For 22 years, the Allen Athletic Club’s weekly wrestling show at the Columbia Gym was the place to be on Tuesday night. Promoters Heywood Allen and his successors Francis and Betty McDonogh overcame the Great Depression, the 1937 flood, a World War, and a “crooked” athletic commissioner to bring the best of the golden age of wrestling to Louisville.
Now for the first time, author John Cosper (Bluegrass Brawlers) presents the full story of “That Gang of Allen’s,” the wrestlers, referees, announcers, and others who made Tuesday Louisville’s favorite night of the week. This is the story of the true golden age of wrestling, when men and women wore their Sunday best to see hometown heroes like Blacksmith Pedigo, Kid Scotty Williams, Stu Gibson, Mel Meiners, Sgt. Buck Moore, and “The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell mix it up with Lou Thesz, Gorgeous George, the French Angel, Buddy Rogers, Freddie Blassie, Johnny Valentine, Mildred Burke, Mae Young, Bobo Brazil, and Ginger the Wrestling Bear.
From mud matches to masked men; from Wild Bill Cantrell to Wild Bill Longson; from live TV to live alligators, the Allen Athletic Club was Louisville’s Greatest Show. This is the story of Louisville’s first great wrestling promotion and the families that made wrestling a vital part of the city they loved.
Louisville’s Greatest Show will be released in March!
One year and a day ago, I sat in a coffee house in New Albany, doing research on the Allen Athletic Club, the wrestling promotion that entertained Louisville for 22 years from 1935-1957. It was there that I finally stumbled upon an article I had searched nearly two years to find: Heywood Allen’s obituary. The article told me that Allen was buried in Jeffersonville, just fifteen minutes away. I raced out in the rain and found the final resting place of the promoter, his wife, and his ill-fated son Heywood, Jr.
Today the story of Allen and his partners Francis S. McDonogh and Betty McDonogh is nearly complete. Louisville’s Greatest Show is stacked with stories and photos that haven’t been seen in decades from the era of Lou Thesz, Mildred Burke, Gorgeous George, Wild Bill Longson, Bobo Brazil, and Buddy Rodgers, as well as local heroes like Mel Meiners, Wild Bill Cantrell, Stu Gibson, and more. There’s some proofreading and fact checking to do, plus a book cover to finish, but the book will be ready to read in March.
Fifteen minutes ago, sitting in a Dunkin Donuts in Louisville, I opened a new file on my laptop and began work on my next book. There’s a new story to tell, a new autobiography, and this one’s going to be a ton of fun. If you want to know who it is, give the video below a look.
Eat Sleep Wrestle: The Golden Age is a new wrestling program available only on the INC Channel on Roku featuring some of the greatest stars in the history of wrestling. ESW is the place to see Hall of famers and legends like Gorgeous George, The Shiek, Bobo Brazil, Mildred Burke, Cora Combs, Fritz Von Erich, Thunderbolt Patterson, and Warren Bockwinkel.
Produced by wrestling historian John Cosper, each episode of ESW features part or all of a match not seen on television in generations. Host Roni Jonah opens the show with a biographical sketch on the stars featured in each episode.
Eat Sleep Wrestle: The Golden Age can only be seen on INC, the Independent Network Channel, on Roku. INC features the best of obscure, out of print b-movies across all genres as well as current independent films from directors like Jerry Williams, Claude D. Miles, and George Bonilla. INC plans to offer more wrestling related in the future including the films of Mexican wrestler El Santo.
John Cosper is a writer and wrestling historian. His published works include Bluegrass Brawlers: The Story of Professional Wrestling in Louisville, Eat Sleep Wrestle, and I Probably Screwed You Too: The Mostly True Stories of Kenny Starmaker Bolin.
Roni Jonah is a professional wrestler turned actress and film director. Her wrestling resume includes Ohio Valley Wrestling and Women’s Extreme Wrestling.
There’s a lot of buzz about the Louisville Gardens and a “hidden treasure” I discovered when working on Bluegrass Brawlers.
The treasure is a Kilgen pipe organ installed just above the stage area inside the Gardens. The pipe organ is also a one man band, with percussion and brass instruments incorporated into its workings. It’s a priceless treasure that, until recently, was in danger of being lost forever due to neglect of the building.
This week, both the Courier-Journal and WFPL radio ran stories about the building, the organ, and an effort to save them both. Click on the hyperlinks to read what they had to say.
