The Hampton Coliseum. 52 years. We have created so many memories there in that building. So much concrete and glass and steel were melded together to create one fascinating piece of architecture. The Mothership. That’s what lots of music fans around the entire planet, especially The Grateful Dead and Phish fans, call the building. However, generations of parents, grandparents, and their children harken back to fond family-friendly memories of yore and the happy times when they visited the impressive structure for various special occasions.
Has it truly been 52 years since our hallowed venue opened in 1970? While in 2022 some residents have mentioned it could use some renovations, I remember when it looked like a shiny, brand-new car. Dad had recently been transferred to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia in 1973, and at a mere three years of age, the Coliseum even smelled new to me. I can still remember my heart pounding the first time we drove up Interstate 64 East and saw it absolutely glowing right next to the superhighway. In later years, Interstate 664 was constructed right near the building, which only succeeded in making the entire area look even more spectacular. One could argue the structure appears even better at night, with all of its gleaming lights shining right off the water, and during the holiday season, all the passersby will be mesmerized by the glowing colored lights. Another part of what makes the Hampton Coliseum look so cool is the way it sits on the edge of Coliseum Lake, which is fed by the Back River. In 1977 the Virginia Sailing Association Benefit was even held on that lake.
I love the inside of the building, especially the stairs. As a kid, I would just look up at them in awe, and climb them over and over again, much to the dismay of my parents. The concourse area where the concessions are located is neat too. I would just walk around in full circles. When you come back in to find your seat you have to look for the different letters of the alphabet to locate your section. One day I got lost and it took what seemed like forever to find my parents. It was scary and exciting at the same time, and I noticed a lot of other kids doing the same thing. I always had to climb to the very top row too and stare down at the people, who all looked like ants to me. When you leave the building from the higher level, you come out on that cool roundish walkway outside the building. I used to fantasize that I actually lived inside the Hampton Coliseum and that every morning I would get to wake up and ride my bicycle down that ramp.
For many years, the last two weeks of March in Tidewater, as Hampton Roads was usually referred to in those days, ushered in the spring season with certain regular events. In fact, the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the Grateful Dead shows were sometimes just a few days apart from one another. The Grateful Dead fans would form a giant campground in the parking lot, and they would party for days between shows. I remember I worked at the local Chi-Chi’s Mexican Restaurant, and they would come scavenging through our dumpsters for food. We weren’t supposed to do it, but since most of the fans were pretty nice, we would sneak them some free chips and salsa in styrofoam containers, and if they were really lucky, some warm queso dip.
On Friday, December 18th, 1981, I saw the Rolling Stones play on Keith Richards’ 38th birthday. I commented that he was getting old and that this was surely their final tour (haha). Of course, like Regis Philbin (Google him, millennials), that year I declared those pesky new computers were just a fad too. I remember complaining about the $9.95 ticket price, which seems pretty silly these days. By the way, it was the very first Pay-Per-View (PPV) concert in history, and my buddy and I were filmed in the “Going to a Go-Go” video. We’re the ones wearing the cool beach hats. Okay, I can’t seem to find us anywhere in the blurry Youtube video, but we were there for history. They played a second show on Saturday night to close their tour. Also, Keith Richards infamously celebrated his birthday weekend by smacking a fan who ran onstage with his guitar.
I remember attending the Kinks concert and being fortunate to see another one of the greatest British bands in history. I was a bit surprised Hampton Roads citizens knew the words to the songs and sang along loudly with the band, much to the delight of the musicians. I saw Rush and Van Halen at all of their concerts too, and people still talk about those shows on social media. The Dan Fogelberg concert was filled almost entirely with love-struck couples, and when the lights came on at the end they all wandered about almost aimlessly, as if in a trance. His voice sounded so good live you would have thought he was secretly playing an album.
Yes, the Queen herself, Ella Fitzgerald, who was born in nearby Newport News, Virginia, performed at the Hampton Jazz Festival in 1979. Just about every other living jazz legend graced the venue as well over the years, from Count Basie to Buddy Rich to Cannonball Adderley. Sadly it was canceled in 2020, but Hampton Roads residents anxiously look forward to the 2023 show. Evidently, sound engineers love the venue, because many famous acts have recorded albums there, including Neil Diamond and Led Zeppelin. My mom attended every Elvis Presley concert that ever took place at the Hampton Coliseum and other local venues. When she died in 2018 after a ten-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease, we played Elvis at her funeral, as she had requested.
In 1987 my daughter was born, and soon after I decided to say goodbye to my beer drinking and college partying days, and to most of the concerts too. However, the 1990s were filled with new visits to the Hampton Coliseum to see Disney on Ice, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and other G-rated events. Before the Disney on Ice afternoon show I remember my daughter and me, along with other local fans, meeting at the local Pizza Hut on nearby Mercury Boulevard.
