Much ado has been made about a comment from a certain wrestling executive about how wrestling only took place in tiny bars before the WWF came along. Today I decided to share a few programs I have from one of those tiny bars: The Jefferson County Armory, now known as Louisville Gardens.
The first program is from way back in 1952. This tiny bar program saw World Champion Lou Thesz defend his title against Enrique Torres with former champ Ed “Strangler” Lewis in Thesz’s corner. Ray Eckert, Stu Gibson, Ethel Johnson, and Bill Longson were also on the card held in front of a meager 9281 fans in this tiny bar.
A year later, the same bar wrestling promotion, the Allen Athletic Club, presented this card:
Baron Leone was the victor in the main event that night, defeating Gentleman Jim Doby. Other stars included the Great Zorro (pictured), Mae Young, Bill Longson, Stu Gibson, and Gloria Barratini. The bar was really packed that night, with a new record attendance of 9384 reported in the newspaper.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited to see some of the changes this innovative WWE executive is already bringing to television. But if we’re really going to go all the way, perhaps we should drop the company line that pro wrestling was irrelevant before WWF at the same time we drop the word Superstar in favor of Wrestler.
Who would you say is Louisville’s biggest wrestling fan?
I know more than one person who would say it was their grandma. Not grandpa, but grandma. That’s no accident. As far back as the 1940s women were as frequent a site in the stands as men, thanks in part to the efforts of Betty McDonogh in the Allen Athletic Club ticket office. Even in the 80s, many old ladies never missed wrestling at the Louisville Gardens or the chance to tell their least favorite wrestler too kiss their wrinkled butts.
You could also make a case the biggest fan ever was Jim Oetkins. Jim reached out to me after I published Louisville’s Greatest Show and asked if we could meet. He brought along a spiral notebook he kept in the 1950s, recording the results from every week at the Columbia Gym on 4th Street. All those records I pulled off the Internet, he’d kept them in real time as a boy!
And let’s not forget the woman who went into labor one Tuesday night at the Gardens. She was on a gurney, ready to be rushed down the street to give birth, but she refused to leave. Teeny Jarrett pleaded with her, promising to let her know who won the main event, but the woman wanted to see for herself!
And then there’s the man who tried to get a wrestling ticket in exchange for a horse.
The incident took place on March 9, 1933 out in front of the Savoy Theater, now long-vanished from Market Street downtown. In the midst of The Great Depression, the Savoy Theater’s manager C.B. Blake (pictured below) announced that for one night only, the theater would accept “scrip, certified checks, promissory notes, merchandise, or pawn on valuables as par values.” Cash was, of course, still accepted for those who had it.
The Savoy wrestling show was the hot ticket in 1933, and many fans took them up on the offer. According to The Courier-Journal, the box office accepted a variety of items in lieu of money for tickets that night: oats, sauerkraut, sauerkraut juice, razor blades, a sewing machine, coffee, malt, cheese, socks, canned milk, canned chile, a card table, rings, lavaliers, watches, $3 in Courier-Journal scrip, crackers, flour, soft drinks, tomatoes, peas, corn, IOUs from four barbers, a ham, fifteen dozen eggs, and five chickens. Attendance that night was 1567, and the box office collected $809.75 cash in addition to the $90 worth of merchandise.
There was one offer refused by Blake and company. A man rode up shortly before bell time and asked if he could get a wrestling ticket in exchange for a horse. There’s nothing to indicate if the horse was in fine condition of a swaybacked nag, but the offer was refused.
You can hardly blame the guy for trying. Jack Reynolds was on the card that night, along with former Kentucky Wildcat Billy Love and speed boat racer “Wild Bill” Cantrell. Everyone wanted tickets to the Savoy!
The tale of the Savoy Theater is a fascinating saga that was missed when I first published Bluegrass Brawlers. Blake and his booker would fend off multiple challenges from rival promoters (including Abe Finberg down the street at the Gayety Theater) as well as two different incarnations of the Kentucky State Athletic Commission. They were the top draw in Louisville for many years – until Blake’s booker, Heywood Allen, decided to part company and start his own wrestling promotion.
It’s been almost 10 years since I started writing about pro wrestling in December 2012. Okay, so that’s eleven months out, but what’s pro wrestling without a little exaggeration?
The book that started it all, Bluegrass Brawlers (2014), is no longer available on Amazon or Kindle. That’s because I’ve gone back to the beginning to create a new edition, a 10th anniversary edition, if you will.
Bluegrass Brawlers is getting a major overhaul. I spent the last several months compiling every wrestling result from 1880 through 1966, when Louisville went dark before the Memphis era. I also conducted more than a dozen new interviews including Jeff Van Camp, Al Snow, Billie Starkz, Bryan Kennison, Charlene McKenzie, Hy Zaya, Cash Flo, Josh Ashcraft, Judi-Rae Hendrix, Maria James, Haley J, Ryan Howe, and Doug Basham. And I still have a few more to go.
