The Boxer (1927) B&W , 1 frame

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
…Paul Simon

On New Years Day, 1927 the opening athletic event at Tacoma’s new Greenwich Coliseum at 13th and Market was a championship boxing match between two very small and very powerful athletes. Leslie “Wildcat” Carter was in one of his first big professional fights having just turned 17 and still a junior in high school. He was a dancer, light on his feet at 125 pounds and unusual as an African American in a game dominated locally by white fighters. His opponant was 23 year old “Doc Snell”(William McEachern) who was half way through a career of over 150 bouts beginning in 1922. Snell weighed in at the same featherweight as Carter but was more of a rugged slugger who could give and take a hard staggering punch. At the time prizefighting was prohibited in Washington State just like strong beer and whisky. But like prohibition, boxing matches were not exactly outlawed in Tacoma. The well intended anti-prizefigthting law made an exception for;

“Sparring or fencing amongst members of private clubs for exercise only or for the enjoyment of their fraternal brothers.” Thus, virtually all bouts in the state were usually held in the various American Legion posts, Eagles, Elks and other private athletic clubs for their “members.” Anyone wishing to witness a match was required to obtain a membership card and levied an assessment for the seat. The boxers were paid “training expenses.” 

A collaboration with the local Eagles Lodge opened a loophole for the Coliseum that helped sell 4000 seats for the Carter-Snell match. It also allowed the promoter, John Pepe, to guarentee Carter $2000 ($35,000 today) for the six round bout.

On that first day of 1927, Tacoma’s newly built Allen & Lamborn Building, with “Tacoma’s premier ballroom” on the upper levels was broadening its audience appeal from dancers to sports fans. When first announced, the four story fireproof concrete building boasted a 5000 square foot dance floor that would host everything from fancy cotillians to garden expositions and dog shows. In the roaring 20’s the big crowds came for ballroom dances with a live orchestra, mirror ball lights chasing across the ceiling and shadowy corners for intimate moments and illegal swigs.

The big new auditorium was in step with the booming city around it. Just across the street, 2 million dollars was being spent to construct the lavish Crystal Palace Market that occupied most of the block with a long arcade of 180 day stalls, neon lights, a bank of loading docks and counters and seats for “lunchers”. Under the Coliseum parquet dance floor on the Market Street level was a row of retail grocers and food merchants who tapped into the public market across the street during the day and closed before the music and high steppers began bounced on the floor above at night. Antoinette’s Grocery anchored the corner at 13th with Enterprise Meats, Propontis Greek Grocery, A&B Fish, Western Fruit and Produce and Cozza & Sons Poultry and Eggs filling the storefronts along Market Street.

Over at 9th and Broadway, the still new Winthop Hotel had opened in the heart of the theatre district in 1925 with it’s grand Crystal Ballroom, rooftop dining room and radio station. Downtown at 11th and Pacific the steel frame skeleton of the scandelous Scandinavian American bank building was finally enclosed in glazed terra cotta and in legitimate business as the Washington Building. It was the loftiest indication of Tacoma’s physical growth and at 17 stories it was the city’s tallest building at its most important intersection. Ole S. Larson, the bank president who launched the skyscraper in 1919 was still in federal prison at McNeil Island.

Wildcat Carter’s boxing career paralleled the story arc of the Greenwich Coliseum in many ways and in that first pugilistic contest both he and the space were on their game. Sports writers in the daily paper the next day gushed about the atmosphere and sightlines in the noisy auditorium. They recounted the epic pace and drama of the match and marveled at the fiesty style and blazing speed of the young black boxer even though he lost to the more experienced fighter in a close decision. Carter faced Snell again in Seattle that August where they fought to a draw that confirmed the growing mythos around the two boxers and their Coliseum match.

By late spring of 1927, the Greenwhich Coliseum was open for dancing on Tuesday and Saturday nights with boxing on Thursday or Friday and rental events on Sunday and midweek. The auditorium entrance was on the uphill corner on 13th where the cable car loop ran down from K street and an alley ran into the shadows along the rear building. For the bootleggers and bookies working the crowds for dances and fights it was the Coliseum’s back street market.

