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Charmed Life

Old Glories

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 11/6/2002

I'm still not used to the way 33rd street looks today. It seems naked. Empty. Of course, I'm talking about the vast, grassy field that has replaced the hulking curvilinear lines of Memorial Stadium. Many folks fought to keep the storied bowl from being razed after Name for Sale Stadium was built downtown. Rallies were held. Earnest editorials were penned. But in the end, the wrecking balls won. By March of this year, Memorial was but a memory.

This backdrop of mournful loss makes the anonymous beige building at the corner of North Monroe Street and Windsor Avenue in West Baltimore all the more curious--and special. See, like the late Memorial, it was also a venerable sports venue--a place were thousands cheered. But though it still stands, time has surely dimmed the glory of the deeds once accomplished within. The building is--or was--the Baltimore Coliseum, our town's one-time home for basketball, boxing, wrestling, roller skating, and the occasional big-band concert. Today it looks like a lackluster warehouse. An elaborate neon marquee that once loomed over the door is gone. Only some peeling paint reading coliseum along the north wall indicates its former life.

The 30,000-square-foot arena opened in April 1939, with seating for 7,000 (through a combination of permanent bleachers, moving bleachers, and folding chairs). In May of '39, Tommy Dorsey brought his band to the room, inviting dancers to whirl around the polished maple floor. The Coliseum kept busy from the war years through the mid-'50s, hosting weekly boxing and wrestling nights, offering roller skating, and housing a variety of events needing plentiful indoor space. And beginning in 1947, various incarnations of the Baltimore Bullets basketball team mixed it up on the Coliseum's hardwoods as well. (Though not the NBA team we now known as the Washington Wizards, which began life in Baltimore in '63 and played in downtown's Baltimore Civic Center.)

"[The Coliseum] wasn't anything spectacular, just a great a big place that served its purpose," says 75-year-old Buddy Ey, an amateur Maryland boxing historian and retired city cop who spent many nights at the Coliseum. "Anybody who was on the boxing circuit came there. I saw all the big names. It would be packed." One notable pugilist Ey saw put 'em up was Archie Moore, a longtime light heavyweight world champion who knocked out more than 140 opponents during his lengthy career. Ey conjures up the classic old-school boxing venue: smoky, loud, and rife with gamblers.

George Kroen also spent many a night at the Coliseum in the 1950s, not for fun but for work. The 74-year-old did audio for WMAR-TV (channel 2) remote broadcasts from the venue. Tuesday nights were for wrestling, and Kroen remembers it well.

"There was Gorgeous George with his damn hair pins and women wrestlers, too," Kroen says. "One was called Slave Girl Moolah--I wouldn't want to meet her in a dark alley. They were on a circuit, like vaudeville. Come to think of it, it was vaudeville."

The Coliseum survived a two-alarm fire that swept through it in '52 (though some 1,000 pairs of roller skates stored within did not). But it couldn't survive what Ey calls the "lifestyle changes" that began to arrive around the same time. "Television came along, and you could suddenly see all these great fights on TV for nothing," Ey says. By the time the bigger, better-located Baltimore Civic Center opened in '62, the Coliseum was already on the ropes. And a fateful '63 heavyweight boxing bout--which Ey says was the Coliseum's last scrap--didn't help. That was when Wayne Bethea knocked down local boy Ernest Knox--trained by Baltimore boxing legend Eddie Mack--in the ninth round. Knox had to be carried from the ring, and he died some hours later from brain injuries.

"What a sad, sad day that was," Ey says. "[Knox] was a friend of mine."

The Coliseum largely closed up shop in the mid-'60s--limping along as a roller rink until disappearing from city phone books altogether in 1968. To find out what's been happening at the old arena since then, I turned to David Greenberg, who's owned the place for 35 years. Only, he wasn't saying much. He stressed that he was "negotiating with some people for the use of the building," but he didn't want to discuss the building's past or present. (Though he did say it once helped house the city's school bus fleet.) And as to the future? "We're considering something in the entertainment field at the present time," Greenberg says.

Calling Slave Girl Moolah. . . .

A tip o' the pen to Adam Paul (and his way-cool Web site, for help with this story.

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