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Last Match at the Columbia Gym

When I shared last night’s post about the Columbia Gym on Facebook, I got a response from Joe Wheeler, long time official at OVW and USWA. It seems the Allen Athletic Club was not the last promotion to run a show in the fabled gymnasium.

The Allen Club’s final show ran on June 25, 1957, shortly after the death of then owner Francis McDonough. Barney “Chest” Bernard defeated Ian Campbell, Nell Stewart defeated Elaine Ellis, New Albany and U of L legend Stu Gibson defeated Lou Plummer, and Bobby Managoff defeated long time Allen Club stalwart “Wild Bill” Longson via disqualification. The Allen Club was sold to former Louisville Colonels baseball player Al LeComte, who moved shows to Freedom Hall because U of L had taken over the gym. Four months later, the Allen Club shut down for good.

Nearly forty years later, Wheeler arranged one final show in the building. “When they did some renovations to the Louisville Gardens back in the 90s, I made arrangements with the Columbia Gym, which was then part of Catherine Spalding College, to move the USWA there for the time they were to be out of the Gardens. The first week there they had a ladies match where the only way to lose was to be stripped down to your bra and panties. The nuns were terribly upset, so the first weeks return to the old Columbia Gym was also the last week.”

Wheeler’s story seems to indicate the nuns didn’t dismantle the old gym as quickly as WHAS stated. What’s more, a search of Pinterest turned up this card promoted by Phil Golden and sponsored by the WWA. The plot thickens.

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Lord Carlton in Action!

The great Lord Leslie Carlton’s biography is on the way. Just recently I received an email from his Lordship’s nephew with two links where you can get a look at this forgotten legend. Lord Carlton was as big on the West Coast as any major star in his day, including Gorgeous George, and his life after wrestling is a soap opera even Monday Night Raw could never top.

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Book signing – April 2 at the Nerdy Planet

Want a fun warm up the day before the biggest wrestling show of the year? You can meet me and Kenny “Starmaker” Bolin Wrestlemania weekend at the Nerdy Planet in Louisville!

Kenny and I will be selling and signing copies of Bluegrass Brawlers, I Probably Screwed You Too, and much more. Plus you can hear some stories from Louisville’s wrestling past, including Kenny’s amazing run as the manager to the future stars at OVW.

Click here to join the event on Facebook.

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And On the Second Day, WHAS Gave Us Rasslin’

The_Courier_Journal_Tue__Jul_25__1950_In 1949 professional wrestling was struggling. Fan interest was waning, box offices were down, and the business appeared to be on the ropes. A year later, 18,000 people packed Madison Square Garden, bringing in $52,000 in just once night.

What caused the dramatic turn around? Television.

So goes the March 12, 1950 article from the Louisville Courier-Journal, announcing that wrestling was coming to the local air waves. From New York to Chicago to Memphis, wrestling had become the number one program on television and the number one reason many folks were buying their first TV set. Twenty years before Memphis Wrestling took the city by storm, WHAS struck a deal with Francis McDonough and the Allen Athletic Club to broadcast wrestling live every Tuesday night.

The Allen Club was in its fifteenth year, and McDonough was in his third as the man in charge. Founded by Heywood Allen, Sr., the promotion ran wrestling shows almost every Tuesday night, usually at the Columbia Gym.

By contract, WHAS had not yet signed on the air when the announcement was made, but the station was doing test runs with their camera crew and broadcast equipment in the Columbia Gym well in advance. “The WHAS-TV cameras will have you right at ringside – in your own living room. You’ll get a closer look at what’s what an who’s who than the fans in the front row. You’ll see every moment of action in the ring… whereas the fan is confined to his seat, the camera can roam to every nook and corner.”

Wrestling was tailor-made for television, with all the action taking place in a well-lit, stationary ring, making it much easier to broadcast than sports like football and baseball. WHAS-TV had a two camera set up for the broadcast. Both were in the balcony, stationed at different angles. The cameramen were selected for their intimate knowledge of wrestling, and the camera feeds went outside to a remote broadcast truck, “a specially-designed remote truck, containing what appears to be a Television station all its own.”

The_Courier_Journal_Tue__Mar_28__1950_WHAS went live on March 27, 1950, and the Allen Club appeared on television for the first time on Tuesday night, March 28. Fred Davis, a Louisville native who also played for the Chicago Bears, appeared in the main event that night against “Jumpin’ Joe” Savoldi. Fear Brewing Company became the first program sponsor.

Television proved to be a boon for the Allen Club just as it was in every city where promoters were willing to give TV a chance. Despite initial fears that TV would cut into their ticket sales, the live broadcasts actually increased awareness and interest in the sport. McDonough brought the biggest names in the sport to town for the Tuesday shows, including the biggest television star of them all, Gorgeous George. Just a few short years later, McDonough would be hosting the largest crowds ever seen in Louisville for wrestling at the Jefferson County Armory (later the Louisville Gardens).

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New Book Announcement: Lord Leslie Carlton

lord carlton cover-3Time to announce the release my next book project, coming in March!

