On the east side of the Willamette River is a former NBA arena that, back when it opened in 1960, city leaders initially considered calling it The Glass Palace. It’s one of only two sites in Oregon to be designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but it also was nearly demolished in 2009 for a minor league baseball stadium.
Originally it was called Portland Memorial Coliseum. In 2011 it was rebranded as Veterans Memorial Coliseum. But to most of us, it’s simply Memorial Coliseum or, better yet, the Coliseum.
This is a one-of-a-kind work of midcentury modern architecture, designed by one of America’s most acclaimed architecture firms: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It’s double the size of a Portland city block yet, remarkably, stands on just four columns. Best of all, when the curtain atop its seating bowl is opened, this is perhaps the only arena in the world with a 360-degree view to the outside (even if, sadly, few have experienced it that way). This is also only arena with a parade running through it: the annual Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade.
Most of all, though, Memorial Coliseum is an incredible parade of legendary performers. Especially during its first 25 years, this was the place where nearly every big star who came to Portland performed.
Musically, we have to start with The Beatles, who performed two shows at Memorial Coliseum on August 22, 1965. The band’s album Help had been released earlier that month, and the accompanying movie was set for release just three days after the concert.
John Lennon actually kissed the ground when the band arrived in Portland. Earlier that morning, their flight from Minneapolis-Saint Paul had seen one of the plane’s engine catch fire. The plane landed without incident, but it had shaken Lennon, who was also was heard to shout, “Beatles, women and children first!”
The band performed two shows at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum before a total of 20,000 people, including my mother, who ordered her tickets by mail (priced from $4 to $6) and attended the matinee. Also there in the audience was one of the most famous American poets of the 20th century, Allen Ginsberg, who wrote a poem called “Portland Coliseum” about the experience:
A single whistling sound of ten thousand children’s
pierce the ears
and following up the belly
bliss the moment arrived
Later in the same poem, Ginsberg added:
The million children
the thousand words
bounce in their seats, bash
each other’s sides, press
legs together nervous
Scream again & clap-hand
become one Animal
in the New World Auditorium
Sixties Hit Parade
The Beatles were just the start.
The Rolling Stones’ Memorial Coliseum concert in 1966 was the 24th in a 30-city tour supporting their album Aftermath. The Beach Boys who played at Memorial Coliseum a month afterward the Stones and, more importantly, just three months after the release of the band’s masterpiece, Pet Sounds. This acclaimed studio album had been possible because the band’s resident-genius songwriter, Brian Wilson, had stopped touring in 1964, meaning the angelic voice of songs like “God Only Knows” was absent from the Coliseum stage. Luckily, though, a previous Beach Boys’ concert at Memorial Coliseum, in 1963, did include Wilson.
Perhaps the two most iconic R&B artists of the 1960s, Ray Charles and James Brown, played at the Coliseum in 1961 and 1963, respectively. Brown’s show came just after his first Top 20 pop hit, “Prisoner of Love,” had been released.
We mustn’t forget country star Johnny Cash. When the so-called Man in Black played the Coliseum in 1965, it was just a year after the release of his classic song “I Walk The Line.”
In 1967 two more seminal rock bands, The Who and The Doors performed in the Glass Palace. Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and company were there promoting The Who Sell Out, and the album’s biggest hit—“I Can See For Miles”—is particularly appropriate for an arena where you can watch the sun set from inside. The Doors were at perhaps the zenith of their popularity while visiting, having released their first two albums that year, including hits like “Light My Fire.”
The all-too-short career of the great Jimi Hendrix thankfully included a stop at Memorial Coliseum in 1968. Just three years earlier, a then-unknown Hendrix had played at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom as a guitarist in Little Richard’s touring band. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Coliseum performance came it was a month before the release of Hendrix’s third and final studio album, Electric Ladyland. That same year, the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin, promoting her biggest hit: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
We haven’t even mentioned sports yet. In 1965 Memorial Coliseum hosted college basketball’s national semifinals, better known as Final Four. That year the two top-ranked teams going into the tournament, Michigan and UCLA, met in the final, with John Wooden’s Bruins prevailing. But the Glass Palace’s biggest sporting moments were still to come.
