Each summer, thousands of fans enter Louis Armstrong Memorial Stadium in Flushing Meadows Park to watch the U.S. Open Championship. A great number of those in attendance probably wonder at some point, “What did Louis Armstrong have to do with tennis?”
The answer, quite frankly, is nothing. But jazz’s greatest genius had everything to do with the surrounding Corona, Queens neighborhood. He and his wife Lucille Wilson Armstrong moved to Corona in 1943 and stayed until the end of their lives.“We stay put,” Armstrong wrote in 1970. “After all, we have a very lovely home. It’s a whole lot of comfort and happiness.”
Armstrong became a fixture in Queens during his 28 years on 107th Street. After he passed away on July 6, 1971, the community wanted to do something in his honor. In September of that year, I.S. 227 was named the Louis Armstrong School, a nice touch, but Lucille believed her husband deserved something larger; he deserved a stadium.
And on July 4, 1973—40 years after moving to Corona—she got her wish when the Singer Bowl, built for the 1964 World’s Fair (Louis performed there that year--see Jack Bradley photo below of Louis there wearing a Native American headdress!), was renamed Louis Armstrong Memorial Stadium and christened in great style with an all-star concert featuring legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and others. “I feel like I’m on Cloud Nine,” Lucille told the Daily News.
However, the joy was short-lived. The following year, while planning a follow-up concert, Lucille learned that the stadium was denied a permanent certificate of occupancy and would close by the end of August “because of structural deficiencies.” Newspapers began carrying headlines such as “City to Close Armstrong Bowl” and “Act to Save Satchmo’s Stadium.”
Lucille needed help and would receive it from an unlikely source: United States Tennis Association - USTA (Official) President W.E. “Slew” Hester. While flying over Queens in 1976, Hester saw the run-down Armstrong Stadium from overhead and immediately envisioned it as a home for the U.S. Open, which had been held at the private West Side Tennis Club for the previous 54 years. With the West Side contract due to expire in 1977, Hester set his sights on refurbishing the abandoned Armstrong Stadium and turning Flushing Meadows Park into the site of the U.S. National Tennis Center.
It would take $12 million dollars and ten months time to construct but by the time of the 1978 U.S. Open, 20,000 fans watched Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert win the singles titles at the brand new Louis Armstrong Memorial Stadium.
In a classy gesture, Hester not only kept Louis’s name on the stadium, but he invited Lucille to the groundbreaking ceremony, well as having her speak at the opening of the stadium, as depicted in the photos accompanying this post.
Last night, the USTA played "What a Wonderful World" after the final match at Louis Armstrong Memorial Stadium. After a final ceremonial event today, the stadium will be demolished BUT it will be rebuilt and a brand new Louis Armstrong Stadium will open in 2018! But now you know what to answer the next time someone asks, "Why is a tennis stadium named after Louis Armstrong?"
The Louis Armstrong House Museum - located just seven blocks away - has been open since 2003 and welcomes thousands of visitors from around the world each year, teaching them not only about the importance of Armstrong’s music but also why he loved his Queens neighborhood so much. One trip there and any questions about why a tennis stadium is named after a jazz trumpeter instantly disappear.