Let the good times roll

The Coliseum was constructed circa 1923 on North Orange Avenue. Courtesy of Bob Smiddy via the “I grew up in College Park! (Orlando, Fl)” Facebook group.

Nowadays when I hear “that’s how we roll,” even though I know it’s meant to note how things are done, I can’t help but picture good old roller skates. You know, the old-fashioned, lace-up leather shoes, fastened on clunky, double wheels — and quite loud. Once upon a time, that is how we rolled in College Park.

Skating at the old Kemp Coliseum at 1640 North Orange Avenue is a memory that floods so many senses: the live organ music, the sound of wheels on wooden floors, the blinking colored lights when it was couples only, the musty air — because it sure wasn’t air-conditioned — and, of course, the bumps and bruises we took learning new tricks.

My earliest memory of the Coliseum is a friend’s birthday party. I easily recall skating across that giant floor to one of the alcoves along the perimeter. We gathered in a big booth to sing “Happy Birthday” and to watch our friend blow out the candles on her cake.

The Coliseum was absolutely enormous, especially through the eyes of a child. The solid maple floor was 114 feet across and 132 feet long. The buttressed ceiling was 36 feet high, supported only by curved trusses that left the view of the stage unobstructed and the floor wide open.

If there is any place in old Orlando where first dances, concerts, skating parties and sweet 16 celebrations are remembered, it’s probably the Coliseum! Long before we had a civic center, Kemp’s Coliseum, able to accommodate up to 3,000 people, served as Orlando’s social and recreational center.

In 1926 the Coliseum opened as the land boom was flourishing in Florida. The Jazz Age was in full swing, and Orlando’s biggest playground included Lake Ivanhoe. The builders, however, went bankrupt before long, and the Coliseum sat unoccupied until 1937 when William R. Kemp of Georgia bought it.

Kemp’s first renovation was to build his family a home on the second floor of the Coliseum, where his daughters and stepson grew up. W. R. “Bill” and his wife, Bessie, lived there until their deaths, one month apart, in 1971.

On the adjacent swimming pool property, Kemp added locker rooms and a concession area to create what he called the Aquaseum. The olympic-size pool, Orlando’s first public swimming pool, is now buried somewhere under the parking lot at 1700 North Orange Avenue.

Kemp also added the indoor Bowliseum, the only building still standing, though now an ignoble warehouse.

Early on, Orlando High School’s basketball games were played in the Coliseum, and fraternity dances for Rollins College and dance marathons for locals kept the Coliseum busy. It was a favorite venue for large civic and political rallies and later was the site for the nationally televised United Cerebral Palsy Telethon.

The Aquaseum and Bowliseum were especially popular with the complex’s College Park neighbors. Many locals grew up enjoying summer recreation there. In 1955, Kemp advertised water ballet classes at the Aquaseum, and during the school year. Summertime brought swimming lessons with the venerable Jackie White, who taught me in 1961 — and later my children — along with must be a thousand others in College Park.

The Aquaseum also served as the practice pool for Edgewater High School’s swim team.

Next door, at the 12-alley, air-conditioned Bowliseum, recollections of bowling lessons with Betty Natale are treasured memories for many.

Kemp’s Coliseum brought Orlando such big band names as Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye, Guy Lombardo, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. Dance marathons and the annual Orlando Fireman’s Ball filled the calendar in the 1930s and ’40s.

The Coliseum became the place for social affairs. Booking the posh Roman Room for private parties, as well as appearances by the popular roller skate Follies in the ’50s, brought locals to the Coliseum.

In 1965, The Beach Boys played the Coliseum. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels spun through for a concert in 1966. Later the Young Rascals, the Yardbirds, and Paul Revere and the Raiders played in the Coliseum as well. In 1971, Alice Cooper appeared there, but in 1972, two weeks before Emerson, Lake and Palmer were to perform, the Coliseum burned down.

Once advertised as “Central Florida’s Playground,” even without the skates, Kemp’s Coliseum was clearly how we rolled!

One Response to “Let the good times roll”

  1. Sandi Thompson
    August 2, 2017 at 12:14 pm #

    Another great article Becky! Thank you!

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