Nassau Coliseum – Mecca of Bollywood entertainment in America turning off the lights

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Nassau Coliseum, in Long Island, NY. Photo: Dreamstime

NEW YORK – New York’s Nassau Coliseum, the Long Island-based arena that hosted countless Bollywood shows and concerts in the past, helped connect and entertain the Indian diaspora in an unprecedented way more starting more than two decades ago, is shuttering its doors for good, turning off the lights.

Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s Onexim Sports and Entertainment, which operates the arena under a lease from Nassau County, is planning to shutter the venue indefinitely while it seeks investors to take over operations and pick up the remaining debt on the building, according to people familiar with the matter, reported Bloomberg, on Tuesday.

Onexim has told potential investors that it would turn over the lease in return for assuming roughly $100 million in loans on the property, and the firm, which is laying off arena employees, could also surrender the lease to its lenders, the report said.

The arena has been dark since the coronavirus pandemic hit New York and shut down much of the US economy. Onexim makes its money from live events, but the lease on the arena includes development rights that could be valuable to property investors, said Bloomberg.

The Uniondale, New York, arena, known formally as the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum when it opened in 1972, has long played a central role in life on Long Island.

It was home to the Islanders for more than 40 years, including the franchise’s four consecutive Stanley Cup title runs in the 1980s. The singer-songwriter Billy Joel performed there so frequently that the Coliseum’s operators printed his name on a banner and hung it from the rafters.

The arena closed in 2015 for a $180 million renovation, and the Islanders moved to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, sharing the venue with the National Basketball Association franchise owned by Prokhorov at the time. The Coliseum reopened in 2017 and has hosted roughly 200 events a year, including concerts, minor-league basketball and professional lacrosse, Bloomberg reported.

In February, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the Coliseum would host all of the franchise’s home games during the 2020-21 season. But the Covid-19 pandemic upset those plans, casting doubt on when sports leagues would resume and whether they would allow fans to attend games.

New York Post noted that last year billionaire Joseph Tsai purchased the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center from Prokhorov, but that deal did not include the Coliseum.

“While we still believe in the enormous long term economic value of the Coliseum and the development of the surrounding land, [Nassau Events Center] recognizes that such value will be best realized by other parties,” a statement obtained by The Post from Onexim read.

“Accordingly, NEC has engaged with Nassau County, other important stakeholders, and potential investors to find the right party or parties to take over operations of the Coliseum. We cannot predict or control the actions of other interested stakeholders. However, we remain confident that the Coliseum and the proposed development project represent valuable investment opportunities, committed to the effort to find the right solution to the problems confronting the Coliseum, and hopeful that these efforts will bear fruit,” the statement said.

For the Indian diaspora – especially those who had emigrated from India and were mesmerized by the aura of Bollywood stars, Nassau Coliseum was the place to go to in the summer or early fall, and attend a Bollywood awards show or concert; revel in the roughly three hours of entertainment provided by top actors, who flew over from Mumbai.

New York magazine, in a May, 2007, in a piece on the popular annual Bollywood Movie Awards show held at the Coliseum, wrote how in the middle of her multiple-costume dance routine over Memorial Day weekend, actress Soha Ali Khan yanked two friends from her London School of Economics days onstage, and made them dance in front of a 10,000 strong audience. Joining her on stage were also other stars, like Saif Ali Khan, Bipasha Basu and Vivek Oberoi.

It was also the same year that the show, conceptualized and organized by a former airlines pilot and electronics dealer Kamal Dandona – based in New York, was telecast by Sony Entertainment Television Asia’s networks in India, to a billion people.

Dandona’s goal then was to make the awards show mainstream, like the Latin Music Awards or the BET Awards, the New York report said. Danny Glover was awarded Outstanding Contribution to Global Entertainment, and director Mira Nair got the Pride of India award, at the show.

Newsday, covering the same event that year, quoted Indu Jaiswal, chairman of the Indian American Forum and a past president of the Indian Association of Long Island, saying she had attended the shows every year.

“Twenty years back we never had such awards – it’s bringing about more awareness of Indian progress and tradition in mainstream America through movies,” she said.

Dandona, who emigrated from India to the US, in 1979, said this to Newsday of his enterprise of bringing Bollywood stars to perform on Long Island: “When I came to America I felt there was a void. The only way to have a link with your motherland, in my opinion, was through the medium of movies. Indian-Americans contribute so much financially to the homeland and promote the culture all over the world, so I thought our voices should be heard. It was in this spirit that I started the Bollywood Awards.”

Dandona’s company, the Bollywood Group of Companies, then also presented each fall in and around New York the smaller Bollywood Music Awards and the Bollywood Fashion Awards, Newsday reported.

In 1992, Dandona decided to do a trial run of a movie awards show he called the Nataraj Awards, collecting on contacts to coax some of Bollywood’s leading stars, like Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit, to come to New York to receive their awards. He fine-tuned the efforts, which now include luring big stars with the promise of an award – conferring a sort of Bollywood imprimatur – and the show was reborn as Bollywood Awards in 1997. Tickets those days for the show at the Coliseum, ranged from $25-$250.

Michael Jackson came in 1999 to pick up his “Humanitarian Award” and Shah Rukh Khan made an appearance, at the Coliseum. Other award recipients then included Richard Gere, to collect the ‘Man of Conscience’ awards, and Sharon Stone, for her work on raising consciousness about AIDS.

In the last few years, while Bollywood awards shows continued to wane in America, with the advent of social media and streaming of more Bollywood entertainment through apps on television, popularity of concerts by Indian stars didn’t diminish.

Last year, among others, the Coliseum hosted a bevy of popular Indian entertainers, including the irrepressible musician and composer A R Rahman and the Punjabi actor Dilip Dosanjh.

It remains to be seen if after the pandemic is safely behind New Yorkers, the Coliseum will ever open its doors as a live event shows space again, or be converted to something else.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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