Thursday, 04 March 2010 18:09

CORPUS CHRISTI - On February 7, 1993 Los Dinos and their sensational lead singer recorded “Selena Live,” before an adoring crowd of hometown fans.

(The Corpus Christi Memorial Coliseum is a storied Texas venue. Our correspondent Rene Cabrera takes a look back at the highlights, the importance, and apparent upcoming demise of this top venue.)

The album, which included a collection of Selena’s top hits up to that point, was a hit across the country, and won a Grammy for the Corpus Christi native.

Same venue, go back some 14 years to

June 18, 1979; this time it’s Little Joe, Johnny y La Familia.  On that evening, the Temple native and his Tejano outfit showcased their musical might as they recorded a live album before a capacity crowd.  Called “Live For Schlitz,” and loaded with tunes like “El Potro Lobo Gatiado,” “Las Nubes,” “La Enorme Distancia,” “Margarita,” “Lonesome Me,” and others, the album is nothing less than legendary in Tejano circles.

Both of those historic performances and countless other performances by Tejano and Mexican entertainers had a venue in common: Corpus Christi Memorial Coliseum.

Opened in 1954 as a war memorial to Nueces County servicemen and women who died in WWII, and located on scenic Shoreline Drive, just across the street from Corpus Christi Bay, the Coliseum was the city’s primary venue for all manner of events: pay dances; graduation celebrations; rodeos; charreadas; car shows; you name it, the Coliseum supported it.

The Coliseum stood as a cultural icon for over half a century and helped usher in the Tejano boom of the ‘80s.  The quonset hut type building located on now prime real estate hosted the Mike Chavez Awards Show, an annual event that had its start way back in 1974 after then-DJ Mike Chavez saw that Mexican-American entertainers were being ignored by the national media and the Grammy Awards. 

Some argue that the Chavez Awards was the first awards show of its kind in the country.  On May 27, 1999 the Coliseum hosted La Mafia’s last performance before yet another capacity crowd. 

Of course, the group reconstituted itself and was back on the scene less than two years later, but the breakup was a big deal at the time. There were the annual, invitation-only dances by local teen boys and girls clubs with names like the Prima Debs, Paricutin Boys Club, The De Novo Boys Club and the Hi Fairnessee, with the huge opening clam shell from which members would appear to the music of “Exodus.”  That was magical.

In the Corpus Christi area there is no other venue that can boast its significance to Tejanos, their music and culture.  Sure, there are other, smaller, better venues, and there are larger, more modern venues, but non that have stood over time and that hosted such a variety of cultural and entertainment events. 

And just as importantly, no other memorial so well and so purely represents the appreciation of the citizens of Nueces County to those who gave their sacred lives in support of their country during WWII.

Actually, to say that The Coliseum has been an important cultural venue for South Texas is an understatement. The Coliseum and the Exposition Hall, which was an adjacent and connected dancehall, were the first indoor venues in the Corpus Christi area with large enough capacities to accommodate top tier entertainers from Mexico.  These were the now-legendary Caravanas.

Domingo Pena, a local radio personality and promoter was the leader in presenting the first Caravanas to the area.  These were the same Caravanas which were touring the entire Southwest from California, throughout Texas and the Midwest.  In those early days, fans could witness live performances by the likes of Vicente Fernandez, Lucha Villa, Yolanda Del Rio, Angelica Maria, Juan Gabriel, Luis Aguilar, Jose Alfredo Jimenez and many others for five bucks or less. 

The venues were consistently vibrant and crowded, filled to capacity, sometimes requiring intervention by the local fire department with concerns about public safety. 

“The Coliseum was a home for many, many bands and a safe place to go dancing with friends or family, said Iris Simmons, daughter of Hall of Fame bandleader Oscar Martinez.  “Dad was never home on weekends because he was always working....leading his orchestra in dances, parties, galas, and so forth. Back in 1958 when his orchestra was popular, many of the dances he played at were at the Coliseum.  On some occasions we were able to attend and were able to watch Dad at work.  Many young people found their fun dancing at the Coliseum on Friday and Saturday evenings.  Times were a little different then and hardly ever did you hear of anyone having a fight or shooting.  Both young and old people went to hear music, dance and fellowship. 

"Many boys and girls social clubs, even the Buccaneer Coronations were held at the Coliseum year after year.  Bands like Oscar Martinez & his Orchestra, Sunny & the Sunliners, The Royal Jesters, Latin Breed, Rudy Alvarado, Freddie Martinez, Carlos Guzman, Little Joe, Augustin Ramirez, Agapito Zuniga to name a few, were bands that entertained us with their music.  Oh, it was a big deal to play at the Memorial Coliseum and a bigger deal to attend the dances.  Who would ask you to dance?  Who had the prettiest dress?   Ha!  What a thrill!!”
“The building, now outdated is said to be an eyesore, but eyesore or not, this building is filled with many memories. Some people earned their family income there, some couples became engaged there, some people learned to be involved in social clubs that taught them responsibilities that could be used later in life and others just went to dance.  This so-called eye sore is filled with so many memories, it is a shame the facility is no longer open for public use.”

Sadly, El Coliseo, as many local Tejanos call it, is facing demolition starting in late March.  The building has been mostly vacant since a new venue, the American Bank Center, opened in 2004. 

Since then the Coliseum, perpetually a victim of deferred maintenance, has been allowed to totally deteriorate.  To make matters worse, vandals have broken in to cannibalize and destroy bathroom and electrical equipment.  It’s been obvious for years that Council has shown virtually no interest in preserving the Coliseum.  One cost estimate to upgrade to code, to include an A/C system, electrical upgrades and roof repairs, is something in the neighborhood of $13 million.

For years now, there has been open debate about

what to do with the building.
Most recently there was a proposition to convert it into a swim center. But the most vocal have been those who just want the building demolished.  The fact that the building is considered prime real estate gives rise to the usual question regarding personal interests, since at least one person on the Council, Mayor Joe Adame, makes his living buying and selling real estate.  

But there are other options still available. In a full-page open letter to City Manager Angel Escobar printed in the Caller Times on February 28, 2010, Mark Wolfe, the Executive Director of the Texas Historical Commission offers that the Commission has completed a review and finds that Memorial Coliseum is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places and worthy of preservation under multiple categories: its recreational, cultural, social and historical value and for its unique architecture. 

The Historical Commission strongly supports rehabilitation of the building and offers assistance and help with competitive grants from the Texas Preservation Trust Fund. No one expects a response from the City Manager. 

“It just really saddens me to see the Coliseum demolished,” said conjunto artist Linda Escobar.  “I have many memories of great dances and concerts presented there: Antonio Aguilar shows; dances of the Domingo Peña era, when the entrance from the Exposition Hall to the Coliseum was open to both venues; radio station KUNO Mother's day events; my Dad's tribute dance with Flaco Jimenez in 1987; the Veteran's Tribute event with Johnny Canales; and performances by so many great artists from Mexico.  It's a darn shame to just drop it all to the ground. I know my father (conjunto legend Eligio Escobar) would be very sad to see it gone. Darn Corpus Christi Conservatives have NO HEART,” she said.

Many Corpus Christi residents feel strongly that demolition is not an option.

The Coliseum can, and should be profitable and a resource for the people of Corpus Christi.  It’s time we ask ourselves whether this is just another 50 year old building that needs to be scrapped to make way for progress, or are we the type of people who value our culture and history and mean it when we say that we honor those who placed themselves in harms way in our defense. 

Incidentally, Council members Chesney and Leal voted against the demolition.  Mayor Adame and council members Kieschnick, Marez, Adler, Elizondo, Scott and Martinez voted to proceed with the demolition