Written by Ethan Williford
Photographed by Sam Prager
Our town seems to be growing out of its venues. The Memphis metropolitan population has swelled by 24 percent since 1990. Not only is the population still increasing, but it is also getting younger. At an average age of 33-years-old, the people of Memphis are hungry for entertainment. However, simultaneously, the amount of indoor seating in the area has diminished by well over ten-thousand chairs, roughly 23 percent of all large-venue seating.
This issue precipitated from the loss of two iconic stadiums– the Pyramid, Memphis’ controversial arena turned Bass Pro Shop, and the now vacant Mid-South Coliseum, which has housed some of the city’s most legendary events of the past half century.
A re-imagined and renovated Coliseum could solve the problem and provide a substantial midtown-centric event space.
Coliseum Coalition President Roy Barnes and spokesperson Marvin Stockwell guided a Memphis Current envoy through an illuminating tour of the darkened stadium, drones buzzing over our heads.
“There are two robotics teams here today, and one is considering the Coliseum for a drone competition,” explains Stockwell.
Barnes, Stockwell and preservation architect Chooch Pickard make up the Coliseum Coalition. This Coalition has one goal: to draw local attention towards the previtalization of the Mid-South Coliseum into a versatile facility, oriented for the benefit of the surrounding community.
Construction of the Coliseum broke ground on March 16, 1963. City Commissioner James W. Moore and County Commission Chair Jack Ramsey officiated a joint ceremony. This ceremony represented the mutual and amicable cooperation between Memphis and Shelby County. The crown jewel of a 1960 masterplan from entertainer Art Linkletter and his association, the Coliseum cost approximately $4.7 million. The city bore sixty percent of the cost, while Shelby County funded the remainder. It was the first building in the metropolitan area designed and constructed for an integrated community.
Merrill G. Ehrman, of the locally based Furbringer and Ehrman firm, assumed the role of chief architect on the project. Ehrman joined the more famous Furbringer in 1935 at only thirty years old.
Ehrman quickly became one of Memphis’s most well-respected architects. His modern designs were featured in the old Memphis Humane Shelter, the Overton Park Shell and the Thomas D. Moore House, now known as Graceland. Ehrman’s reported fee for designing the Coliseum was six percent of the total project budget, or approximately $280,000. Robert Hall also contributed to the design of the stadium. Hall would go on to design the Clark Tower in 1971.
Engineering contracts required the project to be completed by December 13, 1964. Utilizing state-of-the-art technology for the time, project planners programmed the construction schedule into data processing machines. The building was completed well within schedule, and the Dave Clark Five played the Coliseum’s inaugural concert.
The architecture of the Mid-South Coliseum is best described as commercial mid-century modern. The stadium exhibits many characteristics of the style, such as a futuristic design and emphasis on functionality.
In preparation for designing the Coliseum, civic leaders and architects visited many stadiums across the country. A wide array of influence is noticeable in the structure’s exterior, reminiscent of the NSC Olimpiyskiy stadium in Kiev or Gammage Memorial Auditorium at Arizona State University.
An artful combination of concrete, steel, brick, glazed ceramic and terrazzo tile, the Coliseum’s unusual saucer shape stands out at the Mid-south Fairgrounds, even standing adjacent to the imposing Liberty Bowl. Though it looks circular upon first glance, the stadium is in fact comprised of thirty-two wall segments. At the time of construction, designers claimed the roof to be the third largest steel dome in the United States.
As Barnes, President of the Coliseum Coalition, puts it, “This is mid-century architecture that you’ll never see again, much like how you’ll never see Victorian architecture again.”
According to the Coliseum’s official entry to the National Register of Historic Places, the arena contains roughly 64,500 square feet of exhibition space and an eighty-six foot ceiling. Below the concrete floor is a layer of cork-encased brine pipes for freezing hockey ice.
At the time of construction, a moveable stage was installed at the east end of the exhibition space. Designers equipped it with top-of-the-line lighting fixtures. Upon opening, the Mid-South Coliseum contained modern power systems, fire and smoke detection, sound systems, telephone, radio and television capabilities.
The American Seating Company installed the stadium’s chairs. Official capacity currently remains just over eleven thousand seats, approximately nine thousand of which are fixed. However, the record attendance at the Coliseum came in the form of thirteen thousand people at the WDIA Soul Review. Media seating was provided on the arena floor and inside upper press boxes.
Associate architect Robert Hall was quoted in 1963 as saying, “People demand that they be as comfortable as if they were at home watching television.”
Merrill Ehrman commissioned Tracor, Inc., an acoustic reinforcement consulting firm, to assist in modelling the Coliseum for superlative sound. The walls, ceiling and even chairs are perforated and packed with foam material.
“You can have a conversation with someone from one press booth to the other (on the opposite side),” says Barnes. “It’s just a gorgeous sound. People’s memory of the incredible sound is real.”
In addition to the exhibition area, the Coliseum contains eight dressing rooms, four team locker rooms, showers, seven meeting rooms, a multitude of offices and a catering kitchen. Upon opening in 1964, a total of 108 doors were placed in three areas around the Coliseum to welcome Memphians into the stadium.
