The Coliseum Never Died

Yeah, it blew up. But it returns to consciousness on CPTV Monday night—a reminder that its legacy lives on in the questions New Haven is asking about its future. Mike Franzman Photo

At first glance “The Last Days Of The Coliseum” feels like a look backward. Indeed the documentary—made by Quinnipiac University’s Rich Hanley, and airing on CPTV at 9 p.m. Monday—takes us back to the rock-and-hockey palace’s roots at the former New Haven Arena, through the building’s noisy and ultimately catastrophic three decades of operation (hockey teams kept folding; the airborne garage starting crumbling in its second decade), ending with that unforgettable blast on a January morning in 2007.

Hanley walks us through the dreams of Mayor Richard C. Lee, who wanted to rebuild New Haven with dramatic, towering edifices. He reminds us of the famous rock acts and short-lived hockey teams and circuses that drew thousands to the concrete fortress that greeted drivers entering downtown.He brings die-hard fans and promoters before the camera to attest to the meaning the downtown stadium held for them and the memories they hold to this day.

“We want to score higher ratings than the other stuff on TV that night to let Connecticut know the building may be gone but it’s not forgotten!” beckons an appeal to viewers on the film’s Facebook page. (Click on the play arrow to watch the trailer.)

But the story is about far more than nostalgia, and the most enduring presence isn’t the building, but a now elderly man named Kevin Roche, the famous architect who moved here to build the New Brutalist behemoth. He sat for Hanley’s camera and demonstrated the human spirit that animated that concrete monster.

In “Last Days,” Roche, his Dublin accent intact along with his vigor, is seen defending to the end an approach that has fallen into disfavor with New Urbanists, an outdated modernism in these post-modern times. Roche makes the argument that the Coliseum could have been a contender, if only the city hadn’t run out of money and failed to build the glass front and street-level storefronts that would have humanized it and made it more viable. He voices no second thoughts about winding sky-high helix ramps and open-air heaven-ascending escalators that look cool in models but scared the bejezsus out of humans, some of whom needed a police escort to brave the egress.

Most of all, Roche expresses no regrets about aiming high.

“It is not the first time in history,”  he tells the camera in “Last Days,” that a vision failed.”

Mike Fransman PhotoAs Hanley points out in the documentary, New Haven hasn’t given up pursuing renewal. It has visions for its future. He argues that maybe middle-class Baby Boomer arena rock and pro sports don’t fit into that vision.

The city today sees its economic salvation not in suburban-style malls and arenas but in “eds and meds” development. Like the new Gateway Community College campus rising a block from the Coliseum site. Like the Yale-New Haven Smilow Cancer Hospital another few blocks away. Like a planned biotech expansion called Downtown Crossing above a refilling of the Route 34 “highway to nowhere” that hugged the Coliseum’s southern flank. Like a medical-related development envisioned further west on the Legion Avenue median strip that buried an old neighborhood to make way for the highway extension that never came.

Still, the Coliseum lives on, in some ways, just a block north, on Crown Street, now the regional clubbing magnet. Thousands of young suburban adults looking for rowdy action in the city now flock there on weekend nights instead of the Coliseum. And the debates revisited in Hanley’s film have returned: Does New Haven want that kind of mayhem in its downtown? Should the city subsidize it for suburban crowds? How should the police handle it? And are we—as Hanley suggests about a city that kept the Beatles from performing at Westville, banned Alan Freed from the Arena, arrested Jim Morrison onstage, and generally preferred Sinatra to Cheap Trick—still a bunch of Puritans?

While the New Urbanist vision of smaller, human-scale buildings has larger replaced the Coliseum complex, downtown has in fact just hatched the state’s largest apartment complex (32 stories) and is on its way to hosting a Roche-like grand architect’s showpiece (this time it’s Sir Norman Foster) in the under-construction new Yale School of Management complex. (It looks like the glass is staying in this time, and lots of it.)

Even though the Coliseum failed, city planners’ vision of a more upscale downtown did materialize. Swanky restaurants, a reborn Shubert, and art galleries draw big crowds now, too. The original plan for replacing part of the Coliseum property, in fact, called for a new home of Long Wharf Theatre. Then that plan got shelved, at least for now.

That means the grave of the old Coliseum lies below a 4.5-acre surface parking lot for the indefinite future. Listen closely as you pass the grave; you just might hear the pounding of pachyderms, the screams of WWE fans and denizens of the Nighthawks “Jungle,” or the flicking of the Zippo-wielding masses sanctifying an Aerosmith or Judas Priest encore. Will these ghosts haunt us? Or inspire us?

