Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum Was There for Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, the NBA, and This Year's State Fair
To anyone who didn't grow up here, the Coliseum probably looks like another of Phoenix's outdated, oddly shaped architectural mishaps. A stack of giant Pringles chips surrounded by tattered outbuildings and acres of parking lot, perhaps. Or a saddle. A layer cake that's fallen. Look at it with some detachment, and you'll see what I mean.
But for those of us who came of age in Phoenix, the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum is something more than a 14,870-seat multi-purpose indoor arena that looks like, as actor/talk show host Pat McMahon once said, "a giant bar of Dove soap."
Pretty much every one of us has a Coliseum Story of our own to tell, usually involving the State Fair (which has just kicked off its 124th annual event on the Coliseum grounds) or the phrase "my first rock concert," and more often than you'd imagine involving sex and vomiting. Like my friend John, whose first concert was the Stones' Coliseum debut on November 30, 1965.
I saw my own first rock concert there, although it was rather less stellar than John's. Remember the Sylvers? They were a family pop group that had hit records in the '70s, and I saw them play the State Fair one chilly October night in 1976. The following year, when we were juniors in high school, my friend Missy fell asleep at the wheel of her mother's AMC Pacer and rear-ended some poor slob on Black Canyon Highway. (This is a Coliseum Story because Missy fell asleep while driving because she'd been up all night screwing the guitar player from Bad Company, which had performed at the venue the night before.)
No one's Coliseum Story beats Gary Montgomery's, though. Gary is the former executive director of the Coliseum, a job he held for 22 years. He started working there as a high school kid in the '60s.
"My first job was trying to keep the kids from biting Gerald's leg," he says of McMahon's much-reviled television character, who often appeared at the Coliseum with kiddy-show colleagues Wallace and Ladmo. Gary was also there when the Doors performed a legendary concert at which Jim Morrison abruptly left the stage. He witnessed both of Elvis Presley's Coliseum appearances, too.
Gary also remembers that Phoenix architect Leslie Mahoney's original plan was to hang giant kachinas over each of the building's entrances, but the builders ran out of money.
"We never spent a dime of taxpayer money on the Coliseum," he insists. "The entire project and its upkeep were paid for from user fees culled from Coliseum ticket sales."
Built for a then-pricey $7 million and named in honor of Arizona's war veterans, the Coliseum opened on November 3, 1965, with a production of the Ice Follies, hosted by Bob Hope. People drove from across the state to ogle its one-of-a-kind, saddle-shaped, tension-cable roof, which supports more than a thousand pre-cast concrete panels, an architectural and engineering choice that remains innovative all these years later. Its circular lobby is decked out with original murals depicting the Grand Canyon and a Mexican bullfight and painted by Phoenix artist Paul Coze.
Every cool rock act, from Jimi Hendrix to the Foo Fighters, has played the Coliseum. Bruce Springsteen shot a video there; Neil Young recorded part of his 1973 live album, Time Fades Away, there; the Monkees performed their first-ever live concert there. The venue did double duty as the first-choice spot for sports events for several decades: The Phoenix Suns moved in in 1968 and stayed for nearly 25 years, hosting the 1975 NBA All-Star Game and playing the Boston Celtics in the 1976 NBA finals. (The Suns lost 4-2.) The Coliseum was also home to the World Hockey Association's Phoenix RoadRunners from 1974 to 1977 and the Phoenix Inferno from 1980 to 1983.
But by 1992, the Coliseum was the oldest and smallest venue in the NBA, and the leaky roof that plagued the building for years hadn't helped its reputation any. This wasn't the fault of a flawed design or lousy construction, but of the Coliseum's wacky employees, who were forever using the building's roof as a giant canvas for local fun and games. The trouble started, Gary says, when Coliseum management burnt a 25-foot rooftop candle to celebrate its first anniversary.
"They decided that since the building looks like a giant cake, it would be cool to stick a giant birthday candle up there," he remembers. "But when they took the candle down, they guided it in through the elastic coating that covered the roof, and broke the roof's seal."
A few years later, staffers painted a giant smiley face atop the round roof and, in 1976, topped that with a painting commemorating the bicentennial. "All this paint drying on the roof caused the surface to expand and contract," Gary explains, "and made its weak spots crack even more."
A Suns game against the Portland Trail Blazers had to be canceled because the roof leaked during a rainstorm, and the roof created more headlines when ceiling tiles fell onto spectators at yet another game.
By the early 1990s, with the advent of larger venues, the Coliseum's glory days were behind it. The Suns left in 1992 for America West Arena (now U.S. Airways Center), and even the state high school basketball championships, held there for decades, have jumped ship for the newer Jobing.com Arena. Today, when it's not the centerpiece of the State Fair, the Coliseum is home to minor league hockey and soccer teams, lesser entertainment events, and the occasional trade show. Rumors persist that the Coliseum is dead, and possibly about to be torn down. Not so, says Gary, who still does consulting work for the Coliseum. "We wouldn't have put $3 million into fixing the roof if there were plans to tear it down," he insists.
Despite its has-been reputation, the building remains one of the largest mixed-use facilities the state owns, in the heart of the city. In the fall of 2005, the Coliseum sheltered 2,500 New Orleans evacuees who were brought here in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And there's some hope that pro sports teams will return full-time to the venue; lately, the International Basketball League's Phoenix Flame and the ABA's Phoenix Phantoms have been hosting games there.
Meanwhile, there's the State Fair, under way now through November 2 (for more information, visit www.azstatefair.com). I read that Sheryl Crow will be among the performers; I've been thinking that seeing her might be fun. Really, though, I'm probably just looking for an excuse to step back inside the Coliseum again — to smell that musty, stale-beer smell, a testament to the thousands of professional sporting events held there; to walk across that slightly sticky concrete floor in front of the stage, blackened by the feet of generations of stoned rock fans.
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