What do Elton John, Jake Scott, the Peace Corps and Athens High School have in common?
They all reside in my five decades of memories of what’s now known as Stegeman Coliseum, the distinctive structure that has dominated UGA’s Ag Hill and loomed large in the lives of Athenians since my days at David C. Barrow Elementary School across the street.
Erected starting in 1962, primarily to play host to cattle shows, rodeos and basketball games (the agricultural purpose finally having been abandoned a few years ago), what originally was called the Georgia Coliseum has been an intrinsic part of my life ever since.
I won a second-place ribbon on the floor of the Coliseum as part of the Georgia State Science Fair. I had my first real date with a girl there (back when my Dad still had to drive us because I didn’t yet have a license). Like many Athens kids I had driver’s education lessons in the Coliseum parking lot. (Speaking of which, learning to parallel park wasn’t the only kind of parking that went on in that lot, thanks to the tolerance of UGA’s cops late at night.)
All three King brothers graduated high school on the stage that used to be where student seating and the video board are now. (Notes my brother Tim: “I’m sure there’s a plaque on the wall somewhere.”)
In the pre-computerized days during my first couple of years at UGA, you still had to line up at tables on the Coliseum floor to register for classes (and students came up with all sorts of ingenious ways to sneak in before their appointment time, including donning painter’s overalls and carrying a ladder!).
The connections have continued over the decades. My nieces graduated high school there, my son got his first master’s degree in the grad school commencement there, and when the arena was renamed for UGA athletics legend Herman J. Stegeman in 1996, one of his family members on hand for the ceremony also happened to be the wife of the doctor who delivered me!
But, really, I’ve found most people who grew up in Athens or attended UGA have strong, fond memories of the Steg.
Like me, classmate Rusty Gunn remembers the kids at Barrow School having a front-row seat for construction of the Coliseum, “watching, first, the four ‘legs,’ then, the canopy being built. It reminded me of H.G. Wells’ ‘War of the “Worlds,’ or at least the Classics Illustrated version.”
Before work on the Coliseum was even complete, I remember climbing up on the roof via one of those soaring arches, which was actually a pretty common practice among Athens kids at the time. Rusty also remembers sitting atop the arena, enjoying the great view of campus.
And my buddy Dan Pelletier says his favorite Coliseum memories are “walking up the arches and watching ‘closed’ football practices. After a few minutes, [legendary equipment manager] Squab Jones would come over and make sure we were just kids, and not opposing assistant coaches scouting, and then let us stay.”
Some locals went even further than just climbing on the roof. While it was still being built, before the walls went up, a local insurance broker named Herschel Carithers, father of my classmate Bucky, flew his plane through the arches!
And, of course, the legend of Bulldogs football star Jake Scott was burnished considerably when he rode his BSA motorcycle across the top of the Coliseum. But he wasn’t the only daredevil to take that ride. Some of the folks a couple of grades behind me remember a classmate peddling his way up and over the arena on his bicycle. They later put grates in place to stop that.
The first time I was ever inside the Coliseum was when sixth-graders from Barrow Elementary trooped over there on a field trip to hear a speech by Sargent Shriver, who was then the head of JFK’s new Peace Corps. As my lifelong buddy Owen Scott notes, “I don’t recall what he said, but I remember it was inspiring. It would certainly have been in the tradition of ‘Ask not what your country can do for you …’”
Athens kids attended the circus at the Coliseum (brother Tim’s first memory of it) and my friend Betz Kerley remembers seeing the Clydesdales there. Some Athenians, like my high school classmate Saye Sutton, even slept there — participating in those civil defense fallout shelter drills that were part of the Cold War era, with several hundred folks locked up in the arena for the weekend to see if they could survive together. Saye remembers spending most of her time riding the stationary bike that powered a fan to circulate air. (The Coliseum wasn’t air-conditioned in its early years.)
But the most prevalent nonsports memories of the Coliseum are of the many big-name musical acts and comedians who appeared there over its first four decades, before they stopped holding concerts in the arena. (Sadly, the last was Busta Rhymes in 2004.)
