Thursday, November 26, 2009

March 19, 1971 The Syndrome, Chicago, IL The Grateful Dead (canceled)

The February 6, 1971 Billboard mentions in its "News From The Music Capitals Of The World" for Chicago that the Grateful Dead are scheduled to play The Syndrome on March 19. There is indeed a blank spot on the Dead's Spring tour for Friday, March 19, between the Fox Theater in St. Louis (Thursday March 18) and the University of Iowa Fieldhouse (Saturday, March 20), but no sign of a Chicago show. The reason for this is simple: the April 10, 1971 edition of Billboard remarks on the abrupt closure of The Syndrome. It seems clear that the Dead had a gig booked there, and when the venue closed the band was simply stuck with an open date.

Not surprisingly, Chicago had a huge rock market, but various efforts to establish a Fillmore type venue were not successful. One such effort was The Syndrome. The site of The Syndrome was actually the Chicago Coliseum on Wabash Avenue (between 14th and 16th Streets). The Coliseum, actually the second building with that name, was built in 1899 and mostly housed sports teams, including the Chicago Blackhawks (NHL 1926-29), Roller Derby and the Chicago Packers (NBA 1962-63, they moved to Baltimore and became the Bullets). Starting in the late 1960s, it was used periodically for rock concerts. The capacity of the room for basketball was about 7,000. I do not know the rock concert capacity, but I have been told that Chicago promoters had a tendency to pack in as many people as humanly possible, since any fire or other building codes that were being violated could be overlooked for a modest consideration.

The venue had been used for rock concerts under the name Chicago Coliseum in the 1960s, generally for acts too large to play the Kinetic Playground or Auditorium Theater, Chicago's main rock venues. Cream played there on October 13, 1968, and Jimi Hendrix Experience played there on December 1, 1968. The venue became known as The Syndrome sometime in 1970. The promoters seem to have been The 22nd Century, and put on shows at both the Syndrome and the smaller, seated Auditorium Theater. The Dead played there on Friday, November 27, 1970. Since The Syndrome probably held at least 7,000, it was considerably larger than the usual venues that the Dead played in during the early 1970s.

Things must have gone well enough to be re-booked, but The Syndrome closed in early March. The building remained largely unused afterwards, and was torn down in 1982. Coliseum Park, at 1400 Wabash, stands on the site today.

10 comments:

  1. I understand that whilst the city had closed the venue after papers were served on March 9, agreement was reached to allow the scheduled performance of Carole King and James Taylor (on March 12) to go ahead, but that was the last performance. My brief notes against this show state that the venue was at one time once as the Avalon Ballroom - but I have no recollection of how I picked that up.

    Historian Jim Hofman explains the events leading to the closure: March 8th, was the Ali-Frazier heavyweight championship fight in NY, which was televised via closed circuit television in the Chicago Coliseum. The closed circuit picture went out in the 3rd round and the technical people were unable to reinstate it. The people who paid to see the telecast got rowdy, a near riot ensued because the producers announced a refund would not be forthcoming that evening ... patrons would need to come back to the box office at a later date. Chairs were thrown around the venue, the place was basically trashed, the Chicago police and fire squads were called in to calm things down, and a Chicago Fire Captain named Quinn was hit in the back of the head with a chair and hospitalized. The next morning, March 9th, the City of Chicago slapped numerous safety and fire code violations on the owners of the Coliseum.

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  2. This is great stuff. It explains how the Dead concert got canceled so abruptly.

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  3. It seems that an audience tape of the concert by the great English band Free from January 23, 1971 (referenced above in the Billboard ad) is currently circulating.

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  4. Hello, I am the Jim Hofman whose historical account was quoted above. A few add'l comments ... Cream played the Coliseum twice in 1968, once in April and again on their farewell tour in October. In Jack Bruce's autobiography he recalls the group decided to break up after the April gig at the Coliseum. Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton had become bored, so one more tour (the Farewell Tour) was booked for October, then two shows at Royal Albert Hall in Nov. 1968 and that was it for Cream (until 2005!).

    More about the Coliseum's waning days ... the last event there was actually Sat. 3/12, a Carole King/James Taylor show. A compromise was struck between the city and Coliseum ownership to let this show go on because it would have caused undue hardship to the owner, Fred Morelli (former alderman) if he had to cancel on 3-4 days notice. The day after, the Coliseum was closed for good. The building was used for boat storage in the mid 70's until the maintenance man John Trim (who lived in an apt. in the south wing of the Coliseum) was working on the buiding's roof and fell through and landed on the floor and tragically died. The Coliseum was demolished April '82. I have a brick from the buiilding. One error in the article ... Coliseum Park is on the west side of Wabash Ave., it is across the street from the original Coliseum site. A Buddhist community center occupies the site. I'm the guy who wrote to Mayor Daley and the Chicago Park District to convince them to name it Coliseum Park ... the original name was South Loop Park. I pushed to have the park dedicated 8/26/2000 which would have been 100 yrs. to the day when then President McKinley came to Chicago to officially open the Coliseum ... Chicago Park District ignored my request but did invite me to the dedication where I gave a brief 3 minute speech.