Spirit of ‘77
The Coliseum’s heyday was arguably not the Sixties but the Seventies, featuring the tops of both the entertainment and sporting worlds.
In 1972, motorcycle-riding daredevil Evel Knievel successfully jumped 12 cars and two vans with his Harley-Davidson XR-750. It was Knievel’s 13th jump of that year and, as that unlucky number may have foreshadowed, a broken hand during the landing assured it was his last.
In 1977 came by far the greatest and most beloved moment in Portland sports history: when the Portland Trail Blazers, born as an expansion franchise just seven years earlier, defeated the heavily-favored Philadelphia 76ers to take NBA championship.
No one had predicted the team would reach such heights, but this was a rare season when future Hall of Fame center Bill Walton was able to stay healthy—in large part thanks to the acquisition of legendary forward Maurice Lucas, who became the brilliant-yet-brittle Walton’s protector.
In the 1977 Finals, the Blazers faced perhaps the most dynamic player in professional basketball, Julius “Dr. J” Irving, and subsequently lost the first two games in Philadelphia. At that time, only one other team in NBA history had come back from an )-2 deficit to win the title. But the Blazers to win four in a row, three of four of which were at Memorial Coliseum, including the title-clinching Game 6, a narrow 109-107 win.
The next season, Portland was even better, with Walton winning the league’s MVP trophy and the team 50 wins in their first 60 games. But then Cinderella’s night at the ball was over: Walton got injured, and he pretty much stayed injured for the majority of his career. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam even wrote a classic book about the downfall, The Breaks of the Game. Even so: while the moment at the top was fleeting, the 1976-77 Trail Blazers continue to inspire.
The Seventies Stage
Throughout the Seventies, iconic music acts continually arrived. 1970 alone saw Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley take the Memorial Coliseum stage. Zeppelin’s show was to promote its seminal second album, including songs like “Whole Lotta Love.” Elvis’s performance was one year into a comeback, not to mention the point at which he began wearing jumpsuits and capes. Ike & Tina Turner’s 1972 Coliseum concert came just two months after a Grammy award for their version of “Proud Mary.” Pink Floyd’s 1972 concert was only about five months before their classic album Dark Side of the Moon was released.
When Michael Jackson appeared at Memorial Coliseum in 1973 with the Jackson 5, he had just scored his first chart-topping solo hit, “Ben.” That same year, The Grateful Dead played the first of four Coliseum shows. Elton J was there in 1973 and 1974: the height of his stardom. Frank Sinatra’s 1975 Coliseum concert came on the heels a comeback, while David Bowie by the time of his 1976 show had emerged from his glam-rock Ziggy Stardust period and had just released the classic album Station to Station.
Fleetwood Mac played the Coliseum in 1977 exactly seven months after the release of their seminal album Rumors. That same year, Marvin Gaye played the Glass Palace in support of his chart-topping single “Got To Give It Up.” Bob Dylan’s 1978 show came at the end of nearly four straight years of touring. Shortly afterward he converted to Christianity and for the next four years only recorded only religious music. At the other end of the pop-music spectrum, The Bee Gees performed two sold-out concerts at Memorial Coliseum in the summer of 1979, fresh off hits like “Stayin’ Alive.”
Drexler, Jordan, Magic, Shaq
The 1980s saw the Portland Trail Blazers perennially in contention, thanks in large part to future Hall of Fame guard Clyde Drexler. Over the course of the decade, the team inched closer and closer to the NBA Finals. In 1989, the team rode its raucous home-court advantage all the way to a championship bout with the Detroit Pistons, led by Hall of Fame guards Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Portland lost the series, including all three games at the Coliseum, as part of a three-year run of championship-caliber Blazer teams. In 1990-91 they finished with the NBA’s best regular-season record but succumbed to Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. In 1991-92, Drexler and company returned to the Finals for the third time in team history, but Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls defeated Portland in six games.