The original book covered four distinct eras: The Pioneers (1880-1920), The Allen Athletic Club (1935-1957), the Memphis era (1970-1997), and the OVW era (1996-2014). All four of those sections have been expanded, some by a little, some by a lot. I also expanded on the Dick the Bruiser era (touched only briefly in the 2014 edition), filled in the time gap between 1920-1935, and told the story of Louisville since 2014.
New stories covered in the new edition include:
Steve Callaway, a long forgotten African American wrestling hero from the turn of the 20th century.
Promoter Abe Finberg, who booked wrestling at the Gayety Theater and later created a heavyweight promotion.
C.B. Blake and the Savoy Theater.
The feud between Blake, booker Heywood Allen, and the Kentucky State Board of Athletic Control, the first state institution that attempted to regulate wrestling.
Louisville fan favorite Jack Reynolds.
Gorgeous George comes to Louisville – and to dinner.
Wahoo McDaniel in Louisville in the early 1960s.
Phil Golden’s All Star Wrestling.
New Albany native Jeff Van Camp, better known in the ring as Lord Humongous.
A hilarious fan story about Flex Kavana, aka Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Tales from the first students at OVW including Doug Basham and Nick Dinsmore.
The sale of OVW to Al Snow.
The rise of the Legacy of Brutality.
The growth of the indie scene in Southern Indiana.
Crazy Mary Dobson becomes Sarah Logan in the WWE.
And the rise of women’s wrestling in Louisville and beyond.
The new book includes a lot more photos and 50% (and counting) more written content. Thanks to a more professional layout, it’ll still be around 330 pages.
The Champ vs. the Human Orchid… it happened in Louisville. Thesz and George met on November 27, 1954 at the Jefferson County Armory (now the Louisville Gardens).
Thesz and George split the first two falls, but George refused to come out for the third fall while a “physician” examined George’s injuries. The unidentified medic said he believed George could go on, but George was reluctant. He finally decided to go to the ring, but as he was making his way to the ring, referee (and LPD homicide detective) Ellis Joseph was already raising Thesz’s hand, declaring him the winner.
Earlier in the evening, “The Mask” defeated New Albany native Stu Gibson via DQ, Sonny Meyers drew with Johnny Valentine, and Billy Blassie defeated Sgt. Buck Moore. 4200 attendance.
Below is the Saturday newspaper ad for the big event, plus a page from a notebook kept by then-teenage fan Jim Oetkins, recording the results from the night.
Louisville’s Greatest show is a labor of love that is truly four years in the making. When I started digging deep into Louisville’s rich wrestling history for Bluegrass Brawlers, I had no trouble finding stories about the OVW and Memphis years, but it was the “golden age” from 1935-1957 that fascinated me most. While I barely scratched the surface when I wrote Bluegrass Brawlers, Louisville’s Greatest Show will give you a year by year account of the Allen Athletic Club – the wrestlers, the shows, and the city that hosted them both.
In addition to the year by year account of the promotion and owners Heywood Allen and Francis S. McDonogh, Louisville’s Greatest Show also features more than twenty profiles of local and national wrestling stars, including:
Indiana University wrestling coach Billy Thom
Lord Patrick Lansdowne
Hall of Fame Hydroplane racer Wild Bill Cantrell
Kid Scotty Williams
Kentucky Athletic Commissioner Johnson S. Mattingly
The legendary Wild Bill Longson
“Cousin Alviry” Elvira Snodgrass
Fred Blassie, before he was “classy”
Promoter’s wife Betty McDonogh
Chicago Bears star Fred Davis
Sgt. Buck Moore of the Louisville Police
Colonel Stu Gibson
WHAS sports director Jimmy Finegan
Ed “Strangler” Lewis
“The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell
Louisville police detective and ref Ellis Joseph
Ring announcer George Lewis
Wee Willie Davis
Louisville’s Greatest Show is the story of a city that loved wrestling and the men and women who made wrestling a Tuesday night tradition. The book is filled with never-before-published photos and stories you won’t find anywhere else.
Louisville’s Greatest Show will be available on Amazon.com and other online retailers this weekend!
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!
No, don’t get your hopes up. There’s no Hall of Fame in the works by me, or anyone else I know of. Just a little hypothetical question:
If there were a Louisville Wrestling Hall of Fame, who would you want to see in it?
I have a long list of suggestions. In no particular order, they are:
Ed “Strangler” Lewis – A first ballot entry for sure, the Strangler got his famous name in Louisville after showing up two weeks late for a booking under his real name.
Heywood Allen – A referee turned promoter who was involved in the Louisville wrestling scene from the early 1900s until 1947.
