CENTURY CITY: It’s 100 years for the Memorial Coliseum, with the Olympics, a separate concert venue and other special events keeping the torch lit in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)
A Landmark Turns 100
LOS ANGELES -— About eight men and women move across the field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, then through the building’s 42 luxury suites, the 499-capacity 1923 Club, named for the year the venue opened, all while hearing about the 100-year-old stadium’s capabilities, amenities, history and possibilities.
But this June visit is no $20 public tour. It’s a contingent from a Lucha Libre wrestling outfit, sizing up the place for a prospective booking. If all goes to plan, acrobatic masked Luchadores will be soaring through the Coliseum’s rarefied autumn air.
The event would have to be slotted between USC Trojans football games and the other concerts and special events that regularly take place at the Coliseum.
As it celebrates its 100th anniversary, the Coliseum remains a major part of Los Angeles’ cultural and economic life, according to some venues industry veterans closely associated with the landmark.
While some historic stadiums, like Wrigley Field and Gilmore Stadium, have come and gone in the City of Angels, the Coliseum is one of four athletic stadiums designated as National Historic Landmarks by the National Parks Service, having received the distinction in 1984, on the eve of the opening ceremonies of its second Olympics.
In the years since its debut, the Coliseum has withstood the test of time and politics and the fickle fates of fortune while hosting around 120 million visitors and some 5,000 events. Today it hosts about 300 events a year, from major — like the nearly sold-out NASCAR Clash — to meetings and most everything in between.
Designed by England native John Parkinson (and his son Donald), the same architect who helped design Los Angeles City Hall, the Coliseum was commissioned in 1921, broke ground on Nov. 21 of that year and opened on May 1, 1923, at a construction cost of $954,873.
It was built at a time of growing civic pride as a memorial to the soldiers lost in the Great War as the region was emerging, along with the rest of the U.S., from World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic.
“They built the Coliseum in 1923 and both the Hollywood Bowl and the Rose Bowl (in nearby Pasadena) were built in 1922,” said Mark Ladd, currently director of operations and superintendent of the Hollywood Bowl, but who worked at the Coliseum, first with Contemporary Services Corporation and later for the facility itself. “Los Angeles was emerging as a significant regional area.”
The Coliseum and in particular the peristyle on its east end are early examples of the Streamline Moderne style of architecture evident at the Hollywood Bowl, he said.
“It’s been an engine for USC’s sports success,” said Ladd, who worked with some longtime Coliseum managers earlier in his career who shared with him stories of walking through the area before Exposition Park was even built. “From an economic standpoint, It’s definitely helped establish the identity of Los Angeles.”
Ladd puts the Coliseum in the class of what he terms “super-iconic venues” recognizable around the world.
“I was fortunate enough to work the 1984 Olympics (while attending USC) and thought it was wonderful the way the city did such a nice job of hosting,” he said. “It drove a lot of interest in Los Angeles and there was a pretty significant uptick in people moving here after that.”
The first event held at the Coliseum was the American Historical Review and Motion Picture Industrial Exposition, which ran July 2 to August 4, 1923, and the first football game was a 23-7 USC Trojans win against Pomona Pitzer, on October 6, 1923.
It remains to be seen if the Coliseum gets in on the action when the U.S. hosts the 2026 FIFA World Cup, perhaps as a fan fest site, and plans for the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics are still being solidified, but the Coliseum is under consideration for hosting at least some part of the ’28 opening and closing ceremonies, as it has twice in the past.
Given its history with track and field, both in the Olympics and beyond, there has been talk of installing a track over the first 14 rows of the lower bowl, according to Teresa Guy, the Coliseum’s director of booking and partnerships. The track was removed in the 1980s when the NFL Los Angeles Raiders were tenants.
If it is formally involved in ’28, the Coliseum would be the only stadium in the world to have hosted three Olympics.
