Thursday, January 18, 2007

There used to be an aesthetically unpleasant arena here

Another piece of my childhood turns into a pile of rubble this weekend. The New Haven Coliseum, where as a lad I watched countless hockey games, pro wrestling cards and rock concerts, will finally be put out of its misery Saturday at 7:30 a.m. They're even giving away free coffee and donuts atop the Temple Street garage for those who want to witness the execution...I mean, implosion.

The Coliseum was ordered closed in 2002 by Mayor John DeStefano, who said the building would be imploded within six months. Instead, it has sat on Orange Street split open and gutted like a dying marlin on a gaff, its insides exposed to every passing motorist on the Route 34 connector. I drive past it every day on my way to work, and I can't help but gawk and wonder how this was determined to be the best course of action. The Coliseum was old, it was unsightly, but it still drew hundreds of thousands per year into downtown New Haven. Why not renovate or construct a new venue?

Once demolition is complete some sort of redevelopment is scheduled that, using the city's timeline for tearing down the Coliseum, will probably be completed around the year 2050. The redevelopment plan includes things like parking lots, relocation of Gateway Community College and the Long Wharf Theater, housing units and maybe a retail store or two. You know, things that will really make the city a destination place. There's no plan for another arena, not even a scaled-down, 5,000-seat venue that could house the Yale hockey program (which sells out 3,500-seat Ingalls Rink every game) while attracting concerts and shows to draw folks downtown year-round. I'm beginning to think the mayor doesn't like sports. Oh, wait. There is the 15,000-seat Connecticut Tennis Center. Of course, it sits unused for 51 weeks every year.

My point, however, isn't to bore you with politics. I wanted to bore you with more reminiscing and stories of the old days. (Why do I feel like the Al Bundy of bloggers?) Without further ado, here are my top 10 memories of the New Haven Coliseum.

10. Harlem Globetrotters. My first trip to the Coliseum was in 1981 when our Cub Scout troop got tickets for the Globetrotters. This was back in the day of Curly Neal and Geese Ausby, when the Globetrotters used to make at least one appearance on ABC's Wide World of Sports each season. I don't remember much from the game, but I know I enjoyed it if only because I saved the ticket stub and still have it in an old shoebox.

9. High school basketball. I've watched plenty of games from the Coliseum, but never got the chance to compete there. In fact, I missed it by one season. The year after I graduated from Amity, there was a two-day high school basketball festival at the Coliseum that featured a bunch of area schools (including Hillhouse, West Haven and Amity) as well a couple of top New York City schools. Christ the King of Middle Village, N.Y. had two future NBA players in Khalid Reeves, who had already committed to Arizona, and Derrick Phelps, who was heading to North Carolina. Tolentine High of the Bronx also had a pair of Division I players in Adrian Autry (Syracuse) and Brian Reese (North Carolina). How's that for a headliner? I settled in to watch four or five games in two days, but remember thinking the entire team how I'd much rather be out on the Coliseum court.

8. Fairfield vs. Syracuse men's basketball, Jan. 1986. This was a great opportunity to see a powerhouse Syracuse team that featured some of the top players of the last two decades. I still remember the starting five: Rony Siekaly, Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas, Rafael Addison and Wendell Alexis. I also got a kick out of seeing Jim Boeheim, who I always thought looked more like a nerdy NASA scientist than basketball coach. The Orangemen, needless to say, won in a rout.

7. David Lee Roth. By the time my parents thought I was old enough to attend a Van Halen concert, DLR had already left the group. This was 1987, long before Diamond Dave went off the deep end and thought he could pull off being a jazz singer, work as an EMT and replace Howard Stern as a morning DJ. He was still popular and touring solo on his "Eat 'Em and Smile" tour when he hit the Coliseum that fall. More than the music, I remember the stunts -- Dave made a dramatic entrance, cruising in about 100 feet above the crowd while standing on a surfboard that was hooked to cables. He also appeared out of nowhere inside a boxing ring in the middle of the arena for a song or two.

6. Fight night with the Beast. When I was hired full-time at the Register in February 1999, I was informed I would become the beat writer for the Beast of New Haven -- the last American Hockey League franchise to call the Coliseum home. But I only got to see a handful of games because the Beast (and their hideous multi-colored uniforms) left New Haven when the season ended two months later. But I vividly recall a game that featured over 200 combined penalty minutes, many coming from the Beast's 6-foot-7, 230-pound bruiser Peter Worrell. Worrell was an intimidating fellow --- WWE wrestler Triple-H met him before a card that season and told him "I wouldn't want to tangle with you" -- who wasn't afraid to fight. On this night Worrell got three separate majors for fighting before finally being disqualified. There must have been eight or nine fights in the third period alone.

You didn't mess with Peter Worrell

5. Huey Lewis and the News. My first concert. I was 13, and got to tag along with my older sisters and a couple of older cousins in 1985 to catch the "Sports" tour. It was a great show, and the first time I saw the Coliseum filled. It was also the loudest place I'd ever been. I remember fans starting a wave before the show, which had 100 percent participation, before the band came out playing "The Heart of Rock'N Roll". After writing this, I'm going to break out my Huey Lewis and the News CD for the first time since about '89.

