It was a blast (literally) to be at The New Haven Coliseum - Part 1
"Think in terms of bridges burned / Think of seasons that must end / See the rivers rise and fall / They will rise and fall again / Like an Ocean to a shore / Like a river to a stream / It's the famous final scene"
"The Famous Final Scene" by Bob Seger
And indeed the final scene took place this past Saturday, as I said goodbye to a dear friend of nearly 35 years, a friend who was instrumental in changing my life, and a friend who gave me many wonderful moments of enjoyment over those years. My dear friend was the New Haven Coliseum, and after close to a five-year period of inactivity, the Connecticut structure was imploded.
I was there to witness the end, and with it came a myriad of emotions in my mind. As silly as it might sound, I had to be there. It was that important to me. I thought back to my love of sports and entertainment back when the Coliseum was to become a reality to New Haven, and how I so badly wanted to at least be on the cusp of the excitement of it all.
This structure opened up in the fall of 1972, and I had successfully applied for a job there as an usher. I looked kind of foolish in a white hat, red blazer, and blue pants. I definitely stuck out like a sore thumb. I got very lucky in the sense that I worked at the bottom of Section 7 at the Coliseum, which made me the "bad cop" as far as not allowing people past my post. Anything further than my post led to backstage, a "no-no" by definition. But it allowed me before doors opened for a particular event to just look and absorb everything that was going on. There was the New Haven Nighthawks hockey team, ice shows, the circus, and many concerts over my years there, thanks in part to a man who I met while working at the Coliseum in 1972.
We've been good friends over the years since then, and today, to me, he remains the foremost promoter of concerts—Jim Koplik. Jim and his partner Shelly Finkel (no relation) brought in all the top acts. From Aerosmith to ZZ Top (my "A to Z list"), chances are that Jim and Shelly made sure that New Haven was a stop on the artists' tours.
And there was the then World Wide Wrestling Federation, of which I was a huge fan of, watching it every week on Channel 8 (WTNH) in New Haven. I was in my glory when they made their first appearance at the Coliseum in the latter part of 1972. I got to the building early to help mark ringside chairs and was like the proverbial kid in the candy store, being that close to such stars as the legendary Gorilla Monsoon, the 1972 Rookie of the Year Tony Garea, a big, strapping rookie by the name of Chuck O'Connor, who eventually went on to prominence as Big John Studd, and the one and only Chief Jay Strongbow, an absolute master craftsman at his profession. The more I watched the events live in New Haven and on television, the more the WWWF appealed to me as something that I hoped to be a part of some day.
After more events in 1973, all of a sudden wrestling stopped playing at the Coliseum and in addition, Channel 8 stopped airing the weekly show. I held out hope in 1974 that maybe something could happen, but to no avail.
It was in the early part of 1975 that I got my first lesson in wrestling promotional mentality. Every now and then I would bother…no, I would pester then Coliseum Director Loris Smith as to why there was no wrestling in the building. He said that in talking with the WWWF powers that be, that there was no local television in the market to air the TV show. Without that TV show locally airing, it would not be prudent to attempt to run a live event— very few people would know about it.
Of course, cable TV was just in its very infantile stages then. Around that time, a UHF TV station from Long Island, N.Y., had the WWWF show on, and it came in clear as a bell every week into the New Haven area. I finally told Loris that he should tell the WWWF representative that the show does air in the New Haven area, albeit not directly, and should be made aware of it and give it another try and run a live event at the Coliseum.
Well, Loris did have a conversation with that WWWF representative, who just happened to be Vince McMahon. And in that conversation, Loris mentioned that he had under his employ an usher who was a huge fan of WWWF, and that he was nothing short of a catalyst in having him make the call. Loris told Vince about the fact that there was (in a distant way) TV in the market place. And of course, Vince, who has proven over the years to "go against the grain," decided to give a live event a whirl. He also insisted that he wanted to meet me when he got there, which I had no idea about.
So in June of 1975, the WWWF came back to New Haven, and no one could have been more excited than me. I was thrilled, and there was a very respectable crowd to welcome them back.
Before the event began, a supervisor came and asked me to come backstage for a few moments. He took me to Loris, and standing next to him was Vince. On that night, I shook hands for the very first time with Vince McMahon. He thanked me for my interest in the product, and also thanked me for my persistence to Loris Smith to bring the WWWF back to New Haven. I told Vince that if I could ever be of any further assistance to him, that I would be more than happy to do just that. We exchanged phone numbers, and I thought, wow, I have Vince McMahon's phone number! But of course, I would never want to bother him. But at that time, little did I know that that handshake would be the harbinger of things to come for me.
In subsequent conversations with Vince, I also let him know that in my high school days, I was a public address announcer for our sports events, and was not opposed to giving a try at ring announcing for him if he was ever stuck. Talk about being assertive and confident being thatI had no experience whatsoever in that field. Well, Vince called my bluff, because in 1976, I dabbled fleetingly in ring announcing some events, most notably in New Haven.
I remember vividly one event in New Haven that was held on Mother's Day, 1976. We had a late afternoon start, and the main event was Superstar Billy Graham taking on the American Dream, Dusty Rhodes. I suggested to Vince an idea of having Dusty enter the arena to the music of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely," complete with two-dozen red roses in his hand to give to the ladies at ringside on the Dream's entrance. We nearly had a riot there when Dusty came out; it seemed that an almost equal number of men were after the roses as well!
Another important date was on June 25, 1976, a year after I met Vince. That was the night when there was a gigantic event of wrestling, headlined by Bruno Sammartino vs. Stan Hansen from New York's Shea Stadium, and Muhammad Ali meeting Antonio Inoki in a mixed match from Tokyo. New Haven was selected as a site to show the event via closed-circuit television, and Mr. McMahon had me represent the company to oversee the local operation of the event.
I recall that being a very strange feeling walking into the Coliseum that night, sans usher's uniform, and being on the promotional end of an event. As an aside, a very big day back then for me was January 17, 1977, when I made my ring announcing debut in Madison Square Garden. I then began to take on more ring announcing responsibilities on a regular basis in the Garden, and also in a number of New England cities, most notably New Haven.