Frank Remesch stands onstage at the 1st Mariner Arena and marvels at the throng assembling before him. In 90 minutes, Bruce Springsteen will be leading fans through a sing-a-long version of "Hungry Heart"—"got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack"—and crowd-surfing his way to some mythic place in local music history. But now, as the buzz of anticipation builds, people gawk at Remesch (who's being photographed for this article), and some folks wonder aloud who he is.
They probably don't realize it, but Remesch is the other "boss" in the house. The Arena's general manager, Remesch has brought a parade of A-list stars—including Springsteen and The Rolling Stones—to town over the past few years. "I'm fired up about this show," he says, as the photographer clicks away. "It will probably be the most attended event in our history."
One of Springsteen's roadies walks past and lightheartedly asks for an autograph.
"As corny as it sounds, all these people in here will be happy for a few hours," Remesch continues. "With all that's going on in the world, considering the economy and everything, that's pretty cool. And people will be telling their grandchildren about this."
There have been lots of memories made at the Arena recently. Over the course of a particularly busy 10-day stretch in October, it hosted Jay-Z, Brad Paisley, Maxwell, Jeff Dunham, and martial arts bouts. Last year, it was the highest grossing concert venue of its size (10,000 to 15,000 capacity) in the country.
As it turns out, the guy behind all this activity isn't some hotshot from Live Nation or Clear Channel. He's no Harvard MBA, or an imported consultant. Remesch is a hometown boy, a Baltimore native, and a 1985 Overlea High grad. In fact, he used to be the electrician at the Arena.
Remesch wasn't looking for a job when he first came to the Arena in 1988. At the time, he was content working at the old RC Cola plant, bottling Seagram's Wine Coolers, at Greenmount and 30th Street. But his boss had heard the Arena needed an electrician and thought Remesch might be a good fit. He told Remesch, "There might be a future for you there."
Sitting in a tidy office decorated mostly with sports memorabilia—including Brooks Robinson and Todd Heap jerseys and a rack of baseball bats signed by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Beyoncé—Remesch looks like he could be an athlete himself. He's tall, obviously spends time in the gym, and would be intimidating if not for his disarming smile and unflagging politeness. He recalls his initial job interview with a sort of mystical awe.
"I walked into the Arena at six o'clock in the evening," he says. "The scoreboard was down because somebody had been working on it, and the whole place was completely dark and quiet. I looked around, and it reminded me of Rocky—when he goes into the Spectrum. The place looked enormous to me, and I felt little, kind of humbled. I thought to myself, 'This is really cool.'
"I interviewed, they offered me the position right there, and I took it. I wasn't even looking for a job, so it was kind of like destiny."
A framed set of business cards on the desk chronicles Remesch's unlikely rise through the ranks—from building electrician and director of operations through various management jobs (including a position called director of contract coordination and technical services) and, ultimately, to general manager in 2004. "I was happy and proud to be an electrician," says Remesch, "but I tried to be a sponge and absorb as much as I could. I just decided to work hard and learn more stuff. I wanted to be ready if another job opened up."
He made an annual appointment with his bosses, to see where he stood and remind them of his intentions. He also applied what he'd learned as an electrician every step of the way. "I had learned to troubleshoot and not get too frustrated," he says. "So if I have a problem, I start at the beginning or start at the end and work very methodically toward resolving it. I approach everything like that, and no problem seems too big."
And after he transitioned from the operations floor to an office suite, he made it clear he didn't want to leave Baltimore. SMG, the Philadelphia-based management company that operates the Arena, has facilities around the globe, but other venues don't interest Remesch. "My company offered me jobs in other cities, but I didn't want to do it," he says. "It's about family and friends and my love for this city. Do I want to make a million dollars? Sure. But some things aren't worth it. I'm fiercely loyal, and I ended up with the perfect job. I'm the ultimate salesman for this building."
The city-owned building opened in 1962, as the Baltimore Civic Center. Its inaugural event was a Clippers hockey game with singer Paul Anka also on the bill, and it was home to the Bullets basketball franchise for 10 years. JFK and MLK gave speeches at the Civic Center, and, in its first decade, it hosted a staggering array of concerts that included The Beatles and Bob Dylan.
