By Gary Gray
AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock” surged out of Freedom Hall Civic Center’s relatively new speaker system last week, shaking Johnson City’s hallowed entertainment venue and causing workers preparing for an East Tennessee State University basketball game to strike a few air guitar poses.
Bobbie Shirley, the center’s longtime box office manager, briskly walked along an inner concourse to an appointed chat with The News & Neighbor. The gregarious Shirley fitted herself at her desk, surrounded by decades of memorabilia, including a Tina Turner poster, playbills dating back to the 1970s, buttons, posters, cups, autographed hats, instruments, ticket stubs and thousands of other items.
The Johnson City native has become an institution, though she never fails to attempt to slide that moniker – or any other notoriety – to fellow employees and others. The 54-year-old entertainment venue has undergone a nearly $13 million renovation, and Shirley has been there through the entire journey.
She graduated from Science Hill High School in 1975, the first full year of operation at the city-owned facility. Her first job? Collecting revenues from activities at the Freedom Hall pool. Her other jobs? Answering phones in the center’s box office, and her current position.
“I still have the little 45 record player I used to listen to at that time, and I always liked music,” she said. “I started working here a few months after graduating from high school. I can remember being down on the floor and looking up and thinking, ‘Wow, what a huge place!’”
Shirley held out a few handfuls of colorful concert tickets, shuffling them like a deck of cards.
“There were no online purchases,” she said. “If you wanted a ticket, you had to physically come here and pay for it. Tickets to the Doobie Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, ZZ Top, Mountain, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“The Lynyrd Skynyrd band members had a pretty rowdy food fight backstage in the dressing room back in the day and tore up all the furniture. The group’s personal manager later apologized in a letter, and the band sent a photo that they all had signed.”
Though music was the center’s mainstay for years, Freedom Hall now is largely sustained with Disney on Ice, Sesame Street, the Shrine Circus, Jehovah’s Witness Convention and more Christian acts and activities.
“The industry has changed,” Shirley said. “It used to be primarily that bands had to tour to make money. They still tour, but they can pick and choose where they go, and we don’t see whether they made money or not. Still, I learned much in those days. I learned it takes different techniques and efforts for different shows. I dealt more with promoters. And they’d call and ask about complimentary tickets for radio stations. I prepared lease agreements for the space and set up security.
“I remember John Denver telling me ‘the concert begins long before the artist appears.’ People remember. They remember things like how they were treated on the phone, and whether the people were nice to you when they came to the building.”
The band Aerosmith shot their “Rag Doll” video in Johnson City, and it was Shirley who set up the catering, ordered dry ice to produce fog and, at the band members’ request, procured a mini-trampoline on which they exercised and amused themselves.
“Nowadays they have all these things bid out to contractors, including exactly what they will eat each day,” she said.
Shirley’s all-time favorite: Elvis. If you ask to talk about “The King,” or look through all things Elvis, get comfortable.
“That was the biggest deal for me,” she said as the stack of pictures and photos began mounting on her desk. “I remember it was all dark, and then the lights started flashing. He played a three-day run at Freedom Hall in 1975, and he did one show in 1976. My mother liked him too. This August – the anniversary of his death – a man contacted me saying he was trying to visit every place he had played.
“This week I got an email from a guy asking about the book, ‘Did Elvis Come to Your Home Town Too?’ He talked about a place in Rochester, N.Y., he had stayed in 1976. I went online to see how much the book cost – $252 …used! That tells me something.”
Three prominent companies have toured Freedom Hall Civic Center in lieu of a potential agreement with the city for private operation of the iconic facility. To this point, city officials have decided nothing, and Shirley diplomatically bowed out of any speculation.
Johnson City has subsidized operations at the facility for 44 years at average cost of about $250,000 per year. The city owns the building and leases it to independent promoters. By law, the city is not allowed to sit in the promoter “seat.”
Shirley continues to refer to Freedom Hall simply as a public service to the community.
“People don’t have to drive five hours to see a show,” she said. “If we weren’t here, where would you go to see Elton John? Knoxville? Memphis? The acoustics here are great, and we’ve had people come to us and say they want to come back here because of the acoustics.
“The fees are reasonable compared to other venues. And I still like the people I get to interact with. There are people – promoters, entertainers, fans – that I first met when they were 12, and I’ve gotten to know them and their families. I’ve dealt with people professionally over and over and over.”