For the better part of two decades, the Hampton Coliseum drew a concert lineup that was the envy of similar-sized arenas across the nation, landing show after show that generally went to venues twice as large.
A major reason for that was Andy Greenwell, who served as the Coliseum director from 1975-95. Greenwell died Friday at age 89 at his home in Patriots Colony in Williamsburg.
Bob Boester, who was chairman of the Coliseum’s board for many years under Greenwell, recalls an industry convention in 1990 at Palm Springs, Calif., attended by representatives of artist management and stage productions.
“Andy was on a panel discussion with the guy who ran Madison Square Garden, the guy who ran the Forum in Los Angeles, and the guy who ran the giant arena at Notre Dame,” Boester said. “They all made opening statements, and then after that it was one person after another in the audience standing up and saying to the other guys, ‘Why can’t you run your building the way Greenwell runs Hampton?’
“That’s how he drew people. He knew how to run things, and how to make it easy for bands to play here. That’s why we used to get 50 major live shows a year despite the fact that we were a small market.”
Greenwell’s tenure at the Coliseum saw performances by The Who, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, as well as almost two dozen shows by the Grateful Dead.
Promoter Bill Reid, who booked countless shows at the Coliseum through his Cellar Door Productions, said Greenwell was a smart and fair businessman who always saw the larger picture — willing to risk overspending to bring in a big show because he knew how much it would mean in concessions, hotel and restaurant business, and other commerce.
“One Friday night when Springsteen was playing and Andy took me up to the third level of the Hampton Coliseum, and you could feel the building swaying,” Reid said. “The people were dancing and swaying, and you could feel the whole building move, and he was afraid it wasn’t safe. He said to me, ‘You’ve got to go down there and tell Bruce to stop it,’ and I thought, ‘I don’t think that’s going to happen.’
“So we went back to his office and we called the architect who had built the Coliseum. It was about 9 o’clock, and I think he had extended happy hour, and we got on the speaker phone and told him Bruce Springsteen was playing and the whole building was swaying. The guy just laughed and said, ‘That’s why I designed the building that way.’”
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Frank Roach, who first worked with Greenwell in the city’s Department of Commerce and later as his assistant director at the Coliseum, praised his former boss as an outstanding mentor. Roach left the Coliseum and worked in the corporate office at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The two men who followed him as Greenwell’s assistant directors went on to run big arenas in major markets.
“When I first met Andy I had eight months of experience as a social worker, and that’s all the work I had done,” Roach said. “He was so willing to take people who knew absolutely nothing and mentor them to where they became very successful. It was in his nature to be a teacher. He was a hard boss at times, and he could chew your butt pretty good, but he was always encouraging and he wasn’t afraid to let you make a mistake — as long as you didn’t make the same one twice.”
Greenwell was born in Leonardtown, Md., and spent time in the Merchant Marines and the U.S. Army, including a year in Korea during 1953-54. After four years as a reporter at the Daily Press, he went to work for Hampton’s commerce department in 1964 and then became the Coliseum director in 1975. He took early retirement in 1991 but quickly was hired back until his full retirement in 1995.
There’s no question he had a big influence in what happened in Hampton during those years.
— Former Hampton mayor Jimmy Eason
“There’s no question he had a big influence in what happened in Hampton during those years,” former Mayor Jimmy Eason said. “He was a very likable person. Smiling came easy to him. That smile just captured people. He worked hard at the Coliseum, and people liked him, and that led to a lot of success.”
Greenwell served on the Governor’s Tourism Advisory Board and the Virginia Travel Council and was active in many local organizations and charities.
He is survived by six daughters and their families, including more than a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The family will receive friends from 5-7 p.m. Thursday at R. Hayden Smith Funeral Home in downtown Hampton. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 12:30 p.m. Friday at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 512 Buckroe Ave., Hampton. He will be buried on Saturday at Our Lady’s Church at Medley’s Neck in Leonardtown, Md.