From bulls to dancers, crew keeps arena ready

Chris Bergeron

Less than 48 hours after the Worcester Bridal Expo moved out, Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Zombie filled the DCU Center arena with high volume blasts of Heavy Metal noise. That same week, a posse of 30 top-ranked cowboys from the Professional Bull Riders tour arrived at the downtown arena in buses and tractor-trailers carrying their horses and 110 bulls bred for mayhem.

Every night for three days last week, 6,000 fans came to cheer favorites like Tyler Smith and Ross Coleman trying to stay atop 1,500 pounds of snorting, bucking beef for eight seconds to win cash prizes and glory.

Now ask yourself, before the Disney On Ice show arrives next week, who do you think will be sweeping up all that malodorous dung, and who'll be hauling out the 2 million pounds of dirt spread across the arena floor to provide a safe surface for stomping hooves and tumbling cowboys?

Next Thursday, when Snow White, Cinderella and Mulan skate across fresh new ice, thank Robert Hornbaker and his hardworking crew for giving the DCU Center arena the show-to-show makeovers that keep customers satisfied.

"My guys do it all," said the Worcester resident who serves as director of operations at the center. "Even before one show finishes, we're looking ahead to getting ready for the next event."

While the logistics of moving out one show to set up another vary, Hornbaker manages three "changeover" crews of 12 to 15 workers per eight-hour shift who install the required surfaces for everything from rock concerts to bull riding, from monster trucks to Sleeping Beauty on ice skates.

A tall sturdy man with short hair, he said his staff performs specified tasks instinctively.

"You do it enough and it gets in your blood," he said.

Depending on the show, the arena surface has to be changed five times in January to provide ice for the Worcester Sharks hockey team. Ozzy and Rob Zombie required a stage and lots of sound equipment. Next month, a parquet floor will be taken out of storage and laid down for the Harlem Globetrotters.

When the New England Surge play arena football in the center, staff unroll a synthetic material called "carpet turf" to cover the hard floor so players can tackle and fall safely.

Depending on the event, arena seating can vary from 14,802 to around 10,000 for "dirt events" which take up some floor space or block the view from some seats. Among themselves, DCU Center staffers refer to the Professional Bull Riders show, the Monster Truck Jam next month and any circus that might be booked as "dirt events."

Director of Marketing John LaHair said the DCU Center is owned by the city of Worcester and managed by SMG, a private management firm for public assembly buildings.

"Over the last 25 years, this arena has done and seen it all," he said. "The satisfaction comes from seeing what we've been able to do for our community."

Formerly known as the Worcester Centrum, the building has been called the DCU Center since naming rights were sold to the Digital Federal Credit Union in 2004.

LaHair said the center hosts about 40 hockey games, six indoor football games, between 12 and 18 musical concerts and numerous special events such as the Massachusetts International Auto Show, the Eastern Fishing and Outdoor Exposition and "Dancing With The Stars: The Tour."

But the three-day Professional Bull Riders "Worcester Classic" from Jan. 11 to 13 made special demands on Hornbaker and his crew.

First, 2 million pounds of specially treated dirt is trucked into the center and spread across the octagonal 85- by 200-foot arena floor.

Hornbaker, who's worked 11 years at the Worcester center, said the facility doesn't store the dirt for bull riding but uses a private local company that hauls it in and out and uses Bobcat tractors to spread it over the floor with help from his crew. It takes between six to eight hours for trucks carrying about 20 cubic yards of dirt to bring in enough to cover the floor.

"We cover the arena's floor to a minimum depth of 12 to 14 inches of dirt. Sandy clay has been mixed into it to give the bulls and horses better footing and make it spongier if riders get thrown," said Hornbaker.

As the dirt is being spread, DCU staff and PBR workers who've arrived in trucks take about six hours setting up a series of fenced metal pens and chutes to store the show's four-legged stars in the Exhibition Hall. By late Friday afternoon on Jan. 11, the center's Swing Hall resembles the turn-of-the-century stockyards author Carl Sandburg eulogized in his poem "Chicago."

Even when mingling together, DCU staff and PBR workers are easily distinguishable. Very often PRR workers wear black cowboy hats and boots and pack their cheeks with chewing tobacco, while DCU personnel wear recognizable uniforms.

Ambling alongside a chute, Jinx Clower leans over the fence to check the bulls which snooze, munch hay or poke moist noses through the fence.

A native of Dallas, Texas, he's spent most of his 51 years riding bulls, breeding bulls and now operating the gate that lets bulls explode from a chute, carrying a rider into the arena. Unmarried, he "lives on the road" and travels with the show.

Tall and rangy, Clower said nearly all the bulls in the show have been "cross-bred" to make them buck and whirl for crowd-pleasing rides. "All their vim and vinegar comes from the mother. The momma's got the stuff you want," he said in a noticeable Texas drawl. "The bull is just part of it."

Clower said bulls reach their peak ability to unseat riders from the ages of 5 to 7 years while some perform until they're almost 20 years old.

From a second floor conference room with a view into the Exhibition Hall, Hornbaker allowed a herd of grown bulls can leave the staging area smelling "a little pungent."

"Once you haul the dirt out, the smell goes away," he said.

Since each show requires different kinds of staging, Hornbaker said it's difficult to generalize about the timing and logistical complexity of setting them up and taking them down.

He described the Cirque du Soleil's first-ever show in the center last July as a huge production that took two days to set up. In shows like that with specialized staging, the production company often brings its own crew to build sets and install sound and light systems. Since musicians use sound effects and light shows to define their act, most bring their own technicians and equipment.

Recalling tough jobs, Hornbaker said disassembling a basketball court to change over to a hockey rink "can be a toughie" if time is limited.

When the center was built 25 years ago, a cooling system was installed beneath the concrete floor to provide ice for hockey games and events like Disney's four-day "Princess Classics" which opens Thursday.

Putting in or taking out ice can require between one and three days.

Though he choreographs the tricky transitions from ice hockey to heavy metal concerts and monster trucks to the Foo Fighters, Hornbaker said he has no desire to meet or mingle with performers. "I like to stay behind the scenes," he said.

"Watching 12,000 people leave our shows with a smile on their face is well worth it," he said.


The DCU Center is located at 50 Foster St., Worcester. Upcoming events include:

- Jan. 24-27: Disney on Ice presents "Princess Classics"

- Jan. 25-27: Massachusetts International Auto Show

- Feb. 2: Worcester Sharks vs. Manchester Monarchs

- Feb. 4: Dancing with the Stars - The Tour

- Feb. 7-10: Eastern Fishing & Outdoor Expo

- Feb. 15-17: USHRA Monster Jam

To learn about more coming events at the DCU Center and for ticket information, call 508-755-6800 or visit