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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Finding the Columbia Gym

1941 thesz allenRumors of the demise of the fabled Columbia Gym have been… somewhat exaggerated.

In Bluegrass Brawlers I noted that the building that once hosted the Allen Athletic Club’s weekly wrestling shows was gone, replaced by an outdoor basketball court. It seems that the source I consulted (and I’m sorry to say I don’t recall said source) was dead wrong.

The Columbia Gym is in fact gone. The room that not only saw the likes of Lou Thesz, Gorgeous George, Buddy Rogers, and countless other legends pass through its doors no longer exists. But, the building that housed the gym as well as the stairway that led down to the gym itself, still stand.

I happened upon the building last Friday after meeting in East Louisville with the folks at Corn Island Archaeology in Jeffersontown. We were discussing some of the long on venues where promoter Heywood Allen once hosted wrestling including Swiss Park, the Savoy Theater, an outdoor Sports Arena between Preston and Burnett, and of course the Columbia Gym.

The Gym was often referenced as being at the corner of 4th Street and Burnett, putting it right in the vicinity of the Louisville Free Public Library – my next stop for the day. After dropping off a copy of Bluegrass Brawlers at the front desk for the library director, I walked out of the building and around the block to the corner of 4th and York.

The library stands on the northeastern corner of that intersection. A car lot is on the northwest corner. A high rise apartment building is on the southwestern corner, and a Unitarian church sits on the southeastern corner. I stood there for a few moments, wondering which of these buildings could possibly have taken the place of the fabled Columbia Gym, but then, my gaze drifted further down the block, away from York.

Behind the apartments stood a parking garage, and just beyond that was a building that looked incredibly familiar. I had found a few drawings and photos of the exterior of the Columbia Gym, and the building just beyond the garage sure looked like what I remembered. I got as close as I could from across the block and snapped the photo below.

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A quick Google search over the weekend confirmed my suspicions: the building that housed the Columbia Gym still stands! It belongs to Spalding University now, and in 2015 – a year AFTER my book was released – WHAS did a very nice story about the building’s history. They don’t mention wrestling of course, because someone else very famous made his name learning to box in the same gym, a man whose name towers over every other in the world of sports. You can click this link to read his story and more about the gym.

You can bet I’ll be back to the building later this year. I don’t know if there’s anything inside that tells more of the Heywood Allen story, but if not, I will certainly be glad to share some of his story with those willing to hear.

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).

Mud Slingin’ in Louisville

The_Courier_Journal_Wed__Dec_15__1937_Wrestling promotions are always slinging mud. Here in Southern Indiana there are a half dozen promotions running at any given time, and not a day goes by some fan, wrestler, or promoter doesn’t pitch a little mud on Facebook. In December of 1937, the feud between the Allen Athletic Club and the Kentucky Athletic Club turned to actual mud slinging when the two hosted a series of mud matches.

The Kentucky Athletic Club hurled the first clod of mud when they announced a match between local favorite Blacksmith Pedigo and mud wrestling expert Prince Omar of Persia. The K.A.C. ran shows downtown at the Savoy Theater, and the match held on December 2 was a smash. A standing room only crowd of 1563 packed the Theater to see the local favorite defeat his Persian foe.

Fans of the Allen Athletic Club begged promoter Heywood Allen to put on a mud match of his own. Allen, who was the booker for the K.A.C. when it was still known as the Savoy Club, was reluctant to get into the mud with his former boss, but on December 7 at the Columbia Gym, Allen cut a promo against the K.A.C. and his former and future ally Blacksmith Pedigo when he announced a mud match for the following week between Shinuchi Shikima and Nanjo Singh. Never one to be outdone, Allen told his fans that the Allen Club mud match would be completely encased in cellophane so that no one in the crowd would get muddy.

Allen did a lot of things right in his career, and it wasn’t long after this that he was the only promoter in town, but the mud match proved to be a total nightmare. It took the ring crew 75 minutes to set up the ring. The mud was the easy part; it was the cellophane wrapper that proved to be a nuisance. The thin material would no cooperate and kept falling and tearing. Allen paced the Gym floor, smoking cigarettes and fuming as he watched and waited for the main event he never wanted in the first place to get off the ground.

“You all wanted to see a real mud match, and here it is,” said Allen once all was set for the main event. “As far as I’m concerned, phooey on mud matches!”

The match itself proved to be just as much of a muddle as the set up. Referee Heywood Allen, Jr., lost his mud boots within the first minute of the bout and ended up barefoot along with the competitors. Singh got mud in his eyes early in the bout, and when the southern wall of cellophane collapsed, fans went scrambling for cover from the flying mud. It took only twenty minutes for a muddy Shikima to score two straight falls and claim victory.

Despite the technical problems, not a single fan left early. A solid crowd of 2386 stuck it out and stayed until 11:30 PM on a winter’s night to see how things would turn out.

Allen was done with mud wrestling, but the K.A.C. came back a week later with another mud bout on December 23 between Kentuckian Billy Love and another so-called mud wrestling impresario, Biriam Bey. Love won in two straight falls in what would turn out to be the final mud match in Louisville.

