The First First Lady of Louisville Wrestling

Louisville, Kentucky is unique among wrestling cities because it is one of the few cities to have a female promoter. Teeny Jarrett never served as the booker for Memphis Wrestling, but there was no doubt she was the boss. She kept the fans happy, the wrestlers in line, and the Kentucky Athletic Commissioner at bay for more than two decades. She even gave breaks to a few of Louisville’s most famous wrestling faces, including a Louisville police officer named Dean Hill and a a young teenage photographer named Jim Cornette.

It’s unusual for a city to have one woman serving such a powerful role in a wrestling promotion, but Jarrett wasn’t the first woman to do so. Thirty five years before Teeny’s son Jerry began running at the Louisville Gardens, a pretty young Kindergarten teacher signed her name on the dotted line, becoming a partner and owner of a professional wrestling promotion.

When Heywood Allen went into business for himself, forming the Allen Athletic Club in 1935, a Betty McDonogh made a pretty big leap of her own. The newlywed bride of Allen’s press secretary, former Louisville Sports writer Francis “Mac” McDonogh, left her chosen vocation to become the ticket office manager for the new wrestling promotion. It was a huge risk for her and her husband, but it was a risk that paid dividends for the McDonoghs and the Allen Athletic Club.

Miss Betty, as she was known by the fans, was a remarkable woman with a keen nose for business and marketing. Over the years Betty created and maintained a massive card file of the regular wrestling patrons. She not only had names, addresses, and telephone numbers, she knew where they preferred to sit, what type of matches they enjoyed most, and other details that helped her sell more tickets and keep everyone happy.

Betty kept a relentless schedule, managing a family at home as well as running the business of the promotion. In the late 1940s she gave an interview to the Courier-Journal and outlined a typical day:

7:15 AM – Prepare breakfast.

8:30 – Drop her son Allen at school, return home for house cleaning.

9:15 – Leave home and head to the ticket office.

11:40 – Pick up Allen at school and take him home for lunch. After lunch, drop Allen with his grandmother and return to the office.

1:30 – Back in the office.

5:30 – Leave the office and head home to prepare dinner, unless it’s a show night.

On show nights, Betty was there before the fans to run the ticket table. She greeted everyone personally, many by name, and after the last patron was admitted, it was her job to count the gate. Betty usually stayed until 12:30 or 1 AM to finish up Club business before returning to the McDonogh apartment in Shawnee Park, only to get up at 7 AM the next day and start again.

Betty loved her job, and even as business grew, she refused to cede her responsibilities to anyone – save for a brief hiatus in 1942, when she became a mother to Allen, who was named after Heywood. Betty rarely got to see any of the matches, but she met everyone who worked for the Club and enjoyed their company, describing them as “always very courteous and intelligent nowadays since most are college graduates.”

Fans were often surprised to learn that it was Betty, not Mac, whose name was listed as one of the owners of the Allen Club. From the very beginning, the McDonoghs held a stake in the promotion, and Mac made sure their ownership was in Betty’s name. Betty more than earned her keep as a valued member of the team, especially in the late 1930s.

When business took a dive in 1938, it was Betty, along with Allen’s wife Mabel, who pointed out the lack of females in the crowd. Betty and Mabel believed that the Club could do more to attract female patrons to the matches, and with Mr. Allen’s blessing, they went to work.

Betty suggested giveaways for the ladies including flowers, candy, and other free gifts. They also instituted a “Ladies Night,” when women were admitted free. They also convinced Allen to begin tossing out the rowdier fans who made female patrons uncomfortable. Allen admitted that he often felt the shows were no place for a lady, especially when the fans got out of hand, and he consented to policing the crowd and removing offenders.

Betty’s efforts began to pay off slowly but surely. Beginning in 1939 and continuing through the war (when many of the male patrons were overseas fighting), attendance began to rise. By the mid 1940s the Allen Club was drawing 55% women on Tuesday nights. Louisville was one of the hottest towns in the country, drawing 4000 to 6000 fans for special events at the Armory. Betty was exceedingly proud of her accomplishments.

In 1947 Betty and her husband took another risk, buying out Heywood Allen when he chose to retire from the fight game. It was a calculated risk for Mac because he knew he had a solid business partner by his side. While Mac remained the public face of the Allen Club, Betty continued to manage the box office and handle the money on show nights. The McDonoghs were active in the Louisville community, supporting numerous local charities and events. They frequently hosted wrestlers in their home, and top stars like Baron Leone were their guests at the Kentucky Derby.

Betty took time away only twice: to give birth to their son Gary, and to care for her ailing husband when Mac was diagnosed with cancer in 1946. When Mac passed away in May of 1947, Betty sold the Allen Athletic Club to former Louisville baseball player Al LeCompte. The combination of the ownership change and a forced change of venue brought the promotion to a swift end.

Surprisingly, Betty almost went back into the business a year later. Wee Willie Davis, a wrestler/ movie star/ famous game show winner moved to down and decided to open up a promotion of his own to fill the void. Betty agreed to partner with Davis on his first promotion, and the two applied for a license for what became known as the name Golden Rod Club.

Golden Rod ran for only a few years. When the business closed, Davis went on to open another promotion in conjunction with Dick the Bruiser in Indianapolis. Betty quit the business and went back to teaching, but she remained a member of the ticket sellers union. Gary recalls traveling all over town with her while she sold tickets for this show and that.

Betty made sure her boys got a great education, and both of them made her proud. Dr. Gary McDonogh is a professor of anthropology at Bryn Mawr College, and Dr. Allen McDonogh is a retired professor of political science. Allen and his ex-wife Dr. Karen O’Connor, herself a professor of Political Science at American University, have a daughter named Meghan O’Connor McDonogh who earned her doctorate in Sports Management at the University of Louisville and is now the Associate Athletic Director at the Catholic University of America.

Meghan made her own impact on Louisville’s sports scene as a graduate student at U of L. After founding a club program for women’s lacrosse at the University of Georgia, she began a similar program when she arrived at U of L. Women’s Lacrosse has since become part of the school’s growing Division I athletics program and is growing in popularity among Louisville area high schools.

“I recall a time when my daughter was growing up and she and her friends were caught up with the mega-wrestling,” Allen McDonogh told me. “All were stunned to find I knew anything about wrestling.”

Sadly, neither Karen nor Meghan ever had the opportunity to know Miss Betty. Betty McDonogh passed away in 1971, before Allen and Karen met. She is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Louisville next to her beloved husband.

No doubt Betty McDonogh’s proudest legacy is her family, but the legacy of the Allen Athletic Club owes as much to her as to Allen and Mac. Betty was there from day one as an owner and a partner. She knew the Louisville audience better than anyone, and her tireless efforts kept the Columbia Gym full in good times and bad. If there were a Hall of Fame for Pro Wrestling in Kentucky, Betty would deserve a place of honor alongside her husband and the Allen Club’s namesake. She is, without a doubt, the First First Lady of Louisville Wrestling.

Read more about Francis and Betty McDonogh in Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club.