Making memories for 75 years
El Paso County Coliseum far from
retirement as city’s senior venue
for entertainment, sports
Story by Lisa Kay Tate
In just over a decade, El Pasoans have seen their entertainment and sports venues grow tremendously, from the opening of the restored Plaza Theatre in 2006 to the opening of the new Southwest University Park baseball stadium in 2014, as well as many smaller music venues like Tricky Falls or Lowbrow Palace. Now the city is in the middle of a major controversy over a proposed Downtown arena.
Before all of these, however, there was El Paso County Coliseum, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in May.
Dedicated May 21, 1942, the “Coliseum and Livestock Exposition Building” cost $321,000. The El Paso Times called the facility “the largest and finest structure of its kind in the area of the Southwest,” declaring it was “practically the same size as the one in Madison Square Garden.”
“The massive concrete and steel Coliseum is now virtually complete,” the Times enthusiastically reported. “Literally hundreds of flags, American and Texas, and plenty of bunting have been strung from the great steel network that supports the building’s roof.”
Texas Lt. Gov. H.L Windfield, who dedicated the building along with County Judge Joseph McGill, called the Coliseum “a sound investment and monument to El Paso progressiveness.”
The ceremony drew a capacity crowd of 7,000, and featured entertainment by Fort Bliss soldiers, the Texas College of Mines band, high school dance groups, Boy Scouts and other organizations.
Today, the Coliseum hosts more than 200 events annually, with an average of two million guests each year.
The Coliseum has hosted and still serves as home for rodeo, boxing, wrestling and a variety of local sports teams. As a concert venue it has welcomed some of the most popular names in live music of all genres from Latin to heavy metal to country. Elvis Presley performed at the Coliseum more than once, and Selena sold out the venue in 1994. The list of performers continues to grow each year.
The Coliseum received a $9.5 million renovation in 2004, with everything from new seating and parking, to improved air conditioning, restrooms and seating.
Nearly everyone who has lived in El Paso in the past seven decades has been to some event at the Coliseum, and even in its old age, it’s still creating memories for years to come.
Brian Kennedy, CEO and president of the El Paso Sports Commission, which manages the Coliseum, noted that its location on Paisano in south-central El Paso makes it easily accessible for patrons from both El Paso and Juárez.
“Many people from Juárez don’t want to travel too far into the United States, but when they go to events at the Coliseum, it is just to the right when they cross the border,” Kennedy said.
While most people think of the Coliseum for sports and concerts, Kennedy noted that it also serves as a venue for charity giveaways, the El Paso County Fair and youth events such as Kids & Kows & More.
“People may come and see a hockey game at the Events Center, but what they might not see is the 20,000 kids who come skating every year for field trips. Some of these kids have never been ice skating or seen a real ice rink before.”
He said these events are what help the Coliseum be more than just a venue, but be part of the border region family.
“The Coliseum is El Paso,” he said.
Kennedy said the addition of a Downtown arena shouldn’t have any affect on the Coliseum as the building will continue to serve its purpose as what he calls a “feeder building,” with a seating capacity of about 6,500, large enough to feel like a big event, but small enough so everyone can get a good view of the performer. Even the farthest seat in the Coliseum is less than 200 feet away from the artist on stage.
“What the Coliseum wants to do, and what this new building wants to do is so different,” he explained, adding the Coliseum’s size is perfect for artists who don’t need the size of the Don Haskins Center or Sun Bowl.
Kennedy noted that Latin superstars Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias, who performed together at the Don Haskins Center, have each performed on their own at the Coliseum in the past.
The Coliseum still brings in performers who could easily fill larger venues, such as Gloria Trevi and Alejandra Guzman, who both toured there in the last month. He said the Coliseum has gained a reputation as a performer-friendly venue.
“We know we’re not the biggest building or the newest building,” he said, “but we’re that building that ‘gets things done’ and is wonderful to play at.”
Having a variety of venues, Kennedy said, is the sign of a city’s progress.
“Grownup cities have options,” he explained. “They can take a look at the acts and events coming, and be able to find what works best. Some work better in smaller arenas, and some in bigger arenas.”
Home for the home teams
The Coliseum was built to host “America’s #1 Sport,” rodeo, and the first event held in the building was El Paso Sheriff’s Posse Rodeo in June 1942. The Coliseum is now managed by the private non-profit El Paso Sports Commission, whose mission is to “increase the influx of sports tourism dollars to the El Paso community through the creation of local tournaments, the enhancement of existing tournaments and by attracting regional, national and international events to the El Paso area.”
Today the Coliseum, as well as its adjunct Hospitals of Providence Events Center, its judging arena and pavilion are home to at least five sports teams, not counting the many annual and traveling sports events, including professional boxing, wrestling and bull riding.