November 17, 1935 Tacoma Daily Ledger
January 31, 1927

The Coliseum ballroom didn’t have the pretense or snooty surroundings of the Winthrop Hotel or private clubs like the elegant Elks Lodge on Broadway. It also welcomed women, single or in groups, without a male escort. Tacoma’s population was just passing 100,000 and many newcomers were single women finding work and opportunity in the offices, department stores, restaurants and theaters downtown. The Coliseum offered entertainment for locals, tucked up against the residential streets and boaring houses between the downtown and hilltop. It was a building tailored and perfectly suited to its time and place. But time and place were about to change, like the startling arrival of talking pictures in the movie palaces just a few blocks away.

The Depression hit Tacoma in 1929 and with it came a body blow to the downtown- its businesses, shops and entertainments. At the Coliseum, boxing started drawing the biggest crowds with longer cards and lower admissions. Rental events like garden and dog shows, political campaign rallies, private dances and expositions fell off and when prohibition ended in 1932, taverns and night clubs serving alcohol cut into ballroom crowds. Dance tickets got cheaper, semi-legal marathons ran for whole weekends, novelty bands and larger orchastras played for smaller pay as local musicians were replaced by sound movies and one promoter even tried roller skating as an attraction.

Democratic FDR campaign rally, October 24, 1936
January 12, 1931

But none of it worked. The Greenwich Coliseum ballroom was falling out of step and style as roadhouses like Max Frolic’s in Lakewood, and the massive balloon hanger style Century Ballroom in Fife drew people in their cars away from the downtown. The most damaging competition came from the 1932 remodel of beer magnate Anton Huth’s Ford automobile showroom and the attached Germana Hall into the Cresent Ballroom almost across the street at 13th and Fawcett. It looked like the scrappy Coliseum would have to fight its way into the future.

On October 29, 1936 Wildcat Carter lost the last fight of his 138 bout career, including a first round knock out of Doc Snell in a match that was refereed by heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. Carter’s local popularity never waned even as a younger Tacoma favorite, Freddie Steele continued to build the reputation of the Coliseum as a regional boxing venue. In April 1937, showman Will Maylon acquired control of the building with plans to make it the sports palace of Tacoma, ” a miniature Madison Square Garden”. Ballroom Dancing was pushed to the side in a scheme to bring in a steady diet of boxing, wrestling and professional basketball with auto shows, exhibitions and indoor circuses filling in the calendar.

Market Street was still dominated by the public markets, food and grocery sellers

Market Street looking north from 11th, ca, 1935

beween the cable car loop up 11th and down 13th but to the north and south automobile sellers and fixers, tire shops and garages were beginning to dominate the streetscape. On Friday April 8th, 1938 the cable car stopped running down 13th forever and traffic on Market picked up speed on the fasted route past the busy downtown. The corner Italian grocery was transformed into the Evergreen State beer parlor, the building’s first tenant along Market not selling food. A Japanese American seafood merchant, Suekawa Teruo occupied the storefront at 1150 next to Tsuchimochi Masaru’s fruit and vegetable business and long-time tennant Cozza & Sons poultry on the Market street level.

Coliseum Bowling at 13th, 1954

Will Maylon’s plan for the Coliseum never quite worked out and he went into selling real estate. But the notion of a sports palace seemed to have a faint echo in the big space. In 1941 the boxing arena/ballroom was equiped with rows of bowling allys, new Brunswick pin machines, pool tables and a giant bowling pin sign on the corner with Coliseum Bowling Palace “Tacoma’s Finest” in neon. And it was for most of the next 20 years even as the Second World War set in, the public markets closed, Tacoma’s Japantown residents were removed to inland concentration camps and the neighborhood was targeted by post war Urban Renewel projects. One of the best bowlers in history, Earl Anthony competed at the Coliseum and in the heyday of bowling leagues during the 40’s and 50’s the lanes were busy almost every night.

But again times changed. Big new suburban bowling centers, with sprawling parking lots were built closer to sprawling neighborhoods reached by a new interstate highway that missed the downtown entirely. In 1972 the last game was played in the Coliseum and the bowling alley was closed at the end of June. The corner tavern and an electrical company’s offices held on for a few more years but in 1975 the Coliseum Building was torn down for a parking lot as part of a Model Cities plan.


In September 1983 the Y.M.C.A opened their new Tacoma Center facility on Market street and from the beginning there was something that felt just right about the place. You can still feel it in the gym and especially on the surrounding track one story up. Jogging your laps around the space is to circle at eye level the setting of that match between Wildcat Carter and Doc Snell almost a century ago. The amazing photograph that starts this post runs through my mind on that track like a movie in one frame. Its like being at ringside.

Under construction in 1926

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