We gather here today to remember the old Coliseum not in its terminal decline, as it makes its final transformation into a parking lot, but in its Glory Days.
We mean the two biggest Glory Days of all: April 28, 1973 and April 27, 1976.
On those two days, The King played the Coliseum.
Maybe better acts have played the Coliseum; maybe more transcendent moments of art have taken place at the Coliseum, but never did the Coliseum host a bigger legend than Elvis Presley.
Sorry, Lawrence Welk and Liberace don’t hack it.
Only the Beatles and Frank Sinatra rivaled Elvis as a mass-hysteria phenomenon, and they never darkened the Barn door.
But Elvis did, and when he came, he had the magical power to induce labor. We’ll explain later.
First, to set the record straight, Elvis actually appeared three times in Spokane, but the first time was not at the Coliseum. In 1957, he swaggered his way into Spokane Memorial Stadium, a concert made notable by the fact that he ended the show by crawling on his hands and knees on a dirt track while singing “Hound Dog.
By 1973, his biggest hits were long behind him. But he was smack in the middle of his Las Vegas-showstopper phase, and ticket sales in Spokane were brisk.
“Col. Tom Parker (Elvis’ manager) called me a few days before the show and told me that sales were so good, he decided to put in a matinee,” said Coliseum manager Warren Butz. The matinee nearly sold out, too. More than 12,900 tickets were sold for both shows.
On the day of the shows, a crowd of about 50 hard-core fans gathered at Spokane International Airport to meet Elvis’ chartered jet at noon. It took them a moment to recognize him as he walked off the plane and into a waiting black limo. He was dressed all in black, and he was crowned with what the Spokane Chronicle described as a “curled-up hat.” The fans barely had time to let out a scream before he was whisked to the Ridpath Hotel, where his entourage had reserved 55 rooms on three floors.
A few hours later, his limo deposited him into the bowels of the Coliseum. His only pre-show request, according to Butz, was a tray of Cokes.
“That was his only demand,” he said. “He wasn’t like some of these so-called rock ‘n’ rollers.”
Elvis was in his performing prime that night, according to Wayne Carlson’s review in the Chronicle:
“Dressed in a bell-bottomed white outfit studded with sequins, white boots, three diamond rings on one hand and two on the other, Elvis walked to one side of the stage and then the other. He picked up his prop guitar, and left leg a’twitchin’, belted out ‘C.C. Rider.’
“Bedlam followed. … He obviously took great delight in his flamboyant, outrageous posing for the flashbulb-popping, binocular-armed throng. He danced and directed the band with gestures, arm jerks and karate chops.”
“He was such a showman,” said Jackie McWilliams of Spokane, who attended the show. “He would get a little smile on his face, as if he knew he was going to pull off something good. And then he did.”
McWilliams was impressed by his showmanship, but mostly she was impressed by his generosity. At the time, she was a 27-year-old case worker at the Good Shepherd Home, a residential center for adolescent girls with family problems or emotional problems.
“We had received a call from Col. Parker offering us 50 free tickets for the girls and staff,” said McWilliams. “We learned that Elvis and his management did this in every city, offer a package of tickets to a nonprofit agency. That, in itself, made me respect The King.”
The girls weren’t overly excited to be going - they were too young to be Elvis fans. But McWilliams remembered that Elvis deliberately played to the girls, who were sitting in a block of seats near the stage. He mugged at them, did karate chops in their direction, looked at them and gyrated his leg. The girls went wild. By the time the concert came to a close, they were converts.
So was Laurie Lordan of Spokane, who attended that concert in almost unimaginably painful circumstances. She was using tickets purchased by her sister Sally, 17, one of Elvis’ biggest fans. Sally had bought the tickets weeks before, but before she could use them, she was the victim of a tragic event. She was baby-sitting a 10-year-old boy when he shot her in the head with a .22. It was a tragedy that shook all of Spokane deeply, and especially Laurie, who was 15 at the time.
However, her parents found the tickets and insisted that Laurie and a friend use them.
“It was very hard circumstances for me,” said Lordan. “Mostly, I did it as a tribute to her. I remember really enjoying it, because I knew she loved Elvis so much. Something good came out of it. I hear his songs, and to this day, I tear up.”
What Lordan remembers most about the show were the frantic women.
“The police were all the way around the stage, and the women would scream and try to run up there,” she said. “You couldn’t even hear him sing. They were throwing themselves at the stage.”