“My understanding is that we’re still going be a part of the opening ceremony, kind of a passing of the torch, as it as it were, shared between us and SoFi Stadium, and then the closing ceremony,” Guy said.
She was speaking during a recent walk-through of the facility, which underwent a $300 million of renovation prior to the pandemic, with all of the 70,000-plus seats replaced by American Seating and luxury amenities upgraded.
DLR Group designed the improvements, which aimed to create a modern game-day experience while preserving the building’s traditions and heritage.
“There are now different levels of quality experiences, and prior to that there was zero premium opportunity,” Don Barnum, DLR Group principal and leader of the firm’s Sports Studio, told VenuesNow previously.
Specifically, the peristyle where Hall of Honor plaques honor the likes of Nelson Mandela, Jesse Owens, Charles Lindbergh, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, the Rev. Billy Graham, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, ‘84 Olympics chairman Peter Ueberroth and rock and roller Bruce Springsteen, the only musician commemorated.
They have all drawn crowds to the stadium, which was built with a capacity of 70,000.
These days, the stadium holds about 85,000 at full activation and between 40,000 and 60,000 for concerts, depending on the configuration.
The 2019 upgrades included Scholarship Club Tower, which put seating closer to the field and the capability to host corporate meetings, conferences, private events, weddings, tours and other revenue-generating activity.
The new club lounge and roof deck added needed luxury space befitting not only the city, but a top-level college football program like USC’s.
The views over the rim of the stadium offer a panorama that includes the Hollywood sign, the skyscrapers of downtown LA and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond.
The renovation reduced capacity from 93,000 to 77,500, making way for premium spaces while increasing legroom and chair width. Every inch of additional seat width required a 5% reduction in stadium capacity. DLR Group also designed additional aisles to eliminate 40-plus rows of regular seats.
“To bring a facility built in 1923 and to make it modern was a feat,” Coliseum Assistant GM Kevin Daly said when the renovation was complete. The improvements did not involve the building’s historic facade as regulations required that it and the peristyle remain unchanged.
New Italian travertine was installed from the same quarry as the original for refurbishing the peristyle, but the existing facade needed to remain intact, with no additions taller than the 101 feet that the press box previously stood.
“On a historic preservation, a lot of things come into what makes it a historic landmark and it is not just a view,” Barnum said. “We have to maintain that integrity.”
Like the building itself, some Coliseum events have a flair for the spectacular.
NASCAR has spent well over $1 million each of the last two years installing and removing an asphalt track for its Clash at the Coliseum, an exhibition race that opened strong in 2022, built momentum this year and is likely to return for a third year in early 2024, according to Guy. The first Supercross race was held at the stadium in 1972 and the Coliseum will host the first SuperMotocross World Championship when the Feld Motorsports event comes to town on Oct. 14, 2023.
Evel Knievel jumped 50 stacked cars at the Coliseum in 1973, just 18 months after breaking his back at the Cow Palace in San Francisco while getting run over by his Harley after another “successful” jump.
Irish Rockers U2 have played the venue multiple times. Other icons who played in the shadow of the stadium’s towering torch include The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Metallica, The Who, the Grateful Dead, Van Halen and Prince. Drake and Ye (Kanye West) played a benefit there last year. Isaac Hayes, Staples Singers and Richard Pryor were part of the historic Wattstax concert in 1972.
The Coliseum has the flexibility to stage 60,000-capacity concerts down to small or mid-sized shows in its peristyle area, which is dubbed The Torch. Live Nation recently promoted a show there the same night it had an event at nearby BMO Stadium, home of the MLS LAFC.
“We purchased a mobile Stageline stage and we started programming that a couple of years back,” Guy said. “Lil Wayne and 21 Savage were our first artists. We’re now working closely with Live Nation and Insomniac. We’ll probably end up with around 10 events this year. We have four that are currently announced.”
Guy said shows of between 5,000 to 8,000 people are in a “sweet spot” for The Torch.