I saw my very first rock concert at the Coliseum (the Association) and the next year took the prettiest girl I knew to see Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. But I think my favorite shows there were the British rock band Badfinger (proteges of The Beatles) and, in the fall of my senior year, Elton John, then at the height of his popularity on his “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” tour. John closed the show with a song that still can be heard in the fall across campus at Sanford Stadium: “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”
This was an era when the top names hadn’t yet priced themselves off the college concert circuit, and thanks to UGA’s University Union and the Interfraternity Council a wide array of acts played the Coliseum — including Johnny Mathis, Louis Armstrong, the Kingston Trio, Dionne Warwick, Glen Campbell, Ray Charles, James Brown, Bob Hope, Sly and the Family Stone, Iron Butterfly (memories of how long “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” lasted range from a half hour to over 45 minutes), Bill Cosby, the Marshall Tucker Band, Kenny Rogers and even Bob Dylan. Plus, of course, the hometown B-52’s played there. And former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spoke to an overflow crowd.
My classmate Tom Hodgson remembers the Coliseum concert he looked forward to the most was Jerry Butler singing his hits from “The Ice Man Cometh,” including “Only the Strong Survive.” Tom recalls “Jerry, dressed in a white suit with a quartet of beautiful women singing harmony behind. Sometimes during an instrumental interlude, he’d call a singer over and slow dance with her. I don’t remember who my date was, but she wished I was as cool as Jerry Butler, and I definitly wished she was as hot as those singers.”
Betz remembers what an “eye opener” the Allman Brothers’ second appearance at the Coliseum was in 1973, when the interior of the arena resembled a giant bong. “We got seated and the lights dimmed and, boy, was I stunned to see these strange flickers of light all over the place. Like cigarettes but the flame stayed brighter longer. I didn’t understand I was seeing joints being lit up. Never been near a joint before. People were passing them all around. Then that strange but sweet smell was everywhere. I thought I was at Woodstock. I remember hoping my parents didn’t smell it on my clothes when I got home.”
But, she says, “the most fun concert I attended there was in the spring of 1974 and I saw the Coasters, the Platters and the Tams. Stood on the floor in front of the stage dancing the entire time. Ended up on a guy’s shoulders watching the incredible show.”
Not that all the shows at the Coliseum were a great success. Dan remembers the night Karen and Richard Carpenter “were stinking up the joint and the crowd booed, so Richard walked off the stage in a huff. Karen came out and talked to some of the remaining crowd and explained they had been on the road and were tired. I remember thinking, ‘OK, so are you going to refund the money you were paid for a performance you are not giving?’ No refund was given.”
Rusty, who provided the concert photos accompanying this piece, recalls his first show at the Coliseum was when he was a junior in high school and he and some friends took dates to see Little Stevie Wonder and the Temptations. Rusty might be the king of Stegeman concertgoers, as he saw the Association, the Righteous Brothers, Iron Butterfly, the Four Tops (”they were late but to make up, they let us climb up and stand on the side or the stage”), Chicago, the Allman Brothers, James Taylor, the Beach Boys, Elton John, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Three Dog Night, Mountain (”Leslie West’s guitar looked like a ukelele on his monstrous trunk”), Yes (”I heard they were appalled there was no organic food offered at the Holiday Inn”), Badfinger, the Carpenters, B.B. King and Billy Preston on the same bill, and Stephen Stills with Manassas (”he wore a UGA jersey”). Says Rusty: “My biggest regrets were missing Jethro Tull and also Frank Zappa.”
Betz, on the other hand, had a chance to see Tull but chose not to, although she had a ticket. “I got into an argument with the guy I was going with, and I walked back to the car while we were in line to get in,” she recalls.
Ah, youthful memories!
What are your own favorite (or least favorite) concerts and other nonsports events at UGA’s Coliseum? Feel free to share them in the comments.
Also, you can check out last week’s Blawg on favorite sports memories of Stegeman Coliseum here and a listing of the Top 50 sports and nonsports events from Coliseum history that UGA has here in observance of the Steg’s 50th anniversary. And here you can vote for the greatest moment in Stegeman history, which has reached the Round of 8.
