COLUMN ONE : L.A.'s Old Warrior Battles Back : The Coliseum, home of touchdowns, Wally Moon’s ‘Moon shots’ and JFK’s nomination, was knocked to its knees by the Jan. 17 quake. Now rebuilding is a metaphor of renewal for Angelenos.
Like a fallen fighter, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum lies busted up and immobile.
Architects and hard hats are toiling around the clock to revive it. Where January’s earthquake unleashed its fiercest blows, scores of seats are being replaced. Fissures two inches wide are being patched in walkway tunnels. The peristyle is a latticework of cracks, like the shell of a smashed egg.
The quake exposed the vulnerability of the 71-year-old stadium. For a time, it even seemed possible that the end had come--that after all the touchdowns, car races, political rallies, revival meetings, concerts and more, the Coliseum was headed the way of its Roman counterpart--into ruin.
Now, there is a pulse; it appears that in coming months the old warrior will once again struggle to its feet. Yet its future is uncertain. The Los Angeles Raiders, a vital tenant, are threatening to move. The stadium’s $35-million restoration project has become a race against the clock--on schedule, so far--to offer the Raiders and USC Trojans a home for the fall football season.
Not only are jobs and tax dollars at stake, but so are such intangible notions as history and civic identity. To many, the task of rebuilding the Coliseum is a metaphor of renewal, even self-love, in a metropolis beset by despair and calamity.
Except for the Hollywood sign, the Coliseum is perhaps Los Angeles’ most universal emblem. It is the city in microcosm: huge, imperfect, a monolith whose legacy is short but jampacked with the extraordinary. It is a place where the past lives on, where the world turned to watch, where Los Angeles strutted its best stuff and the crowds screamed and cried and lit matches in the dark for their heroes.
“It has become one of those intangibles, a symbol that is much more important than the physical realities of the place,” said Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy, sports and society at USC. “It’s there as a kind of promise--a stage of potentialities, of things that can be done.”
To generations young and old, from the city core to the most distant suburbs, the hulking gray structure is an immense jewel box of shared recollections--the place where O. J. Simpson ran for daylight, where Mary Decker fell, where Sandy Koufax struggled through early seasons of wildness.
It is where Jack Dempsey climbed into the ring against Bull Montana. It is where Bob Waterfield threw long to Tom Fears. It is where Evel Knievel came roaring down from the west rim on a motorcycle and leaped 50 cars.
Memories reach far beyond sports: Col. Charles A. Lindbergh stood before the Coliseum throngs in 1927, only months after his transatlantic crossing, and urged the city to build itself an airport.
On a sweltering summer evening in 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic nomination for President, warning of the growing Communist threat in Asia and then jumping into a blue sedan to escape the surging crowds.
“I was worried about his safety,” said Jack Tobin, 73, who was there that night as a writer for the old Los Angeles Mirror. Tobin had spoken beforehand to a police lieutenant who voiced exasperation over the young senator’s apparent disdain for crowd control. “He’s breaking all the security rules,” Tobin recalled the officer complaining. “We can’t protect him.”
Incandescent moments, now colored by time and destiny, still burn with a ghost-like afterglow in the minds of those who spun the turnstiles and walked the pedestrian tunnels. Like tangled vines, the recollections go on and on, the new overlaying the old.
Nearly lost in the undergrowth are spectacles that once galvanized the city, now so remote and outlandish that it scarcely seems possible that they happened at all.
In the waning days of World War II, 105,000 people welcomed home conquering heroes Gen. George S. Patton Jr. and Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle. Forty-two searchlights encircled the stadium, sending pillars of light into the sky to illuminate passing warplanes. Inside, land mines were detonated and tanks rolled through the noise and darkness to simulate Patton’s 3rd Army thrust toward Berlin.
After the mock battle, Patton delivered a speech peppered with obscenities, according to a Times account. “What you have just seen,” the hard-charging general boasted, “is not phantasma, but damn near reality and, God forgive me, I love that kind of war.”
Bold moments. Fiery personalities. Raucous fans. Former Dodgers pitcher Larry Sherry, the hero of Los Angeles’ first World Series in 1959, remembers how the monstrous bowl filled to the lip with more than 92,000 spectators--still the largest crowds ever to witness baseball’s showcase.
They made such a din that players had to communicate using hand signals.
In the West’s first big-time professional football game, Red Grange, the legendary “Galloping Ghost,” drew 65,270 to the Coliseum in 1926. Sonja Henie came to ice skate, Jesse Owens to run. Los Angeles stepped onto the world stage by playing host to the 1932 Summer Olympics.
Fans who stood to cheer at those events, or at countless others, often found themselves returning year after year, like members of an informal brotherhood.