“You see a lot of electronic and hip-hop artists,” she said. “Things like that they can actually sell and do work well in the general admission format.”
BMO Stadium and the Coliseum are in Exposition Park, a short distance from downtown Los Angeles and both Crypto.com Arena and the Los Angeles Convention Center, along what’s called the Figueroa (Street) Corridor.
Close to Exposition Park, which sits adjacent to the USC campus, is the university’s Galen Center arena, home of Trojans men’s and women’s basketball.
It’s all within walking distance of a stunning rose garden and the California Science Center, where the Space Shuttle Endeavour sits. Another addition to the area will be the futuristic (George) Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, due to open in 2025.
Nederlander Concerts President Alex Hodges said for all the talk of being oversaturated with venues, most of the major facilities in Los Angeles hold their own with few exceptions and Nederlander was close to putting an amphitheater-type venue in the east endzone area near the peristyle.
“We had a stage ordered, but the pandemic came along and put an end to those plans,” Hodges said.
Ladd and others praised Coliseum general manager Joe Furin and his team for being go-getters when it comes to drumming up new business.
“They haven’t sat on their hands,” said Venue Solutions Group co-founder Russ Simons, who’s done consulting work for the Coliseum a number of times. “Joe (Furin) and Kevin (Daly, Assistant GM) are out there making things happen.”
Furin said the 2019 renovation after USC took over the facility reversed decades of neglect.
“There’s only so much you can do with legacy if the building has been left behind, but once that (investment) happened, it’s been an easier discussion (when booking events),” he said. “We never would have landed Kanye and Drake. There never would be NASCAR if this place had not been renovated. The university put the money into it.”
Event organizers wanting to find the right fit for their audience and attraction perk up “once they realize this is not a neglected coliseum,” Furin says. “Interest piques and deals get done.”
An example is how NASCAR “wrapped that event around the building itself.”
“It was a historic building for a unique racing opportunity,” he said, adding that NASCAR executives saw value in the endeavor.
From the beginning, it’s been a case of the innovative and the unorthodox at the Coliseum.
In 1938, a reported 88,000 spectators turned out for the Southern California Open Ski Meet featuring a ski jump ramp built more than 50 feet higher than the rim of the stadium. Norwegian Olympic champ Birger Ruud was the featured athlete. Engineers used snow machines to cover the ramp with 500 tons of ice.
The NFL championship game was held at the Coliseum in 1951 and ’58. The MLB Los Angeles Dodgers called the Coliseum home from 1958-61 and in 1959 hosted three World Series games and the All-Star Game.
The stadium was the scene of the first Super Bowl on Jan. 15, 1967, when the NFL champion Green Bay Packers defeated the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10. It hosted Super Bowl VII on Jan. 14, 1973, when the undefeated Miami Dolphins finished the league’s only perfect season with a 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins.
LOS ANGELES, CA – January 15: Elijah Pitts #22 of the Green Bay Packers carries the ball against the Kansas City Chiefs during Super Bowl I January 15, 1967 at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. The Packers won the game 35-10. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
The Coliseum also does a number of private events, with that end of the business handled by Sacha Tani, senior sales manager.
“She came over from Universal and does all of our private events,” Guy said. “We’ve done a handful of really big ones like our Service Titan event with Brad Paisley. It took over the whole amphitheater in the peristyle area.”
But even if you aren’t trying to find a place to stage a show with flying masked wrestlers trouncing one another, a 75-minute Coliseum tour, offered Monday and Tuesdays for $20 (free for military veterans), is another way to experience the Coliseum. “People can actually walk through the facility to see 100 years of history,” Guy said.
The consensus points to a bright future.
Simons, Ladd and others think the building will celebrate its 200th anniversary come 2123.
“They have core stability with USC football,” Simons said. “They have Exposition Park, LAFC, all the cultural things. That’s a lightning rod to bring attention. They are trying things. Will all of them work? Of course not, but they are in the game.”