    Coliseum in the late 60's had Martin Luther King Jr. speak there (1967), Cesar Chavez about his grape boycott (1968) and the famous sarcastic "Happy Birthday Lyndon (LBJ): concert during the '68 Democratic convention ... Phil Ochs did a set. Students for a Democratic Society held meetings at the Coliseum ('69 and '70) as did Nation of Islam ('64 and '65 ... Muhammed Ali attended those). The producer of the shows when it was called The Syndrome (late 1969 and 1970) was named Dick Gassen but I know nothing else about him. I have corresponded with the owners son (Morelli Jr.) over the years and he told me Uriah Heep played there as did Three Dog Night and Grand Funk Railroad. The Chicago Bulls played their first ever home playoff game at the Coliseum in March 1967 as The Amphitheatre was booked with events moved over from McCormick Place which burned down Jan. '67. That was the final basketball game at the Coliseum. Jackie Robinson played basketball for UCLA at the Coliseum in the late 1930's and Joe Louis fought there as an up and coming heavyweight in 1934. I could go on but this post has already gone on too long!

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  5. Just a bit more for history's sake ... Three U.S. Presidents were nominated by their political party at The Coliseum ... Theodore Roosevelt (#26), William Howard Taft (#27), and Warren G. Harding (#29). The Coliseum was most known for those events from 1900 to 1920, which was the last political convention held there. The first Auto Shows were held there starting about 1904 or 1905. Dance marathons were held there in the 20's and 30's and roller derby was more or less invented there. Lots of boxing shows in the adjacent north hall which was built around 1920 when the adjacent church burned down. The north hall seated about 4500. Boxing shows were held until the mid 60's usually on Friday nights. Flower shows, houseware shows etc. until McCormick Place was built in '61 and by that time the building was declining and pretty much just used for minor events. After the Zephyrs moved to Baltimore some tennis tournaments and indoor roller hockey were played there ... then the building was reinvented (sort of) to be used as a concert hall as noted above. Morelli the owner always had a prickly relationship with the first Mayor Daley. Daley didn't approve of some of the events at the Coliseum i.e. Students for Democratic Society and definitely not the LBJ Birthday party concert. Morelli stood his ground and his son told me he said to Daley, "Mayor, I have to pay my bills!". They tried to reopen the Coliseum in 1975 for a Bonwit Teller fashion show but the city refused to issue a use permit. The John Trim accident occured in 1976. I also spoke to the realtor who had it listed for sale for over 10 years, Sheldon Good. He told me "Picture the Amphitheatre in its waning days but about 5x worse!" ... electical problems, poor plumbing, etc. and squatters used to sneak in and start campfires to stay warm in the late 70's when the bldg. was vacant. One myth about the Coliseum ... people think those big stone boulders which formed the outside facade were part of the old Civil War prison (Libby Prison) in Richmond VA. Not true. The original structure behind the facade was a Civil War museum (built in 1889) and the timbers used to create that structure were from Libby Prison. The museum did well, especially during the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago, but interest waned. Construction started on the Chicago Coliseum in 1899. The limstone facade was actually mined from a quarry in Indiana. Part of that facade stood along Wabash Ave. for almost 10 years after the Coliseum was demolished in 1982 as there was some thought of it being reused in a new structure as an historical accent. It was cleared in 1993 and the community center opened on the site in '94.

    Probably more information than anyone wanted to know ... but there you have it!

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  6. Jim, thank you so much for this amazing insight into the entire life of the building. It's very hard to lock all this stuff down, and you seem to be an amazing source of information. Do you have any idea what rock concert capacity of The Syndrome might have been? I know it was 7,000 for basketball, does that seem about right?

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  7. Reply to Corry342 ... The owner's son Morelli Jr. told me they could squeeze in as many as 8-9k for concerts since they set it up as festival seating, i.e. no chairs just people standing on the concrete floor or spreading out blankets and sitting down. Not sure it was set up that way for all concerts. There was a small balcony above the main floor that had 4-5 rows of seats but I am told the seats had been removed by the late 60's and temporary folding chairs were set up in the balcony if necessary. To be honest, who really knows? From talking to the son, in the Coliseum's waning days things were very loose. I do know when the debacle occured, the Ali-Frazier mess on 3/8/71 they had chairs set up but they weren't chained or bolted together ... that led to people throwing them when the closed circuit went out and the Coliseum staff announced they weren't handing out refunds that night. There was a picture the next day in the Chicago Sun Times showing the inside and it looked like a tornado hit ... chairs and debris all over the place. That's when the building got hit with all the fire code violations ... Morelli Jr. said most of it was due to seating issues (chairs not connected together). As for basketball games, yes, the 7000 figure is about right, maybe a little more. I was always told seating capacity was about 9k but I am sure it fluctuated through the years. I do know the crowd for the one Bulls playoff game March '67 was about 3300 ... of course the Bulls were barely on the radar then.

    One quick story about the Coliseum's waning days ... at the 1969 SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) meeting, one of the SDS leaders told me he was downstairs trying to have a conversation with somebody and he kept hearing this yelping and screeching from up in the balcony, which was closed off. He sent somebody up a back stairway to see what was going on ... it was a young couple "getting it on" and apparently the girl was having a wonderful time!!

    I tried to track down Dick Gassen, who promoted most of the concerts when the Coliseum was "renamed" the Syndrome in 1969 and 1970, but to no avail. No one seems to know where he is or if he is still alive.

    I used to know a guy who went to the Cream concert (one of them) at the Coliseum in 1968. He remembered the condition of the building as "awful" and said the toilets and plumbing barely worked and the place reeked of mildew. The building had been in serious decline throughout the 60's as Morelli put very little money back into it. They had to rush to clean it up before that Bulls game and had to bring in all kinds of temporary lighting to accommodate WGN, which televised the game. Jack Brickhouse announced the action (heard all this from Bob Rosenberg, a friend of mine who still scores the Bulls games). I never actually got into the Coliseum, I was too young and by the time I was 10 yrs. old it had closed. Used to drive by it all the time going to church at Old St. Mary's 8th and Wabash in the 70's and became interested in the building. Finally got "inside" so to speak when the Coliseum was being demolished in April/May 1982. Lots of history and very proud I had a part in getting the park across the street named Coliseum Park. To my knowledge none of the old facade was set up in Coliseum Park but next time I'm there I will have to take a look. When I attended the dedication nothing was there and no one from the Park District seemed to know anything about the leftover front facade which was finally cleared about 1993. Sorry again for rambling ... any other questions let me know. Jim

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  8. Jim, your information is remarkably correct.... I am a member of the Morelli family and was acutely aware of the history of the building and events that took place. You are doing a great job of archiving a bit of Chicago history.

    Thanks for the effort.

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  9. Just to add a bit more to the topic ... I was contacted by Geoffrey Baer of WTTW Channel 11 in Chicago asking for information about the Coliseum, specifically when it was redubbed "The Syndrome" for concerts (1970 and early '71). WTTW is running a historical show about Chicago in December 2013 and the Coliseum will be in one of the segments. This led me to do a bit more research on the Syndrome portion of the Coliseum's history.

    I was able to locate and buy a full unused ticket, actually the ticket is labeled "complimentary" for a Grand Funk Railroad concert on Oct. 16th, 1970. The ticket is labeled Syndrome and then just underneath it says In The Chicago Coliseum, 15th & Wabash. Really cool piece of rock memorabilia, I bought it for $13 online.

    I did visit the site of Coliseum Park, which as noted above is located on the west side of Wabash Ave. across the street from where the Coliseum stood. Ironically, my wife and I were downtown to attend a concert of Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion and we stopped by the site. There are some large hunks of stone strewn on part of the park's site, presumably as ornamental rocks. They may be from the Coliseum's outside facade but nothing is labeled so who knows. It is a dog friendly park so I'm sure the dogs like sniffing the big rocks!

    There is some ornamentation on the front entrance facade to the park and some architectural elements of the Coliseum were incorporated, most notably the arches which held up the roof ... if you Google "Chicago Coliseum Interior" you will see what I mean.

    But no plaque is onsite saying the park was named in honor of the Coliseum, which is a shame. We walked around in the parking lot of the Buddhist community center across the street, strolling around the north portion of it as that was where the stage was set up in the Coliseum / Syndrome ... at the north end. Ginger Baker played there twice in 1968 so there was some nice symmetry to our visit. We were invited in by a staffer who introduced me to the facilities manager of the cultural center who had an interest in the Coliseum's history so we chatted for a while. The center has a small gift shop and in that gift shop they have a book called Lost Chicago which has a picture of the Coliseum during its existence and after it was mostly demolished. There is no marker or plaque inside the building, but in a nice twist they do have a performance area which seats a few hundred people and they have small concerts there from time to time ... so music is still being enjoyed on the old site!

    So pleased to have seen Mr. Morelli post above, reinforcing my info about the Chicago Coliseum ...

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    1. Jim, thanks so much for closing the loop on this.

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