The Washington Coliseum and the Beatles Get a Second Act

The D.C. event space will host a Beatles tribute concert.

The Beatles perform Feb. 11, 1964, at the Washington Coliseum in Washington, D.C. -- one day before their first official U.S. concert in New York.

The Beatles perform at the Washington Coliseum on Feb. 11, 1964, in Washington, D.C. The D.C. Preservation League is celebrating the performance's 50th anniversary at the venue next month.

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Anyone who has ever come in or out of Washington, D.C., by train has probably seen it. "You know when you go on the Metro or on the train, it's the first bump you see out of Union Station," says Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. "Everybody knows the building, they just didn't realize they knew it."

The Uline Arena, also known as the Washington Coliseum, looks like it must be train-related, because of its close proximity to Union Station's raised tracks. But the brick structure actually started its life as an ice skating arena, and is currently used as a parking garage.

[PHOTOS: The Beatles' First U.S. Concert Venue]

But on one winter night in 1964, it hosted four mop-topped British lads who were playing their first U.S. show atop a wrestling mat. It was the Washington Coliseum where American concert-goers first welcomed the Beatles, two days after they made waves on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Feb. 11, 1964

It had snowed. And when Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison arrived in Washington that afternoon the city was covered in a blanket of white. Just two days after their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, the one that -- to this day -- everyone still talks about, they arrived in the nation's capital to a rather big crowd. "It was unbelievable, a great sort of validation of the whole thing," McCartney recalled to the Washington Post in 2010. "It was like: 'Yeah, look! Everywhere we're going in America, it's happening!" It also helped that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was sitting pretty at No. 1 on the American Billboard chart. (A Washington, D.C., deejay, Carroll James, was credited for first playing the song on U.S. airwaves.)

A concert promoter had put the whole thing together. While the Beatles were the only band advertised on the Coliseum's marquee, Tommy Roe also performed, along with girls groups the Chiffons and the Caravelles. The Righteous Brothers also showed up.

The concert sold out and more than 8,000 people packed into the Coliseum, including former Vice President Al Gore, then the 15-year-old son of a U.S. Senator. The Beatles stepped on stage and began playing a 30 minute set at 8:31 p.m., starting with "Roll Over Beethoven" and featuring "Twist and Shout" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand." 

[ALSO: What the Beatles Meant to America]

"The acoustics in the arena combined with the absolute frenzy of enthusiasm made it virtually impossible to understand a single word that they sang," Gore told the Washington Post. Another challenge: the stage, really a reconfigured wrestling ring, was in the center of the arena. "Since they were playing in the round, everybody was right around the stage [and] Ringo actually had to pick up his drum set and move it," Miller explained. The Beatles would play part of the set, and then turn, play another part of the set, and then turn again, to make sure that the audience got to see them from all directions."

It was the first and last time the band played in such a fashion. "There were a few things we did once with the Beatles, and playing in the round in Washington was one of them," McCartney said.

The Uline Through Time

The roots of the venuego back to 1931, when Migiel "Mike" Uline founded the M.J. Uline Ice Company in Washington. In the beginning, the company simply provided ice to local businesses and families. But where there's ice, there can be ice skating, hence the need for an arena. "Might as well make an ice rink," Miller noted. "It was the largest hockey arena in the country when it was designed." A million bricks and blocks were used during construction. 

The Uline Ice Arena opened in 1941, with its reinforced concrete vault roof -- still visible from the railroad tracks -- a signature feature of the design. Besides hockey and the Ice Capades, boxing, tennis and wrestling matches took place in the arena, as well as basketball games, concerts and midget-auto racing. It was a venue for the circus when it came to town. It was a hot bed for African American culture after being desegregated in 1948. Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X both spoke there; champion boxer Joe Frazier wrestled there. And, besides the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Patsy Cline and Bob Dylan all performed there.