clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Photo by Steve Powell/Getty Images

Filed under:

The People's Playground

How the Memorial Coliseum put Los Angeles on the map

Only a short time and we will be able to entertain the greatest athletes of the world in royal style. The Los Angeles Coliseum will be the home of entertainment for all the people of this fastest growing city and of the world. For a minimum sum a man will be able to take his family to the biggest playground in the world on holidays and Sundays and enjoy concerts, pageants, sports, parades and other forms of amusement. -Los Angeles Times, 1922

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the colossal bowl which rises in grandeur and majesty from its beauteous semi-tropical setting in Exposition Park, today enters upon the fulfillment of the pledge made for it by the father of the project, that of being the “people’s playground.” -Los Angeles Times, July 2, 1923

On August 13, 2016, the Los Angeles Rams will host the Dallas Cowboys at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. This will be a banner day for millions in Los Angeles—the return of the NFL to the second largest city in the United States after a more than 20-year absence. It will also be a homecoming for the Rams, who played at the Coliseum from 1946 to 1979.

The Coliseum is one of the most storied venues in all of sports. It has hosted two Olympics (1932 and 1984) and the first Super Bowl (1967). It has been the home base for three NFL teams (the Rams, Chargers, and Raiders), the All-America Football Conference’s Los Angeles Dons, two famed college football teams (the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins), and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Outside of sports, it has secured its place in history as the venue where John F. Kennedy accepted the 1960 Democratic nomination for president. Countless rock shows, rallies, and pageants have been held under its famed towering peristyle. These seminal events have helped draw international prestige, attention, and investments to Los Angeles—which is exactly what the builders of the Coliseum hoped to do almost a century ago.

Hadley Meares

The 1910s and 1920s were a boom time of change and expansion in Los Angeles. The city was essentially an obnoxious teenager: experiencing a major growth spurt, but lacking the culture, educational resources, and infrastructural maturity to garner the respect it felt it deserved. One of the things it lacked was a large gathering place to lure profitable conventions, sporting events, and cultural performances.

By 1920, a number of civic leaders had formed a nonprofit group called the Community Development Association, headed by Southland real estate pioneer William May Garland. Their main goal was to build a coliseum in the spirit of ancient Rome, a world class facility that would put within "reach of the public the class of amusements which are ordinarily too costly to be seen by the average amusement patron." They also hoped it would secure them the next Olympics in 1924 and, with that, worldwide respect.

In the 1910s and 1920s, Los Angeles was essentially an obnoxious teenager: experiencing a major growth spurt, but lacking the culture, educational resources, and infrastructural maturity to garner the respect it felt it deserved.

The CDA solicited legendary Los Angeles architect John Parkinson, aided by his son Donald, to draft plans for the Coliseum. (Parkinson’s other iconic buildings in Los Angeles include City Hall, the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Union Station, Bullock’s Wilshire, and what is now Grand Central Market.) Working for a fraction of their usual price, the Parkinsons traveled the world touring famous stadiums. The final preliminary design was everything the CDA had hoped for—a towering, elegant Coliseum, featuring a classic Roman peristyle, that could seat 75,000 people (some sources say 76,000), around 13 percent of LA’s population at the time. Although it would be "large enough to meet all the needs of an Olympiad," it would also be remarkably cheap, since it would be constructed with those two modern miracles: concrete and steel.

An article in the Los Angeles Times echoed the public’s enthusiasm for the project:

Plans were virtually completed yesterday to give Los Angeles the largest combination amphitheater and stadium in the world, a great open air Coliseum structure which will cost approximately $1,000,000 and which will stand as a perpetual memorial to the Los Angeles County men and women who served in the Great War. Its construction at Exposition Park will mean that Los Angeles will have a public arena comparable in beauty and size with those which made the fame of ancient Rome, a stadium that will serve for public entertainments of a grand scale.

The selection of Exposition Park as the site of the Coliseum was an inspired choice. During the Edwardian era, this sprawling park next to the University of Southern California had been known as Agricultural Park. The rowdy, raucous park had included a racetrack, brothels, and—for a time—the world’s longest bar. These shady amusements had been cleaned up by a Sunday School teacher named William M. Bowen, who spearheaded a drive to reform and rebrand the large public space (he would also be involved in planning the Coliseum). By 1920, Exposition Park was a beacon of civilized public amusements, featuring the State Armory Building, the County Museum (now the Natural History Museum), and the famed sunken rose garden. With the construction of the respectable Coliseum, Exposition Park’s transformation from a den of inequity into a civic hub of the highest integrity would be complete.

Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
An equestrian event at the 1932 Olympics.

In 1920, Garland (with Parkinson’s plans tucked under his arm) traveled to Europe to convince the International Olympic Committee to hold the 1924 Olympic games in Los Angeles. This bid failed, but he and the CDA soldiered on with building their stadium. On August 22, 1921, the plans for the Coliseum were formally approved by the Municipal Arts Commission.

The Coliseum’s construction was funded by a public-private partnership that would ensure that many of the events held at the venue were free. The CDA would manage the building, and all profits would go into the maintenance of the Coliseum.

Ground broke on December 21, 1921. The first order of business was the dredging of earth to create the elliptical bowl of the Coliseum, which would dip 32 feet lower than ground level, and the embankment, which would rise 50 feet above the surface of the main field. This fascinating process, centered around an old gravel pit, was meticulously documented by a reporter for the Los Angeles Times:

At the west end of the old racetrack oval of the park lies an area resembling "No Man’s Land." For years the city has been hauling sand and gravel from the pits until it stands today as a region of hollows. On the eastern edge a large derrick, 123 feet high, was completed yesterday …  for the excavation of 300,000 yards of earth, which is to be dragged out by a five-yard scoop bucket in the formation of the great elliptical embankment. As this is raised, the massive derrick will creep around the oval, covering more than half a mile before the work is completed.

"Billy, I voted for Los Angeles because I like you personally," one IOC member told Garland at the time of the vote. "But where is Los Angeles? Is it anywhere near Hollywood?"

This mammoth excavation and embankment job was overseen by the elderly engineer George E. Field, who had constructed the foundations of the famed Ferry Building in San Francisco. "It is better to wear out than to rust out," he told one reporter. "Perchance this is to be my last job, but if that is so, believe me, it is to be in the interest of the finest cause I ever worked on."

By May 1923, the Coliseum was complete, at a cost of only $800,000. It received rave reviews from the press, who extolled its "towering tiers of benches" and its "sweeping concrete and stone peristyle."

On July 2, many Angelenos got their first formal introduction to the Coliseum when the Monroe Doctrine Centennial (also known as the American Historical Revue and Motion Picture Exposition) opened at Exposition Park. Thousands streamed into the "vastness of the Coliseum" to watch the Centennial’s opening ceremony, which included an acrobatic performance by the Flying Codonas, five historical tableaux depicting historic moments in American history, and an impressive fireworks display. Almost every notable silent movie star attended, adding to the event an aura of glamour.

Hadley Meares

In September, a performance of the Christian historical pageant The Wayfarer, narrated by politician William Jennings Bryan, drew over 20,000 people to the Coliseum; one writer observed the masses of humanity pouring into the Coliseum: "First the box seats, then the reserved seats began to be filled until finally the crowd occupied half the … seats, enjoying a clear view of the stage." One of the highlights of the show was the "moving arch lights of orange, blue and purple [that] swept the Coliseum and poked up into the darkness where their rays were cut, as if by a knife, by a thin fog, which however, did not obscure the brighter stars."

Many would say the Coliseum was not fully inaugurated, though, until October 6, 1923, when the USC Trojans, led by legendary coach Elmer "Gloomy Gus" Henderson, played their first game in the iconic bowl, beating the Pomona College Sagehens 23 to 7. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Some 25,000 citizens of this fair community poured through the concrete tunnels of the Coliseum and comfortably filled the center sections on either side of the field. It was football served "a la king" in the biggest stadium in the world with all the comforts and conveniences imaginable. Everybody had a good seat, a loud speaking apparatus gravely informed the crowd of every move on the field, the fans got in and out quickly, and the big game was a sparkling exhibition of football—altogether it was a great day.

During its first year in existence, the Coliseum would host multiple football games, 15 track and field meets (including one featuring 7,000 children from local elementary schools), Olympic tryouts for the 1924 Paris games, Memorial Day services, and public concerts. Many of these events were free, with the lion’s share of revenue coming from USC football games.

