Tacoma Dome – from the beginning

— by Melanie Alvarado

When someone speaks about Washington State they usually think of the rain, the PNW and Seattle. Rightfully so, Seattle is the largest city in Washington and has heavy musical ties and culture. The Seattle music scene extends deep but what many be overlooked is Tacoma, also known as the City of Destiny.

When someone brings up the idea of a large concert event in Washington there are typically three venues that are mentioned: the Key Arena (now Climate Pledge Arena), The Gorge Amphitheater and the Tacoma Dome. The Tacoma Dome first opened its venue doors in April of 1983 as one of the first largest wood domed structures in the world. This arena can welcome up to 23,000 people with assorted configurations.

The Tacoma Dome is unique for various reasons but one of the most commonly known facts about this arena is that it is primarily made of wood. In fact it is the largest wooden dome arena in the world by volume compared to the Superior Dome in Michigan which is larger in diameter. What may not be common knowledge is where the materials came from to begin construction on the Tacoma Dome. The wood that was used to construct the Dome came from trees that were fallen Douglas Fir trees due to the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. This particular
Dome was created based on the Varaz System developed by architectures from Western Wood Structures based in Beaverton Oregon. This particular system uses “framework out of triangular units of timber laminated and glued together, called glulams. Each of these prefabricated triangular units weighs 5,000 pounds, and there are 288 of them in the structure.

Photo courtesy Western Wood Structures

The Tacoma Dome is an arena that hosts many different types of events every year. From rodeos and concerts to sporting events you can bet that the Tacoma Dome has hosted it in the 38 years since it has been constructed. The first ever event that was scheduled in the freshly-built Tacoma Dome was a week long event, “World’s Toughest Rodeo”. What happened a few short months later in august quickly encouraged the idea of Tacoma becoming a central music capital in the Pacific Northwest. David Bowie became the first musical event in August of 1983 and has since been followed by a variety of other famous artists such as Justin Bieber, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Janet Jackson, NSYNC* and MC Hammer, just to name a few. Additionally, the Tacoma Dome has also been known to hold regional high school sporting events and local high school graduation ceremonies. Twenty-one years ago the Tacoma Dome became the largest dome in the state due to the implosion of the Kingdome in Seattle in March of 2000.

In 2019 the Tacoma Dome earned a spot on the list of the highest attended concert venues in the world, hitting 600,000 people. Additionally, the gross ticket sales hit $38 million dollars, earning the rank of 15th in the United States and 20th in the entire world.

David Bowie at the Tacoma Dome, 1983. Photograph courtesy Tacoma News Tribune.

David Bowie was the first musician to play at the Tacoma Dome in August of 1983. The rock star brought in a crowd from near and far. The police reports from the night of this concert show that “paramedics…dealt with fans collapsing from heat exhaustion, too much alcohol and at least one who went to the emergency room tripping on LSD.”

The video below features this iconic first concert at the Tacoma Dome with Bowie. This vlog style video shows the freeway exit to the Tacoma Dome circa 1983 and follows the entire concert. What an iconic video to be posted on social media! This stop on the Serious Moonlight tour featured the songs “Star”, “Breaking Glass”, “Rebel Rebel” and “Modern Love”. A grand total of 22 songs, and an additional two for the encore.

Bon Jovi, one of the most popular rock bands to exist, has actually filmed music right here in Tacoma! More specifically, at the Tacoma Dome. The hit song “Lay Your Hands on Me” was released as the fourth single on the 1988 album New Jersey. The music video was put together from two stops on the Jersey Syndicate Tour. The two concerts used to produce this music video are from the Memorial Coliseum in Portland Oregon and the Tacoma Dome. This music video was also used to be released on the home style video of “New Jersey: The Videos &
Cross Road: The Videos”.

In more recent times we can note the performance of Justin Bieber in October of 2012 with his Believe Tour. This tour followed his third studio album and this tour had 120 concert dates. What this concert tour was known for was his performance of the hit song “One Less Lonely Girl” where it has been known that Justin Bieber’s manager would go out into the crowd and choose an audience member to be serenaded. The video below shows the lucky fan being brought on stage.

All in all, the Tacoma Dome is and will continue to be an iconic venue in the Pacific Northwest. The diversity in the types of events this arena can hold are never ending! Graduation ceremonies, high school sporting events, concerts, monster trucks and more! We can only hope that COVID comes to an end soon, so that we can enjoy a nice concert in our local arena, the Tacoma Dome!


About the Author

Melanie Alvarado prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Winter Quarter 2021, she was a senior majoring in Social Welfare.

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