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WrestleMania III remembered
Basil V. Devito Jr. is a long-time employee of WWE who has been backstage or ring-side at every WrestleMania. This year, WrestleMania will be held in the Detroit, Mich. area for the first time since the epic WrestleMania III broke indoor attendance records (93,173 fans) in the Motor City region in 1987. Here is Basil's first-hand account of the incredible event, as documented in his 2001 book WrestleMania: The Official Insider's Story.
In planning for WrestleMania III, Vince McMahon once again had a distinct vision: it had to be even bigger. This presented something of a problem, since WrestleMania 2, for all its problems, was undeniably huge. More than 47,000 people had witnessed the event in person. We had covered three time zones. How do you top that? Well, by putting on a better show, for starters. But that wasn't enough. In one of our earliest planning meetings we had decided that this version of WrestleMania would be WrestleMania III, with a Roman numeral, instead of WrestleMania 3. Other than the Super Bowl, no event had consistently dared to present itself as being worthy of this sort of designation there was an implied importance and even if it was mostly bluster, it was appropriate for our purposes. So, as we tried to come up with a catchphrase for the event, someone said, "Let's see, this one is going to be bigger, it's going to be better, it's going to be badder--"
Vince jumped in at that point, as he often did in these settings. "Stop right there," he said. He held a hand up in the air, as if to draw the words. "WrestleMania III: Bigger, Better, Badder."
And that was it. Everyone around the table nodded and smiled. Vince had hit upon the perfect slogan."
The next trick was to make good on the promise. Creating a WrestleMania that would be badder and better wasn't much of a concern. That, after all, is what we did. But bigger? That would be a challenge. Vince decided that the only way to create a bigger spectacle than the previous year's WrestleMania was to increase the live gate -- without using more than one facility. That meant taking WrestleMania III to a stadium. In 1987 there were fewer options than there are today, especially in the eastern half of the country, where World Wrestling Entertainment has always had its biggest fan base. Theoretically, we could have selected a warm climate and an outdoor venue. But weather is always a risk in outdoor stadiums, and an event in the sunlight is not quite as dramatic.
It had to be a dome, and it didn't take long to settle on the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, as the first choice. In fact, the decision was made at 2:00 A.M., when Vince picked up the telephone and called his event booker, Ed Cohen. Ed, of course was sound asleep, so when the answering machine picked up, Vince began speaking in rapid-fire bursts into the phone: "Wake up! Wake up!" Vince wanted Ed on a plane first thing in the morning with a fifty-thousand-dollar check! He wanted the Silverdome for WrestleMania.
And he got it. The Silverdome had already been booked for a convention, but WWE bought out the event and secured the facility. Now we were set. If all went well, we'd be able to put more than 90,000 fans in the building -- an outrageous number of people for a single live event. But of course, when planning an event of this magnitude, things never go smoothly. There are always obstacles.
A Hot Ticket
Based on our concern about the possibility of selling 60,000 tickets (which would have been an all-time sports-entertainment record) and still having 30,000 empty seats, and thus having the event branded a "failure," it was decided to exclude the entire state of Michigan from pay-per-view access. This blackout was not exactly a popular move with some of our fans (to say nothing of the pay-per-view executives), but it seemed necessary. Despite the fact that we had a main event -- Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, perhaps the most promotable match of all time -- we were entering new territory, and there was significant risk involved. But we didn't feel good about the blackout; in fact, we haven't blacked out an area since.
I first learned of the site for WrestleMania III in January, at the National Association of Television Program Executives convention in New Orleans. This was an annual event at which all television programming for the following year was sold. On Thursday, January 22, Vince and Hulk Hogan came to our booth to meet with television executives, shake some hands, pump the business. Following their appearance, I walked Hulk and Vince to their limo for the ride to the airport. When Vince told me that we were going to the Silverdome, I held out some hope that, by using curtains and other devices, we could configure the building in such a way that 40,000 or 50,000 might be capacity.
