The Life and Times of the
I never had the pleasure of attending a
wrestling match at the old Richmond Arena. I knew of the Richmond
Coliseum, but not being from the area, I had never even heard of the
Arena until I met David Chappell in 1998 and heard tales of
great adventures he had attending wrestling shows there while growing up as
a teenager in Richmond. Over the years as I researched old wrestling
venues in the Mid-Atlantic wrestling territory, I began to learn
more about this grand old building and its rich history in the city
Mike Harris of the Richmond
Times-Dispatch wrote extensively on the history of the Arena for his
newspaper in 1997 in advance of the building being town down.
The building was considered an architectural gem of the early 20th century,
he reported. It served many purposes over its 90 year
lifespan before being torn down in 1997.
This building that would later become
the Richmond Arena was actually built in 1906, opening in 1908 as an
exhibition hall and serving as an administrative building for the
State Fair of Virginia. The During World War II, the building was used as
a U.S. Army motor pool. After the war, the Virginia State Fair moved
to a new location and the building was turned over to the city of
Richmond where it was used as a garage for city vehicles.
Harris reported that in the early 1950s, Richmond University
began looking for a larger venue for their basketball team to play
as the on-campus gym could not support the crowds that wanted to see
them play. No venue in the area held more than 2000 people. It was
then that Clyde Radcliff, whose father had run the State Fair many
years earlier, had the idea to convert the old run down city garage
into a sports arena. The first sporting event held there was a
basketball game on December 17, 1954 between the University of
Richmond and Virginia Military.
When it opened as a multi-use sports
and entertainment venue in
1954, The Arena had 4,252 permanent seats and another 900 bleacher
seats could be added. It was located adjacent to Parker Field, the
ballpark home of the Richmond Virginians and Richmond Braves built
in 1934 and later replaced by The Diamond in 1985.
Many different types of events were
held at the Arena. Rock concerts, basketball tournaments, car and
boat shows, tennis matches, boxing, roller derby and all sorts of
public events were held there. Presidents Reagan, Johnson, and Nixon spoke there.
The Harlem Globetrotters set an attendance record there of 6,022 in
1955, all chronicled in Harris's reporting.
But it was pro-wrestling that would
become one of the most popular attractions at the Richmond Arena. In
the 1950s through early 1970s, Richmond wrestling primarily took
place at the State Fairgrounds at Strawberry Hill, although there
were occasional shows at the Arena. The last Crockett
Promotions card held at the State Fairgrounds was on March 8, 1974,
headlined by a Mid-Atlantic heavyweight title match between champion
Johnny Valentine and former champ Jerry Brisco. The following week,
the Crockett "B" shows moved to the Arena and split time for the next
three years with the Richmond Coliseum, which had opened in 1971 and
typically featured the larger shows.
The first Mid-Atlantic Wrestling card
at the Richmond Arena after the Strawberry Hill shows ended featured a lumberjack match main event between
Swede Hanson and the Super Destroyer (Don Jardine.) For the next
three years, most of the major names in the wrestling business
appeared there, including NWA world title defenses by Jack Brisco, Terry Funk,
Harley Race, and Dusty Rhodes.
many of the old wrestling venues from days gone by, the Arena had
its good points and bad points, although we typically look back
nostalgically at these old wrestling venues with a romantic eye. The
building was not insulated or air conditioned. "The Arena was hotter
than the hinges of hell," Rich Landrum told me. Landrum, best known
to wrestling fans as television host of "World Wide Wrestling" from
1978-1982, was ring announcer in Richmond for over a dozen years,
including all the shows at the Richmond Arena. (That's Rich in the
photo at left, along with Eastern champ Jerry Brisco in the Arena in
1973.) David Chappell remembers the obstructed views in certain
spots due to the support beams that held up the upper seating deck.
The cigarette smoke was thick and heavy and the crowds large, loud,
and boisterous. "Perhaps as memorable as anything was the virtual
maze of buckets placed to catch the rain leaking from ceiling leaks
in its later years," said David Ross in his book Memory Lane:
Richmond VA Vol. 2. The building had exposed rafters, which wrestlers
would occasionally mention in event promos on TV, particularly
Blackjack Mulligan who once threatened to throw a rope around the
neck of Johnny Weaver and hang him from the rafters leading up to a
U.S. title defense at the Arena. Landrum remembers the local cops
working security detail at the shows at the Arena betting on the
outcome of the wrestling matches. "It was penny-ante gambling, but
they had fun gambling amongst themselves." Back in the day,
apparently, even the cops didn't know the fix was in.
Wrestling was a weekly attraction in
Richmond, first at Strawberry Hill and then the Arena and the
Coliseum. This basically
ended in 1977 coinciding with the end of Crockett wrestling shows at
the Arena. After a show there on June 24, 1977 (headlined by a tag
team match between Johnny Weaver and Wahoo McDaniel vs. Ric Flair
and Greg Valentine), wrestling became a bi-weekly event in Richmond,
exclusively at the Richmond Coliseum.
