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.
The coliseum played a key role in the rich history of amateur and professional sports in Charlotte, especially when it came to basketball. Within its first year, the coliseum hosted professional basketball teams, like the Boston Celtics and the Harlem Globetrotters – who returned for nearly 40 games – and college teams, like the University of South Carolina, Davidson College and Georgia Tech.
Chris Johnson, who grew up with the Coliseum, shared a standout memory with The Charlotte Observer. “…I saw an exhibition (basketball) game in which Michael Jordan scored 56 points,” said Johnson. “This was the place my parents took me to show me that there is a big world out there…”
In the 1960s and 1970s, multiple men’s college basketball tournaments were held at the coliseum, including the Southern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Sun Belt Conference. The Southern Conference returned again in 2010. From 1971 to 1988, the Charlotte 49ers played their home games at the coliseum and returned for three seasons from 1993 to 1996.
The Carolina Cougars, of the American Basketball Association, used the coliseum for some home games from 1969 to 1974. In the 2005-06 season, the Carolina Krunk, of the ABA – formerly the Carolina Thunder – was a tenant of the building. Charlotte has been the site of the NCAA tournament 22 times, with the first 13 events being held at the coliseum. In 2017, the CIAA men’s and women’s basketball tournament will utilize the coliseum. From the gate, basketball proved to be a powerhouse at the coliseum, but a new sport came to town in 1956.
The coliseum was built with the capability to support an ice rink, so when the Baltimore Clippers experienced a fire in their facility, the Charlotte Coliseum was the next best option for their last five home games. More than 40,000 curious fans attended the five games, and two were sellouts. After so much success in Charlotte, the Clippers owner decided to stay, and the team became the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League. In their first season in Charlotte, the team captured the playoff title. They later held a naming contest and became known as the Charlotte Checkers. In 1973, the EHL split into two new leagues, and the Checkers became part of the Southern Hockey League; however, four of the seven teams in the league folded by 1977, including the Checkers.
Fifteen years later, in 1992, the East Coast Hockey League awarded Charlotte an expansion franchise. In another naming contest, the Checkers name returned. The second Charlotte Checkers team got off to a good start, capturing the ECHL championship in 1996. In the 2005-06 season, the team moved to the larger Charlotte Bobcats Arena (now Time Warner Cable Arena).
Five years later, in 2010, the Checkers owner purchased the American Hockey League’s Albany River Rats and brought them to Charlotte, retaining the Charlotte Checkers name and producing the third rendition of the team. They also reached an agreement to be affiliated with the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes, a new level of prestige for the team. In 2015, the Checkers announced they would be moving back to the coliseum for the 2015-16 season. The coliseum was also the site of the Rodeo World Championship in 1960, a famous boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton in 1976, and a flourishing wrestling culture in the 1970s and 1980s.
A Time of Transition
Before what became the new Charlotte Coliseum, the Charlotte Convention Center, Blumenthal Performing Arts venues and Time Warner Cable Arena, the auditorium and coliseum were the go-to facilities for concerts, cultural performances, family shows, religious events, sporting events, conventions, trade shows and the like.
From 1955 to 1988, more than 20 million people attended events at Ovens Auditorium and the Charlotte Coliseum, but by the 1980s, it became apparent that the city was outgrowing the space. In 1988, the new 23,000-seat Charlotte Coliseum opened on Tyvola Road, and the original coliseum halted operations, while ovens Auditorium continued hosting events. After a few years, the city realized there was still a need for the historic coliseum for events that weren’t large enough for the new facility—college basketball, hockey and concerts. After being closed for five years and undergoing renovations, the venue reopened on Sept. 18, 1993, as Independence Arena. The Charlotte Checkers were the primary tenant.
Renovations to the coliseum included updating lighting systems, restrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, concession stands, the box office, the score board and more. The original wood floors and seats were refinished, and the ice floor was still operational. While the auditorium did not undergo a full renovation like the coliseum, it did get a few updates, including new seats, new concession areas, furniture and carpeting, as well as a two-story addition with additional restrooms and a hospitality area.
In 2005, the Charlotte Bobcats Arena (now Time Warner Cable Arena) opened in Uptown Charlotte, and the Charlotte Checkers relocated. In 2007, the Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road was demolished.
Through the years, the coliseum has been known by different names. First, it was the Charlotte Coliseum in 1955 and then Independence Arena in 1993. In 2001, an agreement with the wireless carrier Cricket Communications changed the name to Cricket Arena. Then in 2008, Charlotte based Bojangles’ bought the naming rights, and the historic building became known as Bojangles’ Coliseum. Ovens Auditorium has maintained its original 1955 moniker.
Ovens Auditorium and Bojangles’ Coliseum have seen more than 15,000 events, collectively, in their time. Although upgrades and enhancements have been made over the years, the buildings have seen much wear and tear. Through it all, one thing is clear: These historic landmarks have a place in the future of the city.
In December 2014, the city approved a $16 million renovation for Bojangles’ Coliseum, including $4 million of hockey-related upgrades to prepare for the Charlotte Checkers return to the building for the 2015-16 season. Phase one of the renovations began in June 2015 and included: new, wider seats, bringing the capacity to approximately 8,600; a new scoreboard with more video capability; four new ribbon boards; a new sound system; updated concession stands, locker rooms and dressing rooms; a refurbished club area with new lighting and décor; a new entry pathway from the locker room to the ice; and other improvements, like signage and paint in select areas, new LED sports lights and aisle lighting.
“You definitely feel like you’re touching a lot of history when you’re trying to recreate a place this old,” said longtime staff member Hite, referring to the renovation process.
The overall enhancements capture the retro features of the mid-20th century building while also modernizing the facility and improving the fan experience. The renovations are on schedule to be completed this fall. The first Charlotte Checkers home game will take place on Saturday, Nov. 7. Phase two of the renovations is set to begin in summer 2016 and will include upgrades to the electrical and mechanical features.
While not part of the renovation, the future of Ovens Auditorium is being explored as well. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, who manages the buildings, is looking at the long-term future of the venue. The CRVA is collaborating with Gantt Huberman Architects to perform a modernization study to find ways to keep the venue competitive for the future. Enhancements, like seating capacity and lobby configuration as well as dressing rooms, technology and competitive analysis with other venues in the marketplace, are being considered.
If these walls could talk, they would tell some amazing stories. Now, with a fresh coat of paint, these walls are ready to see future generations of Charlotteans make many more memories.