The Coliseum’s main building hosts the city’s newest professional sports team, El Paso Coyotes indoor soccer league, and its adjunct 1,000-seat El Paso Events Center is home ice to two championship hockey teams, El Paso Rhinos, and UTEP’s Miner Hockey Club.
UTEP Hockey head coach Tom Herman said the Coliseum’s event center is a great venue for hockey.
“It’s loud,” he said, “And makes for an intimate experience for the fans because they are so close to the ice.”
The still young hockey club has already built a significant fan base, having won the Texas Collegiate Hockey Conference in just their second year as a team as well as making it into the regional finals.
Herman hopes to see even more fans come out to their home ice and support this team’s third season, which starts Oct. 13 versus Northern Arizona.
Also making its home at the Event Center is the El Paso Figure Skating Club, formerly Sun City Blades, which hosts lessons and several exhibitions throughout the year.
On the wilder side of the sports world, NEW Era Wrestling lucha libre hosts bouts every Friday at the Coliseum. Sun City Roller Girls constructs its own banked track. Roller Girls’ Teresita Lopez said the Coliseum’s size is just right.
“The Coliseum is a great venue for us because it holds our massive banked track,” she said. “The whole thing comes in about 12,000 pounds, just under six tons, and we can set up our track inside the Judging Arena, Coliseum as well as outside under the Pavilion.
Even outside of the regular seasons, sports and the Coliseum has been a perfect site for sports events for sometime. In 1976, NBA great Wilt Chamberlain played in the International Volleyball Association at the Coliseum, which was home from 1975 to 1978 to the area’s own team, El Paso-Juárez Sol.
Boxing has also been a mainstay. El Paso’s Gloves Regional Boxing Tournament celebrated its own 75th anniversary in January at the Coliseum. It hosted the notable title fight between Salvador Sanchez and Juan LaPorte in 1980, the same year Randall “Tex” Cobb won a couple of fights at the venue.
This year, El Paso native Tuff Hedeman’s 12th Championship Bull Riding at the Coliseum was a nationally televised event.
The Coliseum also saw its share of teams come and go, including El Paso Buzzards hockey from 1996 to 2003, as well as short-lived teams like El Paso Raiders hockey in 1975-76, and indoor football teams El Paso Rumble in 2004 and El Paso Generals in 2009.
Performer, audience favorite
El Paso Coliseum has built a reputation as a must-stop for among many prominent touring acts, especially in the Latin music world.
“Playing at the Coliseum is like a ‘rite of passage’ for artists,” Kennedy said. “Once the artists come here they don’t want to leave.”
Pop star Ariana Grande, who played at the Coliseum in October 2015 with guest Prince Royce, was told by other artists “you have to play at the Coliseum,” he recalled. On the day of her performance, she even arrived earlier than announced to get the feel of the place, and was very pleased with her experience.
She wasn’t the only one. Punk icons Green Day enjoyed their performance at the venue earlier this year so much they stuck around a couple of extra days just to rehearse in the facility.
Alternative metal heavyweights Nine Inch Nails even filmed part of their 2007 live concert DVD, “Beside You in Time,” at the Coliseum during their March 28, 2006 performance.
One of the greatest names ever to headline in El Paso was Elvis Presley, who brought his 1956 “All Music Show” at the Coliseum.
The performance featured Grand Old Opry star Faron Young, Jimmy and Johnny, “leading girl singer” Wanda Jackson and western artist Gordon Terry. Tickets to the event came at a hefty price of $1.50 in advance and $1.75 at the door.
“Buy now and save a quarter,” the Herald-Post said.
Presley returned to the Coliseum in 1973.
Some performances have even been notable for crowds being a little too enthusiastic. Thirty Seconds to Mars lead singer Jared Leto had his nose unintentionally broken when he ran into the crowd during the band’s aptly named “Taste of Chaos” tour at the Coliseum stop in 2007.
Other notable performances at Coliseum include Johnny Cash, Juan Gabriel, Ricky Martin, Slayer, Slipknot, Van Halen, KISS, Aerosmith, Glen Campbell, No Doubt, Alejandro Fernandez, Marc Anthony, Ana Gabriel, Pepe Aguilar, Mana, Foghat, Alice Cooper, Grateful Dead, Mötley Crüe, Judas Priest, Prophets of Rage, Lil Wayne, Nazareth, Jefferson Starship, Ozzy Osbourne, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Cheech & Chong, Electric Light Orchestra and too many more to list.
The Coliseum also hosts various music festivals, such as the Great American Rockabilly Riot, which moved to the Coliseum this year with headliners like Tiger Army. The Rio Grande Country Jam featured acts like Rodney Atkins as part of El Paso County Fair and Junior Livestock Show in September. Other unique events have included the Texas Showdown Festival tattoo fest and electronic dance party experiences like Foam Wonderland.