Originally built as the Jefferson County Armory, the Louisville Gardens began hosting pro wrestling in 1913. Ed “Strangler” Lewis was one of the very first to main event inside the building. He was followed by a host of world champions and trail blazers including Charlie Cutler, Americus, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Wladek Zbyszko, Joe Stecher, Orville Brown, Bill Longson, Lou Thesz, Mildred Burke, Buddy Rogers, The Sheik, Fritz Von Erich, and Bobo Brazil.
During the Memphis years it was home to Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, Dutch Mantell, Handsome Jimmy Valiant, Jimmy Hart, Jim Cornette, and the Fabulous Ones. Louisville Gardens also hosted many of the WWE’s biggest legends before they were stars, some with Memphis and others with OVW. Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, The Undertaker, Kane, Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock, John Cena, Batista, Brock Lesnar, and Randy Orton all worked the Gardens on their way to the top.
Andre the Giant wrestled there. Bobby “The Brain” Heenan had his in-ring debut in the building. Bret Hart had his last successful WWF title defense before the Montreal Screwjob in the building. That same show was also Brian Pillman’s final PPV appearance before he passed away.
And yes, believe it or not, Andy Kaufman stepped into the Memphis ring inside Louisville Gardens.
Louisville Gardens is a beautiful building with an incredible history. The building and the organ are treasures that deserve to be preserved and enjoyed for years to come. Here’s hoping the Gardens has not seen the last wrestling match inside those hallowed halls.
One of the wrestlers I discovered while researching Bluegrass Brawlers was a man named Jim Mitchell. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Mitchell was one of the early African American pioneers in professional wrestling. He wasn’t the first; that distinction goes to a former slave named Viro Small, who became a star wrestling in New York back in 1874. But Mitchell was one of the first African Americans in the modern era to break the color barrier, wrestling against white opponents for major promotions.
Early in his career, Mitchell wore a hood to the ring. He called himself “The Black Panther,” and he did battle with other non-white wrestlers. He was in good company, frequently doing battle with fellow African American stars Seelie Samara and Gentleman Jack Claybourne.
Mitchell was an athletic and gifted wrestler who proved he could be a draw. After a successful European tour and stops all around the US and Canada, he ended up in Los Angeles and became a regular at the Olympic Auditorium. Mitchell soon found the confidence to lose the mask and even wrestle under his real name.
In the late 1940s the LA promoters took a chance and put Mitchell in the ring against white opponents. Mitchell had to work these matches as a babyface for fear of what might happen outside the ring if he were a heel. It was still a risk, but Mitchell’s battles with white opponents proved to be a hit, opening the doors for others to follow.
His most famous battle took place in 1949 against one of pro wrestling’s greatest heels, Gorgeous George. After George tossed Mitchell from the ring, an angry fan rushed into the ring to take a swing at George. George dispatched the fan quickly, but when he did, the fans rose up and rushed the ring. George and Mitchell slipped through a hidden tunnel to the locker room while a riot, divided largely along racial lines, raged inside the Olympic.
Mitchell and George would meet many times in the coming years. Their in-ring rivalry was fierce, but in the locker room, there was no real rivalry. What’s more, the racism that divided the cities where Mitchell wrestled was non-existent in the pro wrestling locker room. The wrestlers, black and white, were bonded together by the sport they loved and a common adversary: the promoters who paid them. A 1954 account of an appearance Mitchell made in his hometown of Louisville describes a scene where white wrestlers rose to embrace and shake hands with the returning hero.
Mitchell worked a little as a referee in his later years in the business, and he also traveled with future Hall of Famer Bobo Brazil. After retiring from the ring, Mitchell opened a store in the Toledo area called Black Panther Carryout. The walls of the store featured photos and memorabilia from Mitchell’s career, and locals would come in to talk wrestling in addition to shopping. He passed away in 1996 at the age of 87.
Mitchell is an unsung pioneer in the history of pro wrestling. He deserves to be in the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame as well as the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.
Jim’s story is told in part in Louisville’s Greatest Show. I’m continuing my research on Jim Mitchells, and my hope is that I can eventually tell his full story. I’m looking for photos, programs, videos, stories, anything I can get my hands on. I’m also hoping to find some folks with first or second hand stories about the man, whether they come from relatives or the relatives of other wrestlers who worked with him.
If you’ve stumbled on this page and you have information about The Black Panther Jim Mitchell, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear from you!