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posted by: Cedarhillresident on November 8, 2010  7:41am

I think my video of it rocks!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HaRMPc2T6w

despite the fact we kept warm the Coliseum way!!

This was a sad day

posted by: Rocco on November 8, 2010  8:24am

The New Haven Arena didn’t either. Let’s not forget the Blades and the Arena grill.

posted by: Chris Randall on November 8, 2010  9:19am

I don’t know who made this video, but that’s me saying “holy shit” and then “do it again :)”.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on November 8, 2010  9:33am

“if only the city hadn’t run out of money and failed to build the glass front and street-level storefronts that would have humanized it and made it more viable. He voices no second thoughts about winding sky-high helix ramps and open-air heaven-ascending escalators”

If only that pig could have been fitted for a dress, it would have won the beauty pageant.

Our economic development strategies aren’t really that different today than they were 60 years ago - consolidate small building lots into massive blocks of single use developable land. 360 State is the ultimate example of long-term urban destruction. Instead of streets lined with bustling activity of pedestrians entering and leaving stores and businesses, restaurant patrons eating and chatting outside, constantly changing store fronts with medical, dental, and business offices upstairs and residents popping their heads out of upper floor apartments, we get a self-contained box that privatizes the park and the square by building it on top of a parking garage, separates residences from the street by placing them high up in the sky with inoperable windows, it internalizes the gameroom, fitness center, yoga studio, screening room, library and computer center, daycare center and clubroom instead of making them storefront businesses that add to the public realm of the city. The entire building is designed for 2010, but will be extremely difficult to retrofit when culture and society change. Its the same story with massive office buildings and bio-tech labs, they have no future. Erector Square once made the Erector Set toys, now they’re home to law firms, design firms and offices - the design of the building is simple, straight forward and adaptive.
The eds and meds focus is just as misguided as massive auditoriums for entertainment. Has anyone looked at the unemployment rate in the Hill over the last 35 years? It’s been over 10% since way before the financial implosion. What good are high-skill jobs for that population? What good is education expansion if our houses and neighborhoods - the source of half a child’s education - are in complete shambles due to chronic unemployment, disinvestment and physical decay?
We should try investing in the working and middle class populations to create neighborhoods of character and activity that make daily life convenient and enjoyable for people of all ages, abilities and incomes. Empower the citizenry by making local entrepreneurship competitive with chains and corporations through incentives and support. Small locally owned groceries, markets, cafes, bakeries, and delis are better than one giant supermarket and they contribute more to the tax base, but more importantly, more to the civic life and public realm of the city. Local owners often are not trying to maximize profits, unlike chain retail with robot-like employees, but rather are trying to support their family and enjoy life by getting to know neighbors and patrons.
When the city’s population is involved and stable, then we can do grand gestures like a Free Public Library, a beautiful train station, an incredible city hall, and other large civic projects. Large scale development isn’t going to jumpkick the economy and bring the residents up with it, those projects merely consolidate wealth and ship it out of the city.

posted by: Jeffrey Kerekes on November 8, 2010  10:14am

My first ever concert was at the Coliseum.  I saw the Van Halen 5150 concert.  I think that photo is from the concert as Eddie Van Halen’s guitar is of that era.  Funny to see it on the NHI this morning.

posted by: Gmoney on November 8, 2010  10:50am

Hey Jeffrey, the van halen photo is not from 5150, if you look , its David Lee Roth singing, That photo is either ‘1984” or Diver Down tour

posted by: Patrick on November 8, 2010  10:53am

Jeffrey,

The photo above is from the “1984” tour as the “5150” tour, Sammy Hagar was the lead singer. The “5150” concert at the Coliseum was Van Halen’s official tour video titled “Van Halen Live Without at Net from the New Haven Coliseum” and which can still be purchased today. Saw both those shows at the Coliseum and they were unbelievable. The Coliseum was a fantastic place to see a concert. Long live section 10!!!

posted by: A Team on November 8, 2010  10:54am

Those were the days, rocking through the 70’s and 80’s and hitting hard with the Nighthawk’s AHL and several other teams.

I have so many great memories from the place, which eventually turned into a real dump. Hartford had more seating for bigger acts, Springfield had the smaller shows and NHC failed to keep the place up. Sure the kids would wreck the bathrooms and seats, but they were paid for probably a few times by Mr Koplik and his associates.

The youth sleeping out for ticket sales, scalpers and fans alike, so many times. Walking over to the Norge after a show and having a drink with the regulars, and Ray oftentimes buying you a few on the house.

