Maybe they’re hoping it will crumble, dry up and blow away all by itself. In the meantime, the Richmond Coliseum stands downtown, shuttered apparently for good, a reminder of how good intentions don’t necessarily translate into good deeds. Sure, it had its moments, and maybe some day we’ll learn from our mistakes and replace it with something better. Don’t count on it. This is Volume 20 in our look back down memory lane. Call it: “Your City Tax Dollars at Work?”
In Richmond, in the early 1970s, it made perfect sense to build a large facility dedicated to (a) sporting events; (b) other forms of entertainment; and © making a lot of money on the above. Well, two out of three usually is pretty good except in this case when the one that stood alone, as it turned out, was ©. Fourteen professional teams lasted anywhere from a few months to five years before drowning in a sea of red ink. That’s only an example, not the entire story.
Come-heres of the last couple of decades will find it hard to believe but there was good, old-fashioned the circus is coming to town enthusiasm over plans for — and eventual opening of — a downtown coliseum. Until then our only facility of note was the Arena, which University of Richmond basketball called home, the Southern Conference used for its postseason tournament, and the long-running men’s indoor professional tennis tournament made its debut on a canvas court stretched tight over the hardwood floor. The wonder was, the old converted car barn stayed upright and functioning as long as it did.
The first thing professional tennis tournament director Lou Einwick recalled recently about the Arena was walking into the place for the first time and seeing this big old scoreboard hanging down from the ceiling — as in way, way down, enough to interfere with one of the game’s staples — the high-arcing lob. “I told the [facility’s] manager, ‘You’ve got to raise the thing.’ He said, ‘We can’t raise it.’ I asked him, ‘Are you sure? … How much?’ … ‘Oh, a hundred dollars should do it.’ That’s how you did things in 1966,” Einwick said.
(Before we go any further, it should be noted that calling Enwick tournament director, while accurate, isn’t nearly enough. Einwick spent 19 years of his life making sure it was a first-class event in the face of a tennis world full of back-biting, under-the-table payoffs and personality conflicts — to mention a few — that would have turned a lesser man to mush. An investment banker by trade, he had to be all things to all people just to keep the thing alive.
At the risk of saying something nice about a long-time sparring partner ... I came to Richmond in 1959, and since then Einwick is one of two men who can’t get enough applause here for dedication to his favored sport. Like the late Dick Hollander, who pushed track and field into our consciousness, like it or not, to the point it became almost enjoyable to cover, Einwick never asked for gratitude. He put others ahead of self. Seeing the fruits of his labors was enough.
“It consumed so much of my time, you have no idea,” Einwick said the other day, dropping his guard ever so slightly, “It was a labor of love, no doubt about that.”)
In February of 1972, Einwick’s tournament left the Arena after six years to join hockey’s Richmond Robins as the Coliseum’s only permanent tenants. It was a logical upgrade and, for the most part, he has good recollections of the place. Oh, there were some glitches, don’t kid yourself. “Our major problem was putting the court down over the ice. One time we had to put it down, take it up, then put it down again,” said Einwick, who turns 84 in less than a month.
Then there were comparatively small but none the less irritating things, like the well-known local politician going on a rant when he was stopped at the door of the Coliseum’s restaurant for not having the proper credential. He was told, politely, that he could get one at Einwick’s office which was about 30 long strides away. That didn’t stop him from carrying on and, in the process, put his hands on the young lady serving as security. I watched the entire ugly don’t you know who I am? scene. Of course, there were large, more important things, like when rain water came trickling down in 1976, only five years after the doors opened.
“The roof sprung a leak during some doubles the night before the final. It was a mess,” Einwick recalled. “I was so angry … I called the city manager at 1 a.m. We finally got it fixed in time for the final.” Talk about a major sigh of relief. Richmond’s own Arthur Ashe beat Brian Gottfried.
Shortly after pro tennis made its mid-60s debut at the Arena, City Council appointed a committee, led by A.H. Robins Company lawyer Bob Habenicht, to study the feasibility of a new, modern arena and make a final recommendation: to build or not to build. The committee traveled the country, checking the coliseum market, supposedly learned the do’s and don’ts, and came back, not surprisingly, with a can-do report. The result was the Richmond Coliseum, expected to cost just shy of $16 million by the opening in late 1971. “Your City Tax Dollars at Work,” read a large sign at the ground-breaking ceremony June 7, 1968.
Among other things, the committee sat down with local print and radio/TV media to ask for input — their needs, etc. Local television stations wanted to turn the cavernous facility into the world’s largest TV studio, with lighting to match. You can only imagine what Habenicht thought about that. In the end, it was as if there never was a meeting. The architects forgot to include even a modest press box for hockey. One was hastily arranged that included barely enough room for radio play by play yappers of both teams, a half-dozen or so off-ice officials, and … oh, yes … the local press.
Then there was the matter of a large, information-heavy scoreboard that traditionally hangs from the ceiling. There was none. The reason, we were told, was the architect “didn’t want to spoil the aesthetic beauty.” Come again?
At least Einwick didn’t have to worry about an overhead impediment there. The tennis tournament ended its long run with the 1984 event. “The big thing with the players was seeing if they could hit the roof with a ball. They’d stand down there and whack it as hard as they could [with a racquet],” Einwick said. “I don’t think anyone ever did.”