The Coliseum, along with the other great open-air gathering places built in Los Angeles during the 1920s, would also become the site of annual Easter Day sunrise services. The first one was held in 1924:

The grand pale moon sank from sight and the golden sun, material symbol of the spiritual "Dayspring from on High," smiled through the arches of the peristyle as the audience rose and joined in the jubilant "Hallelujah Chorus." As the great congregation launched out into the line "And he shall reign forevermore," the sun burst into full glory over the top of the peristyle, scattering diamonds over the green grass, turning the musical instruments into golden reflectors and causing the thousands of colorful Easter hats to resemble a vast hillside flower garden.

But the biggest Hallelujah of 1924 came when William May Garland, by then a member of the International Olympic Committee, secured for Los Angeles the 1932 Olympic Games. The personable Garland credited infrastructure like the Coliseum as a big reason the city had won the games: "No city has ever had such complete arrangements for the Olympic Games actually ready so far in advance," he stated. However, the lion’s share of the credit should probably go to Garland himself. "Billy, I voted for Los Angeles because I like you personally," one IOC member told Garland at the time of the vote. "But where is Los Angeles? Is it anywhere near Hollywood?"

Super Bowl I in 1967.
Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

Throughout the 1920s, the Coliseum continued to be a busy beehive of sporting and cultural events, with an eye always on the upcoming Olympic Games. In 1930, a large-scale, $900,000 expansion began—30,000 new seats were added, bringing the total seating capacity to 105,000. The Los Angeles Times boasted that TWO old Roman Colosseums could fit in the newly mammoth LA Coliseum.

The same article bragged that "its night illumination is sufficient for an average city of 15,000" and that the "lumber, sand, rock and cement in it would form a train of box cars more than 18 miles long." Even the construction of the new press box was a major undertaking:

Arrangements for seating 600 writers in the stadium while the games hold forth already are in the construction stage, with desks and typewriter stands being erected. This press section will be equipped with direct telegraph service throughout the United States and cable connections to the capitals of South America, the Orient and Europe.

In honor of the games, the Coliseum was temporarily renamed Olympic Stadium, while Exposition Park became Olympic Park.

Hostess for the Tenth Olympiad, she becomes for the time being the international capital of the world … The youth of the whole earth supply the picked gladiators; Los Angeles provides the amphitheater.

On July 30, 1932, the dream Angelenos had dreamed for over a decade finally became a reality. "For the next two weeks, Los Angeles wears in her civic diadem the brightest jewel of them all," one reporter swooned. "Hostess for the Tenth Olympiad, she becomes for the time being the international capital of the world … The youth of the whole earth supply the picked gladiators; Los Angeles provides the amphitheater."

The Coliseum was the main hub of the ‘32 Olympics, hosting the opening and closing ceremonies, executive and press offices, track and field events, soccer games, and several other events. 105,000 spectators streamed into Olympic Stadium to witness the opening ceremonies while another 50,000 people milled about outside. According to the Los Angeles Times, "A hush was upon the vast throng when a whisper became a fact and the first figure in the traditional and pulse-quickening Parade of Nations appeared at the tunnel’s mouth at the west end of the stadium."

After the parade concluded, Garland, now president of the Tenth Olympiad Committee, took to the stage. "The United States of America, appreciating most highly the honor conferred upon her by the selection of one of her cities in which to celebrate the Games of the Tenth Olympiad, bid you a hearty and sincere welcome. This welcome is doubly emphasized by the state of California."

Next up came Vice President Charles Curtis, who formally opened the games. The Los Angeles Times described the touching scene:

Curtis rose from his seat in a sea of gaudy parasols and bobbing silk hats and spoke into a microphone some fateful words ..."I proclaim open the Olympic Games of Los Angeles, celebrating the Tenth Olympiad of the modern era." And to all the thousands in the vast stands the import of the simple words was clear. Tears welled in the eyes of the multitudes and great lumps seemed to choke off speech in more than 100,000 throats in another instant. High atop the great peristyle at the east end of the stadium a flame flared into being—The torch of the Olympiads was burning!

Within the concrete walls of the Coliseum, Los Angeles had finally arrived.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

3911 S Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90037
Longform | From Curbed

How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis

Longform | From Curbed

The Neighbors Issue

Longform | From Curbed

Can a Neighborhood Become a Network?

View all stories in Longform