From the author of Bluegrass Brawlers: The Story of Professional Wrestling in Louisville and the woman who co-founded Kranken Welpen, the world’s only heavy metal polka band, comes the story of a budding young athlete who went from sailor to royalty to artist by way of the wrestling ring.

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.

Lord Carlton: Wrestler, Artist, My Father will be available in paperback this March on Amazon.com.

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Gorgeous George Returns

Gorgeous George is one of the most influential wrestlers of all time. If there were no Gorgeous George, one could argue there would be no Buddy Rogers, Ric Flair, Randy Savage, Superstar Billy Graham, Jesse The Body Ventura, Adrian Adonis, Rick Rude, Tyler Breese, or even Tracy Smothers. Yes, I said Tracy Smothers. Watch Gorgeous George in action, and then go see Tracy “Don’t Pull My Hair!” Smothers in action.

I’m happy to say you can now see Gorgeous George in all his resplendent glory on the INC channel. Two NEW episodes of Eat Sleep Wrestle are no available to view on the Roku channel INC, and one of them features a nice, long look at Gorgeous George himself.

And just as a follow up to my recent post about George Wagner (George’s pre-gorgeous ring persona) appearing for Louisville’s Allen Athletic Club in 1930s… it turns out the Human Orchid returned in 1955 to wrestle for the Allen Club as Gorgeous George. Feast your eyes on the evidence below. Then download the free INC channel to your Roku device and enjoy!

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Some Traditions Are Better Left Behind

There are many reasons to lament the changes that have happened in the wrestling business in the past few decades, but there are some things we should all be glad to see let go. In the wake of Axl Rotten’s death, former ECW star Nova went on Facebook to praise the current generation of wrestlers for letting the eschewing the old ways of the wrestling business in favor of video games and other, much safer vices. The movement from bar fights to Mario Cart has as much to do with the change in our journalistic culture as anything. TMZ is always lurking, especially if you’re a WWE star. But the truth is the video game tournaments hosted by Xavier Woods and the like are keeping wrestlers out of trouble and away from the dangers that continue to take a toll on the heroes of the past.

I enjoy the wild stories of Johnny Valentine, Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper, and the Freebirds as much as anyone. But I am glad that so many of today’s stars have chosen to be a little wiser with their leisure and travel time. Hopefully the coming decades will give us more old wrestlers telling stories and fewer “gone too soon” headlines.

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(Not Yet Gorgeous) George in Louisville

I’ve written about Lord Patrick Lansdowne before. He’s the farm boy from Ohio who became a British aristocrat in wrestling trunks. Lansdowne was the first to don a cape and monocle and look down his nose at the unwashed masses who came to the matches. He was also the inspiration for Lord Leslie Carlton and Gorgeous George.

According to most biographies on Gorgeous George, George Wagner read about Lansdowne in Variety and found the inspiration for the character that would make him famous, but it now appears George Wagner had a much closer look at Lord Lansdowne than previously reported.

On August 31, 1937, George Wagner made his debut for the Allen Athletic Club in Louisville, Kentucky. Wagner defeated Dutch Schultz in one of the warm up matches while Lord Lansdowne (billed as Lord Finnegan; promoter Heywood Allen had a Vince McMahon-like thing for changing people’s names!) won the main event against Bert Rubi. Two months later the two appeared at the Columbia Gym a second time; Lansdowne defeated Bobby Bruns, and Wagner lost to Turpentine Grimes.

There are no photos in the Louisville Courier-Journal archives to show definitively that George Wagner from Atlantic City (as he was billed) was the man who became Gorgeous George, but Wrestlingdata.com shows that Wagner was working in Lexington, KY and Columbus Ohio in September of 1937 with many of the same wrestlers used by the Allen Club at the time.

Wagner worked a few more dates for Allen in September of 1937, and he likely crossed paths with the Ohio native a few more times. Whatever interactions they had in the locker room have been lost to history, but character Lansdowne created and George perfected continues to inspire wrestlers to this day.

 

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Art by Kamala

Kamala the Ugandan Giant is one of the great heels of the last 30 years. He’s had some health issues as of late, but is on an upswing. He also recently released his autobiography, a must read for anyone who remembers his feuds with Hogan and Lawler.

Kamala is now offering a true one of a kind collectible. He is making a limited run of signed and numbered paintings of his face paint & torso art. These are not proofs; there will only be 30 of these made, and each one will be the real deal.

Prints are priced at $125 plus shipping and handling. You can order yours now by emailing Kenny Casanova at k9casanova@aol.com or contacting Kenny on1914916_10153208265781933_7549750480229404701_n Facebook.

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The Legend of Cousin Elvira

Snodgrass 1There’s a story that’s been printed in more than one wrestling publication about a show that took place in Louisville. The main event involved two women, the world champion Mildred Burke, and a hillbilly rassler who called herself Elvira Snodgrass. According to Sid Feder’s Wrestling Fan’s Book, the two women once drew a crowd of over 18,000 in the River City.