These were the thoughts running through my head as we walked down an access corridor outside the convention's main display area. Hulk -- walking two or three steps ahead of me and Vince -- was wearing red tights with the word "Hulkamania" printed down the side of each leg, tucked into cowboy boots. He wore a yellow Hulkamania bandanna and carried a Hulkamania leather gym bag. As we talked, it was clear that Vince was unmoved by ideas on capacity and configuration. "We're going all the way," he said. "Find out what the record is for the largest indoor crowd in history -- for any event. Then make sure we can put enough seats in the Silverdome to break it."
Then he paused and smiled.
"What do you think?"
I swallowed hard. "Well, Vince, to be honest… I'm scared to death."
With that, Hulk stopped, put down his bags, and turned to face us. He walked right up to me, not in a menacing way, but in a very serious way. He leaned down, put his nose a few inches from mine, and said in that sandpaper voice of his, "Ain't you heard who the main event is, brother?"
That was the last time I voiced my concern out loud.
Immediately I flew to Michigan to begin the process of putting tickets on sale. The first step was a site survey. We went through a meeting with the executive staff of the Silverdome. We talked about how the event would work and discussed the logistics of installing four giant color television screens so that everyone in the building would be able to see the event. Engineers would have to be brought in to figure out how to safely hang these giant screens over the ring. Because the Silverdome's roof is translucent and air-supported, nothing can be affixed to it, so installing these screens was no small engineering feat. As usual, Vince decided that price would not be an issue. He wanted this to work. He wanted the largest indoor crowd in history, regardless of the cost.
So we walked the entire stadium, and finally Vince asked to be taken to the worst seat in the house.
"I want to make sure this person can see the screen," Vince said.
"That's right," someone added. "Even from the Uecker seats." We all laughed. This was a reference to Bob Uecker, the baseball-player-turned-broadcaster-turned-actor who was then starring in a popular series of Miller Light commercials. Bob's character was always attending sporting events and claiming he belonged "in the front row," but invariably wound up in the cheap seats. And in part, that's why he was invited to be a guest announcer at WrestleMania III.
Most of us left the Silverdome that day and headed back home, but there was more work to do for Vince. We had the biggest venue in the country and we were to draw the biggest crowd in history. To complete the picture, Vince wanted one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, a larger-than-life character. He wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger.
So that day, Vince McMahon, Dick Ebersol and Jesse Ventura -- former wrestler and future governor of Minnesota, as well as one of Arnold's co-stars in the movie Predator -- climbed aboard a Learjet and flew to some remote jungle where Arnold was filming his latest film. Unfortunately, they got to the area later than they intended, and the pilot spend considerable time circling and sweating, looking for a tiny landing strip in the fading light. Finally, Vince said, "Just put this thing down somewhere!" and the pilot found the airstrip with a hut as a control center and animals on the runway. He put the plane down safely and the unlikely trio went off in search of Arnold. They found him, spent the night, but ultimately weren't able to persuade him to participate in WrestleMania III. Instead, the lineup of celebrities included rock star Alice Cooper (a Motor City fixture), Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart, the First Lady of Soul, Aretha Franklin (in keeping with the Motown theme), and Uecker. That roster, coupled with a potentially great main event involving Hulk and Andre, helped feed a ticket-buying frenzy that surprised almost everyone involved with WrestleMania III.
Tickets went on sale February 14. By March 2 we had sold 50,000 seats. By March 11 we had sold 74,000. And when we went to our production meeting on March 24, we had 90,000 tickets sold! At that point we cut off sales, because there was concern that we might oversell the building. By the time the final numbers came in from our remote outlets, the figure was 93,173. We had done the impossible: we had sold enough tickets to guarantee the largest indoor crowd in history. Bigger than the Rolling Stones concert at the Superdome. Bigger than Super Bowl at the Silverdome. Bigger, even, than the Pope's appearance at the Silverdome months later, which would draw 88,000. In fairness, it should be pointed out that for the Pope, they probably had to put in kneelers which do take up a lot of space. That was nothing short of amazing.