It was the Kentucky Athletic Commission who finally put an end to the mess. Commissioner Johnson S. Mattingly, who watched over both promotions like a hawk, announced at the December 23 Savoy show that he would no longer sanction mud matches in Kentucky. It was a brief and thrilling run for the fans, but in January of 1938 the wrestling promoters went back to slinging mud with words instead of slop.

(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.

 

Bluegrass Brawlers on tour – September 24

BluegrassBrawlers-coverI’m very happy to announce I’ll be giving my first live presentation based on Bluegrass Brawlers later this month in Owensboro, Kentucky.

The talk will be held at the Daviess County Library in Owensboro, KY on September 24 at 6 PM Eastern. I had the privilege of visiting the same library a year or so ago for a screening of a short film I wrote called The Telemarketer. It’s a gorgeous place, and they’ve got a full calendar with all sorts of special events and speakers. They even had an acclaimed independent horror film made inside that building.

I’ll be sharing stories about Ida Alb, William Muldoon, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Heywood Allen, Jerry Lawler, Jim Cornette, Kenny Bolin, and John Cena. Over 130 years of wrestling history in Louisville.

The event is free, and I will have copies of the book available to purchase. If you’re a wrestling fan and in the area, I hope to see you there!

More Louisville wrestling history on the way

BluegrassBrawlers-coverHaving just launched the Kenny Bolin autobiography, I’m happy to announce I have a few new projects in the works. Two are biographies, and the third is a more in depth look at once of the most fascinating and overlooked eras in Louisville wrestling.

In 1935 Heywood Allen founded the Allen Athletic Club, a promotion that would bring the biggest stars in the business to town for the next 22 years, including Orville Brown, Bill Longson, Lou Thesz, Mildred Burke, and Buddy Rogers. But Louisville also had a number of local legends with their own unique stories. Here are a few quick hits I’ve uncovered:

Heywood Allen was a circus wrecker before getting into the wrestling business. In addition to being the Allen Club’s founder, he was president of the Midwest Wrestling Association. He took a job selling tickets at Churchill Downs when business was poor in the 1920s and kept it even after the Allen Club took off in the 40s.

Stu Gibson was a home-grown wrestling star. Before wrestling, he was a standout football player at New Albany High School and the University of Louisville. I posted a brief bio on Stu just last week that you can read here. ****

Mel Meiners was a towering Louisville native from the Germantown neighborhood who was nicknamed the Schnitzelburg Giant. He is also the father of WHAS radio personality Terry Meiners.

Francis McDonough worked in the office for Allen before buying him out in 1947. He made national newspapers after someone broke into his car to steal the Allen Club’s ticket money. The thief got 500 unsold tickets and four dollars, and McDonough laughed off the incident.

Blacksmith Pedigo worked as a wrestler and referee for Allen. In 1919 he was arrested at the age of 18 for fraud after taking money from patriotic citizens who believed he was a wounded World War I vet.

Fans of Kenny Bolin will be interested to know that while there has yet to be a confirmed genealogical link, Bolin has already taken to calling Pedigo his long lost cousin.

I’m posting this teaser/update to both share the new project and hopefully stir up some memories of people who may remember a few of these names. If you have information on Allen or anyone who worked Louisville in the 40s and 50s please email me at johncosper@yahoo.com

The Allen Club story is told in part in Bluegrass Brawlers: The Story of Professional Wrestling in Louisville. More to come in 2016!

Hoosier Hero Stu Gibson

stugibson-sheik When I my family moved to Indiana in 1988, we immersed ourselves in Indiana’s proudest tradition, becoming fans of New Albany High School basketball. One of the players we saw every week during the 88-89 season was a young man who would go on to be a three time WWE tag team champion and two time NWA world champion, Rob Conway.

Rob Conway’s not the only NAHS alum to become a big time professional wrestler. Crybaby Chris Alexander (who was in marching band with me at NAHS) learned to run the ropes at the same as Conway. But long before either man set foot in Ohio Valley Wrestling, there was Stu Gibson.

Stu Gibson was an All-Indiana football player at New Albany High School, graduating in 1943. He played college ball at the University of Louisville. He was even made a Kentucky Colonel after leading the team in scoring in 1947.

Gibson was also a Golden Glove boxer, but after graduating from U of L, he chose to pursue professional wrestling, working first for Francis McDonough and the Allen Athletic Club. Gibson would work mostly as a babyface during his years in Louisville, but he was equally successful as a babyface and a heel, especially down in Texas.

Wrestling historian J. Michael Kenyon recorded one of Gibson’s most memorable stunts from the early 60s. “It was a small card at Victoria TX, where Gibson and Danny McShain hooked up in double count-out. It ended back in the corner of the building, on top of the concession stand, with Gibson spooning mustard into the semi-conscious form of McShain, amid veritable pandemonium.

“Okay, so what — but the kicker was cute: They came back a week later, in a rematch, with McShain refusing to wrestle until ‘all mustard was barred from the building.’ And that turned out to be the actual stip, with the fans forced to eat ‘dry’ hot dogs for a night.”

Gibson passed away in 1988. His story is told in my latest book, Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club.

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A New Beginning

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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.