This Day In History: December 3

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The general-admission ticketing policy for rock concerts at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum in the 1970s was known as “festival seating.” That term and that ticketing policy would become infamous in the wake of one of the deadliest rock-concert incidents in history. Eleven people, including three high-school students, were killed on December 3, 1979, when a crowd of general-admission ticket-holders to a Cincinnati Who concert surged forward in an attempt to enter Riverfront Coliseum and secure prime unreserved seats inside.

Festival seating had already been eliminated at many similar venues in the United States by 1979, yet the system remained in place at Riverfront Coliseum despite a dangerous incident at a Led Zeppelin show two years earlier. That day, 60 would-be concertgoers were arrested, and dozens more injured, when the crowd outside the venue surged up against the Coliseum’s locked glass doors.

In the early evening hours of December 3, 1979, those same doors stood locked before a restless and growing crowd of Who fans. That evening’s concert was scheduled to begin at 8:00 pm, but ticket-holders had begun to gather outside the Coliseum shortly after noon, and by 3:00 pm, police had been called in to maintain order as the crowd swelled into the thousands. By 7:00 pm, an estimated 8,000 ticket-holders were jostling for position in a plaza at the Coliseum’s west gate, and the crowd began to press forward. When a police lieutenant on the scene tried to convince the show’s promoters to open the locked glass doors at the west gate entrance, he was told that there were not enough ticket-takers on duty inside, and that union rules prevented them from recruiting ushers to perform that duty. At approximately 7:20, the crowd surged forward powerfully as one set of glass doors shattered and the others were thrown open.

With Coliseum security nowhere in sight, the police on hand were aware almost immediately that the situation had the potential for disaster, yet they were physically unable to slow the stream of people flowing through the plaza for at least the next 15 minutes. At approximately 7:45 pm, they began to work their way into the crowd, where they found the first of what would eventually turn out to be 11 concert-goers lying on the ground, dead from asphyxiation.

Afraid of how the crowd might react to a cancellation, Cincinnati fire officials instructed the promoters to go on with the show, and the members of the Who were not told what had happened until after completing their final encore hours later.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the City of Cincinnati banned festival seating at its concert venues. That ban was overturned, however, 24 years later, and improved crowd-control procedures have thus far prevented a reoccurrence of any such incident.