Agora Ballroom

The Agora Theatre and Ballroom in Cleveland, OH is located in a century-old restored opera house, just outside downtown Cleveland and only three miles from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  The now defunct Agora Ballroom, located at 165 Dexter Avenue in West Hartford, CT was located in an old typewriter warehouse, on top of landfill, just steps away from the local DPW.  However, despite its humble pedigree, the line-up of acts who graced the stage at West Hartford’s Agora Ballroom rivals its Cleveland-based parent and includes many artists who are now enshrined in the Rock Hall of Fame.

The concrete and steel building, which would become the Agora Ballroom, began life as a warehouse for Royal Typewriter in 1963 (author’s note:  I typed all of my papers in college on a Royal typewriter – I guess I am old), but it seems its destiny was always to be a music venue.  After Royal left in 1968, it was converted to a bowling alley, but the landfill below shifted, causing the lanes to warp.  After sitting vacant for several years, in 1973 it sprung back to life as The Columbia Music Hall.  “Music Hall” may be a bit of a misnomer because in addition to music, the venue also played host to boxing matches and other local events, including an indoor circus.  The Columbia Music Hall was short-lived however, as in late 1974, it became The West Hartford Music Hall, and then for a brief time in 1976 it was Finnochio’s, a popular gay bar.  In late 1976 and 1977, the owners tried to ride the disco wave, but it soon morphed into The Hard Rock Café (no relation to the popular chain) and by 1979, Stage West.                 

It was in 1982 that the owners of the successful Agora Theatre and Ballroom in Cleveland took over the building and added it to their growing list of venues around the country.  (Their stable of nationwide concert halls ultimately grew to twelve, but as of 2021, only the Agora Theatre and Ballroom in Cleveland remains.)   The capacity of the newly minted Agora Ballroom is open to debate today, with estimates ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 (seems high).  There was a main stage at one end and a smaller side stage.  There was a loft that bisected the room and the club could be walled off to provide a smaller 500 capacity room when using the side stage.  It was all standing-room-only, all the time.  Perhaps foreshadowing the popularity of outdoor concert sheds, the Agora had a massive parking lot (900 car capacity), ideally suited for pre-show tailgating.  The drinking age in CT did not go to 21 until late 1985 and the club (perhaps unwisely) allowed re-entry, so trips to the parking lot to “refuel” between acts were quite common.  

The website setlist.fm lists only 186 shows between 1982 and 1989, but former co-owner Hank Zukowski estimates he put on over 1,000 shows during his time there2.  The list of acts who appeared at the Agora Ballroom is a Who’s Who of rock royalty from the 1970’s and 1980’s:  Talking Heads, The Ramones (played there a dozen times), Peter Gabriel, and The Clash to name just a few.  Metal legends Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, Motorhead, Overkill and Slayer all played at the Agora; usually more than once.   Blues artists such as Johnny Winter, James Cotton, Rory Gallagher, Roy Buchanan, and a young guitar slinger from Texas named Stevie Ray Vaughan (a bootleg recording of the show can still be found on the internet) all crossed the stage in West Hartford. Even Aerosmith could be found there in 1984 – after their initial rise to fame, but before their 1987 comeback.          

In addition to national acts, the Agora regularly hosted some of the more well-known New England bands like NRBQ.  Connecticut-based jam band (before such a label existed), Max Creek considered the Agora its home.   To Mark Mercier of Max Creek, it was “in many people’s minds, the best place in the area to hear music, and since then, no place in Connecticut and western Massachusetts has come close to what it was. We had a wonderful time playing there.”   This view is shared by Max Creek’s one-time drummer, Greg DeGuglielmo.  “Fans loved it. Lots of room to dance. A great big room with a wooden stage. The sound was tremendous. The old wood in the place really resonated.”

As is often the case with shows at many smaller venues, some things had to be seen to be believed.  Christian heavy metal band Stryper threw tiny Bibles into the crowd during one of its shows.4  The late and legendary queen of punk, Wendy O. Williams, front woman of punk-band The Plasmatics, blew up a Cadillac during their show.  One regular at the Agora remembers seeing Billy Bragg during his first US tour playing with his amp strapped to his back.  He also recalls Psychedelic Furs vocalist Richard Butler sitting on his monitor having a smoke while he sang.  This author witnessed an unfortunate soul attempt to stage dive from the side stage into a half-filled house at a Stranglers show.  It did not end well.   

The Clash, at their Agora stop on their ill-fated final post-Mick Jones tour, delayed the start of their show to allow the crowd from the nearby Bushnell Auditorium to migrate over after the conclusion of the Pretenders concert in hopes of filling the venue (it worked).

In the fall of 1986, NRBQ refused to get on stage because it was Game 6 of the World Series and the Boston Red Sox were playing the New York Mets.  The band went on once the game ended, but by then much of the crowd, at least the Red Sox fans, had turned hostile.  

Even at the height of its popularity, the venue was not shy about revealing its roots, as patrons, employees, and artists all recall the occasional whiffs of methane wafting about, reminding all of the landfill below.

Despite its popularity, the Agora had enemies and it would suffer a calamity from which it would never recover.  In the middle of a July night in 1987, vandals broke into the club and all but destroyed the hall.  Sound equipment was stolen, walls were spray painted, and chainsaws were used to cut load-bearing posts which supported the balcony.  It is estimated that the vandals spent hours inside wreaking their havoc.  It is believed to be an inside job, but no motive was ever determined and no arrests were ever made. 

A valiant effort was made to re-open the club, but it was not to be.  In 1990, the Forum, the last club to occupy the space, closed for good.

In June 2009, after twenty years of disuse, building owners Arborio Corporation turned their excavators on the once-popular hall and in a matter of hours, the building was no more.   Today, 165 Dexter Avenue is now home to Agora Recycled Materials, so if you go there looking for rock, all you will find is gravel…

Footnotes:

2.  Leukhardt, Bill, “Razing the Roof”, June 14, 2009 https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-2009-06-14-second-look-agora0614-art-story.html

3.  Leukhardt, Bill, “Razing the Roof”, June 14, 2009 https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-2009-06-14-second-look-agora0614-art-story.html

4.  Leukhardt, Bill, “Razing the Roof”, June 14, 2009 https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-2009-06-14-second-look-agora0614-art-story.html

(by Lincoln Purdy)

 

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