Saving `Guitar Man'

Sentimental Hamden Man Mounts Coliseum Icon -- Well, Part Of It -- On His Pizzeria Storefront


For years and years, he took New Haven's center stage in all his shimmering gold and fiber-optic glory, wielding his giant guitar over downtown residents. Now, like so many acts before him, the city's giant guitarist -- the one bolted to the side of the gradually disappearing New Haven Coliseum -- has been relegated to a smaller venue. At least, half of him has. His legs didn't fit.

Thanks to the saving grace of Leonard Reizfeld, a Hamden attorney and fan, passersby and patrons of his Blues Brick Oven Pizza now enjoy an encore by the guitarist who once shined from the coliseum. ``He's 40 feet tall; there was no way [all of him] would fit on the side of this building,'' Reizfeld said one morning in his pizza restaurant on Dixwell Avenue in Hamden, decorated with hanging, hollowed-out pianos and music-themed murals. ``He's so heavy, he's literally bolted through the walls.''

The coliseum's aluminum figures of a basketball player, ice skater and hockey player weren't so fortunate. They weren't adopted and were victims of wrecking crews. Reizfeld also owns the monster truck, but hasn't decided what to do with it.

The coliseum is being demolished as part of New Haven's $230 million Gateway Downtown Development Project -- the city's largest revitalization project in more than 30 years -- to include a hotel, conference center and housing.

The coliseum's demolition had been stalled for a few months, but workers have come back. By two weeks ago, none of the coliseum's external decor remained, save for its stenciled sign, which will soon be gone, too. Engineers are preparing a plan for imploding the superstructure.

Reizfeld, 45, wishes the city had found an alternative to removing the coliseum, which he fondly remembers as the place he saw the circus, hockey games and concerts. But others in city government aren't as attached, either to the building or the super-size silhouettes that were intended to call attention to the venue and the city.

"They bought these from an off-the-shelf company with the intent to dress the coliseum up,'' said Barbara Lamb of New Haven's Office of Cultural Affairs. ``As I recall, the original proposal called for the building to be ringed with these things. But that clearly wasn't going to happen. It's not like they're works of art. In my opinion, they didn't do anything to help it.''

Mayor John DeStefano agreed.

"They were my idea, then I began to hate them,'' DeStefano said in an e-mail.

During the late 1990s, as the coliseum's star was fading, DeStefano and the city blamed the building's lack of signage and set out to solve the problem with a large electronic message board announcing upcoming events to motorists on I-95. The state Department of Transportation nixed that idea, however, as too much of a distraction. So the city came up with the large ``The Coliseum'' sign and ``icons to highlight the types of events that took place at the facility,'' said Tony Bialecki, New Haven's deputy director of economic development.

Since the city has long prohibited large neon signs downtown, Signlite of North Haven came up with the five aluminum shapes, large enough to see during the day and lighted with fiber optics at night.

"Did they achieve their purpose? I suspect they added to the building such that if you were just driving into New Haven, you perhaps would realize that the rusting hulk of the garage was something more than just a large parking structure,'' Bialecki said.

When the city closed the coliseum in the fall of 2002, Reizfeld felt moved by the impending fate of the icons and bought the guitar man for $100. He then spent $450 to hire a 90-ton crane and recruited a crew of friends to bring him down.

"We had to unscrew him and then, when that didn't work, demolition-saw him off the building,'' Reizfeld said. ``It was a nightmare.''

Guitar man took up residence in Reizfeld's backyard for nearly two years while he devised a plan for the musician's next appearance. In the meantime, Reizfeld said, he bought the monster truck for $100; it's sitting on the demolition company's lot in Stamford.

The size and weight of the figures detract from their resale value, said Bialecki.

"To make use of them, and get the same effect as was intended on the coliseum, you have to have a significant building,'' he said. ``Few buildings have the type of wall space the coliseum did -- in some ways they were almost lost on the garage structure except at night when they were lighted and very hard to miss.''