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Haunting images show the abandoned Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis

The day the music died: Haunting images capture what’s left of the abandoned Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis – which once hosted Elvis and The Beatles – but now faces the wrecking ball

  • Photographer Leland Kent, who founded the blog Abandoned Southeast, has given a behind-the-scenes look inside the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee, the city’s first racially desegregated public building 
  • The landmark venue is one of only eleven places in the world that hosted performances from both The Beatles and Elvis Presley
  • Other A-list musicians who have performed there include Prince, Frank Sinatra, Van Halen, Ike and Tina Turner, Ozzy Osborne, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Jay-Z, Michael Jackson, and Celine Dion 
  • The storied arena also held sporting events, meetings, conventions, and banquets, which led to it being touted as ‘The Entertainment Capitol of the Mid-South’
  • Kent photographed both the outside and inside of the empty Mid-South Coliseum, which still has bottles and cans of beer leftover in the refrigerators at the abandoned concession stands 
  • Mayor Jim Strickland announced plans last week to tear down the landmark building and build a new stadium for the Memphis 901 FC soccer team in its place 

Haunting images capture what remains of an abandoned indoor arena in Memphis, Tennessee, as the building once known as ‘The Entertainment Capitol of the Mid-South’ faces demolition. 

Photographer Leland Kent, who founded the blog Abandoned Southeast, has given a behind-the-scenes look inside the historic Mid-South Coliseum — the city’s first racially desegregated public building. 

The storied venue is one of only eleven places in the world that hosted performances from both The Beatles and Elvis Presley.

Despite its rich history, Mayor Jim Strickland announced plans last week to tear down the landmark building and build a new stadium for the Memphis 901 FC soccer team in its place. 

Photographer Leland Kent, who founded the blog Abandoned Southeast, has given a behind-the-scenes look inside the abandoned Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee

Mayor Jim Strickland announced plans last week to tear down the landmark building and build a new stadium for the Memphis 901 FC soccer team in its place

The Mid-South Coliseum was in development for several years before it was opened in the fall of 1964. It was the city’s first racially desegregated public building

Kent photographed both the outside and inside of the Mid-South Coliseum, which the city has been using for storage since the venue closed in 2006. 

In the center of the arena, there are piles of boxes and other miscellaneous items, including a speed boat. 

One image shows packets of Houston’s salted peanuts that were left on the counter. A hole in one of the bags suggests that mice had chewed through the plastic. 

There are still bottles and cans of beer left in a refrigerator at one of the abandoned concession stands.  

The Mid-South Coliseum was in development for several years before it was opened in the fall of 1964. The mid-century design was a collaboration between two architectural firms — Furbringer and Ehrman and Robert Lee Hall & Associates. 

The Mid-South Coliseum was one of the stops on The Beatles’ final American tour in 1966 (pictured). The landmark venue one of only eleven places in the world that hosted performances from both The Beatles and Elvis Presley

Presley’s first performance at the arena (pictured on stage) was on March 16, 1974, and his last was on July 5, 1976

The storied arena also held meetings, conventions, banquets, and sporting events, making it an entertainment hotspot in the city. It served as home for the United States Wrestling Association (USWA) and its predecessors

‘The 9,200-seat facility was designed with modern power and lighting systems, fire and smoke detection, sound systems, as well as radio and television systems,’ Kent explained on his blog. 

The photographer noted it was ‘the first public auditorium in Memphis to be planned as an integrated facility rather than a “separate but equal” segregated building.’  

Performances were held for integrated audiences as soon as the venue opened, and there weren’t any signs advising segregation. 

The Ringling Brothers Circus was the first event to be held at the Mid-South Coliseum followed by the Goodwill Revue. Brook Benton headlined the stage show on November 28, 1964, which was sponsored by the WDIA, the first radio station programmed entirely for African Americans.

Kent said that other notable artists included Dee Clark, Johnny Nash, The Marvelettes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Otis Redding, who was mostly an unknown talent at the time. 

Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler’s decades-long feud with the comedian Andy Kaufman (pictured)  started at the arena after their wrestling match ended in disqualification in 1982

‘It began one of the greatest ruses of all time with two men who captivated a city and puzzled the nation. Kaufman pushed the envelope of performance art on a real-time stage. His whole wrestling persona was performance art at its peak – inside and outside of the ring,’ Kent wrote on his blog 

Kaufman was lying in the middle of the ring when he insisted on paying roughly $250 for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. He was carried away on a stretcher, wearing a neck brace

An estimated 12,600 to 13,500 people attended the WDIA concert, and it held a Memphis attendance record for a single concert event for many years, according to the blogger. 