While the building per se was impressive, unlike anything seen in these parts, there was nothing beautiful about the original 9,000-plus ugly brown seats, seemingly purchased at a going-out-of-sale sale. Otherwise, how to explain? In the beginning, there were tiny scoreboards high up at either end of the facility, and they didn’t work properly — if at all. For hockey, a large portable timekeeper’s clock was stationed on the press area’s only working space, and the PA announcer had to tell the teams and fans how much time was left in the period as well as penalties — and when they were over. It was a joke but no one was laughing.
Then there was the matter of small, unwanted critters. At the very first practice I attended, prior to the Robins’ Oct. 12, 1971, home opener, I was sitting midway up the lower bowl about center ice when a mouse ran over my feet and disappeared. Hey, it could have been worse. It could have been a rat, which became almost fashionable at the old Boston Garden. As in, “you should have seen the size of the one I saw today.”
The Coliseum dressing rooms weren’t nearly big enough for a hockey team, so walls had to be removed to make it more spacious. All too often ice was unavailable for practice — a neverending battle with Coliseum management — and Robins’ owner E. Claiborne Robins Jr., eventually built Ice Unlimited on West Broad Street. It’s long gone, too, just like the team that died in 1976 and the other four hockey teams that followed.
The Coliseum was my home away from home during the Robins’ five-year skate — and off and on thereafter for more hockey, basketball, indoor football, professional tennis and wrestling. Management came and went. The stories never stopped, many of which couldn’t be printed on these pages anyway. Maybe someone, with too much time and nothing worthwhile to do, will write a book. Oh, by the way, in the mid-1980s they did hang a large scoreboard from the ceiling, thereby spoiling the “aesthetic beauty,” I guess.
There was nothing pretty about the indoor football’s Richmond Speed’s debut, on as well as off the Coliseum floor. “It was just a debacle. Everybody was pointing fingers at everybody else,” remembered radio play-by-play voice of the Speed John Emmett. “To this day I don’t know if they ever found the black box.” Particulars, please. “For the first [ever] indoor game here, we weren’t sure what to expect from a crowd standpoint. [Franchise owner] Harry Feuerstein went on a couple of morning radio shows and, all of a sudden, the telephones in the office just blew up.
“We knew then we were going to have a big night, and I’m not sure that was communicated to the Coliseum, or not,” Emmett said. “We had about 10,000 people in the building … almost all walk up … and it was an operational disaster. The ticket takers were overwhelmed, the concessions weren’t well-staffed. The football team wasn’t very good … and got throttled by Augusta. I went home practically in tears. It was one of the most disappointing professional nights of my life. We made such a terrible first impression.”
Feuerstein, who also owned the East Coast Hockey League’s Richmond Renegades for a while, made a lasting impression on Emmett during the team’s near-miss run at the 1998-99 championship. “Memorial Day weekend. We had a chance to clinch the championship that night, and there were some issues with the ice. Harry was in a panic the ice wasn’t going to be playable,” Emmett said. “There were four or five of us on the staff who could skate, and he ordered us on the ice to tear it up so they could re-Zamboni it. It worked but it was the most physically draining skate of my life.
“He was out there like a Soviet coach, making us do stops and starts. [Game] faceoff was 7:30. This was 2:30, and he was killing us.” Nice try. Bad result. “We had a sellout crowd, and [the game] was a disaster.” Having trailed three games to one, Mississippi won 7-3 to even the best-of-seven series. The teams went back to Biloxi where the Renegades lost in overtime in the title matchup.
Given the city’s reluctance to make proper, much-needed repairs after a small renovation of the place to increase seating capacity — slightly — then spending $7.1 million for new seats in 2003, it’s amazing the Coliseum is still standing, if unoccupied and presumably demolition-bound. Final original cost was $24 million. With additional seats, the official capacity was listed at 11,922 for basketball and 11,088 for hockey — definitely a two-way stretch — and 13,550 for concerts and presidential-hopeful appearances.
In June of 1976, with the roof properly sealed, Elvis Presley drew quite possibly the Coliseum’s largest “sellout” crowd. By then he was grossly overweight, with excessive drug use and voice problems that often left him talking — rather than singing — the words. Simply put, he was a mess. Local fans didn’t care. When the box office opened for the initial ticket sale, more than 3,000 already were lined up. Little more than a year later Elvis left the building permanently. He died Aug. 16, 1977, at age 42.
The group once known as The Dixie Chicks attracted 9,000 to the Coliseum in 2000. Three years later Cher (formerly of “Sonny and Cher”) did sell-out business. There was more, of course. If Elvis set a record for most people, Ralph Sampson’s all-but-ignored Richmond Rhythm of the International Basketball League (1999-2000) holds the unofficial standard for least. There were fewer than 100 seats filled — 76 was the actual count during the national anthem — at a mid-winter game. Official low “crowd” was 1,017 for the ABA game between the Virginia Squires and Kentucky Colonels. Must have been a snow storm outside, right?
And there were things to be thankful for, like the bomb scare during a Robins practice — the players stood outside the Leigh Street entrance in full uniform — that proved a hoax. Or, “The circus came in the week after we were there,” Einwick said. “Thank God they weren’t there the week before us.”
The now-49-year-old Coliseum was closed Dec. 31, 2018, after operational loses of close to $1 million over the final two years. The mayor’s office called it a “public liability.” Actually, the deterioration started a long time ago. The cracks just got bigger and more widespread. Likewise the water leaks. Know what? The mice won.
Until next time ...
Jerry Lindquist can be reached by email