Remembering the Old Pepsi Coliseum
(WIBC.com file photo: Mike Corbin)
The Pepsi Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds is almost no more, at least not in it's current state.
George McGinnis's Indiana Pacers still echo off the walls, even as you might be able to smell some of his halftime cigarette smoke in what used to be their locker rooms. The Coliseum long pre-dates McGinnis, and is about to shut down for an almost two-year renovation.
It was simply called the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum when it was built in 1939, replacing the original coliseum from 1907. It was a WPA project that was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and was built both to house activities connected to the Indiana State Fair as well as general events year-round.
From the wraught-iron grates at the ticket windows just inside the front door, Justin Armstrong, director of advancement for the State Fair Foundation, says there are many original components to the Coliseum still in use, components like the boiler and the chillers which have long needed to be replaced. They will be replaced during the renovation, which begins right after this weekend's rodeo that brings the annual FFA convention to a close.
Perhaps the most significant events in the Coliseum's history took place within a year of each other, both of which left indelible marks in different ways. On September third, 1964, the Beatles played to a deafening crowd that jammed inside the Coliseum. Though it held fewer than nine-thousand fans, Armstrong says it seems that many more claimed to have seen the Fab Four. In reality, they might be confused - The Beatles actually played two shows that day; an afternoon show at the Coliseum and an outdoor show that night in front of the grandstand.
The other event left memories of a radically different kind. Near the end of an ice skating show on Halloween night, 1963, propane leaked from a tank in a concession stand and was ignited by a popcorn machine. The explosion killed 54 at the Coliseum, and another 20 died later from injuries. A memorial plaque with the names of all the victims is located just inside the front entrance. Armstrong says it will be removed and kept in storage during the renovation, and placed back inside once work is complete.
Through all that has taken place at the Coliseum - concerts, sports games, agricultural events - Armstrong says his favorite stories are from those who remember going ice skating with their parents or grand parents. Public ice skating and all the other activities will return to the new Coliseum when it opens in time for the 2014 Indiana State Fair, which will also mark the Coliseum's 75th anniversary.