Slap Shots & Elvis & Bad Guys & Jesus: The Story Behind That Famous Charlotte Coliseum Marquee
If ever the marquee of a performance venue could capture the contradictory, heat-struck culture of 1970s Charlotte, this was surely it. This photo has become a piece of Charlotte iconography: four acts that don’t seem to belong in the same galaxy, much less the same arena. But they all fit into the old Charlotte Coliseum, and they left a lot of stories behind, even if Billy Graham never got a chance to wrestle Elvis
Led Zeppelin called them houses of the holy; urban planners refer to them as multipurpose arena facilities. Charlotte’s longest-standing local example, on Independence Boulevard, is now called Bojangles Coliseum. But for decades, it was just Charlotte Coliseum. When the building opened in 1955, its tin roof was the largest unsupported dome in the world. The Coliseum gave Charlotte a modern venue for one of the oldest human needs: to gather.
Crowds might be drawn by healing or hostility, by entertainment or enlightenment, by the Bible or body-slams. Judy Garland performed there. So did Zeppelin, twice. And in one amazing two-week period in April 1972, the Coliseum hosted four staggeringly disparate attractions: the Billy Graham Crusade for Christ; an evening of professional wrestling that included a heavyweight title bout; the Charlotte Checkers hockey team playing for a minor-league championship; and Elvis Presley.
The photograph of the marquee that displayed those four headliners has become iconic in Charlotte, and not just because its top three lines form a coherent phrase: “Billy Graham Crusade wrestling Elvis Presley,” as if the preacher and the singer were facing off in a grudge match. It’s a snapshot of a city on the verge of transition. As David Bruce, executive vice president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, cheerfully says, “My goodness, the cultural mix of 1972 in Charlotte.” Sitting in his tastefully appointed office in Montreat, Bruce shakes his head. “The largest city in North Carolina, but still, in some ways, a sleepy Southern town that hadn’t blossomed.”
I wanted to know more about the history of that sequence of bookings 50 years ago, so I interviewed a half-dozen people tied in some way to that fortnight’s events—who attended, performed, worked the shows, or knew those who did. I also dove into The Charlotte Observer’s archive and the Mid-Atlantic Gateway wrestling website. (The best incidental discoveries: a newspaper ad for the first ATM in North Carolina and the headline “Motorcycle Clubhouse Set On Fire.”)
In April 1972, the aroma of changing times and clashing tribes filled the air, outside and inside the arena. On the first night of the Crusade, two banners hung beside each other in the Coliseum. One read, “Jesus says I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. John 14:6.” The other proclaimed, “Charlotte Checkers, Eastern Hockey League Southern Division Champions 1970-71.”
One usher muttered to another, “Those Checkers don’t miss a trick, do they?”
“How did Jesus overcome the devil?” Billy Graham asked a capacity crowd. “By arguing? No. By debating? No. He quoted Scripture!”
Graham, in fact, did a lot of arguing and debating during his five sermons at the Coliseum. He inveighed against expected targets, such as atheism and pornography, but also some surprising ones, like dune-buggy racing. Although his speeches were aimed at mass audiences, both in person and on TV, he made erudite references to Lord Byron and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
For five days, the Coliseum was filled with people who hung on the star evangelist’s every word: mostly white, mostly clean-cut, mostly arriving in chartered church buses and wearing their Sunday best. The building was filled to capacity—latecomers would burst into tears when they found out there were no more seats. But the overflow crowd was sent to adjoining Ovens Auditorium, where the Crusade aired on closed-circuit television. (Excerpts of each night were also packaged into hourlong TV shows.) In both buildings, thousands heard a program that began with music, highlighted by a 1,500-voice choir that solemnly worked its way through stately hymns like “When We Walk with the Lord.”
Each program included a different guest speaker—Miami Dolphins offensive tackle and future two-time Super Bowl champion Norm Evans, for example, or Ray Hildebrand, writer and performer of the 1962 No. 1 single “Hey Paula”—who related how Jesus Christ had changed his life. The 53-year-old Billy Graham would then stride to the lectern, brandishing a Bible in his left hand. He had a ruddy face and was blandly handsome, like the chief surgeon on a TV medical drama. He spoke with a drawl, balanced with precise articulation when he wanted to emphasize a point. He gestured with both hands simultaneously, as if he was trying to contain the Holy Spirit between his palms.
In those days, by the time Graham spoke in a city, his staff had done months of work to arrange logistics and prepare thick briefing books on local issues. “One of the more difficult places for him to preach was Charlotte, because this was his hometown,” Bruce says. “His family, friends from school, those who taught him—they were still alive.”
