A few decades ago, Norm Rosa’s schedule would have looked something like this:
R.I. Reds hockey, then a Celtics basketball game, then the comedy team of Martin and Lewis, the rock music of the Grateful Dead, a Rocky Marciano boxing bout, the graceful spins and jumps of the Ice Capades, the rough action of Roller Derby, maybe a concert by Bill Haley and the Comets, cowboy star Roy Rogers and his rodeo’s bucking broncos, the smooth sounds of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadiens orchestra, the circus with its high wire dangers and well-trained elephants and tigers.
That’s the way it was when Norm ran the R.I. Auditorium, once a showplace venue for sports and entertainment during an era when it was a mecca for the region, even a model for the nation.
Norm was a Rhode Islander who lived in the village of Pascoag in Burrillville. And he was the nephew of Lou Pieri. Mr. Pieri owned the R.I. Auditorium and the R.I. Reds hockey team. And he was a sports and entertainment promoter way, way ahead of the times.
Lou also was a good judge of talent and picking the right people to fill key positions in his growing sports and entertainment empire. When his nephew Norm Rosa was still in his early 20’s, Lou brought him to the Auditorium as part of his growing team. He made sure Norm learned the business from the bottom up, taking in everything about it. Eventually, Norm became superintendent of the Auditorium, responsible for keeping the building up and running smoothly as events were staged and fans poured in, often overflowing its listed 5,300 capacity.
Highlights of those years have been put together by Donna (Rosa) Baker, one of Norm’s daughters, as a tribute to their dad along with her sisters Deb Rosa and Maryann (Rosa) Bartz.
She described her dad this way: “He learned the art of managing staff by his own form of servant leadership, displaying integrity and solid work ethic. He was confident in his job.”
The fullness of the building’s schedule and the variety of events that filled it is impressive. Think for a moment, of how different the interior of the auditorium had to become to accommodate each of the different events. Hockey and figure skating needed an ice surface, basketball needed a wooden floor, musical attractions need a stage big enough to seat an orchestra, rodeos need a dirt surface, roller derby needed a special track, the circus needs so many things it staggers the imagination.
And the Auditorium was a major-league level venue. How big a deal was it in its prime? Here are just two examples:
First, Rocky Marciano was the only undefeated heavyweight champion in boxing history. For the native of Brockton, MA, the Auditorium was the site of 27 of his 49 fights.
Second, during a Boston Celtics game at the Auditorium, Bob Cousy threw a long, fast-break pass just over the outstretched reach of teammate Bill Russell. But it went swish, right into the opposing team’s basket. A surprised Russell laughed with joy, an even more surprised Cousy feigned fainting to the crowd’s delight.
To the guy in charge of the facility the numbers and variety of events it had to be an ongoing challenge. To Norm Rosa, it was a challenge he met for 35 years.
Hard work was how Norm lived his life. And not only was he the guy in charge of the facility, he also handled some other less demanding chores. He learned how to sharpen skates, a task requiring special expertise serving skaters whose success depended on their skates and blades.
For years Norm also drove the Zamboni, creating new sheets of ice between periods of hockey games and during intermissions of figure skating shows. Prior to the arrival of the revolutionary ice resurfacing machine, Norm had mastered the art of creating new sheets of ice the old fashioned way – deftly spraying the surface with hot water from a heavy fire hose as a team of rink rats gracefully squeegeed the water uniformly over the surface. The Zamboni was a gift to Norm from the hockey gods.
As his daughter recalls: “All through his 50-plus-years career he continued to drive the Zamboni, not because he had to but because he loved it.”
Eventually, the Auditorium was sold and its future turned cloudy. Norm moved on to a similar position at the St. Louis Arena in 1968, the home of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and a venue for many other events. In the 1970s he held a similar position at the old Boston Garden. Finally, he moved to the Portland Civic Center, then a major new facility in Maine, which he initially served as a consultant to before being offered the position as the building’s first superintendent..
In Rhode Island, Norm earned a special place in the hearts and memories of so many who were Auditorium regulars. He learned from Lou Pieri’s brother, John, and Earl Stinson, who served as building superintendents before him and he earned a place next to local legends like PR guru George Patrick Duffy (and his familiar radio broadcasts of Reds games), public address announcer Jack Cleary (and his “One minute!” warnings), and organist Miss Vivian Porter (and her stirring rendition of “Roll Out The Barrel” as the Reds entered the ice).
Added Donna (Rosa) Baker: “Starting at the very beginning his love of the job showed in every place he went, working long hours and making sure it was all done right. He and his team were amazing.”
She continues, describing how his approach affected those around him, especially his family: “He taught us great work ethic, and the love of hockey lives on in us to this day. In fact, he even designed and built, with a few friends, a huge swimming pool that converted into an ice rink for us to skate on in the cold R. I. winter months. Dad’s love of skating and ice hockey inspired Deb and me to play on women’s ice hockey teams in Massachusetts and Missouri and Maryann to become adept in the art of figure skating as a young girl.
“He and our mom (Margaret Rosa) made sure we sisters grew up in the rinks and spent many years in the Auditorium and other arenas with him. We are grateful to have been part of what he was, because our dad was one of the real ones – honest to a fault, truly humble and truly kind.
“The Rhode Island Auditorium will remain his first love and home, and somehow ours as well. He and our mom passed away many years ago, but it’s interesting that the Auditorium was demolished in 1989, which is the exact same year our dad, Norm Rosa, passed, as well.”
By Arnie Bailey