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.
Just passing on a quick plug for my friends at Crowbar Press. They currently have 25 wrestling titles available with four new ones on the way. Hooker and Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George? are two of my personal favorites, books I highly recommend to any wrestling fan. Visit them at www.crowbarpress.com to see what else they have to offer.
If you don’t know, the two men in the photo at left are Hy Zaya and Shane Mercer, two of the very best wrestlers in the Midwest.
These two men have been bitter rivals. They have fought, they have bled, they have waged war with one another.
They have also shared locker rooms, cars, and hotel rooms with one another. They have traveled the country side by side in pursuit of a dream they share in common.
Are they rivals? Of course they are. But they are also brothers in the truest sense of the word.
“Sure we’ve discussed racial overtones as a topic,” says mercer, “But I don’t think we honestly thought much of color when it came to each other and sharing the road life. Life’s about so much more than color.
Enjoy it man.”
This is the way it has always been in wrestling, at least among “the boys.” While the seats and the card out front may have divided along color, the boys rarely were. They shared locker rooms. They shared rides. They shared tables at dinner. They shared hotel rooms – even if that meant one sneaking the other in when the manager wasn’t looking.
When the opportunity finally came, many white wrestlers were happy to put black wrestlers over. Even the great Lou Thesz, who would never, ever allow Buddy Rogers to go over him in the ring, put the legendary Seelie Samara over when given the chance.
Why didn’t these men see color? For one thing, they shared a common enemy. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, they were all united against the unscrupulous promoters who didn’t want to pay any of them fair compensation. But that wasn’t the only reason for the difference.
Wrestlers judge other wrestlers on just one thing – how you work in the ring. If you know your craft, if you treat others with respect, if you give as well as you take, you are welcome. It’s the color of your character, not your skin, that matters most.
Whatever you think of pro wrestling inside the ring, we can all take a lesson from how they do business outside the arena. It’s time to look past what’s on the outside. We all need to overcome our prejudices and look a little deeper.
Lord Carlton: Wrestler, Artist, My Father tells the story of Leo Whippern, a promising young artist from California who became one of the top stars of the golden age of wrestling. Whippern made a name for himself during the 1940s as Sailor Tug Carlson, but when he realized he was just another strapping young war veteran in black trunks, he traded in his sailor’s cap for a monocle.
Inspired by Lord Lansdowne, the same man whose gimmick inspired Gorgeous George, Whippern transformed himself into the British heel Lord Leslie Carlton. His new heel persona made him a rich man as he created drama in and out of the ring, but his family life after wrestling proved to be even wilder than any wrestling storyline.
Lord Leslie Carlton’s tale is a story of triumph and heartbreak. It’s the story of a stellar athlete and a talented artist, an eclectic migrant family, a tragic murder, a vengeful wife, and the daughter who somehow found the God her father never believed in.
Iowa is the high school wrestling capital of the world. Travel to Iowa in the middle of winter and you’ll find arenas packed with fans watching high school grapplers compete in the world’s second oldest sport.
Iowa is home to the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, and Des Moines was the home of legendary promoter Pinkie George and the birthplace of the National Wrestling Alliance. Iowa holds a central place in the history of professional wrestling, so it should come as no surprise that Iowa is home to one of the best commentary podcasts on pro wrestling.
The Pro Wrestling Iowa Podcast is a weekly program covering the national wrestling promotions as well as the local independent scene. Each week they discuss the current storylines on WWE, current events involving professional wrestlers and promotions, and independents wrestling in the Des Moines area and beyond.
This is not a rambling, ranting program made up of old timers lamenting how things used to be. This is solid, insightful discussion about what’s happening on TV and on the local scene in Des Moines from guys who know their stuff. Brad LaFratte, Dustin Smothers, and Kevin Wilder are true wrestling enthusiasts who bring a wide range of experiences and knowledge to the program as well as the Pro Wrestling Iowa website. New contributor Darnell Mitchell brings a fresh take to the program as well as a huge passion for women’s wrestling.
