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Weinberg's Coliseum

Grace Shackman

Winter and summer, one of Ann Arbor's livelier recreational attractions seventy years ago was Weinberg's coliseum and swimming pool, down at the end of Fifth Avenue where it intersects with Hill Street. The concrete building that housed the indoor ice rink was erected by masonry contractor Fred Weinberg, probably in 1909. It survives today as the U-M Coliseum, which was the home of Michigan's ice hockey team until 1973. Weinberg's indoor ice rink, the first in town, boasted a huge Wurlitzer player organ, akin to a player piano, which imitated the sounds of an entire orchestra. Songs like the Skater's Waltz, The Blue Danube Waltz, and the Poet and Peasant Overture were played again and again, so often that a generation of older Ann Arborites who used to patronize the place can still vividly recollect the sound as if it were being played today. The organ was so loud, in fact, that it could be heard all over the neighborhood. Fred Weinberg's son Nate (of the old Nate's Boat Shop) recalls that the music carried clearly over to their house on Mary Street, some four blocks away, whenever the windows were open and the rink was in session, which was frequent. The building had no heat and no refrigeration equipment. To freeze the ice, the windows were simply opened to let in the cold air. New layers of ice were added to build up the surface in case of warm spells. Because conditions at his ice arena were unpredictable, Weinberg arranged with State Street merchants to post flags in front of their stores on days when there was enough ice for skating. If you came to the rink on Saturdays before noon, you could get in for ten cents and stay all day, a practice that many Ann Arbor children followed. They would either bring a lunch or buy one at the snack bar. The ice rink also had a balcony for roller skating, but roller skaters had to climb down the stairs in their skates and cross over part of the ice to get a snack. Weinberg's Coliseum supplemented the older outdoor ice rink next to it, which Weinberg had built some twelve years earlier. In fact, the coliseum's doors opened onto the outside ice, which extended all the way to John Street. That rink, which doubled as a swimming pool in summer, was fed by springs on nearby city property, where the Michigan Stadium now stands. At first, the swimming pool was a rather primitive affair. Jonas Otto, Weinberg's nephew, remembers how he earned spending money as a boy by pulling frogs out of the pool. A cement pool bottom was poured about the same time the indoor rink was built. Skating on Weinberg's original outdoor rink was preferable to skating on the Huron River or other ponds around town because of the live music provided by Weinberg's brother-in-law, Louis Otto, leader of Otto's Band, and seven or eight of his musicians. They would sit and play in a small hut in the middle of the rink, closing the windows periodically so they could warm up. When it was too warm for ice skating, the Coliseum was often used for circuses, speeches, horse shows, indoor carnivals, dances, roller skating, and other special events. Weinberg's Coliseum played host to the U-M's first ice hockey game, in 1920, and to over fifty hockey seasons thereafter. Weinberg himself did not live to witness that first in Michigan athletic history, however. He died in 1917, the victim of a collision between his automobile and one of the interurban trains that ran through town along Packard, Main, and Huron. His wife and son, Julius, took over the ice rink and Julius installed an auto paint shop in the rear. Famed U-M neurosurgeon Edgar Kahn was on the first Michigan ice-hockey team. He remembers that the natural ice caused some problems. Players might be playing in a pool of water by the last period, and occasionally, if the weather were unseasonably mild, a game would be called off, sometimes after the visiting team had traveled a long distance for the contest. In 1924, a fire starting in the paint shop burned the wooden roof and partitions, but the cement walls survived and still form the building's basic shell. The U-M bought the Coliseum in 1925 and installed artificial ice equipment the following year, thus overcoming the vagaries of weather. But the main problem with the rink as a hockey arena was that there was never enough room for spectators. Even after the 1949 remodeling put seats all around, the building's size necessitated very steep seating, so that anyone sitting on top was unable to see the whole rink. In 1973, after the ice rink was moved to Yost Field House, which had just been converted to Yost Ice Arena, the building was turned into a gymnasium, now used for women's athletics and an occasional special event like the U-M Artists and Craftsmen's Guild Christmas Art Fair. [Photo caption from original print edition]: Postcard of Weinberg's Coliseum published by A.S. Lyndon. Folding chairs around the periphery provided very limited seating. The player organ in the balcony was flanked by a bandstand where live music was played on special occasions. (Middle left) Members of Otto's Band inside their hut at the old ice rink. (Middle right) Charlie Swarthout scraping the ice on Weinberg's old outdoor ice rink. (Bottom) Nate Weinberg (fourth from right) was one of the gang of enthusiastic "rink rats" who helped maintain the ice in the Coliseum's middle years in return for skating privileges. The Michigan hockey team played there, and the rink was also open to the public at certain times. 1938 photo, left to right: Marv Olson, Aldin Ratti, Bob Ingold, Bob Flory, Bill Carpenter, Sam Otto, Bill Mast, Phil Brier, Nate Weinberg, Bill Bush, Bill Folske, and Don Wright.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Views of the huge swimming pool show the adjoining houses, barns, and sheds of South Division as they climb the hill to Packard and Madison. [Photo caption from original print edition]: Extra decks were added to the primitive diving tower. [Photo caption from original print edition]: The Coliseum today. [Photo caption from original print edition]: The Coliseum sometime before 1919, when the swimming pool was still in operation.


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Grace Shackman