Beyond its imposing mid-century modern architecture, the Coliseum has been the site of many iconic and defining Memphis moments. Over its storied existence, the stadium has housed hockey, ice shows, basketball, wrestling, banquets, concerts, trade shows and conventions. Under the Coliseum roof, Memphians have had the pleasure of witnessing historic supergroups, crown-dropping kings and talented tigers.
On August 19, 1966, The Beatles graced the Coliseum on their final tour of the United States. Only five months earlier, John Lennon infamously quipped that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” The evangelical community across the South vehemently condemned Lennon and the band’s music.
Before the show in Memphis, tensions ran high. Album burnings roared, and a KKK rally was scheduled outside the Coliseum. During the show, a concertgoer tossed a firecracker onstage. It exploded, and the Beatles examined each other for bullet holes. Though they survived the firework barrage, the band members needed several decoy cars to escape the protests and rabid fans.
The Fab Four encountered Memphis aggression on their visit, and this aggression was later harnessed and monetized in the wrestling ring. And if Memphis is, as many see it, the Mecca of professional wrestling, than the Mid-South Coliseum is the Kaaba. It became home turf for wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler. As a member of the United States Wrestling Association, Lawler was both beloved and feared by Coliseum crowds. He was even given his own official dressing room at the stadium.
In a hilarious and mildly disturbing 1982 incident involving comedian Andy Kaufman, Lawler viciously body slammed the self-proclaimed “Intergender Wrestling Champion of the World” twice to the floor. Kaufman departed the Coliseum in an ambulance. Weeks later, the two adversaries appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. After an exchange of insults, Lawler slapped Kaufman, who proceeded to frantically pace around the studio, unleashing a tirade of expletives. Lawler only revealed the feud to be performance art years later, after Andy Kaufman’s death. In reality, the two were very good friends.
The Coliseum also set the stage for one of the most exciting basketball seasons this city has ever seen. The 1984-85 Memphis State team boasted several stars—legendary players like Andre Turner, William Bedford, John Wilfong and the immensely talented Keith Lee.
Over the course of that season, Keith Lee led the Tigers to a 31-4 record and the national championship game, all while averaging twenty points and nine rebounds. Fans at the Coliseum witnessed home wins over UCLA, USC, Florida State, VCU and Louisville. Sadly, in classic Memphis renegade fashion, all wins from that magical season were subsequently invalidated due to NCAA violations committed by head coach Dana Kirk.
Even more fanciful than the actual history of the Coliseum are the events that nearly transpired but never did. Barnes and Stockwell refer to these stories as “Coliseum Science-Fiction.”
For example, after the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, the family and city began preparations for laying his body in stasis on the Coliseum floor. Thousands of fans nearly had the opportunity to say one last goodbye to the King of Rock and Roll, but the plans were eventually nixed per request of Elvis’s father.
Stranger still, a Coliseum investor once planned for organized horse racing in the stadium. However, rather than thoroughbreds, the officiators would instead trot out shetland ponies. And rather than jockeys, the ponies would instead be ridden by tiny robots. The idea was doomed from the beginning, but I cannot imagine a sport better encapsulating the Memphis tradition of hodgepodge competition.
The Coliseum was regrettably closed in early 2007 after a legal battle over compliance with the American Disabilities Act. With the FedEx Forum only two years old at the time, the city seemed hesitant to engage in a fight to keep the stadium open. Employees and staff left behind innumerable amounts of merchandise, equipment and personal effects.
“Think about how many years it had been the centerpiece of entertainment in the Mid-south,” explains Stockwell, a local public relations guru and spokesperson of the Coliseum Coalition. “So people who worked here figured it was all going to work out.”
But it did not work out. The Coliseum has remained closed for over a decade. However, the Coalition is working tirelessly to change that. Under a plan of previtalization, Coalition members hope to convince city officials and potential investors of the merits for renovating and reopening the building.
Previtalization is a strategy used by tactical urban developers to lay the groundwork for robust future development by inhabiting a civic space and bringing people together in that space through a variety of programming options.
“It’s our job in the grassroots to beat that drum of civic enthusiasm,” says Stockwell. “In the early going, people who wanted to discredit the Coalition tagged us as merely nostalgists. So early on we realized we could not just strictly go, ‘There are eleven buildings still standing in the world where both Elvis and the Beatles played, and only one isn’t open—the Coliseum.’”
“That’s an interesting factoid, but that alone doesn’t give you the impetus to open the building. So early on, we started doing our work, and we realized that we have to build the future use case. Nostalgia is icing on the cake.”
A 2016 assessment done by an independent inspector concluded that the Mid-South Coliseum is structurally sound. According to the Coalition’s calculations, the exhibition space could seat up to 6,400 people after an affordable, ADA compliant renovation process. It leaves the door open for endless possibilities: concerts, conventions, community events or even drone competitions. The list goes on and on.
According to Stockwell, “You add up all those uses and it equals a good idea.”
There are obvious and tangible challenges to reopening the Mid-South Coliseum, including a non-compete agreement between the city and the FedEx Forum. However, the Coliseum has undeniably served its purpose as stated by its official 1964 dedication brochure: “Constructed by the people of Memphis and Shelby County for the athletic, cultural and entertainment betterment of the entire Mid-south Area.”
Hopefully, very soon, it will serve its intended purpose again.