The Greatest Non-Sports Moments in Los Angeles Coliseum History

JFK, the Pope, "The Boss" and more

Bruce Springsteen on stage at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 30, 1985
Bruce Springsteen on stage at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 30, 1985 | Photo: AP Photo/Lennox McLendon

Opened in June 1923, the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has been the site of some of the greatest sports moments in history. But the landmark stadium - added to the National Register of Historic Places on the eve of the 1984 Summer Olympics - has also hosted numerous historic figures and milestone cultural events. From “The New Frontier” to the Pope and “The Boss,” here are some of the greatest non-sports moments in the history of the L.A. Coliseum.

Memorial Court of Honor plaque commemorates John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier" speech at the LA Coliseum
Memorial Court of Honor plaque commemorates John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier" speech | Photo: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

John F. Kennedy - “The New Frontier” (July 15, 1960)

The 1960 Democratic National Convention was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on July 11–15. It nominated Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts for President and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas for Vice President. On the last day of the convention, Kennedy delivered his formal acceptance speech from the adjacent Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. According to the JFK Library, the audience of 80,000 was touted at the time as the largest crowd ever to hear a political speech. The speech became known as "The New Frontier":

"Today some would say that those struggles are all over - that all the horizons have been explored - that all the battles have been won - that there is no longer an American frontier.

But I trust that no one in this vast assemblage will agree with those sentiments. For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won - and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier - the frontier of the 1960's - a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils - a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.”

Billy Graham Crusade at the LA Coliseum in 1963
Billy Graham Crusade on Sept. 8, 1963 | Photo: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Billy Graham Crusade (Sept. 8, 1963)

Since beginning his ministry in 1947, evangelist Billy Graham conducted more than 400 crusades in 185 countries and territories on six continents. Dubbed the “Pastor to Presidents,” Graham has met with every president since World War II, from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. A civil rights supporter, Graham insisted on integration for his revivals and crusades, and invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach jointly at a revival in New York City in 1957. Graham gained national prominence after his 1949 Los Angeles crusade, which took place in a circus tent that held 6,000 people. Originally scheduled for three weeks, the campaign was extended an additional five weeks. Graham returned to L.A. for his 1963 Southern California crusade, which was held at the Coliseum Aug. 15 - Sept. 8. On the final night, a crowd of 134,254 attended the service, which is still an all-time Coliseum record.

Wattstax (Aug. 20, 1972)

The famed Memphis label Stax Records presented the Wattstax music festival at the Coliseum on Aug. 20, 1972. Often dubbed the “Black Woodstock,” Wattstax featured unforgettable performances from the label’s roster of legendary music acts, including Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Albert King, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Bar-Kays and many more. Tickets were priced at just $1 to enable as many members of the community to attend - the crowd was estimated at 112,000. Wattstax also featured comedy from a young Richard Pryor and an invocation from the Reverend Jesse Jackson, which included a call-and-response recitation of Rev. William H. Borders, Sr.’s “I Am - Somebody” poem.

Evel Knievel (Feb. 18, 1973)

In 1973, daredevil Evel Knievel used the entire distance of the Coliseum to jump 50 cars that were stacked in 18 rows on the center of the field. Knievel launched his motorcycle from a ramp at the top of one end of the Coliseum, successfully cleared the cars, landed and stopped on the ramp high atop the other end. The jump was filmed by ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

Bruce Springsteen - “Born in the U.S.A.” Tour (Sept. 27-Oct. 2, 1985)

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band concluded their Born in the U.S.A. Tour with a four-night stand at the Coliseum on Sept. 27, 29-30 and Oct. 2, 1985. The shows were recorded and eight songs from the Sept. 30 concert appear on their 1986 box set, Live/1975–85.

The band's cover of Edwin Starr’s War was added to the setlist to make the Coliseum shows “a little different and special.” The Sept. 30 performance of War was released as the first single from Live/1975-85 and reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The music video is a straight concert filming of the Coliseum performance.

Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1987
Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 15, 1987 | Photo: George Long/AFP/Getty Images

Pope John Paul II (Sept. 15, 1987)

Pope John Paul II was one of the most travelled world leaders in history, visiting 129 countries during his pontificate. His papal term (1978 to 2005) was the second-longest in history. John Paul II is credited for helping to end Communist rule in his native Poland and eventually all of Europe. Following his death on April 2, 2005, John Paul II was canonised on April 27, 2014.

On the first night of a historic two-day visit to Los Angeles in September 1987, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at the Coliseum with more than 100,000 worshipers. During his first sermon in California, the Pope addressed his “brothers and sisters of Los Angeles and Southern California,” recognizing the Golden State as a leader in research and technology, and “a symbol of hope and promise for millions of people who continue to come here to make a home for themselves and their families.”

Rolling Stones - “Steel Wheels” Tour 1989

For decades, the Rolling Stones claimed the title of “world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.” But after a seven-year hiatus from touring, some began to wonder if it was time for another group to wear the mantle. In 1989, L.A.’s own Guns N’ Roses had emerged as a strong contender for the crown, thanks to two multi-platinum albums (Appetite for Destruction and G N’ R Lies), a blistering live show and their charismatic, volatile frontman, Axl Rose. The Stones brought their Steel Wheels Tour to the Coliseum for four-night stand in October 1989. Featuring opening act Living Colour, the Coliseum concerts would be the only shows that Guns N’ Roses appeared on the tour. In his concert review, L.A. Times music critic Robert Hilburn described the generational battle of the bands as “a classic rock 'n' roll showdown.” With a setlist that began nightly with “Start Me Up” and finished with the encore “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the Stones had “too much historic aura, too many great songs and too splendid a lineup of musicians” to bow to the younger band. Hilburn put it simply, “The winner and still champ: the Rolling Stones.”

"We could not have left the United States without visiting the city which daily nourished the dreams of millions of people the world over." - Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela (June 29, 1990)

Nelson Mandela visited Los Angeles on June 29, 1990 as part of a historic 12-day, 8-city tour of the United States. Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary who was elected President of South Africa in 1994, had emerged from 27 years of imprisonment on Feb. 11, 1990. Mandela’s first visit to the U.S. several months later was part of a six-week world tour that further enhanced his iconic status to that of an internationally respected political leader. During his Los Angeles visit, Mandela stayed at the landmark Millennium Biltmore in Downtown L.A., where he met with dignitaries in his hotel room. Mandela’s L.A. itinerary included a ceremony at City Hall, a star-studded fundraising dinner in Exposition Park, and a sold-out rally at the Coliseum. Performances at the stadium included rappers, gospel singers and African dance troupes. An L.A. Times article that recapped his visit quoted Mandela’s address to the Coliseum crowd of 70,000:

"We could not have left the United States without visiting the city which daily nourished the dreams of millions of people the world over. Many would know Los Angeles as the unchallenged capital of motion pictures, many would regard your city as the city of glamour and splendor.

"We who have suffered and continue to suffer the pain of oppression know that underneath that face of Los Angeles lies the great and noble spirit of the citizenry. We who fight for human rights know the depths of the human spirit running through the hills and valleys of the state of California."

RBD (March 18, 2006)

A new mark for the highest paid attendance for a Latin music concert in the United States (63,101) was set on March 18, 2006, when RBD took the Coliseum stage. The record-breaking night kicked off the Mexican pop group’s 2006-07 Generación World Tour.

Roger Waters - “The Wall Live” (May 19, 2012)

“The Wall” by English progressive rock band Pink Floyd is regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time and is one of the bestselling albums in music history. In September 2010, former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters launched an ambitious worldwide tour, “The Wall Live.” The tour marked the first time The Wall was performed in its entirety by the band or any of its former members since Waters performed the album live in Berlin on July 21, 1990 to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In its concert review, The Hollywood Reporter praised the “singular experience” of “The Wall” at the Coliseum: “Visually stunning and sonically astounding, the mega-production is sheer spectacle – rock concert as performance art. There really isn’t anything to compare it against.”