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Remembering the Cape Cod Coliseum

When driving down the Mid-Cape Highway in South Yarmouth, you'd be forgiven if you didn't notice the frontage road that runs between North Main Street and Huntington Avenue. After all, the only things along this stretch are some industrial properties, a storage locker business, the Mid-Cape Athletic Club, and an old warehouse.

It's the old warehouse at 25 Whites Path, now home to the corporate offices of Dennis East International, that has a history on Cape Cod, however, as for a period of about 12 years in the 1970s and 80s, it was the area's preeminent live event venue: the Cape Cod Coliseum.

Building a DreamCape Cod Coliseum back in the day. South Yarmouth, MA on Cape Cod.

The idea behind the Cape Cod Coliseum was that it would give the area a large event venue. Although the population on the Cape was far smaller than it is today, the central location on the Mid-Cape Highway in Yarmouth meant that people from all over Cape Cod could easily visit.

Upon its opening in September 1972, the Cape Cod Coliseum immediately became the area's largest event center, as it was 46,000 square feet in size and could seat between 5,000 and 6,500 people, depending on the configuration. The price tag on the building was $1.5 million, and it was owned by William Harrison, who was a local real estate agent at the time. Bud Terrio, the man in charge of running the facility, worked extra hard in these early years to keep the venue booked, a job that ultimately became problematic.

Cape Cod’s Hockey Teams

Ensuring there was always something going on at the Coliseum meant finding an anchor tenant, which Terrio first accomplished through the Cape Cod Cubs, a hockey team that debuted in the Eastern Hockey League, which would later become the North American Hockey League, in 1972. Terrio also encouraged local youth and amateur leagues to use the arena, and booked an American Hockey League game between the Boston Braves and Rhode Island Reds, both of which were affiliates of NHL teams, soon after the building opened.

Just two years after their debut, however, the Cubs were in trouble. They were drawing under 3,000 fans per game, and the Coliseum was becoming a financial burden on its owner. In 1974, the building was put up for sale for $2.5 million, and the Cubs were renamed the Cape Codders. The Cape Codders would fold by 1977 and Harrison would end up filing for bankruptcy, with Ed Fruean eventually buying the building.

In 1978, the Freedoms of the Northeastern Hockey League moved to South Yarmouth from Manchester, New Hampshire halfway through the season. They would relocate again to Richmond, Virginia prior to the 1979-1980 season, however. The Cape Cod Buccaneers played the 1981-82 season in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, folding due to a disagreement with the way the league was being run.

The end result was that nothing stuck in the Cape Cod Coliseum, as teams would come and go throughout its existence with no anchor tenants gaining traction with a local fanbase.

Concerts and Major Events

In addition to hockey, the Cape Cod Coliseum would host some of the greatest musical acts in the world. The level of these shows was surprising, as the Grateful Dead, Van Halen, KISS, Rush, Santana, Heart, Foreigner, Black Sabbath, and Styx would all hold concerts in South Yarmouth during the 1970s because of this venue.

The concerts at the Coliseum were a success. The building was usually full for these performances, and the great acts that visited the Cape are perhaps the main reason why the building is remembered fondly to this day. Unfortunately, buildings of this size can’t operate on concerts alone while sitting mostly empty for the rest of the year. The arena had one more chance, however, and it came through an unexpected source.

Vince McMahon and the WWE

In a strange bit of Cape Cod lore, Vince McMahon, chairman and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, actually owned the Cape Cod Coliseum from 1979 until 1984. Not only that, but the offices at the Cape Cod Coliseum are where his company, then called the World Wrestling Federation, were incorporated, a starting point for it becoming the global entity that it is today.

McMahon regularly held wrestling events at the Coliseum, with well-known talents like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and Bob Backlund making appearances. Other performances and concerts, including shows by Aerosmith and Def Leppard, continued through the early 1980s and it appeared as though the building had some stability. McMahon also owned the Cape Cod Buccaneers hockey team during their short run.

As McMahon's wrestling empire grew, however, he no longer needed a building to host regular events. His company was traveling all over the country and would soon expand to a global audience. As a result, he lost interest in the Cape Cod Coliseum and sold it to Christmas Tree Shops in 1984. The final event at the Coliseum was a wrestling match featuring Sergeant Slaughter on June 4, 1984. It would never host another live event.

Why the Cape Cod Coliseum Failed

Looking back, it’s easy to see that the Cape Cod Coliseum failed because the area didn’t have the population to support an anchor tenant in such a vast building. There are significant operating costs involved with keeping a structure of this size open and maintained, and since the hockey teams didn’t draw much in the way of fans, the Coliseum wasn’t financially viable for its owners.

Will we ever see another large-scale area in Cape Cod? It’s tough to say. While the summer population is unquestionably large enough to support it, the venue would probably sit empty for much of the winter, potentially making it unsustainable.

We’ll have to see what happens in the future, however, because as the need for entertainment options on the Cape grows, entrepreneurs will try new methods of filling the void, and one such approach could be another kick at a coliseum.

For now, we’re left with the memories of the world-class events that came to Cape Cod for a brief period about 40 years ago, and the legacy of one of the Cape’s greatest experiments.

Published January 12, 2019 in Did You Know?, Get to Know Cape Cod