Musicians, fans will gather to remember the old Coliseum Ballroom of Benld, Ill. | St. Louis Public Radio

Musicians, fans will gather to remember the old Coliseum Ballroom of Benld, Ill.

Feb 19, 2016

They’ll be rocking to the oldies Saturday night at the civic center in Gillespie, Ill., where a crowd of a certain age will gather to share memories of the old Coliseum Ballroom, which was destroyed by fire in 2011.

Stars like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis once played this dance hall in the Illinois countryside, about 50 miles northeast of St. Louis. So did popular local bands from surrounding towns and St. Louis: Bob Kuban and the In-Men, The Torquays and The Guild.

The Coliseum Ballroom had a long run — nearly nine decades before it went down in flames — and it put the small town of Benld on the map. The dance hall was located on old Route 66, on the outskirts of the town of  1,500,  just a stone’s throw from Gillespie.

Jim Marcacci, who’s working on a documentary about the landmark, expects a packed house of folks, ages 50 and up, who were regulars at Saturday night dances from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s.

“That place had a magical spell over most people who went there,’’ he said. “They get a twinkle in their eyes when they talk about the Coliseum Ballroom.’’

Marcacci, 69, frequented the Coliseum until he became a teacher.

“Then I didn’t want to be out there with my students,’’ he said, laughing.

The event will feature musicians who once performed at the Coliseum, “playing the music that was popular when you were.” Marcacci expects to see some retro fashion in the crowd: poodle skirts and saddle shoes and perhaps some bell-bottoms and love beads.

Credit Provided by The Coliseum Documentary Project

The Coliseum opened during the Prohibition Era to the beat of jazz bands, which made way for the big band sound. Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Lawrence Welk performed on its stage. At 10,000 square feet, it was the largest dance hall between St. Louis and Chicago.

“They would get the acts coming from St. Louis, going to Chicago — or from Chicago, going to St. Louis. Even Kansas City was in the mix,’’ Marcacci said.

In its early days, the Coliseum was notorious for more than music. It was built by Benld grocer Dominic Tarro, who put it on Route 4, then the only “hard” road between St. Louis and Chicago. The road would later be designated as part of Route 66.

Benld was a bootlegger’s paradise, Marcacci said. The largest still in the state was hidden in Benld, disguised as a coal mine.

In 1930, Tarro was indicted for selling supplies to bootleggers, but he disappeared before his arraignment. His body was found several months later in the Sangamon River in Springfield, Ill. 

“Benld was a wild, wild town, back in the day,’’ Marcacci said. “It had it all. It had gambling, prostitution, drinking. It was as if, one old-timer told me, Prohibition never existed.’’

In its later years, the Coliseum Ballroom was used as an antique mall. It was burned beyond repair on July 30, 2011, while a local band was playing.

“It was a Saturday night — a fitting way for the old gal to go out,’’ Marcacci said. “A band was playing on stage, and it was better than seeing it decaying and crumbling into a pile of bricks.’’

Marcacci expects a sold-out crowd of about 500 for the event, dubbed “Memories of the Coliseum,” with people coming from all over the region. He advises people to be there when the doors open at 6 p.m. because, just like the old days, tickets will only be sold at the door.

    

“Memories of the Coliseum”

What: a tribute to the Coliseum Ballroom sponsored by Build Benld and The Coliseum Documentary Project

Where: Gillespie Civic Center, 115 N. Macoupin Street, Gillespie, Ill.

When: 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday; Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets will be sold at the door; no advance sales.

How much: $15; proceeds benefit Build Benld, a nonprofit civic organization

Information: See the Build Benld Facebook page.