In 1992, the Coliseum hosted the first-ever game played by the “Dream Team” when professional players were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. The United States starting five in the first game was Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley. Drexler received a standing ovation as the first player off the bench. America defeated Cuba that day by 79 points.
Just four days before the first Dream Team game, Memorial Coliseum hosted the NBA Draft for the first and only time. Another future Hall of Fame member, Shaquille O’Neal, was the first pick.
Still Red Hot
In the 1980s and the first half of the ‘90s, big concerts kept on coming: Queen in 1980 and 1982, Diana Ross in 1983, Stevie Wonder in 1986. Billy Joel and The Grateful Dead each played the Coliseum on three occasions that decade, and Van Halen four different times. As heavy metal took hold in the Eighties, a host of spandex-clad bands began to appear: Mötley Crüe, The Scorpions, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Metallica. In 1987, it was singer Whitney Houston appeared in support of her second album, Whitney, boasting four #1 singles.
By 1995, Memorial Coliseum was suddenly no longer the big arena in town, as the Rose Garden arena opened next door, taking the Trail Blazers with them and offering about 7,000 more seats than the Coliseum’s 12,000 capacity. That didn’t sway a bunch of familiar names from appearing on stage at the Glass Palace after ’95, however: Prince, Tom Petty, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, Green Day, Foo Fighters, Jay-Z.
Two Historic Leaders
In the early 21st century, two of the most famous names to take the Memorial Coliseum stage were not musicians or athletes. In 2001, the Dalai Lama spoke to 10,000 enrapt guests at the Coliseum. His talk followed a whirlwind of activity across the city, including an address before 25,000 at Pioneer Courthouse Square.
In March of 2008, Senator Barack Obama made his first speech in Portland, before 13,000 at the Coliseum. It was three months before Obama secured the Democratic nomination, and 10 months before he became President of the United States. He remains the only American president to have spoken at the arena.
In 2009 the City of Portland announced that the arena would be torn down in order to make way for a minor-league baseball stadium for the Portland Beavers. The team had been kicked out of its longtime home, Civic Stadium (now Providence Park), because the Portland Timbers soccer franchise was joining Major League Soccer, which required converting to a soccer-only stadium. But after public opposition led by the newly formed Friends of Memorial Coliseum, Adams reversed course. Instead, he convened a Stakeholder Advisory Committee to determine future uses. But eventually a third-party economic study found that no single use was as valuable as a multi-use arena. But a 2012 plan to restore the building did not come to fruition.
Memorial Coliseum had always been a veterans’ memorial, with sunken gardens at the entrance displaying the names of Portlanders killed in World War II and the Korean War. Veterans had also rallied to help save the building from demolition in 2009, including former Oregon Governor Victor Atiyeh. With that in mind, in 2011 local veterans’ organizations successfully lobbied the City of Portland to change the arena’s name to Veterans Memorial Coliseum (not to be confused with a Phoenix arena of the same name).
In 2015, the Coliseum was again threatened with demolition, this time when City Council considered tearing down the arena for affordable housing. Subsequent analysis found the site was ill-suited for that purpose, and the measure was defeated. But after being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, the Coliseum in 2016 was named a National Treasure by the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation. While the Coliseum is still awaiting a full-scale restoration, the city has made a continuing series of upgrades, totaling about $13 million over the past decade, including upgraded concessions, a reconfigured entrance, and a new roof.
What’s more important, though, is that the storm of demolition threats seems to have passed, and the Coliseum’s status as a beloved landmark is secure. Normally arenas like this never last this long. Most all arenas and stadiums are torn down within a few decades of their construction. Yet like the Rose Bowl, Wrigley Field and a few other gems, Memorial Coliseum is transcendent.