A ledger kept in contract and booking manager Trish Howerton's office shows that over the course of a single year (1969-1970), Frank Sinatra, The Miracles, Lawrence Welk, The Supremes, James Brown, Ray Charles, Cream, Stevie Wonder, Count Basie, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, The Temptations, Glenn Campbell, Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, Blind Faith, and Led Zeppelin all played the Civic Center. Elvis Presley performed there in 1971 and, again, three months before he died in 1977.
Eventually, the Clippers folded, the Bullets moved to D.C.'s Capitol Centre—which also siphoned away much of the concert business—and the Civic Center was relegated to secondary market status. The venue changed its name to the Baltimore Arena in 1986 and again to 1st Mariner Arena in 2003. (Ed Hale, whose Baltimore Blast soccer team has long been a tenant, paid $75,000 per year to secure the naming rights for a decade.)
And as the nearby Inner Harbor sparkled as a tourist destination and new stadiums were built for the Orioles and Ravens, speculation swirled about the aging arena's future. In 2004, the Maryland Stadium Authority looked into replacing it, and a feasibility study, released three years later, found the Arena generated an estimated $47.2 million annually in economic impact. It also determined that the facility was "becoming operationally inefficient and increasingly obsolete," and even Remesch concedes that the building is "quirky" and could use more bathrooms, wider hallways, and better concession stands. Still, he says, "You wouldn't want people saying your house is old and ugly, and it's hard hearing people want to tear it down."
The study did, indeed, recommend replacing the Arena with a new, state-of-the-art facility for an estimated $160 million. And it noted that renovating the existing building would cost nearly as much.
Baltimore Development Corporation President Jay Brodie reportedly said it was a "miracle" the Arena, considering its limitations, did so well.
Remesch helped orchestrate that miracle. Before he took over, the likes of Alan Jackson and Britney Spears were pretty much the top draws, although U2 did play the Arena in 2001. "He's an excellent general manager, one of my best," says Hank Abate, senior vice president of arenas and stadiums at SMG. "He's really tenacious in going after acts, and he loves Baltimore."
"He's taken the building to new heights, despite people claiming we're too old and outdated," says Howerton, who's been at the Arena for 40 years. "He's done it by being aggressive, but not in a way that would get on your nerves. He worked on Springsteen's people for years, by constantly reminding them that we're here."
"It's management like I've never seen," agrees Brian Snell, shop steward for Local 19 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, who's worked Arena events for the past 34 years. "I've never felt that vibe before, where a guy's really trying to get people into this building. It feels like we're finally our own entity, like we're established as a separate market and not the stepchild to D.C. all the time."
Besides doggedly pursuing superstar acts, Remesch also widened the scope of bookings. "My job is to put events in this building," he says, matter-of-factly. "If I don't do that, I don't have any chance to make money and my people [35 full-time and 500 part-time employees] don't work. But if you'll cover my costs, you can basically rent this building from me tomorrow.
"You wanna get Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones? Great. It's an honor to have them here, but anybody can sell those shows. It's the kind of events that you need to take a little bit of a chance on that can reap some serious rewards, because they bring a whole new audience into the building."
Along with longtime favorites such as the circus and wrestling, the Arena now hosts bull riding, monster trucks, Disney on Ice, the Radio City Christmas show, motocross, graduations, So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol, Star Wars in Concert, religious events, comedy shows, and Mixed Martial Arts [MMA]. For MMA, Remesch went so far as to lobby the state to make such bouts legal and work out with MMA Promoter John Rollo. "I wanted to understand his sport a little better," says Remesch.
That's the electrician in Remesch, the unpretentious guy who isn't above getting his hands dirty. Howerton claims he's "like MacGyver" and "can fix anything with anything," and Snell says he's seen Remesch, dressed in a suit, fixing forklifts.
When negotiating a new contract, Remesch and union officials have been known to settle it over steamed crabs and beer. "With Frank, it feels like we're family," says Snell. "It's a family feeling that makes you proud to be here. Frank's a working man, and he's never forgotten that."
That's evident as the photo shoot before the Springsteen concert winds down. Remesch, before leaving the stage, looks as if something just dawned on him. When asked what it is, he points out the lights at the end of every fourth row of seats. There must be hundreds of them.
"See those lights?" he says. "I wired every single one."
He looks pleased.