Friday, January 31, 1997
Old Gardens still raking in the green

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jerry Robinson could be moping around like the lonely Maytag repairman.

Instead, he's flashing the ''What, me worry?'' grin of Alfred E. Neuman.

That's the unflappable nature of the man who owns Cincinnati Gardens. According to signs outside the arena, it's the ''home'' of Xavier basketball and Cyclones hockey.

''Temporary home'' is more like it.

Xavier is leaving - probably early in the next century - for a new on-campus temple built to honor its basketball gods.

The Cyclones would like to leave on the next bus for downtown and the city's biggest fixer-upper, Riverfront Coliseum.

If both teams left the Gardens tomorrow, Jerry Robinson would not be left holding the bag. He'd just shift his idea-man mode into high gear and come up with new ways to fill his old building.

''We could do Roller Derby on Rollerblades. A guy keeps calling me about that,'' he says. ''Or indoor lacrosse. Or women's professional basketball. That's getting bigger.''

The Gardens turns 48 on Feb. 22. Modeled after Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, the Roselawn landmark is a big, old, low-tech box of steel beams, poured concrete and bricks. Even its new scoreboard is old.

''That thing was hanging from the ceiling at Louisville's Freedom Hall for 10 years,'' Jerry Robinson says. ''When they got a new board, we bid $20,000 for the old one. We were the only bidder. Could have had it for free.

''Aw, but, what the hell. It's only money,'' says the man who made his money in real estate, construction and the law before buying the arena in 1979.

The Gardens has made one concession to modern times. It has a luxury box. One.

''It's where we used to put the spotlights for ice shows,'' Jerry Robinson says of the Gardens' lone box.

Standing near Xavier's basketball court that sits atop the Cyclones' ice, he points up to a far corner of the building. The luxury box is framed in concrete blocks and curtained-off sliding glass doors.

As he lowers his hand, his fingers brush one of the Gardens' 10,000 wood seats. They're all original and all state-of-the-art, for 1949. The only padding these wooden instruments of lower-back torture have ever had on them is when someone planted a fat fanny on their wood slats.

Sure, the Gardens is old and smells of popcorn and liniment. But it feels comfortable, lived-in, homey. It's a place where you can kick back and have fun.

Thank Jerry Robinson for that. He saved what was an old dump. He kept it from becoming a warehouse or, worse, a parking lot. He cleaned it up, hosed it down, killed its deafening echoes, gave it a fresh paint job, made it profitable and had it competing with a downtown arena that's less than half its age.

You can bet that had he owned the Coliseum, no one would be talking about wrecking it or sinking millions into it for renovations.

You can also bet that when the final piece of rubble is cleared away from the demolition of Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field - decades before the stadium marks its 48th birthday - the Gardens will still be up and running. A new coat of paint will be on the old wooden seats. And Cincinnatians will still be sitting in them.

''We know our role,'' Jerry Robinson says. ''We're not the slick, new place in town. Yet, we had in the neighborhood of 500,000 people come to our building last year.''

Jerry's sitting in his office overlooking the Gardens' marquee. ''My war room,'' he says and gives a ''look around'' wave of his hand.

Five screens - one cable TV, one word processor and three stock-market monitors - beam in their information from the top of his desk. Unless your idea of a charming vista is a mound of unopened mail or a pile of books, his office is not a room with a view.

''That's because our storm windows are opaque,'' he says. That's because the windows are sheets of plastic.

Jerry Robinson doesn't need to look out a window to see into the future.

''Next year, we will have Xavier basketball. And hockey. You can bank on it.''

It may not be the Cyclones.

''We haven't heard a word from them,'' he says of his hockey-playing tenants. ''Every day, I wait for the phone to ring.''

But, while he waits, he doesn't worry.

Something will work out, he says.

''This is no requiem. We're not dead yet.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.