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Rock and Roll Tragedy: Why Eleven Died at The Who's Cincinnati Concert

"We didn't call it festival seating. We called it animal seating, because when they came in, they came in like a herd of cattle"

January 24, 1980
the who tragedy cover
Unknown

At about 7:15 on the evening of December 3rd, 1979, Larry Magid sat down to dinner with Frank Wood in the luxurious Beehive Club, a private club in the upper reaches of Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum. Wood, who is general manager of the city's premier rock station, WEBN-FM, remarked to Magid, who is head of Electric Factory of Philadelphia (one of the country's leading rock promoters), that the crowd streaming onto the coliseum floor far below them for that evening's Electric Factory-promoted Who concert seemed to be quite orderly. A "happy crowd," he said, not at all like the rabble that had disrupted previous "chain-saw concerts" there, like the Outlaws' fighting crowd and Led Zeppelin's mob. The crowd below them was sprinting to get as close as possible to the stage, in the grand tradition of "festival" or unreserved seating. By agreement of the coliseum management (the coliseum is privately owned), Electric Factory and the Who, mostly general-admission tickets had been sold: supposedly 3578 reserved seats in the loges at eleven dollars each and 14,770 general-admission tickets at ten dollars each.

A few of those thousands of young people – the youngest known was four years old – had blood on their shoes as they ran happily down the concrete steps into the "pit," the seatless area in front of the stage where the true fanatics stand throughout the show. But no one noticed. Some of the people who paused – dazed – beside the green and white pizza stand just past the nine turnstiles at the main entrance had no shoes on at all, and some had lost other bits of clothing. But other than that, inside the hall, it just seemed to be business as usual: the familiar ragtag rock & roll army staggering into the hall after five or six hours of waiting outside in the cold for the doors to open and keeping warm and happy with herbs and beer and wine and each other.

Magid and Wood continued their leisurely dinner. They still had plenty of time before the Who would come on, which would actually be about twenty minutes after the scheduled starting time of eight p.m., because the band would be preceded by clips from the film Quadrophenia. Cal Levy, who runs Electric Factory's Cincinnati office, cruised the aisles. Things looked okay to him. He had noticed at about 1:30 that afternoon that a large crowd was congregating around the main entrance – two banks of eight glass doors each, situated in a large "V," Levy had found coliseum operations director Richard Morgan and asked him to put into effect a special security procedure they sometimes used, which was to station guards at ramp entrances and allow only ticket holders onto the plaza at the main entrance, thus eliminating the gate-crashing element. The coliseum's entry level – the concourse and plaza – is reachable only by a bridge from adjacent Riverfront Stadium, where most people park, and by ramps from street level. There were no police on the spacious plaza at 1:30. Levy suggested to Morgan that some should be there. Sixteen arrived at three p.m. and by four there were twenty-five. The coliseum hires off-duty police to patrol the outside, and for security within the coliseum employs guards from the Cincinnati Private Police Association.

At about 6:30, lieutenant Dale Menkhaus, who headed the twenty-five-man detail outside, decided that the 8000 or so people who were now packed around the banks of doors were beginning to present a problem. The doors weren't scheduled to open until seven, but the crowd could hear the Who conducting its sound check and wanted in. It was thirty-six degrees and the wind coming off the Ohio River made it feel much colder. Menkhaus later said he told Levy and Morgan to open some doors; Levy told him the doors couldn't be opened till the sound check was over. Menkhaus was also told there weren't enough ticket takers. Morgan, as is the case with all coliseum employees, has no comment.

At seven p.m., the Who left the stage. No one inside the coliseum knew that while they ate dinner and conducted business as usual and waited until the appointed time to admit the "animals," just outside those front doors the horror had already begun, a horror under a full moon, a horror of chilling magnitude that will probably never be fully explained.

On June 28th, 1976, a young man named Richard Klopp sat down to his typewriter in his apartment on Auburn Avenue in Cincinnati. He was slow to anger but he was angry. That morning he had gone out bright and early to buy tickets to see Neil Young and Stephen Stills at the coliseum. He got to Ticketron an hour ahead of time because he wanted good seats, only to find that tickets were sold out because they had gone on sale three days before the date advertised by Electric Factory. Klopp was already unhappy about the last two Electric Factory shows he'd been to, so he just said, "By God, I'll send them a concerned citizen letter" – and just to be sure they didn't just blow him off as some rock druggie, he decided to send carbon copies to the city council, WEBN, Ticketron and to the Cincinnati public-safety director.

He wrote: "The two concerts that I have attended (the Who and Paul McCartney) were both sold out on a 'festival seating' or general-admission basis. What this means for the promoter is more money; for the concertgoer . . . this means that he'll probably have to sit in the aisles or on the floor . . . jeopardizing his safety and the safety of others. If a fire or general panic were to break out, many, many people would be trampled to death . . . Because civil people like to avoid these kinds of conflagrations, many concertgoers make a point of arriving at the coliseum two, three, and even four hours before the doors are 'scheduled' to open. At the Paul McCartney concert, for example, I arrived at 5:30, two hours before the doors were to open. After a span of two hours, several thousand people had congregated on the plaza in front of the doors. When they were finally opened (a half-hour late) the mass of people pressed forward, literally crushing those by the doors. . . . This is what happens when tickets are sold on a 'festival seating' basis, and it is no festival."

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