by Dick Bourne, Mid-Atlantic Gateway
from the Mid-Atlantic Gateway Archives (originally published July 2010)
The evolution of sports venues is often a sad state of affairs in many U.S. cities. Mid-size cities in particular struggle to maintain financially viable arenas and stadiums, with sports franchises often holding up fans, voters, and city governments for better facilities, usually at the tax-payer’s expense.
Such has certainly been the case in Charlotte, North Carolina. But while most venues are torn down when they become obsolete, the old Charlotte Coliseum has somehow survived while its immediate successor has already been destroyed now years ago.
|The original Charlotte Coliseum, now the Bojangles Coliseum|
It has seen several name changes, becoming Independence Arena in 1988 (named for its location on Independence Boulevard) after a larger coliseum was built to accommodate an NBA basketball franchise. It later became Cricket Arena and now Bojangles Coliseum through different naming rights agreements.
A visit to the modern day Bojangles Coliseum’s website demonstrates the difficulty the building has in remaining viable – only two events are scheduled for the summer of 2010. How the old coliseum remains operational today is beyond my understanding. But it wasn’t always that way. There were once better days at the venerable old building, once the crown jewel of the south.
Back in the day, the Charlotte Coliseum was the center of sports and entertainment activity in the city, hosting all variety of sporting events, concerts, and assorted other gatherings. And it was also one of the main venues for regular wrestling shows for Jim Crockett Promotions.
My friend Kyra Quinn was visiting Charlotte and attending the NWA Legends Fanfest in the summer of 2009, and while there spent a day or so visiting some of the other local attractions, including the Billy Graham Library. No, wrestling fans, not that Billy Graham – but the Reverend Billy Graham, perhaps the most famous Christian evangelist in the world.
In the lobby of the Library was a photograph that caught Kyra’s eye – the famed Charlotte Coliseum, back in its heyday, its marquee showcasing events taking place over the upcoming week. The photo, in the context of the Graham library, features the dates of one of Graham’s large multi-day evangelical crusades in 1972. But what caught Kyra’s eye further was what else was on that marquee – Elvis Presley, hockey, and wrestling - all in one week! Could it get any better than that?
What a wild and busy 10 days in April 1972 it must have been for the staff and management of the building, hosting events that would draw such huge crowds, if not sellout crowds, each night. A closer look at each event illustrates just how important a center of activity the Coliseum was for the surrounding community. These events weren't just average stops on a tour. They had a special significance of their own, making for an amazing week in Charlotte.
Let's take a close look at each one.....
The Billy Graham Crusade: Wednesday April 5 – Sunday April 9, 1972
Billy Graham is thought to have preached to more people than anyone else in the world. The 5-day crusade in Charlotte would not only sell out the Coliseum (including thousands watching on closed circuit in the adjacent Ovens Auditorium), but was taped for broadcast and shown via syndication at various times over the following weeks in TV markets across the United States and around the world. The fifth night of this 1972 crusade, even though listed on the Coliseum’s marquee, actually took place at nearby Memorial Stadium.
Charlotte was Graham’s hometown. Born on a small dairy farm in 1918, he held his first crusade at a church in Charlotte in 1947 and had major crusades there in 1958 and this one in 1972. After this April 72 crusade, Graham would not hold another in the Queen City until September of 1996, drawing capacity crowds four straight nights at the brand new Carolina Panther’s NFL football stadium.
Charlotte Coliseum staff and crew barely had time to catch their breath after four nights of capacity crowds for Billy Graham in their building; Jim Crockett’s pro-wrestling event would take center stage two nights later.
Pro-Wrestling (Jim Crockett Promotions): Monday April 10, 1972
In 1972, Jim Crockett Sr. was running weekly events every Monday night at the Charlotte Park Center consisting of 4 to 5 matches. But about every other month or so, he held a larger event at the larger Charlotte Coliseum, often when the NWA world champion came to town.
Such was the case on April 10, 1972 when NWA champion Dory Funk, Jr. returned to the Queen City to face top contender Johnny Weaver in the culmination of a series of five major matches in Charlotte over a 14-month period of time between the two. The feud had angles and diversions that spilled over into the Florida and Amarillo territories as well. (That whole 14 month run was chronicled in Mike Cline’s 2008 article on the Mid-Atlantic Gateway.)
|NWA Champion Dory Funk Jr. hands the world championship belt to referee Ron West before a title defense against Johnny Weaver, |
April 10, 1972 at the Charlotte Coliseum.
