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Place Category: Venue
Over the past 60 years, some of the greatest musicians, performers and athletes have graced the stages at the auditorium-coliseum complex on Independence Boulevard, known today as Ovens Auditorium and Bojangles’ Coliseum. From concerts and sporting events to graduations and ice skating with family and friends, multiple generations of Charlotteans have walked through the doors of these historic venues, which have become a defining piece of Charlotte’s storied history and bright future.
The complex opened on Sept. 11, 1955, providing the city with its first major civic auditorium and dedicated sports venue. Nearly 13,000 supporters attended the dedication ceremony at the coliseum, with an address given by the Rev. Billy Graham, whose crusades would take place in the buildings in future years.
The 208,400-square-foot Charlotte Coliseum featured nearly 10,000 seats. At the time of construction, it was the largest unsupported steel dome in the world, spanning just over 332 feet wide and 112 feet high. Right next door, connected by a landscaped plaza and a shared parking lot, was 68,452-squarefoot, 2,400-seat Ovens Auditorium, named in honor of David Ovens, vice president and general manager of J. B. Ivey department store and the leader of the auditorium-coliseum citizen planning committee.
With the construction of the bold, futuristic venues came international attention, economic growth and years of memories for attendees from near and far.
The auditorium-coliseum complex opened new doors for Charlotte and brought various forms of entertainment to the city. The first event held at the complex was the Chrysler/De Soto Car Show. It came 11 days after the dedication on Sept. 22, 1955, and utilized both buildings – the auditorium for meetings and the coliseum for the show. The first consumer event held at the auditorium was a performance by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 4, 1955. Nearly 700 more symphony-related events took place over the years.
The coliseum became the home base for many local, regional and national sporting events, practices and tournaments. Fittingly, with its popularity in North Carolina, the first sporting event held at the coliseum was a doubleheader basketball game featuring the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Philadelphia Sphas and the St. Louis Hawks versus the Washington Generals on Nov. 18, 1955. The first college basketball game took place on Dec. 1, 1955, featuring a matchup between Davidson College and Furman University. Other sports followed, with hockey in January1956, boxing and tennis in February1956, wrestling and roller derby in June 1958, and indoor motorcycle racing in 1972.
Within the first year of opening, the auditorium hosted its first ballet, concert, opera, fashion show and graduation. In addition to a variety of sporting events, the coliseum hosted figure skating shows, consumer shows, commencement ceremonies and public ice skating. The Ice Capades returned for more than 200 shows from 1955 to 1997, and public ice skating became a tradition for locals throughout most of the coliseum’s tenure. Ringling Bros. Circus made its debut at the coliseum on June 21, 1957. More than 200 circus events were held over the next 50 years. The venues also became home to regular community performances, including The Singing Christmas Tree, Country and Western Shows, and the Carolina Song Festival.
General Manager George Hite explained how meaningful these venues and events are to Charlotteans. “The history of the building means a lot,” Hite said. “We talk to a lot of folks who had their first date here, saw their first concert here, met their wife or husband here because the building drew such a great mix of events.”
Some of the most memorable moments at the venues came when superstars and leaders of the day visited the Queen City. Notable guests have included Billy Graham, David Letterman, former President Richard Nixon, Jacqueline Kennedy, David Copperfield, Dick Clark, among countless others. One of the most iconic artists to take the stage in Charlotte was Elvis Presley, who performed at the venues in 1956 and several times in the 1970s.
Charlotte native Julie Reece was one of the lucky ones who got to see Elvis the last time he played in Charlotte in 1977; she was 8 years old. “We went to the coliseum to buy tickets, and the line was wrapped around the building,” said Reece. “I brought an ashtray I had made Elvis and asked the security guards if I could give it to him. On the last song, they put me on the stage. I handed Elvis the ashtray, and I got to stay on stage with him until the end of the concert. I look back now and can’t believe that actually happened.”
Over the years, the auditorium and coliseum have played host to thousands of nationally touring performers and to sold-out crowds who have piled in to see them. The stages have held the spotlight for soulful vocal icons, like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Diana Ross, and Ray Charles; they’ve supported the acoustics of rock heroes, like Jimmy Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan; they’ve played backdrop to music’s most beloved ensembles, like The Jackson 5, The Beach Boys, The Temptations, and Sonny and Cher; and they’ve helped to make names for artists, like Backstreet Boys, Alicia Keyes, John Legend and Norah Jones. Decades of legendary shows have left salient memories in the minds of fans who traveled to Charlotte to see musical history being made.
Anne Robinette was a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1974 when she made the drive to Charlotte to see Bob Dylan play with The Band. “It was sold out months before, so I had to order a ticket by mail and didn’t know I had gotten one until the last minute,” said Robinette. “The crowd was electrifying, and the sound was great. People were standing on the wooden seats! At the age of 20, it was life changing for me.” But the venues hosted more than just musicians. Other major events included presidential campaign speeches, fashion shows, rodeos, horse shows, comedy shows and popular Broadway musicals, like “The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story,” “Cats,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Les Misérables” and “Wicked” – the latter of which performed to sold-out crowds at every performance and will return again in 2016.