The memories of the employees, many from the Arena who joined the ranks and lot their positions when the place finally closed.

I look forward to watching it with my sons tonight, and recapture some of those glory days.

posted by: Uncle Egg on November 8, 2010  11:59am

Here’s mine. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dA-mPRHUlWU

posted by: Mike Franzman on November 8, 2010  12:13pm

I took that Van Halen photo, and it was definitely “pre-Sammy Hagar”, as evidenced by David Lee Roth on the left.  Our ticket stubs are from 1982, and 1984. (My feeling is that this was the 1984 tour or earlier)

More of my photos from that era here:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=245302&id=583466375&l=9d490cee41

posted by: Uncle Egg on November 8, 2010  12:39pm

Had to have been the earlier show. I think “1984” was the last album with Dave, and he was definitely out by 1994.

I remember those escalators. They were huge, and definitely a bit scary (particularly with people randomly throwing beer bottles off the garage).

But that was part of the thrill of seeing a concert at the Coliseum—taking a big breath, gritting your teeth and getting on for the ride. It was sort of like stepping into the rabbit hole.

posted by: Patrick on November 8, 2010  12:55pm

Mike,

This is “1984” for sure. You can tell by the style guitar Eddie is using. That is the “Frankenstrat” red and white black broken pickgaurd that he first used making the “1984” album. He used “The Shark” guitar on “Women and Children First” which was a silver and red cut up Ibanez body. VH-2 he used the black and yellow stripes and VH-1 he used the white with black stripes.

posted by: Mike Franzman on November 8, 2010  2:50pm

Cool.  A better shot of that guitar can be seen in this photo from the same show:
http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=445338276375&set=a.445337936375.245302.583466375

posted by: davec on November 8, 2010  3:20pm

Oh gawd, Johnathan, we want to talk about Van Halen here not urban design.  Yr harshing my mello…

BTW, the fake-o ye olde addition to the city hall building sucks. Sometimes the nostalgia police get it wrong, too.

posted by: nfjanette on November 8, 2010  4:05pm

The Coliseum was a fantastic place to see a concert

But certainly not to hear one!  I can’t think of a venue with worse acoustics.  It was the perfect example of what happens when most architects think they know how to design performance venues without having the slightest knowledge of the engineering involved.  Or, more likely, ignored the engineering consultants and built it for “looks” rather than function.

posted by: Rob Callahan on November 8, 2010  4:23pm

....the Hamden / West Haven hockey games in the 70’s were epic and sold out….to attend and later play in these are still huge memories that rival the the MANY great concerts…

Mr Hopkins comments..”...winding sky-high helix ramps and open-air heaven-ascending escalators” gave me a chuckle/flashback and made me think those would never be built today….

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on November 8, 2010  4:38pm

davec,
If that’s how you feel, I’ll remove my magical Van Halen comment blocking spell from the article, since its currently preventing people from talking about anything that they want to.

If you want to reminisce about New Haven as a play pen and trash can for wealthy suburbanites, feel free to do so, and I’ll talk about how New Haven should be a place for natural, organic and authentic culture that fosters civic activity, local networks of commerce that generate prosperity for all, and a place focused on families and people instead of imitation culture imported from large institutions and morally degrading entertainment venues, cars convenience and not people accomodations, and high tech jobs that only serve to broaden opportunity for people that don’t need it.

As for the City Hall, I was not talking about the ugly addition, I was talking about the original building designed by Henry Austin in 1861, which is itself in the Gothic REVIVAL style, which is a “fake-o ye olde” reference to the original 18th century Gothic architecture of England. I was also talking about the original Public Library and Train station by Cass Gilbert, which have “fake” colonial detailing, that I think everyone can agree is well done and for the betterment of the city’s image. The nostalgia police, if you want to call them that, brought us the Revival movements and without them, New Haven would look like Houston.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on November 8, 2010  5:13pm

*One thing should be added to my previous post*

The 1860s City Hall is Victorian Gothic Revival style, which was influenced by the revival movement in England from the previous century, which was the revival of the original medieval Gothic architecture of Europe.