On that same card, Jack Brisco regained the Eastern States heavyweight title (which would later become the Mid-Atlantic title) defeating Rip Hawk in a rematch from the previous super show at the Coliseum two months earlier.
Charlotte Coliseum staff still didn’t have a chance for a break. The Charlotte Checkers returned to the dome the next night.
Charlotte Checkers Hockey: Tuesday April 11 and Friday April 14, 1972
The Charlotte Checkers were on a roll in April of 1972, tearing through the EHL play-offs after having won their 4th consecutive regular season championship. They defeated the Suncoast Suns (St. Petersburg) and Greensboro Generals in the quarter and semi final rounds to win the Southern Division and then swept the Syracuse Blazers of the Northern Division to win their second straight Walker Cup and EHL Playoff Championship. The Checker's Gaye Cooley won the Davis Trophy as the EHL's leading goaltender.
The Checkers were only the sixth team in EHL history to win back-to-back championships in a league that went back to the 1940s. The team drew huge crowds at the Charlotte Coliseum during the early 1970s.
Elvis Presley in Concert: Thursday April 13, 1972
Following a two month stand at the Las Vegas Hilton in January and February of 1972, and a March recording session that yielded the no. 1 smash hit “Burning Love”, Elvis hit the road in April of 1972 for a 15-city tour that included the April 13 show in Charlotte. Many of those shows were filmed by MGM. The footage was used in the Golden-Globe winning documentary feature “Elvis On Tour”, which wound up being the final film in his prolific movie career which began in 1956.
Elvis was hurting emotionally during this time following his estrangement from wife Priscilla Presley four months earlier. The two would legally separate a few months later.
The show in Charlotte was a great success, as was the entire string of shows shot for the movie.
What a 10 day run for the Coliseum, captured forever in a small black and white photograph hanging in the lobby of a library in Charlotte. Billy Graham brought together a community in revival in 1972. Jack Brisco regained his Eastern title belt while Elvis Presley sported a nice belt of his own, adorning his famous white fireworks jumpsuit. They came no tougher than NWA world champ Dory Funk or Checker’s goaltender Gaye Cooley.
The pulpit, ice rink, concert stage, and squared circle all featured names not soon forgotten in one amazing week at the Charlotte Coliseum. It didn’t get any more main event than that.
Better days, indeed.
- Dick Bourne
Mid-Atlantic Gateway, July 2010
Credits & Resources
Photographs and graphics:
- Photograph of the picture displayed in the Billy Graham Library taken by Kyra Quinn on her visit there August 2009.
- Billy Graham photo from Wikipedia, listed as public domain from US News & World Report magazine.
- Wrestling clipping from Charlotte 4/10/72 courtesy the collection of Mark Eastridge.
- Charlotte Checkers logo from The Internet Hockey Database (HockeyDB.com.)
- Elvis Presley photo in concert in Charlotte Coliseum 4/13/72 from ElvisConcerts.com.
- Photo of Dory Funk vs. Johnny Weaver in the Charlotte Coliseum 4/10/72 taken by Gene Gordon © Scooter Lesley / Ditchcat Photography. Used with permission.
- Billy Graham Center Archives: Charlotte Evangelistic Campaigns Research Project, http://www.wheaton.edu/
- Billy's Team: Keeping Graham by Jim Schlosser, Greensboro News & Record September 28, 1996
- Graham: Society Needs Its Heroes, Associated Press, Sumpter Daily Item April 6, 1972, Sumter, SC (Thanks to Carroll Hall)
- Graham Opens Crusade, Associated Press, Spartanburg Herald Journal April 5, 1972, Spartanburg SC (Thanks to Carroll Hall)
- Elvis Presley Biography website. www.elvispresleymusic.com.au Specifically: Elvis Aaron Presley 1970-1972: The Way It Is
- ElvisConcerts.com www.elvisconcerts.com, Tours 1972
- Eastern Hockey League Standings 1971-1972, Sun Coast Suns http://www.suncoastsuns.com
- The Internet Hockey Database www.hockeydb.com , Charlotte Checkers (EHL)
- Hockey in Charlotte by Jim Mancuso and Pat Kelly, Arcadia Publishing © 2006 ISBN-13: 978-0738542300
- The Johnny Weaver Interview (Chappell & Bourne), Mid-Atlantic Gateway, Nov. 2007
- Johnny Weaver's Title Chase by Mike Cline, Mid-Atlantic Gateway, March 2008
Special thanks to Kyra Quinn and Guy Depasquale.
Article originally published on the Mid-Atlantic Gateway July 7, 2010.
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