TV. But, for the present at least, man still controls technology, and now tens of thousands can gather in one room on a Sunday afternoon. To watch television.
The Dome Commission also plans to screen West Coast pro football games after at-home Saints games. "It'll be a traffic diversion," says Dixon. "Some fans are going to stay to see the Rams or Raiders, and the traffic flow will be staggered. Also, it's a few more hot dogs to sell and a few more advertisements on the giant TV."