Graham considered himself a New Testament evangelist, which meant that his job as he saw it was narrow compared to a pastor who preached every Sunday: He wanted to lead nonreligious people to Jesus, like a less profane version of a closer in Glengarry Glen Ross. He would, nevertheless, wander into textual exegesis—one night, a lengthy but fascinating discussion of the symbolism of fire in the Bible—and hot political takes. “I love the young people of this generation. I can see why a lot of them have rebelled,” he told the crowd. “They have rebelled against the hypocrisies they’ve seen in us.”
At the end of each sermon, he would exhort the crowd to commit publicly to Christ: “I’m going to ask hundreds of you to get up out of your seat—men, women, young people—and come and stand in front of the platform and say tonight, ‘I want Christ to be my rock. I want him to be my Lord and my savior. I want him to forgive my past sins. I want to know that I have eternal life.’”
Throngs would file down the concrete stairs, make their way through the aisles, and pool in front of the stage, where volunteers (mostly members of the choir doing double duty) greeted them. The Graham team counted 4,709 pledges of faith from 72,000 attendees across the four evenings and one afternoon. (Five sessions made it a mini-Crusade by Graham’s standards: In 1957, he had preached for 99 nights in 16 weeks at Madison Square Garden in New York City.) The new converts would give their names and addresses, which were passed on to the local churches that had invited Graham.
“A lot of my friends have turned to Jesus, and I really just came to see what it’s like,” said David Sawyer, a 15-year-old in a denim jacket who had just taken the pledge. “I think I’m closer to God now.”
A 30-year-old man suspended in a cage from the Coliseum’s roof, mocking everyone below him: That was blockbuster entertainment as presented by Jim Crockett Sr.
“My father promoted everything from big bands to roller derby,” says David Crockett. “Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, Holiday on Ice, Superman and Lassie—that was a turkey. He had a handshake deal for 72 dates a year on the Harlem Globetrotters. Did I mention the circus?”
But Jim Crockett Sr. was most famous for wrestling matches between babyfaces (the good guys) and heels (the bad guys). Although he did shows throughout the Carolinas and Virginia, Jim Crockett Promotions was based in Charlotte, where he put on a regular Monday show. Most weeks, it was a smaller event at the 3,000-seat Park Center (now the Grady Cole Center), but every four to six weeks, the Coliseum would host a larger bill.
“My dad would get very upset if I took a shortcut to the Coliseum parking lot,” Crockett says. “He wanted to see the traffic—that was how he could tell if we were going to have a good night or not.”
While a regular Monday wrestling lineup might have four matches, a Coliseum Monday could have as many as 12. It provided the climax for ongoing grudges and rivalries, but it didn’t have the production values of modern wrestling—some sequins on a sweat jacket were the state of the art for glitzy outfits. “No music, no lighting,” Crockett remembers, “just the police escorting the wrestlers to the ring and back.”
One match on April 10 included Jack Brisco, who had wrestled in college at Oklahoma State and now was half of the Brisco Brothers tag team. He faced off against burly Rip Hawk, half of the Blond Bombers tag team. (For some reason, tag teams were particularly popular in Charlotte.) Hawk was a heel—“gruff, insulting attitude,” Crockett says—and an expert at talking trash about both his opponent and the fans.
“Some of these bad guys were what they portrayed themselves as 24/7, and others were the nicest people,” Crockett reflects. Charlotte fans loved screaming themselves into a frenzy. Old ladies would smack wrestling villains with their pocketbooks. When Crockett asked one of those senior citizens why she enjoyed wrestling so much, she said she always slept best after spending the night yelling at the wrestlers. Sometimes, an overexcited male fan jumped into the ring. As the wrestlers turned on the interloper, Crockett says, you could see the expression on the fan’s face: “Uh-oh, how’d I get here?”
The evening also featured “Playboy Gary Hart”—the man in a cage suspended above the ring. “Gary Hart had the gift of gab,” Crockett says. “He could make people very mad. He was irritating, just with the inflections. They put him in a cage so he couldn’t interfere with the match. I’m sure the good guy won the match, and then the cage got opened up, and the good guy beat Gary Hart up until he got hit from behind with a chair by some other wrestler.” He chuckled. “It continues the storyline.”
After an 15-minute intermission—“so the Coliseum could make money off concessions”—came the main event. For more than a year, the NWA World Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk Jr. had been facing off against challenger Johnny Weaver. Crockett remembers, “Johnny Weaver was the main babyface. Dory Funk came from a wrestling dynasty in west Texas. He was not a true bad guy—if you took the same match to Texas, he’d be the good guy. Fans will decide who the good guy and who the bad guy is.”