Francis S. McDonogh – Allen’s successor, who took the Allen Athletic Club into its hey day in the 1950s, pioneering wrestling on Louisville television and drawing record crowds at the Armory.
Betty McDonogh – Wife of Francis and the business manager for Allen and her husband. She gets credit for helping to popularize wrestling with a female audience in the 1940s, when the promotion drew more ladies every week for a time than men.
Wild Bill Longson – The only man to win a world championship in Louisville. Longson was a fixture for the Allen Athletic Club throughout the 40s and 50s and even worked as a booker for the promotion.
“The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell – A true pioneer, Mitchell was an African American wrestler before, during, and after the “color barrier” was put in place. He was also a mentor to the legendary Bobo Brazil.
Col. Stu Gibson – A New Albany native and former football hero who became a huge heel in Louisville and San Antonio.
Wee Willie Davis – A wrestler and movie star who moved to Louisville and ran a few promotions during the late 50s and 60s.
Jerry Jarrett – Wrestler and promoter who brought Louisville into the Memphis territory in 1970.
Jerry Lawler – The King of Memphis could lay equal claim to royalty in Louisville with all the legendary nights he had at the Gardens.
Jim Cornette – Arguably the most famous Louisville native in the pro wrestling business. Considered one of the greatest managers of all time. With the Rock N Roll Express going into the WWE Hall of Fame, one can only hope Jim and the Midnight Express will be next.
Danny Davis – Wrestler and manager during the Memphis era who moved to Louisville and founded OVW.
Ian Rotten – Former ECW wrestler who founded IWA Mid-South, a promotion that has lasted just as many years as the more mainstream OVW.
Kenny “Starmaker” Bolin – Louisville native and life-long nemesis of Cornette, Bolin helped launch the WWE careers of more than 4 dozen wrestlers who once belonged to Bolin Services.
John Cena – OVW’s most famous son.
CM Punk – IWA Mid-South’s most famous son.
The “OVW Four” aka Rob Conway, Nick Dinsmore, The Damaja, and Doug Basham – Four Southern Indiana natives, two (Conway and Dinsmore) from right across the river, who made it to the WWE after starting in the OVW beginner class. Basham and Damaja were a tag team in the E. Dinsmore became the surprisingly popular U-Gene. Conway is the only Louisville native to win the WWE Tag Title and went on to become a two-time NWA World Champion.
Dean Hill – Current “owner” of OVW, Hill was a ring announcer at the Louisville Gardens before becoming the voice of Louisville wrestling as OVW’s TV announcer.
Okay, Louisville fans, let’s hear it. Who would you put in a Louisville Wrestling Hall of Fame?
Early in my research on Louisville’s pro wrestling history, I found this photo in the U of L archives:
This week, my friend Herschel Zahnd took this photo of the same building with his drone:
This was the house that played host to Strangler Lewis, Lou Thesz, Orville Brown, Bill Longson, Buddy Rogers, Mildred Burke, Johnny Valentine, Gorgeous George, Freddie Blassie, and Mae Young. It also played host to the legends of Memphis Wrestling and OVW as well as Elvis, Sinatra, and even Martin Luther King, Jr.
Both photos will appear in Louisville’s Greatest Show, coming in March!
And yes, Herschel is for hire. If you need a drone pilot in the Louisville area, get in touch with me and I’ll connect you.
Found another “deep cut” on Youtube worth sharing. This looks like it was late in the Memphis run. You can catch a glimpse of referee Frank Morrell neat the end, and I’m pretty sure the announcer you hear but never see (except for the microphone that appears in the left of the frame) during the backstage footage is none other than Dean Hill.
Today is the 39th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s passing. It’s fitting to mark his passing here on a wrestling blog with an eye to Louisville because I just learned the story of how Elvis came to do his first public concert in Louisville.
In 1955 Elvis came to Louisville to play a private corporate function. There was little fanfare for the King of Rock n Roll that year, but when he returned a year later, the whole world knew who Elvis was.
Elvis was booked at the Armory (the future Louisville Gardens) for two shows on November 25, 1956. Tickets cost only $2.50 for this monumental show, and numerous shops around town were giving tickets away as an incentive for buying just about anything.
Of course Elvis’s impending arrival was not without some concern and controversy. Concerned about the city’s youth, the Armory box office did its best to make sure no minors bought tickets without an adult companion, and the Chief of Police assured the public that Elvis’s famous hip gyrations would not be tolerated.
Elvis was an absolute smash, and the Courier-Journal ran a front page story on the show the following day. The only thing missing from the story was the name of the man responsible for the show. Frances Mcdonogh, owner of the Allen Athletic Club wrestling promotion, was a personal friend of Col. Parker, and that connection allowed him to promote the biggest concert to date in Louisville.