The Mid-South Coliseum was one of the stops on The Beatles’ final American tour in 1966. The concert was met with protests from the Klu Klux Klan, and there were also death threats issued against the band, but the show still went on. 

Presley performed at the arena on March 16, 1974. It was his first concert in Memphis since 1961. He returned to the Coliseum four days later and recorded his live album ‘Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis.’

The singer also hosted concerts at the Coliseum on June 10, 1975, and July 5, 1976, which marked his last performance at the venue. 

Other A-list musicians who have performed there include Prince, Frank Sinatra, Van Halen, Ike and Tina Turner, Ozzy Osborne, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Jay-Z, Michael Jackson and The Jacksons, and Celine Dion. 

‘Of all the performing artists that graced the stage at the Mid-South Coliseum, James Brown played more concerts than anyone else,’ Kent said. 

Other A-list musicians who have performed at the now-abandoned arena include Prince, Frank Sinatra, Van Halen, Ike and Tina Turner, Ozzy Osborne, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Jay-Z, Michael Jackson and The Jacksons, and Celine Dion

‘Of all the performing artists that graced the stage at the Mid-South Coliseum, James Brown played more concerts than anyone else,’ Kent said

Kent photographed both the outside and inside of the Mid-South Coliseum, which the city has been using for storage since the venue closed in 2006

In addition to concerts, the venue held sporting events, meetings, conventions, and banquets, making it the go-to entertainment hotspot in Memphis at the time. 

The city’s first professional ice hockey team, the Memphis Wings, an affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, held all of their games at the Coliseum. 

The arena also served as a regular home court for the NBA’s St. Louis [now Atlanta] Hawks from 1965 to 1966. 

‘These games afforded residents an exceedingly rare opportunity in those days in Memphis of viewing basketball teams with both white and black members on the same team,’ Kent explained. 

In the photographer’s blog post, he noted that the Coliseum was ‘well known for professional wrestling as the home for the United States Wrestling Association (USWA) and its predecessors.’

‘Memphis wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler headlined hundreds of shows at the facility, where they held weekly wrestling shows that regularly drew over 10,000 people from 1970 to 1991,’ he said. 

Kent, who is known for photographing abandoned and forgotten places in the Southeast, captured the empty concession stands inside the arena

One image shows packets of Houston’s salted peanuts that were left on the counter. A hole in one of the bags suggests that mice had chewed through the plastic

There are still bottles and cans of beer left in a refrigerator at one of the abandoned concession stands

Kent recalled how Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler’s decades-long feud with the comedian Andy Kaufman started at the arena after their wrestling match ended in disqualification in 1982.  

‘Once the bell chimed, Kaufman played his cowardly heel persona, running around the ring to avoid Lawler. A frustrated Lawler, the city’s heroic champion, grabbed a microphone and asked Kaufman if he came to wrestle or be an a**, which caused the crowd to erupt in cheers,’ Kent recalled. 

‘It began one of the greatest ruses of all time with two men who captivated a city and puzzled the nation. Kaufman pushed the envelope of performance art on a real-time stage. His whole wrestling persona was performance art at its peak — inside and outside of the ring.

‘He wanted to be the biggest heel character he could be and make everyone in the city hate him, and he did it. Kaufman’s antics would later be immortalized in the R.E.M. song “Man on the Moon” and in a 1999 Jim Carrey movie by the same name.’ 

Kaufman was lying in the middle of the ring when he insisted on paying roughly $250 for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. He was carried away on a stretcher, wearing a neck brace. 

‘The incident would become the impetus for a feud that culminated with the two appearing together on Late Night with David Letterman a few months later,’ Kent explained. 

The arena was touted as ‘The Entertainment Capitol of the Mid-South’ in its heyday 

The building was designed with modern power and lighting systems, fire and smoke detection, and sound systems

The 9,200-seat facility is able to hold roughly 12,000 to 13,000 people 

The two wrestlers broke out into a fight during the segment, which was later revealed to be staged. Lawler slapped Kauffman, leading him to shout profanities and throw coffee at his nemesis before storming out of the studio.  

‘The act is largely credited with giving rise to modern-day professional wrestling,’ Kent said of their late-night show antics. 

Two years later, Kauffman died from lung cancer at age 35 at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

The Mid-South Coliseum also served as a center for political debates in Memphis. 

The People’s Convention convened at the venue on April 27, 1991, to select a black candidate for mayor. Dr. W. W. Herenton was chosen to run, and he went on to defeat incumbent Dick Hackett by 146 votes, becoming the first elected black mayor of Memphis

‘The watershed event at the Coliseum marked the beginning of the black leadership of Memphis,’ Kent said. ‘After 172 years, black citizens would lead the city they had built and shaped.’

