Metro Phoenix's forgotten sports arena: The Phoenix Coliseum

The Phoenix Coliseum opened in 1956.
The Phoenix Coliseum opened in 1956.

Amid the Valley’s sports and entertainment venues that feature the latest whizbang technology and comforts for fans, stands their humble, overlooked predecessor — the Phoenix Coliseum.

The 8,000-seat venue opened in 1956 with the Bob Hope Variety Show starring Jane Russell, and Les Brown and his Orchestra. Three days of Western Hockey League action followed, featuring the Winnipeg Warriors and the Seattle Americans. Next was the figure skating production, "Holiday on Ice."

The Coliseum’s developer was Andrew P. Tell, who specialized in constructing and leasing industrial facilities and warehouses, including the Payne Industrial District, a 60-acre parcel west of Grand Avenue between Thomas and Indian School Roads.

Tell, an Akron, Ohio native, had the venue built at 3839 W. Indian School Road under a $500,000 lease-to-own agreement for a group of prominent Phoenix businessmen in 1956. "This was something local residents have been urging for ten years," wrote Henry Fuller, real estate editor of The Arizona Republic.

The Phoenix Coliseum opened in 1956.
The Phoenix Coliseum opened in 1956.

Designed by architect Francis W. Bricker, the building had a removable stage and 14-foot double doors at both ends to allow entry of semitrucks. The structure featured a truss-less cantilevered steel roof with a clear span of 120 feet that permitted an unobstructed view. At the time, it was believed to be the widest span ever built in the U.S.

Sporting events, theater, conventions, expositions and auto, horse and ice shows found a home at the multipurpose venue. Many of these events came to Phoenix for the first time since there was now a large enough arena to accommodate them.

After its grand opening, the Coliseum struggled, as patrons voiced disappointment over costly parking fees and an inadequate heating system. The venue closed six months later due to high operating costs and heavy debt. Tell reacquired the building from the original owners and soon hosted the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, an automobile exhibit and ice-skating shows.

But the building was to have a short life as an entertainment arena. “I have too many business irons to operate it myself,” Tell told The Republic in 1957.

After trying to sell the Coliseum to the city of Phoenix for $400,000, Tell leased it to Govway department stores in 1958. The store was an early membership-only store, a forerunner to Costco and Sam's Club, that closed in 1971. Several tenants, including Warehouse Food, occupied the building until it was converted into an indoor soccer venue in 1981. Currently, the building is called the Phoenix Sports Centre.

Tell constructed many industrial buildings in the city, but he’s perhaps best known for bringing big-time entertainment to the Valley, however briefly, in the mid-1950s with the Phoenix Coliseum.

Douglas C. Towne is the editor of Arizona Contractor & Community magazine,  

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: The Phoenix Coliseum: Arizona's forgotten sports arena