Bud Furillo is one. In 1940, he was a teen-ager taking the bus to college football games. More than half a century later, the onetime Herald Examiner columnist talks with encyclopedic recall about flickering instants in time--UCLA’s Jackie Robinson going 87 yards with a punt return; Rams games that drew 100,000 in the 1950s; Mickey Mantle staring in awe as 93,000 fans lit matches in the blacked-out Coliseum, creating a surreal, pointillist tribute to Dodger Roy Campanella, who had been disabled in an auto accident.
Duke Snider. Jim Ryun. Pele. The first Super Bowl. The 14-14 tie between USC and Notre Dame in 1948, punctuated at the final gun by a jarring earthquake felt from Colorado to the Mexico border. The day that Harry S. Truman showed up in the press box, causing a radio announcer to inquire about how one should properly address a former chief executive.
Truman, fully in character, gave him hell, as Furillo recalled. “He said: ‘ Mr. President, you stupid son of a bitch!’ ”
Furillo convulsed with laughter.
“Memories? Oh, God. . . .”
As a new century opened, the juncture of what is now Figueroa Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was a hub of decadence. There was a dog track, several bars and at least one brothel.
Gussied-up in their hats and plumes, the floozies would race horse-drawn buckboards from Olvera Street south to the track, said restaurateur Julie Kohl, 93.
A Sunday school teacher--Judge William M. Bowen--tried to clean it up, joining with a USC board member to propose a stadium for university football games and civic events. Despite the failure of a $900,000 bond measure, financing was arranged; the Coliseum became chattel of the city, county and state, each represented equally on the commission that still runs it.
Completed in 1923, the structure contained enough miles of plank benches to seat 13% of the city’s population--or 76,000 people. The peristyle, designed to evoke the splendor of ancient Greek and Roman arenas, was an original feature. Eight years later, during an expansion for the Olympics that boosted seating to 102,000, outer walls were cast with sharp angles and squared-off, arch-like apertures--"probably a hybrid between neoclassical and Art Deco (architecture),” the latter then a rage in America, said Scott Field, who owns the firm founded by original architect John Parkinson.
From the outset, the Coliseum brought stupendous events to a city growing in relative isolation. Post-World War I Los Angeles did not have major league sports, or TV, or jet travel, so the populace turned its attention to what it did have: Tinseltown and USC football.
Wizards of filmmaking played bit parts in some of the Coliseum’s gaudiest extravaganzas. They joined the Shriners in 1935 in staging a electrical pageant that drew a fez-topped multitude of 115,000; disdaining a tone of idle detachment, the Los Angeles Evening Herald proclaimed it “the greatest crowd ever assembled behind walls in the history of the world.”
Who was to disagree? Civic pride ran rampant, fueled by the USC Trojans, the fabled “Thundering Herd” of Coach Howard Jones. During the 1920s and ‘30s, the Trojans won five Rose Bowls and two national championships, founding one of the richest traditions in college athletics.
Crowds reached 90,000 and 100,000. Super-fans emerged, men such as Giles Pellerin, who began going to games as an undergraduate in 1926.
Pellerin, 87, is still going. The Pasadena man has been to every USC football game, home and away, for nearly 70 years. “It’s up to 739 (games in a row) now,” Pellerin said. “When we play Notre Dame in November, the last game of the year, it’ll hit 750.”
Football became the Coliseum’s mainstay, a war of modern gladiators. The UCLA Bruins arrived in 1929 and stayed for 52 years. The Rams came west from Cleveland in 1946, winning the pro championship five years later, when Tom Fears caught a touchdown pass in the closing moments.
Among die-hard fans, such names and moments of decades past are recited like the shibboleths of some secret club. A play to remember: 1951, USC versus Stanford, a Rose Bowl berth on the line. Back for the kickoff is Stanford’s lanky Bob Mathias--already the winner, as a teen-ager yet, of Olympic gold in the decathlon. Mathias takes the ball, veers right and races 96 yards for the pivotal touchdown. A lunging Frank Gifford is the last Trojan with a chance to stop him.
Certainly Mathias has not forgotten: “Every time I see (Gifford), I say, ‘Hey Frank, you remember that ’51 game?’ He says, ‘No, I don’t.’ ”
Big games? When USC played UCLA, its intra-Coliseum rival, in 1967, a national championship was at stake. The frenzy that surrounded it was apparent to Bruins quarterback Gary Beban the moment he trottedout to warm up. “You literally could not put your foot on the (running) track because of all the cables that were there for television and radio,” Beban said, recalling also, but less fondly, two long, twisting runs by O. J. Simpson that gave USC the victory.
