Pan Am Memories
By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — I’m not up there with the veterans like Barbara Hubbard and Bobbie Welch, but I’ve been covering stories at the Pan Am Center since the mid 90s and I’ve enjoyed a lot of encounters with greatness, on and off stage.
I’ve watched Pan Am’s all-time-record ticket seller Garth Brooks soar over the crowd in a flying harness. And I’ve sat with him a backstage room, debating a photo agreement. He allowed fans to bring their cameras, but members of the press were banned from bringing cameras into the stadium unless they signed a long legal document full of restrictions. Our editors decided not to sign. But hey, I understand. Garth and I have the same birthday and I hate to have my picture taken, too.
Still, it’s photo images of some stars that I remember most: a big screen video of Alan Jackson water-skiing in red cowboy boots, Elton John pounding a piano in a rather conservative (for him) purple suit.
In her first appearance here, Faith Hill impressed me as the first big name in her genre not to go for the big country hair. Later, she was back with Tim McGraw for their Spontaneous Combustion tour, which turned out to be just that. There were rumors of love messages scrawled in lipstick on backstage mirrors. A proposal and their marriage soon followed.
Love was more combative when Bobby Brown appeared here, and then-wife Whitney Houston joined him backstage. Let’s just say their subsequent public passionate squabbles and eventual breakup came as no news to those of us who passed through noisy corridors back then.
Other stars were very open and sociable ... and occasionally dauntless. I remember interviewing Vince Gill while he played golf during a sandstorm that would send even veteran desert dwellers like myself running indoors for cover.
Linda Ronstadt was also very open and forthcoming, even in pain. She injured her back playing with her kids and went off to Las Cruces chiropractor Dr. Karin Cook and Rolfer Mark Cook and pronounced them the best body workers she’d encountered.
Some of my most vivid memories are of Pan Am lectures by superstar minds like “Color Purple” author Alice Walker, Holocaust survivor and author Eli Weisel and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. His comments at Pan Am made the national wire services when he said, “George Bush scares the hell out of me,” and told audiences why, back when our former President was still riding a crest of post 9-11 popularity.
I first met and interviewed Gloria Steinem when I was a Portland, Ore., city editor during the 1970s and was struck, then and later at Pan Am, by her humor, gentleness with sometimes shy fans, and common sense, compassionate approach to social issues.
There were a couple of return engagements like that, that sent me down memory lane. It was good to see John Denver again. I’d worked with him on environmental causes decades ago, including the nation’s first nuclear safeguard ballot measure campaign in Oregon. He gave a benefit concert for the cause and helped us recruit people like Margaret Mead and Jacques Cousteau to discuss problems of nuclear waste storage and plant safety, back in the days before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. I’d worked with Doc Severinsen, too, when I was director of festival marketing with the Palm Beach County Council of the Arts. Doc chose to give his symphonic farewell performance with Mariachi Cobre and the Las Cruces Symphony and impressed many with his willingness to hang out with students and fans. I’ll remember him dancing with a slice of pizza at a Pan Am rehearsal.
Gloria Estefan’s show here reminded me of her generosity when a friend and I recruited her to do a benefit for victims of Hurricane Andrew, the first of the recent monster hurricanes.
Sometimes shows have led to revelations about well-known Las Crucens. Sally and Glenn Cutter and I all discovered we share a passion for Johnny Cash when we bumped into each other at the Pan Am at one of Johnny and June Carter Cash’s last shows.
I’ve watched “CATS!” cavort and caterwaul and Lipperzanner stallions prance and preen. I’ve basked in the brilliant blues riffs of B.B. King. I’ve been showered with watermelon shrapnel from Gallagher’s mighty sledgehammer.
In my first decade here, The Las Cruces Sun-News covered all of the Las Cruces Symphony concerts and most of the big name entertainers who came to El Paso and Southern New Mexico.
A few years ago, we moved more toward advance coverage and interviews, when we can get them, with visiting celebrities.
I covered a couple of the Warped Tours. After the Pearl Jam concert, I locked myself out of my house and wondered if I was suffering from a psychic contact high. My last big rock concert was Sheryl Crow. She’s one of my all-time favorites, but as I moved from my coveted front section seats to a place a block outside Pan Am where I could hear the lyrics and stand the noise level, I thought: “I’m getting too old for this.”
Still, there are moments when I remember the thrill of trumpets and the flash of folklorico dancers’ skirts at Las Cruces International Mariachi conferences, the smell of teen spirit at a grunge rock fiesta, the roar of the crowds, the excitement, the camaraderie of a shared experience with a big, diverse and happy group in the old querencia.
I think about running up those steep Pan Am stairs to phone in a story, rushing to the laptop or the office to get online or beat late print deadlines. And I think of Doc Severinsen, at age 80, jogging up and down those same steps and still managing to deliver some brilliant trumpet riffs.
And I think Pan Am and I may still have some good years left, after all.
S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org