If you’re in or near the Des Moines area and call yourself a wrestling fan, Pro Wrestling Iowa is a must-add to your iTunes podcast subscription, but fans outside the Midwest should give it a listen as well. The Pro Wrestling Iowa team consistently gives great insight on the WWE, and independent wrestling enthusiasts will enjoy discovering what’s happening at 3X Wrestling, Impact Pro Wrestling, and others in the region.
Pro Wrestling Iowa can be heard on iTunes. You can also follow them on Twitter and read more on their website.
Heywood Allen ran his first show under his own banner in Swiss Park on June 4, 1935. They drew 1000 people that night, 822 of them paid, for a gate of $485. Allen was already there established face of Louisville wrestling, having been part of the city’s fight tradition for nearly 30 years, but at history first show, Allen chose a man whose pro wrestling legend has largely been overshadowed by his accomplishments in traditional wrestling.
Billy Thom was billed as the Junior Welterweight Championship that night, and he successfully defended his title against Alexander “Cyclone” Burns. Thom, who also wrestled in Indianapolis and other towns across the Midwest, was a fixture for the Allen Club from 1935 to 1940. He wrestled Louisville stalwart Blacksmith Pedigo, the groundbreaking Lord Patrick Lansdowne, and University of Kentucky legend Billy Love.
Thom’s rivalry with Love was fitting because outside the squared circle, Thom was the head wrestling coach at Indiana University. He began his coaching career at Wabash High School before moving up to IU in 1927. Thom built the IU wrestling program into a powerhouse, winning eight Big Ten titles and the 1932 NCAA championship during his tenure.
Thom’s proudest moment came in 1936, when he traveled to Berlin to coach the United States wrestling team in the Olympics. Three of Thom’s Indiana students made the squad that summer Charley McDaniel and Willard Duffy were named alternates, while Dick Voliva competed against the world’s best.
Voliva was a native of Bloomington, a two-time state champion, and a member of Thom’s 1932 national championship team. He won an NCAA title of his own in 1934, and after graduating with his bachelor’s degree, he continued to train with Thom while working on his Master’s degree.
Voliva made it all the way to the gold medal round, where he finally tasted defeat. He took home the silver, becoming the only Indiana University grad to medal in wrestling.
Thom was thrilled for his student, a young man he had watched over for nearly a decade. “A boy I had seen grow up in Bloomington, had coached to a Big Ten Championship, an NCAA championship, a National AAU championship, and then the Olympic team… if I were to pick one incident as my greatest thrill, that would be it.”
Thom’s success at the Olympics enabled him to continue recruiting the top wrestlers from across the state, including a state champion from Hammond, Indiana known best to today’s fans as Dory Funk, Sr. He left Indiana University in 1945 but returned to work for the Allen Club in both 1945 and 1946 as a wrestler. He made one final appearance for the club in 1951, when he acted as special guest referee for a match between Lou Thesz and a masked menace named Green Dragon. Ed “Strangler” Lewis was also at ringside for the event in Thesz’s corner.
Thom is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, the Indiana University Athletics Hall of Fame, and the Indiana Wrestling Hall of Fame. Voliva became an outstanding coach in his own right and joined his mentor in the IU and Indiana Hall of Fame. The Indiana Hall continues to honor Thom today, presenting the Billy Thom award annually to an individual who has made significant contributions to amateur wrestling in Indiana.
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.
The back wall of my man cave is not prepped and ready for battle.
Right now, there are 50 cards with 50 stories to find and write. They are stories about promoter Louisville wrestling Heywood Allen; wrestling venues like the Columbia Gym and the outdoor Sports Arena; big names like Lou Thesz, Orville Brown, and June Byars; and local names like Stu Gibson, Mel Meiners, Kid Scotty Williams, and Blacksmith Pedigo.
The goal: to tell the full story of Heywood Allen and the Allen Athletic Club, Louisville’s wrestling source from 1935-1957.
I’ll be posting updates and stories here as the book progresses. Meantime, you can get a glimpse of the story – and the rest of Louisville’s wrestling history – with my first book, Bluegrass Brawlers.
Very excited to tell the story of Louisville’s forgotten wrestling promotion.