If there is magic to football at the Coliseum, the stadium’s former general manager, Jim Hardy, claims to have harnessed its fickle power during a game there in 1974.
USC was playing its archrival, Notre Dame. Hardy, a Trojans star from the 1940s, was watching from the press box. After Notre Dame’s first touchdown, Hardy changed seats, hoping by some sort of voodoo to bolster the Trojans’ luck. Notre Dame scored again. Hardy moved once more, to the press box roof. Notre Dame scored again. Hardy then descended to the field. Notre Dame went ahead, 24-0.
Just before halftime, Hardy found himself in the Coliseum’s west tunnel when Anthony Davis caught a pass for USC’s first score. “Physics tells us . . . that every heavenly body has an effect on every other heavenly body,” said Hardy, who therefore stayed in the tunnel for the second half kickoff.
Which Davis returned for a touchdown.
“Now there’s no way I’m going to leave the tunnel,” said Hardy, who out of devotion to the cause saw not one moment of a comeback that ranks among the greatest in football: The Trojans scored 55 points in just 17 minutes to win, 55-24, while the huge crowd rocked the old stadium as it had seldom been rocked before.
With the Coliseum a home to USC, UCLA and the Rams, the stadium was drawing 2 million fans a year in the 1950s.
Then came the Dodgers.
Brooklyn’s Boys of Summer were the first major league baseball team to move west. Configuring the giant oval stadium for baseball was a puzzle of Euclidean dimension. Under one scheme, home plate was to be placed near the peristyle, with the resulting sun problems obliterated by a movable balloon suspended on cables above the west rim.
Instead, home was placed on the opposite end, tempting right-handed batters with a short left-field fence 251 feet away. A 40-foot left-field screen was erected to make home runs more difficult. That became the diamond’s dominant feature, a looming target for power hitters like Wally Moon and his “Moon shots.”
For four years, 1958 through 1961, before moving to their own stadium, the Dodgers ushered in a bi-coastal era at the major leagues’ biggest, oddest ballpark. It was a time of Sputnik, beatniks, the pill, hot rods and, most conspicuously, transistor radios.
Fans embraced the tiny marvels. Writer Tobin noticed that he could walk from the stratospheric heights of Row 72 down to the Coliseum floor and, because of transistors, never miss a word of the Dodgers’ play-by-play.
The sound rose and became amplified, filling the stadium the way pagan chants might have filled an extinct volcano. If Vin Scully told a joke, “suddenly, you’d hear a great, good-natured chuckle out of this vast saucer,” the announcer remembered. “It was amazing . . . a strange feeling to have your voice come back to you in such a great volume.
“Whenever I think of the Coliseum, I think of the transistor radio.”
As times changed, so too did the stadium. A new scoreboard, installed in 1936, was hailed as an electronic wonder--it had 12,000 light bulbs. That gave way, two generations later, to a new wonder costing $1.6 million, but which went on the blink for months.
A huge press box was added in 1948; then came floodlights, theater seats and escalators. A year ago, the running track was removed and the field lowered by 11 feet. That made room for premium seats with better viewing angles.
Yet the improvements never seemed to be enough. Fans in higher levels still have views inferior to those in modern, multitiered stadiums. Spectators in some sections have to brush past 50 knees just to get to a snack bar--where, for decades, they could not even buy beer, a circumstance that spawned an era of bootlegging in which liquor was smuggled in via hollow walking canes, ersatz binoculars and even oranges injected with vodka.
Pressure from team owners ended Prohibition at the Coliseum in the 1971, but important tenants have since fled. The Rams departed for Anaheim in 1980, grousing over the seats, the aging escalators and other problems.
Filling the vacuum were the Raiders, who, under restless owner Al Davis, grumbled about returning to Oakland, or relocating in an empty Irwindale gravel pit. In limbo now over quake repairs and improvements, Davis is still looking elsewhere.
To run the Coliseum has never been easy, its managers point out. Not only are there demanding tenants and political pressures, but also more mundane troubles--crowds, traffic snarls, crime. When filled, the arena is a small city. Fans get sick. Toilets overflow.
In 1972, a woman was stabbed to death in a restroom. After a Raiders’ game in 1983, two gunmen locked up seven employees and absconded with bushel-size bags containing the day’s food and drink receipts: $280,000 in cash.
Over the years, the surrounding neighborhood has changed--losing its affluence, later falling into neglect. The Coliseum has felt the sting of that, despite sizable security forces and police patrols.
One night, one of the stadium’s guard dogs, a German shepherd, had puppies. While the miracle of birth was taking place near the peristyle, a drunken man scaled the fence with a hammer and smashed the scoreboard computer, causing $250,000 in damage before passing out.