The story is a fabrication, the kind of humbug that typified pro wrestling in it’s golden age. Not only is there no record of such an event taking place, the Allen Athletic Club didn’t have access to a venue large enough to accommodate such a crowd. Nevertheless, tall tales like these survive because they have a ring of truth. Mildred Burke was the queen of wrestling for nearly twenty years, and for at least a dozen of those years, Elvira Snodgrass was one of Mildred’s toughest opponents. And while the crowd of 18,000 may be only a myth, there is one kernel of truth to the story: Burke and Snodgrass headlined the weekly Allen Athletic Club during World War II.

Legitimate biographical information is hard to come by for Miss Snodgrass. Wrestlingdata.com gives her real name as Katherine Duvall, and most accounts seem to agree she was born in Tennessee. Depending on where she was booked, promoters billed as a native of Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, or Ohio. She was also briefly billed as a resident of Hollywood, thanks to her appearance in a short film made in Tinseltown during the early 1940s.

In a 1953 interview, Elvira claimed that her wrestling career began in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Her ex-husband was a wrestler, and he taught her some of the tricks of the trade. Elvira saw women wrestling women for the first time on a trip to Toledo, Ohio, and she decided to give it a try.

“She really worked me over,” said Elvira of her first opponent, “My friends thought I would quit. I went against the grain, however, and I kept on until I had beaten her. I’ve been at it ever since.”

Elvira would later divorce her husband and hit the road alone. She worked for Billy Wolfe, Mildred Burke’s husband, and she often found herself in the ring with some of Wolfe’s toughest competitors, including Burke, Gladys “Kill ‘Em” Gillam, and Mae Weston. Elvira loved to get airborne, using a flying mare and a drop kick as part of her arsenal, but true to her backwoods roots, Elvira could brawl and get dirty when necessary.

In the early days, Elvira played the hillbilly role for all it was worth. Dressed in a bonnet and high top shoes, she looked like a character straight out of Lil Abner. In time she would lose the hillbilly fashion and replace them with a collection of capes she made herself. One cape, covered in sequins, was reportedly valued at $850.

At the height of her fame, Elvira was making $8000 a year. Like most of the lady wrestlers, Elvira kept herself well-groomed, but she did not have the same love of furs and jewels that Burke possessed. A wrist watch, earrings, and a ring with three small diamonds were her only indulgences outside the ring, as she kept her dress casual but elegant. She also had a heart tattooed on her arm with the nickname “Red” written in the center. She owned her own car and drove from one town to another, usually by herself.

Elvira stood at 5’7” and weighed 150-160 pounds throughout her career. She didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and she avoided sweets. Healthy habits served her well, allowing her to work 5-6 nights a week for more than a decade. “I have only taken [time off] twice; once, for about a month, when my father died, and another time when I was thrown from the ropes and got my jaw broken on the side of the ring.
Elvira took great pride in her longevity. Pro wrestling has always been a hard business, and women especially did not last more than a few years. Elvira saw many competitors come and go, and she was proud to have worked so hard for so long, appearing in close to three thousand matches by her own count.

Elvira trained a few young women in her final years as a wrestler. When she retired in the mid 1950s she did so quietly. Elvira owned a home and property on Ohio at the time, and she’d expressed interest in opening a restaurant or filling station.

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Elvira is one of many names nearly lost to history and a promotion that continues to rewrite that history. She was every bit the road warrior and battle-hardened veteran as her more famous contemporary Mae Young, and her main event pedigree speaks for itself. Elvira might have been born a simple country girl, but she was a genuine star who worked every state in the union – including Illinois, where women’s wrestling was illegal.

“I was bootlegged onto a card in East St. Louis under a boy’s name,” she bragged.

Elvira Snodgrass loved being in the ring. She loved defying sexual stereotypes, and she loved being an hero for women.

“I don’t say that every woman can be a wrestler,” she said, “but if more women would engage in sports… they would be a lot better off.”

UPDATE: Sadly, it appears Elvira’s dream of owning a restaurant and a filling station never came to be. A few weeks after posting this story, I heard from a man named Mike Zim, son of Wild Bill Zim, who knew Elvira. Her real name was Catherine Hazelbaker, and in the summer of 1952, she rolled her car off the road near Covington, Kentucky.

Elvira suffered severe head and arm injuries in the single car accident. Wild Bill’s scrapbook notes that she lost an arm and passed away around 1957.

Newspapers.com has several accounts of the accident from 1952, but I have been unable to find an obituary or any evidence the car accident led to the loss of her arm.

Wild Bill also had a photo of Elvira from 1944, when he visited her on leave from the service during World War II.

elvira-wild bill

While her fate is tragic, it’s clear Elvira was a tough woman who did things her way. She followed her dream, and she didn’t need a man to help her make that dream happen. I dare say she would be proud to see the women’s wrestler’s of today carrying on the legacy she helped to forge.

Elvira’s bio can be found in the book Louisville’s Greatest Show, along with 20 other stars of the 1930s-1950s who frequented the River City.