One Saturday in the 1990s there was some sort of fun Nickelodeon television channel convention, and I took my daughter to get her photo taken with Pocahontas. The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile was right nearby that spot too, and as we patiently waited for the Disney Princess, another booth was set up for a semi-famous soap opera star to sign autographs. Someone came up and mistakenly handed me a pen and paper and asked me to sign it. I was tempted to do so, although I am 5′ 10″ with darker hair, and I’m pretty sure the handsome actor was actually over six feet tall and had blonde hair. We all laughed about that for a good while. To this day, people still “like” those photos of Pocahontas and the Wienermobile when I post them in my Facebook groups.
Over the decades, the Hampton Coliseum has been host to a multitude of sporting events too. I was lucky to see some of the Virginia Squires basketball games back in the old days of the American Basketball Association. The team featured a guy you may have heard of named Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and if you saw the sports legend come screaming down the lane and dunking that colorful ABA basketball “live and in person”, you will never forget that moment. I was fortunate to see the Harlem Globetrotters more than once, and one year we somehow had tickets so close to the playing floor that we were some of the surprised fans who fell for Meadowlark Lemon’s infamous “Fake Water in the Bucket” trick. In reality, it was just confetti after he had splashed the referee with actual water the first time instead.
Like many locals, we took in plenty of Hampton Roads Gulls and Hampton Roads Aces ice hockey games. You can’t believe how much more fun and exciting hockey is live than on the television. Over the years, fans were treated to a variety of other sporting events, including the ever-popular pro wrestlers, monster truck rallies, the annual Virginia Duals Wrestling Tournament, and the Boo Williams Summer Basketball Tournament.
For several years in the 1990s, the local Daily Press newspaper held their annual free Christmas Concert at the Hampton Coliseum. One highlight each year was when everyone took their car keys out of their pockets and shook them during the “Jingle Bells” song. It was amazing how all those keys sounded in rhythm somehow. Then one year they decided to cancel the concert permanently, as sadly newspapers are struggling these days. I shook hands with JoAnn Falletta backstage one time, who years later went on to lead the Virginia Symphony and eventually became one of the most famous music conductors in America.
While of course, I wasn’t able to personally attend every major event held at our revered edifice, you will still hear fans talk about their favorite magical moments. In 1980, Prince graced the venue, and I am still trying to find out whether he really changed all of the Hampton Coliseum lights to purple that enchanted evening. In 2008, the Wiggles entertained the local children, and I still read online comments by parents that say it was one of their favorite memories. In 2010, the Walking with Dinosaurs show roamed into the arena. As a kid who used to love visiting Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut, I still kick myself for missing that show. Other renowned concerts over the years include Liza Minnelli wowing the crowd in 1973, the Jackson 5 in 1974, KISS in 1979, REO Speedwagon in 1982, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 1985, and ZZ Top in 1994.
On September 1st, 1972, the world was introduced to Wonder Woman at the Hampton Coliseum, as Lynda Carter won the 11th Annual Miss World USA competition that evening. You may have heard of Bob Hope, who acted as the Master of Ceremonies. On June 8th, 1973, Gunther Gebel-Williams posed for a striking photo of him standing behind his tiger while standing atop an elephant. In 1973, they even had Roller Derby, which I loved to watch on television, and I still love the Jim Croce song.
So many local high students have fond memories of receiving their diplomas at graduations in our building. Before the Hampton Roads IcePlex was built here in Tabb, Virginia, the Hampton Coliseum sometimes offered us “Public Ice Skating Days.” For many years, it was a tradition to drive by and see the traveling carnival run by Amusements of America set up in the parking lot.
Yes, the rumors are true. They actually did perform baptisms in Coliseum Lake at religious gatherings, and yes, they actually had to check for snakes first before proceeding. I really found an online photo of the special ritual. As far as social media comments, one interesting comment I read online was by a fan who said, “Miles Davis played his entire set with his back to the audience.” Why? I have no idea, but Miles Davis is one of the only guys who were cool enough to do it. Another woman said about seeing Patti Labelle, “she sent chills through my body and made me cry.”
Whether you call our region Tidewater or Hampton Roads, for 52 years the Hampton Coliseum has produced thousands of amazing memories for the residents of our beloved towns, cities, and counties. While 2020, 2021, and 2022 have been pandemic years we will never forget, perhaps the Hampton Coliseum will undergo some admirable renovations, and we will all be fortunate to share many more great memories there in the upcoming years.
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