This was the fifth marquee matchup in 14 months for Weaver and Funk. Their previous bout, in February, had been a “Texas death match,” in which a wrestler had to be pinned for 10 full seconds to be eliminated. Weaver won, which earned him the right to wrestle for the championship, the culmination of their storyline. Before the match, Funk ceremonially handed his title belt to referee Ron West. When Funk won (on two out of three falls), he got the belt back and displayed it for the crowd, with as much conviction as Graham brandishing his Bible.
“Some nights in Charlotte, there’d be more fights in the stands than on the ice,” remembers Pat Kelly, who coached the Charlotte Checkers in the 1970s, when it was a minor-league affiliate of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. “They’d stop the game, and we’d watch the fights in the crowd. That was a lot of fun.”
On April 11, during the first game of a championship series between the Checkers and the Syracuse Blazers, there were way more fights on the ice. The first came 16 seconds into the game and began a parade of ultraviolence that led to a combined 232 penalty minutes. The climactic battle came in the third period, when Charlotte’s Robert Richer pulled the face mask off Syracuse player Dave Ferguson, who had harassed the Checkers all game. After they traded some punches and their fight appeared to be over, Ferguson snuck in one extra swing—and two other Checkers promptly leveled him.
Meanwhile, Charlotte’s Frank Golembrosky flailed around with Ferguson’s twin brother, Doug, and ended up with the Blazer pinned on the ice under his knees. Golembrosky proceeded to whoop his antagonist upside the head. Multiple players were ejected; police had to protect the Syracuse bench from the angry crowd. Incidentally, the Checkers outscored the Blazers 4-0. “Charlotte won the game,” Observer sportswriter Richard Sink commented, “and at least half the fights.”
The Checkers had waited two weeks to start the playoff series, in part because no ice was available in Syracuse or Charlotte (the Crusade booking took priority at the Coliseum). Kelly, who joined the Checkers in 1973 but often played against them before he moved to Charlotte, remembers well the indignities of life in hockey’s minor leagues. He slept in the luggage rack of the team bus, with only two inches of clearance. If he wanted to turn over, he had to get out, reposition himself, and crawl back in.
As he sits in his backyard in Charlotte, the white-haired Kelly puffs on a cigar and considers his youth. “Meal money was four dollars a day,” he says, “but you could buy a steak dinner with salad and ice cream for a buck-seventy-five.”
The Checkers had won the Eastern Hockey League championship the previous year, but everyone on the team had aspirations beyond the Atlantic City Boardwalk Trophy. “We played in the Eastern league because we thought we would make the NHL one day,” Kelly says. “You could play in the minor leagues until you were thirty—there were a lot of good hockey players in the minors.”
The 1971-72 Checkers starred goalie Gaye Cooley, who led the league that season in goals against average. Kelly remembers him as the last goalie in the EHL to wear a mask. The team also had forward Mike Rouleau: “He could put the puck in the net,” Kelly said. “He was tough, but he could play. If you dropped the gloves, you better be ready.”
After the first game, the Coliseum covered the ice for Elvis Presley, then promptly converted the venue again after his show. While 5,478 people attended the first game, far more (7,759) showed up three days later, perhaps hoping for another evening at the fights. Instead, they got a hockey game: Rouleau scored the first goal, and the Checkers quickly went up 3-0 on their way to a 4-1 victory.
The Checkers then headed up to Syracuse, where they beat the Blazers twice more, sweeping the series for a repeat EHL championship. The EHL folded after the 1972-73 season, and the Checkers moved into the Southern Hockey League. Robert Richer made it to the NHL, playing three games with the Buffalo Sabres. Frank Golembrosky scored eight goals for the Quebec Nordiques in the 1972-73 season. Gaye Cooley signed with the New England Whalers but logged just three seconds of major-league hockey.
When Elvis Presley jogged onstage, hundreds of flashbulbs lit up the Coliseum and made it look like daylight. The King wore an all-white ensemble: The pants sported gold-studded trim, the cape was lined with blue, and the shirt had the deepest V-neck the law allowed. Accessories: a gold pendant, a heavy gold-chain belt, and a blue scarf.
“That was the first time I had seen those kind of costumes—besides Diana Ross,” says Charlotte native Laura Grace, who speaks with me by phone in her car. She was 11 when she attended the show. “All the sparkly stuff. And my God, I had never seen swagger like that.”
She was awestruck enough to buy a souvenir of his first show in North Carolina since 1956. (He had played the state 39 times before then.) Elvis occupied the entire top floor of the Coliseum Downtowner Motel, all arrangements made by a division of RCA Records called “The Elvis Exploitation Office.” After he left, the Downtowner sliced up the bedsheets he had slept on into 1-inch squares and sold each fragment for a dollar.