Where memories are made
The Coliseum, often affectionately called “The Barn” by local concertgoers, may be famous for many of the big names who have performed within its walls, but the building is also part of many area residents’ more personal memories from graduations to family events, festivals, car shows, trade shows and expos, circuses and even church and charitable fundraisers.
Many locally organized events have made use of the Coliseum in the past. Junior Woman’s Club’s Spooktacular, Hispanic Cultural Center’s Fiesta de La Flores, El Paso’s “Authentic Oktoberfest,” Generation 2K, and El Paso Comic Con are just a few home grown events to make use of the site.
“If you ask anyone who has lived in the area for sometime what their first or best memories of the Coliseum are, they will have something,” Kennedy said. Everyone has a Coliseum memory.”
For some it was their first date with their current spouse, for others it was seeing a favorite artist with friends, and others taking children and grandchildren to their first ice show or circus.
“People’s experiences start in the parking lot,” he said. “People can enjoy a good show itself, but if they encounter a bad experience before or after, that can hurt the whole memory. We want to take care of our patrons.”
Kennedy even helped with the parking himself one time, to help his staff make sure the experience is the best it can be for both the guests and the staff. In addition, plans are also underway for additional parking.
“Some people don’t realize the amount of work that goes into hosting an event,” he said, adding some days the dedicated staff work all night, long after the audience has gone home, to make sure one stage is properly taken down, and the venue is prepped and ready for entirely different event the next day.”
One of Kennedy’s own favorite memories was after a “Disney on Ice” event when he encountered an audience member, a woman in her 80s, in tears. He was at first worried something bad had happened, but that was not the case.
“She told me she was so grateful,” Kennedy said. “This was her grandchildren’s first time at an ice show, and she remembered bringing her own there for the first time as well. That is why we do what we do.”
He said he wants to make sure everyone who works with the Coliseum never forgets the importance of those memories, either.
“One thing I do each time ‘Disney on Ice,’ comes through, for example, is I tell everyone on staff during the first performance to pick any kid in the audience and watch the look on their face the first time Mickey Mouse comes out on the ice,” he said. “That is the coolest part. That look is what it’s all about.”
El Paso resident Robert Diaz, who has attended several concerts throughout the area, has a quite different favorite memory of the Coliseum. Oe of his first concerts at the Coliseum was seeing AC/DC perform on Oct. 27, 1985, for their “Fly on the Wall Tour” with opener Yngwie Malmsteen. The event, he recalled, was literally a blast.
“The band had already been playing stadiums and brought their stadium show to ‘The Barn.’ I remember just how loud it was and how it fueled the audience even more,” he said. “The encore was the song ‘For Those About to Rock.’ As the song played, two stadium-sized cannons erected from both sides of the stage. I remember thinking ‘These are not going to make it.’ The cannons actually went through the roof, which was made of old particle tiles. (Lead singer Brian Johnson) yells ‘Fire!’ Boom! The tiles start coming down onto the audience. Brian (said), yes, ‘fire’ again. BOOM! All the windows in the place shatter. By the time he sang ‘Weeeee Salute You’ it was a full-on stock riot. A great rock memory.”
Find your team
El Paso County Coliseum and its neighboring facilities at 4100 Paisano host several sports teams year round.
• El Paso Rhinos: El Paso’s Junior League ice hockey team’s home games are at Hospitals of Providence Events Center. The season runs October through March. Tickets: $5-$30. Free admission to active military with ID. Information: 479-PUCK (7825) or elpasorhinos.com.
• Miners Hockey Club: UTEP’s hockey team and 2016-17 Texas Collegiate Hockey Conference Champions host games October through February at Hospitals of Providence Events Center. Tickets: $7-$20. Information: 491-7879 or minershockey.com.
• El Paso Coyotes: El Paso’s new Major Arena Soccer League team enters its second season in October. The season opener is Saturday, Oct. 28, at the El Paso County Coliseum main building. Information: 229-1416, elpasocoyotes.com or on Facebook .
• Sun City Roller Girls: The Roller Girls’ banked track roller derby generally begins in February with a championship bout in October, plus the Naughty vs. Nice bout in November at the Coliseum’s Judging Arena. Teams are La Catrinas, Chuco Town Chulas, Las Diablas, Sexecutioners and Las Viudas Negras. Tickets: $7-$10-. Information: suncityrollergirls.com.
• New Era Wrestling: The Lucha Libre style wrestling bouts are 8 p.m. every Friday at the Coliseum’s Pavilion. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets for regular bouts: $8; $5 children. Information: 356-5113 or on Facebook at NewEraEP.
Also, public skating is 7 to 10 p.m. Fridays, noon to 3 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Event Center next to the Coliseum, 4100 Paisano. All ages welcome. Times may vary on days of hockey games. Admission: $10; $8 military (skate rental included). Information: 479-PUCK (7825) or elpasohockey.org.
Copyright 2017 by Cristo Rey Communications