4. Yale-Cornell hockey, 2001. I was covering the Bulldogs for the Register when I got a call from Steve Conn, Yale's director of sports publicity, about 2 hours before faceoff. He said there was a problem with the ice freezing system at Ingalls Rink, and the game was being switched to the Coliseum. It turned out to be one of the most exciting games I've ever seen. Cornell was ranked in the top 10 in the nation, but a young Yale team took them to overtime tied at 0-0. Time was running out in the extra session when Nick Deschenes, a rugged forward who was an arm-wrestling champion and competed in lumberjack contests in his native Alberta, scored the game-winner. The crowd, about 4,000 strong, absolutely erupted. I almost never get caught up in games I'm covering, but I caught myself pumping my fist after the goal.

3. Hulkamania runs wild. I was a pro wrestling freak while in junior high school...watched WWF broadcasts every Saturday morning, caught the live cards on MSG Network and even bought wrestling magazines. And of course, I went to the Coliseum whenever the WWF came to town (which seemed like once a month, but I could be wrong). The Wild Samoans, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper were my favorites, and I saw them all live. But Hulk Hogan was never on any Coliseum cards, at least until they finally got him there in November 1984. Even my dad, not exactly a wrestling fan, decided he had to see the Hulkster (my older cousins used to bring me to shows) and it was worth it. Hogan was such a commanding presence, the crowd just went ballistic the second they started to play his music. He demolished "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff in a few minutes, flexed those ridiculous poses, put his hand to his ear and marched around pointing at random people. It was awesome, and even though I gave up on wrestling a long, long, long time ago I'd still pay to see it all again.

2. New Halen: Live Without a Net, August 1986. I've mentioned before on this blog that Van Halen is my favorite band of all-time. So naturally, seeing them live for the first time was a major event. I was 14, and it was the first concert I went to unsupervised, just myself and a couple of friends. Sammy Hagar was the new guy in the group, and the band dubbed it the New Halen Coliseum. The show was taped for a live DVD, called "Van Halen, Live Without a Net", which I own and still watch every now and again, scanning the crowd in a vain attempt to spot myself (with no luck). The band also performed "Best of Both Worlds" live for the MTV Video Music Awards that night via satellite, a video that ran for years on MTV.

1. American Gladiators, October 1991. Remember when this show was on TV every Saturday afternoon? In 1991, they decided to go on a live arena tour. As part of the show, they auditioned local athletes in each city to compete against the likes of the professional gladiators, who went by names like "Ice", "Blaze" and "Zap". This was a special night because my younger sister Mia was selected as one of four women to compete against the pros.

She was a freshman playing volleyball at Albertus Magnus College, and practice one afternoon was cancelled because the gym was being used to audition for the live American Gladiators show at the Coliseum the following month. On a lark, she decided to tryout. The producers loved her, and picked her to do battle. It became an exciting, emotional night. Our father passed away after a long battle with cancer the night before the show. Mia decided to compete because there's no question our dad would have absolutely wanted her to. Three-quarters of the Coliseum was packed with people just from Orange, Woodbridge and Bethany who were there to support her, holding signs and going nuts whenever they announced her name.

She did quite well, too. I recall one of the pros getting in her way during "Powerball", the game where contestants tried to put a soccer ball into modified garbage cans, which were guarded by the hulking gladiators who did everything short of full roundhouse punches to knock the contestants away. After a few unsuccessful attempts to juke her way to points, Mia, doing her best Earl Campbell impression, decided to run right through whoever got in her way. The gladiator who tried to tackle her bounced off my sister like a rag doll and was knocked unconscious in the process. They even had to halt the contest to give the gladiator smelling salts and scrape her up off the Coliseum floor (while I howled in delight and yelled stuff like "That's right, Nitro! Mess with the bull and you get the horns!"). Guess all those neighborhood tackle football games in our backyard growing up paid off. It was impressive, and a memorable evening for sure.

Feel free to post your own Coliseum memories. I know I'm not the only one whose going to miss the place.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

R.I.P. New Haven Coliseum.

January 23, 2007 11:36 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. I really appreciated your Coliseum memories and I believe the majority of New Haveners agree with you; I could have written the words in your opening paragraphs highlighting how New Haven's Mayor robbed our city of its Coliseum.

As far as your top ten memories, just beautiful. Your WWF and Hockey ones were similar to my experiences there, and the mere mention of Snuka at the Coliseum (yes they seemed monthly) brings goosebumps.

Finally, I do agree that New Haven should have a central 5 to 6000 seat arena and here's predicting that one day we will see one again.
If the world was fair, then we would still be experiencing the visitors and tax revenue from the Coliseum, but since it was closed in 2002, it is time to look ahead to the day when it is replaced.

-Steve M.

January 25, 2007 12:25 AM 

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