A documentary film crew followed Elvis for this spring tour—18 shows in 15 cities in 15 days. The resulting movie, Elvis on Tour, showed a man who was heavier than in his heyday but still in excellent voice, and who gave no clue on camera that he was in a funk because his wife, Priscilla Presley, had just left him for her karate instructor.
Elvis was backed by the TCB Band (for “Taking Care of Business”), an orchestra conducted by musical director Joe Guercio, the Sweet Inspirations (four Black R&B singers), and J. D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet (five white male gospel singers). The concert, which lasted just under an hour, was wall-to-wall music, with Presley barely pausing to catch his breath. He opened with the blues standard “C. C. Rider,” then played a half-dozen recent hits by other artists, an eclectic selection that included Three Dog Night’s “Never Been to Spain.”
“If there was a song that was popular and he liked it, he would do it,” says Richard Sterban on the phone from the Nashville suburb of Hendersonville; a member of the Oak Ridge Boys since 1973, Sterban was then part of Presley’s backing ensemble, singing bass for the Stamps Quartet.
After he ran through others’ hits, Elvis did a string of his own, including “Love Me Tender,” “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” “All Shook Up,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Hound Dog.” Then he delivered the number that, by consensus, was the show’s highlight: an impassioned gospel-rock version of “How Great Thou Art.”
“You could tell he really believed in it,” Sterban says. “It was a special, special moment. You could almost look up and see Jesus coming through the clouds.”
Elvis didn’t dance and barely played guitar, but he relentlessly worked the crowd, touching the outreached hands of fans in the front row and handing out scarves to overwhelmed women. The crowd of 12,201 was roughly 75% female. Although it spanned multiple generations, A.G. Goldner of the Charlotte Fire Department commented that he couldn’t recall when he’d seen “so many 40-year-olds dressing like they were 20 in hot pants.”
“The whole town was abuzz,” Grace says. “Even as a little kid, that was the moment I knew Charlotte was going to be more modern or more fun as a city, because Elvis came to town, and it opened the door to more progressive thoughts.”
His work done, his brow covered in sweat, Elvis headed for the exit and his limousine. In the Coliseum lobby, hawkers sold souvenirs that included posters “suitable for framing” and 25-cent buttons that bragged, “Elvis in Person.” But Elvis had left the building.
Elvis Presley was 37 in April 1972. Ahead of him still were two live comebacks—later that summer at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and the following year in Hawaii—and 11 more top-40 singles (including the No. 2 hit “Burning Love”) before he died in 1977. Billy Graham, born 17 years before Elvis, lived until 2018; when he died, at 99, he was the world’s most famous Christian evangelist.
Pat Kelly coached the Colorado Rockies in the NHL, reached the playoffs in the 1977-78 season, and served as commissioner of the East Coast Hockey League for its first eight seasons: The league’s trophy, the Kelly Cup, is named after him. Kelly and his wife remained in Charlotte and live here today.
Jim Crockett Sr. died at age 63 in April 1973, less than a year after this famous fortnight. His children took over the family business: David Crockett was an announcer and a producer for World Championship Wrestling before the family sold its wrestling interests to Turner Broadcasting in 1988, and he later oversaw Turner’s WCW productions. Jim Crockett Jr. spearheaded the effort to bring baseball back to Charlotte in 1976, importing the AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles to play in a stadium, Jim Crockett Memorial Park. It burned down in 1985.
Unlike Crockett Park, the Charlotte Coliseum survived. For most of the past 50 years, it’s served as the home of a hockey team called the Checkers; three different franchises have held that name. It’s been renovated more than once, and it’s gone through a series of name changes: Independence Arena, then Cricket Arena, and, since 2008, Bojangles Coliseum. The two arenas built in Charlotte for the NBA’s Hornets—the first of which, confusingly, was also called Charlotte Coliseum—have each seated roughly twice as many people as the original. The OG building survives in the 21st century by booking second-tier and legacy acts, including Keith Sweat, Tool, and, this month, the Mexican singer-songwriter Carin León.
The decades-old marquee on Independence Boulevard that once advertised “Billy Graham Crusade wrestling Elvis Presley” won’t be around much longer—in May, the City Council approved a zoning variance to allow a fancy, 20-foot-tall electronic replacement with video screens. But no matter what sign greets people driving up to the Coliseum, the song remains the same: This building can host thousands of people who have something in common, even if it’s little more than a desire to be part of a crowd. That urge has only grown stronger after our recent years of isolation and social distancing. What happens under the domed roof can be an evening’s entertainment, soon forgotten—or a memory that lasts 50 years.
GAVIN EDWARDS is the author of 13 books, including biographies of Fred Rogers and Samuel L. Jackson. He lives in Charlotte.
Lettering and illustrations by BRIDGETTE COYNE