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McKeithen blames a football game for the loss of his house two years ago. "If the Saints had a better team back then," he explains, "our home might not have burned. We lost everything but our lives. We were watching the game on TV and at the half the score was 40-0. The Saints didn't have a chance. We all went for a nap, and the fire started. If the game had been closer, we'd have spotted the fire earlier, and maybe saved the house."
After being smitten with the stadium idea at the 1967 Super Bowl, McKeithen flew a delegation of Louisiana business leaders and sportswriters to Houston to look at the Astrodome. The governor very much wanted to outdo the Astrodome and at the same time try to learn from it. Since Huey Long, Louisiana politicians have had a tradition of being monument-minded. McKeithen did not want something merely symbolic like St. Louis' arch that commemorates westward expansion after the Louisiana Purchase. "The arch just stands there," he says. "It doesn't do anything." Now a Superdome, that would do something.
At the prompting—bullying—of McKeithen the state issued $129 million in bonds. McKeithen even called on the Long family and fond memories of it. "I think Huey would have loved the idea," the governor explains. "He liked challenges and imagination. Earl would have done it, too, but he would have put the Dome out in a canefield in the center of the state. Senator Russell [Long] helped by speaking for the Dome, but when it was time to sell the bonds in New York, he said, 'John, don't you think you're making that thing too big?' "
Lots of people did, which is how the Superdome became the first large construction project to be financed totally in the South. Atlanta, for instance, was made over with money from the Northeast banking corridor. In 1966, just as Louisiana was to go looking for Superdome money, the bottom dropped out of the bond market. "We were up in David Rockefeller's office at Chase Manhattan, with Hale Boggs and some of our bankers and Congressmen," McKeithen remembers. "It got hot and heavy and eventually Rockefeller's experts said, 'No!' "
By selling bonds mostly to banks in Louisiana and with help from Texas, North Carolina and Georgia the governor and his men finally collected enough money. "They accused me of twisting the arms of Southern banks," says McKeithen, "but I didn't twist their arms. I twisted their necks!"
The Superdome is a mammoth capital investment. To help fund it a 4% hotel-motel tax was instituted in New Orleans and the surrounding area; this returns about $2.5 million annually. Along with projected parking revenues, a 5% amusement tax and income from the boost the Dome will give the city economy, the state claims that it can handle the debt service on the bonds. One pro-Domer gushes, "We may be able to pay for it without ever opening the doors."
McKeithen sees the vast capacity of the Dome as having social, democratic and racial benefits: "We sell 50,000 season tickets to the Saints in Tulane Stadium. With the appeal of the Dome, that figure won't go down. With 75,000 seats available for regular-season games [80,100 will be squeezed in for Super Bowls] the average man can see pro football once in a while. Poor people—and let's not kid around, that means mostly blacks—are going to see a game at a price they can afford."
Part of McKeithen and Dave Dixon's rationale for the size of the Dome involved ticket price. As Dixon put it, "Why sell 10,000 tickets to an entertainment event at $10-$15 each, when you can sell 75,000 at $2, park 5,000 more cars, sell more beer and food and programs? The increased size is economically sound and the people get a break."
But the best guess is that the price for the 75,000 seats for Saints games will average out at $9.50 each. The new NBA franchise should be quick to catch on, and the professional agents and managers of entertainments and other sports will demand high admissions, too. So the capital gains humanitarianism of the Dome is already lost in the inflationary mood of what we pay for leisure.
Now that he is out of office John McKeithen has become more philosophical about the Dome. He used to say, "Let's open the Dome with Billy Graham and the Pope. Put one in each end zone. There's room enough." In religiously divided Louisiana, that statement sounded like a campaign pledge. McKeithen was such an avid backer of the project, critics claimed that he was trying to outdo Huey Long. Huey built the 33-story state capitol building despite public outcry at the cost. After he was assassinated, he was buried on capitol grounds. McKeithen, it is joked, has secretly contracted to be buried at the 50-yard line of the Super-dome during an LSU- Ole Miss halftime show.