Rob,
I quoted that from the article.

posted by: davec on November 8, 2010  5:15pm

@JH,
As always, well spoken whether I agree with you or not.  Usually not. 
You must be careful, though, when speaking about people.  If you were there in ‘86 for Van Halen or most of the other shows and events, you would know that the coliseum was not a play pen for wealthy suburbanites.  That is patently untrue and will be offensive to many.  It makes your message come off elitist.  In addition to concerts, I, myself, saw monster trucks, the circus, hockey games and much more there.  Believe me when I say we were not wealthy but the coliseum entertained a couple of generations of us and our kids. 
Back when there was a viable middle-class in this country none of us were wealthy and that was just ok.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on November 8, 2010  6:58pm

davec,
I went to the Coliseum for monster trucks and the Harlem Globe Trotters when I was a kid and from what I can remember, I enjoyed it.
I did not say the Coliseum was a pay pen for suburbanites (wealthy is a relative term, meant to be compared to the population within New Haven, which on average has a much lower income than the suburbs), I said New Haven was. I think that’s a valid point considering how the city was redesigned in the mid 20th century by urban planners, the business community, bureaucrats and other elite groups in order to create a modern, sleek city that would attract national chain retail, corporations and fortune #s companies, which is in complete contrast to the previous century of development in the city. What was once a place of opportunity for unskilled, desperate groups of people became a landscape of novelty with billboards, strip malls, highways, convention centers, and seas of parking.
I’ve been called an elitist several times by several different people, and I still don’t get it. I argue against the policies enacted and carried through by the most powerful government officials, the richest business executives, and the extremely well-educated planners that forcefully took from working people and gave to the middle and upper classes. Big development projects like the Coliseum, 360 State, Science Park, etc didn’t and don’t address any of the city’s underlying problems because they did not and do not contribute to uplifting the unemployed and underemployed populations in the city, nor do they make the city more livable for the middle class.
I wonder if you’re trying to suggest that rock bands, and people with time to go to concerts are the proletariat class, while those who were most negatively effected by urban renewal policies - the kind that gave birth to the Coliseum - are elitists? Or are the elitists just the people that speak up for the victims of urban renewal? I would agree with you if I were saying that the rowdy middle class of concert-goers from the 80s, and the club goers of today were getting in the way of making New Haven a great place for high end boutiques, 5 star hotels, and McMansions, but I’mnot saying that. I’m saying that large scale, grand development meant to rejuvenate the city is wasted money that could be used on making New Haven a place of economic opportunity, civic involvement and safety for all classes of people of all income and skill levels.

posted by: Kevin Quinn on November 8, 2010  10:56pm

I Would love to know how I can get a copy of Last Days of the Coliseum.

posted by: Mike Franzman on November 9, 2010  7:30am

they broadcast the 90-minute version of Last Days of the Coliseum, but you can order the full two-hour extended story, including material on the New Haven Arena, with additional implosion footage. 

to order DVD ($24.99) and Blu Ray ($39.99) go to:  http://www.lastdaysofthecoliseum.com

posted by: Thomas on November 9, 2010  4:44pm

It is amazing the amount of money that has been spent on mistakes of the Lee years. Schools that looked like bomb shelters, walled or separated neighborhoods. Big dreams are great but they are expensive. The Coliseum was much to big. Would shops and restaurants have made it a success? Did the Chapel Square Mall succeed? Like the Tennis Center it was “projected” for bringing in the surrounding towns and county’s populations this is a falsehood, that and the high cost of doing business in the city ask the owners of the New Haven Ravens who were greeted by a union protest and a town border squabble.

posted by: Uh Oh on November 9, 2010  6:57pm

I had the opportunity to see the full two hour version at a preview and it was so much better than what CPTV decided to show. CPTV left out good stuff like the Blades, the Powder Ridge music fest that never happened, Bobby Seal and the Black Panthers- they kind of gutted the culture out of a really fine piece of work.  Too bad.

posted by: jondoeski on November 9, 2010  7:22pm

when will it air again?

posted by: john mcgirr on November 9, 2010  8:55pm

Allman Bros with Muddy Waters opening 73 -74 possibly 75.  so many shows the who the dead.  BTO, Doobie Bros, Jethro Tull, windwood The anchor bar.  for what a parking lot.

posted by: Craig on November 15, 2010  5:20pm

I think when something like this happens, we all tend to jump on the nostalgia train.  I too attended many concerts, hockey games (from all 4 tenant teams) the circus, globetrotters and many other events over the lifespan of the coliseum.  I was livid when DeStefano supported taking down not only a piece of history, but a building of public assembly that gave character and an edge to New Haven, which has gone flat.  However, I think in these cases we often have ourselves to blame.  Support waned for every team after the original Nighthawks.  Promoters chose updated venues, such as Oakdale and the Meadows for their acts.  The building fell into disrepair that started the day it opened since so many corners had been cut because of a reduced budget.  Bottom line is, I miss it.