“They caught the guy--he was still in there (when the damage was discovered),” recalled former general manager Hardy. “The one night in the whole bloody year that the dog is having pups, that’s the night that this guy climbs the fence and wrecks the place.”
The Coliseum’s one advantage over multitiered rivals is acoustics. It is a giant kettledrum. “The bowl effect makes the sound much better,” said Peter Luukko, an arena manager who in 1989 helped put on a show there that was one of the top-grossing rock concerts in U.S. history: Guns N’ Roses opening for the Rolling Stones.
For the first of four shows, 70,173 fans watched Mick Jagger levitate to the sky on a 100-foot elevator and wail, “Paint It Black,” a volley of reverberating Angst that had more than a few sleepless homeowners in Baldwin Hills singing the old can’t-get-no - satisfaction refrain.
Luukko was summoned to a city councilman’s office, where he was told to lower the volume.
On the premise that the Coliseum must generate adequate revenue to support itself, its governing commission grudgingly endorsed rock music and booked all manner of other events to fill idle dates. Bruce Springsteen, The Who and U-2 came to play. Pope John Paul II drew 100,000 worshipers in 1987, despite heat, metal detectors and lines so long that dozens required medical aid. The largest crowd ever, 134,254 people, saw the Rev. Billy Graham in 1963, filling the entire field and overflowing beyond the gates, where 20,000 more listened on portable speakers.
In 1967, former heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson rose from a knockdown to gain a draw with Jerry Quarry. Five years later, lightweight Chango Carmona knocked out Mando Ramos, igniting a melee that kept an ambulance from Ramos for more than 20 minutes.
In the 1970s, the stadium became an incomparable stage for motocross and off-road racing, mainly because tracks actually climbed off the arena floor and snaked through the peristyle arches. After the last arch, racers plummeted down a 70-foot ramp, all but weightless.
“It was like driving off a cliff,” said off-road driver Roger Mears, who once bumped cars at the crest and took the plunge while flipping sideways.
Behind the events were always deeper stories--sensational images, stirring conflicts that have receded like reflections in a hall of mirrors, lost in myth and broken fragments. Look there: Off-road promoter Mickey Thompson watching trucks haul in 27 million pounds of dirt for a race track. Later mired in a financial dispute, Thompson wins in court, then is shot to death--a case never solved.
Look there: A track meet in 1964, the peak of the Cold War. The United States has never beaten the Soviet Union at 10,000 meters, and there, fed to the lions, is a small, pasty, 18-year-old high school kid from Spokane, Wash. And Gerry Lindgren is not just competing, he is racing to such a commanding victory that 50,519 people are standing and screaming, not least among them Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who watches teary-eyed.
That was Rafer Johnson’s most gripping Coliseum memory until 1984, when the 1960 decathlon gold medalist was selected to carry the torch to open the stadium’s second Olympic Games. Johnson had to run half the track--he had cramped over a longer course in rehearsals--and climb scores of stairs to a rickety platform at the top of the peristyle, where he would lift the hand-held torch to ignite the great caldron above.
Johnson feared more cramps, feared not making it, feared falling. The athlete, still fit and proud at 49, watched every step. He remembers reaching that zenith and turning to face the crowd--a writhing bowlful of humanity, overwhelming his sight, bombarding his ears--while out there, all the world looked on.
And Rafer Johnson grabbed hold to steady himself.
“Right at that moment, I probably would have fallen off,” he recalled. “The impact came-- bang! --at that moment.”
Those crowds are gone now. While the contractors work their trowels and cranes, the city waits, pulling for the old fighter in large numbers--all those fans bound by memories:
Ice cream vendor Richard Aller, who sold 15-cent sodas at the Coliseum in 1959 . . . Larry Houston, 88, who was there when Paavo Nurmi drew 45,000 track fans in 1925 . . . church counselor Anna Kerr, 65, who bowed her head in Billy Graham’s record crowd--an evening, she said, when the restrooms were impossible.
The roll call goes on.
Mickey Schaffer, 75, used to sneak in as a kid to see the Trojans, and Cary Agajanian, 52, watched his uncle, Ben, kick field goals for the Rams.
Francisco Gonzalez, 16, remembers Raiders’ games and Trojans’ games, but mostly he looks ahead--to events yet to be played, to moments of glory far on the horizon, when he, too, will inspire the roar of the crowd.
“That’s my dream,” said Gonzalez, shirtless and sweaty from a sunny spring day’s tackle football game on the lawn near the peristyle. “I hope to play for the USC Trojans . . . probably go pro too. I want to play there.”