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60,000 Vaccines Now Part of Storied Bojangles Coliseum's History

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

In 1976, Elvis Presley stood on the stage at what was then called the Charlotte Coliseum, wearing one of his signature white jumpsuits.

“Now we’re gonna do a lot of songs. Old ones, new ones, middle age ... I hope you like some of what we do,” he told the screaming, adoring crowd before crooning the opening lyrics of “Love Me:” “Treat me like a fool…”

Over the years, a lot of big names have stepped into the spotlight at both the coliseum and auditorium on Independence Boulevard: Bo Diddley in 1956, Jimi Hendrix in 1969 and The Rolling Stones in 1972, to name a few.

Another big event — the coliseum's COVID-19 vaccine clinic — was set to come to an end this weekend, but plans changed. The vaccination site provided first and second doses to at least 60,000 people since it first opened in early January. Mecklenburg County’s health department had planned to close the location on Saturday, but on Wednesday afternoon, the head of StarMed Healthcare, which helps operate the clinic, said it would remain open.

‘It Was Amazing’

The Rolling Stones play at Charlotte Coliseum -- now known as Bojangles Coliseum -- in 1972.
Hunter Desportes
The Rolling Stones play at Charlotte Coliseum -- now known as Bojangles Coliseum -- in 1972.

The Charlotte Coliseum openedin 1955, and the Rev. Billy Graham gave the dedication. At the time, it was the largest dome in North America. Graham also later used the space to preach.

“I wish you could’ve been here on Thursday night when the invitation was given and more than a thousand people came out of these stands to give themselves to Jesus Christ as savior and lord and master,” Graham told the crowd during a serviceat the 1958 Charlotte Crusade.

Throughout its history, the complex has hosted car shows, circuses, operas, Broadway shows, hockey games, wrestling matches and graduation ceremonies. It also has been converted into an early voting site and an emergency homeless shelter. In 1981, a freshman basketball player for the University of North Carolina known as “Mike Jordan” played his first college game at the coliseum. He missed his first shot.

As a teenager, George Hite worked as an usher during at least two of Elvis’ 1970s-era shows at the venue. He earned roughly $2 per night taking tickets and showing people to their seats.

“We had these little starched red coats that if you were unlucky enough to get one the first night it was being worn after it came back in from the dry cleaners, you could barely move in it,” Hite said.

Hite loved the job because he got to see whatever show was playing — and the Elvis shows were particularly wild.

“It was amazing to see the crowd — you know, primarily female — be whipped into such a frenzy,” Hite said.

‘A Little Bit Of Sadness’

Bojangles Coliseum was used as a COVID-19 mass-vaccination site in Charlotte.
Claire Donnelly
Bojangles Coliseum was used as a COVID-19 mass-vaccination site in Charlotte.

On Jan. 6, the Bojangles Entertainment Complex, as it’s now known, became a place people could get vaccinated for COVID-19. Rows of cars lined up in the parking lot on the first day that the Mecklenburg County Health Department offered vaccines at the site to people 75 and older. The clinic was set to close on Saturday because of decreased demand.

“As we talked it through, there was part of me that said, ‘I don’t wanna see it go,’” said Dr. Meg Sullivan, the medical director for the county health department. “Because I like it. We have an attachment to it, and it was great.”

Sullivan said the clinic at the Bojangles Coliseum represents her agency’s early effort to get the vaccine to people as quickly and efficiently as possible. At least 60,000 people have received a vaccine at the coliseum.

“There definitely is going to be some ... feeling of nostalgia ... or a little bit of sadness,” she said. “I think we’re really proud of the teamwork and the collaboration.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Mike Estramonte, the CEO of StarMed Healthcare, said the vaccine clinic would stay open after all. He said the site will continue operating at least through June and will offer all three types of vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. The clinic is open five days a week: Monday through Thursday and Saturday.

"Obviously, the demand (for vaccines) has gone down, but it hasn't gone down significantly enough at the Bojangles site (to need to close) ... so we decided to continue it on," Estramonte said.

He added: "As long as there's demand there, we'll keep the site up and running."

Hite, the man who worked Elvis concerts at the coliseum as a teenager, said he knows it sounds corny, but he really has a strong emotional connection with the place.

“For people that grew up in Charlotte, they realize the importance that those buildings have not only for the east side but for the whole city,” he said.

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Charlotte's Bojangles Coliseum is seen in modern times.

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Updated: May 19, 2021 at 4:22 PM EDT
This story was updated to reflect that on Wednesday afternoon, StarMed announced that the Bojangles Coliseum's vaccine clinic would continue to operate at least through June. The clinic was previously slated to close on Saturday.
Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.