Lastly, while it’s not absolutely complete (missing are Betz’s favorite Coasters show and a ’60s appearance by the Harlem Globetrotters, among other events), below is a list of performers appearing at the Steg compiled by UGA’s Office of Special Events:
1964-65: Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, Johnny Mathis, the Four Seasons, the Platters, Rufus Thomas, the Four Tops.
1965-66: Peter Nero, the Serendipity Singers, Bill Cosby, Dionne Warwick, the New Christie Minstrels, the Kingston Trio, Roger Williams, the Supremes, James Brown and the Fabulous Flames.
1966-67: Ray Charles, the Lettermen, Ferrante and Teicher, Al Hirt, Eddy Arnold, Little Stevie Wonder, the Temptations.
1967-68: the Chad Mitchell Trio, Glenn Yarbrough, the Righteous Brothers, Bobbie Gentry, Glen Campbell, the Association, Skitch Henderson and the Atlanta Symphony, Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Jack Jones, Buddy Rich.
1968-69: the Fifth Dimension, the Impressions, Major Lance, Paul Anka, Bill Anderson, Loretta Lynn, Paul Harvey, Johnny Rivers, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Soul Inc., Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, Floyd Cramer, Jerry Reed, the Four Tops.
1969-70: Glenn Yarbrough, Sam and Dave, Jerry Butler, Jimmy Ruffin, Al Capp, the Lettermen, Dionne Warwick, Jose Feliciano, Blood Sweat and Tears, Henry Mancini, Chicago Transit Authority, the London Philharmonic, Iron Butterfly.
1970-71: Josh White, Steppenwolf, Bob Hope, Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony, Peter Nero, the Chambers Brothers, Friends of Distinction, Pacific Gas and Electric, the Allman Brothers Band, Three Dog Night, Mountain, the Fifth Dimension, Richie Havens, the Carpenters, the Guess Who, Mylon, Steely Dan.
1971-72: the Rev. Pearly Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Chicago, Ike and Tina Turner, Bread, Seals and Croft, Isaac Hayes, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Muddy Waters, Jethro Tull.
1972-73: Vince Vance and the Valiants, the James Gang, Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina, the Beach Boys, Yes, the Doobie Brothers, the Allman Brothers Band, Badfinger, Billy Preston, Stephen Stills and Manassas, Curtis Mayfield, James Taylor, Rod McKuen.
1973-74: America, Elton John, Marshall Tucker Band, the Spinners, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, Leon Russell.
1974-75: Billy Joel, Gregg Allman, Vince Vance and the Valiants, Earth Wind and Fire, Jesse Colin Young, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Earl Scruggs Revue, Steve Martin.
1975-76: Charlie Daniels, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Royal Lipizzaner Stallions.
1976-77: Jackson Browne, Orleans, Hall and Oates, Marshall Tucker Band, Pure Prairie League, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Heart.
1977-78: Dolly Parton, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Kershaw, Bobby Blue Bland, B.B. King, Dave Mason, Bob Welch.
1978-79: Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Kenny Rogers, Dottie West, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Jimmy Buffett, Boston.
1979-80: Pablo Cruise, Marshall Tucker Band, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Delbert McClinton.
1980-81: the Commodores, B.B. King.
1981-82: the Oak Ridge Boys.
1982-83: Harlem Globetrotters, Neil Young.
1983-84: the B-52’s, Kenny Rogers.
1984-85: Sting, Hank Williams Jr., Bob Hope, Alabama.
1985-86: Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, All-Star Wrestling with Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes, Jesse Jackson.
1986-87: the Beach Boys.
1987-88: All-Star Wrestling.
1990-91: Bob Dylan.
1991-92: Harlem Globetrotters.
1992-93: Dennis Miller, David Spade.
1997-98: the B-52’s, Jon Stewart.
1998-99: Bill Cosby.
1999-2000: Indigo Girls, Mikhail Gorbachev.
2001-2002: Black Crowes.
2003-2004: Busta Rhymes.
(Special thanks to Tommy Altman of UGA.)
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg