In the final Memphis performance before hisdeath, Elvis Presley stood on the stage of the Mid-South Coliseum and told the audience, “I’ll sing all the songs you want. It’s the end of our tour and I have as much time as you want tonight.” As any king should, he kept his word and sang until just before midnight to a crowd of 12,000 devoted fans. No one in that audience could have known it would be the last “hometown” performance of a living legend, nor could they have guessed that in just 30 years, the iconic building they were standing in would be at risk for demolition by the city—a plan that a growing number of MidSouth residents hope to stop.
Scott Schaeffer, a Southaven resident and member of the group “Save the Mid-South Memphis Coliseum,” is using the power of social media and grassroots organization to do his best to change the city’s mind. Since authoring an online petition requesting that the demolition be stopped, Schaeffer has gathered over 2,000 signatures from MidSouth residents hoping to save the building that has been the setting of everything from college graduations to Tiger basketball games to music performances forever engrained in local memory and Pop culture.
“We as a community need to leave something behind for future generations to see how we lived,” says Schaeffer. “From a fiscal standpoint, the Coliseum could be saved andrepurposed for much less than demo and rebuild of another facility. We need to start thinking beyond our own short lifespans here and think of future generations…leave some of our significant cultural icons as living examples of our time as Memphians.”
Mike McCarthy, a Memphis filmmaker and tour guide, recently published an op-ed piece in the Commercial Appeal asking city leaders to rethink their plans, and repurpose rather than destroy. “We know that the MidSouth Coliseum is rare and one of a kind. It cannot be replaced, and when it is gone, we have destroyed another sense of place in Memphis, Tennessee. When a sense of place is gone, urban blight and crime follow.”
Ideas for repurposing include dividing the building into smaller performance spaces, making it a multi-use sportsplex, and allowing the circular hallway to showcase exhibits that would draw both local and non-local tourism visiting the city to experience Memphis music and civil rights history. Money spent toward repurposing rather than leveling would preserve the building’s iconic past, while ensuring its enjoyment and use for future generations of MidSoutherners.
In a city that gave the world Rock and Roll, the venues where those early performances were heard should be especially valued. When tourists come to Memphis and the MidSouth region, they gravitate to locations that attracted the music that put Memphis on the map, making the region world-renowned for its art. Beyond tourism demand, maintaining and preserving Memphis history builds civic pride and provides that sense of ‘place’ to which McCarthy refers. “Young people want to see older people honor tradition,” he says. “They want to walk the hallways where their parents and grandparents walked.”
Although awaiting an uncertain fate, the Coliseum’s now-dark hallways once echoed with the sounds of Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. They were crowded with generations of excited MidSouth college graduates and Tiger fans, as well as lucky spectators watching that infamous wrestling match between Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler. Most of all, they make up a space that has been shared by local residents as the “Entertainment Capital of the MidSouth,” an irreplaceable piece of Memphis history that should be preserved and valued instead of leveled and replaced with generic retail or hotel space.
“The heart and soul of urban ‘think local’ or ‘think green’ or ‘smart city thinking’ is historic preservation,” says McCarthy. “What purpose is there to a new strip mall or multiple sports fields in a ‘tourism zone’? None that I can see. As a tour guide, I can tell you that tourists want to have an experience that is real and within the authentic structure itself. You can’t tear down a one-of-a-kind mid-century modern building where so much history happened, and then call that area a ‘tourist development zone.’”
Causes | November 2014
Keeping the Capital
The fight to save the Mid-South Coliseum draws a crowd
Story by Tonya Thompson