Kent explained on his blog that a ‘system of catwalks above the dome ceiling was erected to provide maintenance for the lighting system’

The rust-colored folded chairs are embossed with the now-defunct arena’s name 

The mid-century design was a collaboration between two architectural firms – Furbringer and Ehrman and Robert Lee Hall & Associates

After nearly three decades, the Mid-South Coliseum faced its first significant competitor when the 20,000-seat Pyramid Arena opened in November 1991.

The Memphis State [now University of Memphis] Tigers ended up leaving the Coliseum for the Pyramid because of its larger capacity, but both venues managed to coexist after the opening. 

‘The Coliseum carried financial surpluses until the late 1990s when the minor league hockey team, the RiverKings, announced its move to the new DeSoto Civic Center Arena [later known as the Landers Center] for the 2000 season,’ Kent said. 

‘The Vancouver Grizzlies relocated to Memphis in 2001 and became the Memphis Grizzlies. As part of the relocation package, the City of Memphis agreed to build a new arena, later named the FedEx Forum, which the Grizzlies agreed to manage.

‘The city and the Grizzlies agreed to a non-competition covenant which gave the Grizzlies a say in which events would be allowed at the Pyramid and the Coliseum. Adding to the competition from the extra seats at the Forum and the Pyramid, a contract clause restricts the Coliseum’s freedom to host events.

‘In 2005, the Department of Justice settled with the City of Memphis to remediate Americans with Disabilities Act violations in its facilities, including the Mid-South Coliseum.’

The interior of the arena still has terrazzo floors, tile walls, metal stair balusters, and its original seating

After nearly three decades, the Mid-South Coliseum faced its first significant competitor when the 20,000-seat Pyramid Arena opened in November 1991

 The Coliseum struggled to compete with the other entertainment venues in the area and was operating in the red when the City of Memphis closed the historic arena to the public that year

In the center of the arena, there are now piles of boxes and other miscellaneous items, including a speed boat

The venue’s last show was a Widespread Panic concert on July 29, 2006. 

The Coliseum struggled to compete with the other entertainment venues in the area and was operating in the red when the City of Memphis closed the historic arena to the public that year.

Kent said ‘the roughly 24,000-square-foot arena floor has since served as a storage facility for the City of Memphis.’

In 2014, the Mid-South Coliseum was facing demolition when activists formed the Coliseum Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to saving and reopening the arena. 

‘The group has worked for the last seven years to establish the widely popular and legal, financial, political, and architectural case for its reopening,’ Kent said. 

In 2020, entrepreneur Christopher Reyes used the Mid-South Coliseum to create a Baron Von Opperbean virtual reality playground concept during the pandemic that entertained sold-out crowds. 

The Coalition is now fighting against Mayor Strickland’s recent proposal to tear down the venue and build a new stadium for the city’s soccer team. 

In 2014, the Mid-South Coliseum was facing demolition when activists formed the Coliseum Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to saving and reopening the arena

The Coalition is now fighting against Mayor Strickland’s recent proposal to tear down the venue and build a new stadium for the city’s soccer team

Coalition co-founder Marvin Stockwell believes the city should have a new soccer stadium and see the Mid-South Coliseum returned to its former glory

The $684 million project would also involve renovating three other venues: FedEx Forum, AutoZone Park, and Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium at the old Mid-South Fairgrounds.

‘The City of Memphis is asking the state to contribute $350 million to the ambitious project, which the mayor believes, would help retain the city’s pro sports teams and give Memphis an economic boost,’ Kent explained. 

‘The mayor estimates the four projects would have a one-time $1.3 billion impact. The scope of the renovations would vary by venue. The plan calls for extensive renovations for FedEx Forum and Liberty Stadium.

‘The Coliseum Coalition disagrees with Mayor Strickland’s proposal and noted the City of Memphis could save $10 million by not demolishing the mid-century building and building a new soccer stadium at a different site.’

The advocacy group has argued that the building is in excellent shape, citing two separate assessments, including one done by the city of Memphis. 

Coalition co-founder Marvin Stockwell believes the city should have a new soccer stadium and see the Mid-South Coliseum returned to its former glory. 

‘Memphis deserves both. We deserve a great soccer stadium and a reopened Mid-South Coliseum. I don’t see why we can’t have both,’ he told FOX13 Memphis. The Mid-South Coliseum was the cultural heart of Memphis for many years.’

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