According to Carlson, the bestreceived numbers were “American Trilogy” (a medley of “Dixie,” “All My Trials” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Suspicious Minds,” “What Now, My Love?” “You Gave Me a Mountain” and “Love Me Tender.”
“But,” wrote Carlson, “Elvis could have sung a medley of Guy Lombardo’s greatest flops and still had the audience in his bejeweled hands.”
It was the single biggest event (based on receipts) the Coliseum had ever had. The previous record, according to a Chronicle story, was a tie between Liberace and Lawrence Welk.
Three years later, in 1976, Elvis booked the Coliseum again, and when tickets went on sale it was clear that he had not lost his power to create a frenzy.
“My husband and I and three other ladies took a van down to the Coliseum parking lot and waited 18 hours for tickets,” said Linda Lewis, now a Spokane travel consultant. “I guess you could say I was a big fan.”
There were plenty of those. Here’s what Joann Gibbs wrote in the Chronicle the following day:
“Many dressed as if they had a personal date with the man. There was floor-length chiffon, satin and lace; there were jeans, too, and the Polyester Pantsuit. Men often came as Elvis look-alikes. A youngish woman told her friend, ‘I was going to wear a see-through pantsuit, but thought better of it.”’
However, a lot had changed in three years. This time, when Elvis walked onstage to the strains of “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” he was truly the Fat Elvis. He was already beginning the decline that would result in his death a little more than a year later.
“Compared to the ‘73 show, he looked really bad,” said Lewis. “He was very puffy and pale. But the show was great.”
Gibbs wrote, “The man glittered in a bejeweled black jumpsuit - maybe 30 pounds heavier than in his last appearance here - teasing (the crowd) immediately with a swivel of his famous hips, taunting their screams with minuscule movements.
“The required stampede of the stage was continual, and Elvis ritualistically wiped a sweating brow with what must have been a hundred scarves, and dropped them to women crowded at his feet. When a couple of them got a kiss, there was mass envy.”
Lewis, who was 26 at the time, was one of those lucky women who received a scarf and a kiss. She got hers for good reason. While the other women in the audience were having a cow, she was having a baby.
“I wasn’t due until May 5, and I went to the doctor the day of the show and he said, ‘This’ll be two more weeks,’ so I went to the show,” she said. “During the opening act, I went into labor. I was just sitting there, and my husband was timing me. The woman behind me was saying, ‘Just breathe.’
“One of the policemen found out what was going on, and he said, ‘We have an ambulance outside in case you have to leave in a hurry.’ I said, ‘No, I think I’ll be fine.’
“And then Elvis came onstage and one of the policemen let me go up to the foot of the stage, and Elvis looked at me said something like, ‘No, I didn’t do it,’ and then he gave me a scarf and a kiss.”
Lewis and her husband decided to make a quick retreat to their car and then to Deaconess Medical Center. Little Kevin was born about three hours later.
“We almost named him Elvis, but I didn’t think we could do that to him for the rest of his life,” said Lewis.
Meanwhile, back at the Coliseum, Elvis had completed his show. He gave a wave, promised to return and then vanished. The crowd refused to give up, screaming for an encore. It never came.
Elvis had, once and for all, left the building.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: The players Here are some of the other big names who played the Coliseum, 1954-1995, listed alphabetically: AC/DC. Aerosmith. Louis Armstrong. Gene Autry. The Bangles. Count Basie. The Beach Boys. Harry Belafonte. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Victor Borge. Boston. Garth Brooks. The Cars. Johnny Cash. Ray Charles. Cher. Maurice Chevalier. Eric Clapton. Patsy Cline. The Commodores. Bill Cosby. Crosby, Stills and Nash. John Denver. Fats Domino. The Doobie Brothers. The Eagles. Earth, Wind & Fire. Duke Ellington. Fabian. Fleetwood Mac. Judy Garland. The Grateful Dead. Billy Graham. Bill Haley and the Comets. Heart. Jimi Hendrix. Waylon Jennings. Tom Jones. Kingston Trio. The Kinks. Kiss. The Knack. Peggy Lee. Jerry Lewis. Huey Lewis and the News. Liberace. Guy Lombardo. Loretta Lynn. Barry Manilow. John Cougar Mellencamp. The Monkees. Patrice Munsel. Ricky Nelson. Willie Nelson. Nirvana. Richard Nixon. Minnie Pearl. Bonnie Raitt. Marty Robbins. Kenny Rogers. Rush. Santana. Hank Snow. George Strait. Conway Twitty. Van Halen. Lawrence Welk. Andy Williams. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
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