In the summer of 1981, wrestling
briefly returned to the Arena for a series of five straight shows
during June and July while renovations were taking place at the
Coliseum. These shows featured a NWA title defense by Dusty
Rhodes (against the Iron Sheik) as well as a special rare appearance
by Pat O'Conner who served as a special referee for a U.S. title
match between Wahoo McDaniel and Roddy Piper.
The World Wrestling Federation held
events there in 1984 when they were beginning their hostile
expansion into other wrestling territories, and were probably the
last wrestling events held there.
In the decades following the conversion
of the old city garage into the Richmond Arena, other arenas in
addition to the Coliseum would be built in the city including the
Robins Center, Ashe Center, and Richmond Center. All
of these venues competed for various events. Mike Harris noted that the
Richmond Arena, which was
once hailed as the biggest and best arena for 400 miles, was now only the 5th
largest in its own city. The building began to struggle financially.
Like wrestling, which had moved out completely in 1977 to the larger
coliseum, other events migrated to the other venues. The Arena was
no longer a viable facility. The final public event was held
there in 1986, a Hertz automobile sale.
It closed its doors for good soon after, and was finally torn down
in 1997, the land given to Virginia Commonwealth University.
Richmond historian Robert W. Wiatt, Jr.
lamented the loss of the building in the months before the
demolition. "It is one of the best examples of early 20th century
architecture in the U.S." he told Mike Harris. "We're tearing down all of our old buildings. My argument
is we've saved some of our 18th and 19th century buildings, why not
some of our 20th century buildings?"
But time, which has taken many great
venues from us in the name of progress and at the hand of
obsolescence, claimed the Richmond Arena as well. Long time fans of
wrestling in Richmond can close their eyes and still hear the sounds
of the Arena - the thundering smack of Johnny Valentine's
forearm, the blistering "tommy-hawk" chops of Wahoo McDaniel, or the
cheers of the crowd rising in anticipation as Johnny Weaver shot his
opponent into the ropes and prepared to lock in the sleeper hold.
What they all would give for just one more chance to sit and sweat
and see wrestling again at the Arena.
- Dick Bourne
The American flag flies proudly over
the Richmond Arena.
Arial photo of the Richmond Arena,
The Arena on a snowy day in Richmond,
The interior of the Richmond Arena
during a roller skating session is seen in this 1955 photograph.
Historical information for this article
was drawn from several articles which appeared in the Richmond-Times
Dispatch, primarily an article by Times-Dispatch writer Mike Harris
in the July 23, 1997 edition of the paper. These articles were
provided to us by Thomas Derr.
Main photo of Richmond Arena provided by
Chris Bryant. Image of the Richmond arena below is from a
microfilm/photocopy of the 7/23/97 edition of the Richmond
Other photos provided by Thomas Derr.
Photo of Jerry Brisco and Rich Landrum
by Bill Janosik © Bill Janosik.
Photos and images in the
section on Arena General Manager C.W. Hudson (below) provide by
Information about wrestling at the
Arena was gleaned from
conversations with David Chappell, who regularly attended wrestling events at the
Richmond Arena and elsewhere throughout the 1970s, and Rich Landrum,
who was ring announcer for the shows in Richmond throughout the
1970s as well as host of the television program World Wide
Wrestling from 1978-1982. David Chappell also provided
additional match research for this article.
C. W. "Cy" Hudson
General Manager of the Richmond Arena
Cy Hudson was the
general manager of the Richmond Arena during its heyday. Hudson
originally operated all of the concessions at the Arena as well as
other sports venues around Richmond, and became the General Manager
of the Arena in 1958. He promoted many events there, including
dances and concerts, including once bringing Bill Haley and the
Comets to the venerable old building.
Of course, wrestling was
a always a big event at the Richmond Arena, likely going back as far
as the Bill Lewis era and was a mainstay there when promoted by Jim
Crockett promotions. Hudson knew many of the wrestlers, and
occasionally played golf with Wahoo McDaniel when he was in town for
Many thanks to Cy's son,
Douglas, who provided us with several additional images from the
Richmond Arena seen below, including the great shot of the entrance
to the grounds where stood the Richmond Arena as well as the minor
league baseball's Parker Field.
The entrance to
both the Richmond Arena and Parker Field (partially seen here upper
from the 1960s
Tobacco Festival Ball
Ad for Roller
Skating at the Richmond Arena
Images in this
section provided by Douglas Hudson.
Field (circa early 1960s) with the Richmond Arena seen in the lower
left of that photo.
Library of Virginia
Photo (No copyright restrictions.)
"Classic Venues" is a
collection of features edited by Dick Bourne
Copyright © 2010-11 Mid-Atlantic Gateway
Newspaper images from the
This article published 5/22/10.