Fayette County

Rupp Arena says bye-bye to ‘Big Bertha’

Lowering Big Bertha at Rupp Arena for the last time

Big Bertha, the speaker system used at Rupp Arena, designed by Merrill Richardson, was lowered in a private ceremony before being disassembled this week for a newer video speaker system to replace it.
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Big Bertha, the speaker system used at Rupp Arena, designed by Merrill Richardson, was lowered in a private ceremony before being disassembled this week for a newer video speaker system to replace it.

It was a retirement party like no other.

On Monday, “Big Bertha,” the iconic white sound system that has hung above the floor of Rupp Arena since 1976, was lowered for the last time.

During a brief ceremony, current and former Rupp Arena staff said their goodbyes to the sound system that had been in service for 39 years. The last song played over her 66 Altec horns was the theme music from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a nod to the past and the start of a new era.

Bertha came down to make way for a sleek, state-of-the-art, center-hung scoreboard with LED viewing screens on all four sides. The new scoreboard, made by Daktronics, will arrive in September and will take more than a month to build and install. It is expected to be ready for the start of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball season.

The scoreboard and other technology upgrades are part of a two-year, $15 million overhaul of Rupp Arena.

It will take crews more than a day to dismantle Bertha, which is nearly 20 feet long.

Bill Owen, president and CEO of Lexington Center Corp., said Rupp would keep some parts of Bertha and has issued a bid for interested buyers of the remaining parts. Lexington Center Corp. oversees Rupp Arena, the convention center and Lexington Opera House.

Bertha was assembled in a warehouse in Lexington before being installed in Rupp Arena.

Merrill Richardson, director of facilities administration, designed Big Bertha. Today, sound systems are designed using computer modeling, but in 1976, no such technology existed.

“A scale model built of Bertha was set up in a scale model of Rupp Arena,” Owen said. “The designers took a flashlight and shined through the horns to make sure that every seat gets an even sound level. I don’t know of another building 39 years old that has its original PA system. There may be one out there, but I don’t know about it. It’s a tribute to Merrill and his ingenuity, and his ability to design a system that is going to deliver 100 decibels of sound to every seat in this place.”

Richardson attended the retirement ceremony Monday. In 1976, Bertha was state-of-the-art, but other sound systems soon surpassed her. The new sound system will be able to deliver higher-quality sound that will also be more nimble — the system can change depending on the event. That new sound system will be installed with the new center-hung scoreboard.

“I am thankful that we are replacing it and getting a better system,” Richardson said. “They said you couldn’t put 100 decibels to every seat in the house, and we proved them wrong.”

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall

Big Bertha by the numbers:

20 feet tall

12,000 pounds

22 feet wide at its widest point

66 Altec horns make up speaker cluster

Hangs 43 feet above the floor

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