A piece of pop culture history goes up in flames

The Coliseum Ballroom, much as it appeared when it opened Dec. 24, 1924.

Last night, a fire destroyed the Coliseum Ballroom in Benld, Ill.

The 85-plus year old building, located about an hour northeast of St. Louis, was steeped in history, culture and area folklore, with a little mystery and intrigue thrown in.

Among the landmark’s claim to fame, it supposedly was haunted, and I went along with a local paranormal research group, PROSI, a few weeks ago as they held an investigation. I now am very glad I had the opportunity to see and explore the building before its demise.

Built in 1924 at a cost of $50,000, the ballroom initially was used to showcase legendary orchestras and “big band” events, and many older locals have fond memories of dancing until the wee hours to the music of Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington.
In later years, it became THE hot spot for performers on tour between St. Louis and Chicago, and the Everly Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, and AC/DC were among the many acts that packed the house.

But plenty of concealed secrets and hushed whispers also permeated the small town of Benld regarding its landmark structure. Original owner Dominic Tarro, who also owned several businesses in town, was a known bootlegger and Mafia associate. Al Capone had many ties to the building and the business, and Mafia meetings with armed guards posted in the upper wings were common. Capone himself, rumored to be at the helm of the prostitution ring working out of the ballroom, visited often “to see how business was going.”
After a string of arrests related to racketeering charges, Tarro’s burned and bullet-ridden car was found on a deserted road. His body was found (bound) in the Sangamon River. It is commonly believed he was murdered before he had the chance to tell the FBI the many things he knew regarding organized crime.

In the 1970s, Tarro’s daughter was shot and killed in her nearby home by intruders.

The iconic building engulfed in flames the night of July 30, 2011.

According to members of PROSI, it is no wonder a building with such a varied and violent history would be the home of spirits at unrest. During the investigation, I saw for myself the bullet-ridden wall behind the stage, a somber reminder of what the place was sometimes used for.

It is sad to see such an iconic location of local and pop culture history be laid to rest. The new owners were hoping to restore the Coliseum to its former glory in the hopes of it becoming a popular venue once again.

Now all the town of Benld will have are the memories and legends of something really great.