Tagged in: Bill Longson

A Fan Remembers the Allen Athletic Club

I had the privilege of meeting a man named Jim Oetkins today. Jim was just a kid when the Allen Club was running on Tuesday nights at the Columbia Gym in Louisville, Kentucky, and he still has the scrapbook he used to record the weekly results. It’s an incredible treasure trove of big names and priceless memories. I’m looking forward to reading through it in the next few weeks.

Jim had some great stories about that era, including a road trip he took with two local stars, Mel Meiners and Sgt. Buck Moore of the Louisville Police Department. Mel (the father of WHAS host Terry Meiners) delivered milk to Jim’s home when he was a kid, and one day, Mel stopped to invite Jim on a road trip. “He was going to Owensboro with Buck Moore and some young guy they were training,” says Oetkins. “My father wasn’t too keen on me going, but he knew Mel, and everyone knew Buck.  He was as clean-cut, All-American as you can get.”

Jim rode with Meiners, Moore, and the trainee to Owensboro for a show promoted by former wrestler and Louisville favorite, “Kid Scotty” Williams. On their way into town, Meiners decided to have some fun. “He put on a wrestling mask, and he started to mess with the other drivers,” says Oetkins. “He would roll down the windows, get their attention, and grunt at them! I was afraid we’d all be arrested or something.”

Scotty Williams was on hand at the venue when they arrived along with his wife. “They were wonderful people,” Oetkins remembers. “They also had a joke waiting for Buck. Buck had some rather large breasts for a man, so his wife handed him a gift – a huge bra! ‘I thought you might need this tonight,’ she told him.”

Jim was able to confirm several things I had not been able to fully prove in my research. First and foremost was Scotty Williams’ promotion in Owensboro. I found mention that he was planning to move that way in the old newspaper clippings, but a friend in Owensboro was never able to find anything in their local papers to corroborate the story. Jim also confirmed that in the Lou Thesz-Buddy Rogers rivalry, the majority of local fans actually preferred Rogers over the champion Thesz.

Jim told me that Wild Bill Longson was also a big favorite, despite working as heel much of the time. “He was around for so many years, he was the guy to many people.” He also said there was only one true queen of the ring in that era. “There was something about Mildred Burke that stood out. You could tell she was different than the others.”

Jim was a teenager at the time, and he was old enough to know that something was not on the level with the wrestling he enjoyed every Tuesday night. He put the question to Mel while they were in the car. “Is it really fake?”

Mel thought a moment and answered.  “Let me put it this way. I’ve got a wife and several kids at home. And most of the guys I work with, they have kids at home. I’m out here doing a job to help put food in their mouths, and so is the guy I’m wrestling. I don’t want to ruin that guys’ chances to provide for his family, and I hope he doesn’t want to do that for mine. We’re out there to wrestle, but we’re also out there to do a job. And we want to keep on doing that job so we can keep taking care of out families. You know what I’m saying?”

“He didn’t need to say any more,” said Jim. “I thought it was a wonderful way to put it.”

If you’d like to know more about Louisville’s golden age of wrestling, the era of Mel Meiners, Buck Moore, Scotty Williams (not to mention Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Bill Longson, Jim Mitchell, and Mildred Burke, you can find it all in Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club, now available in paperback and on Kindle.

Louisville Wrestling Talk on the 6:05 Superpodcast!

Episode 67 of the 6:05 Superpodcast is now available for download. It was my pleasure to do an interview with The Great Brian Last this week about the lost history of Louisville wrestling covered in the new book, Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club. Brian and I cover everything from promoters Heywood Allen and Francis McDonogh to Lou Thesz, Gorgeous George, Buddy Rogers, Bill Longson, Elvira Snodgrass, and more. We cover tag teams, midgets, masked men, bears, alligators, and even weddings.

The 6:05 Superpodcast is a must-listen for die hards, and Brian Last does a phenomenal job bringing the stories of yesteryear to life through a variety of guests and regular segments. Download the 6:05 Superpodcast on iTunes or visit 605pod.com and listen today.

Louisville’s Greatest Show is now available on Amazon.com

Louisville’s Greatest Show – Coming Soon!

Coming Soon!!

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!

A Louisville Wrestling Hall of Fame

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?

The Legend of Masked Superman I

hans_schnabelIn 1940 a man by the name of Masked Superman took the Allen Athletic Club in Louisville by storm. His dirty tactics and roughhousing drew the ire of the fans who hated him so much, they turned up in larger and larger numbers every week, hoping to see him unmasked.

In early 1941 Masked Superman was unmasked by Orville Brown. The man beneath the mask was Hans Schnabel, the son of German immigrants, and a native of New York state. Schnabel was no stranger to the Louisville fans. He had made numerous appearances for the Allen Athletic Club beginning back in 1935. But the run he had in 1940 and 1941 was so successful, he launched a steady parade of masked wrestlers that would continue throughout the Allen Club’s history

Schnabel was born Herbert Moeller in Rye, New York in 1908. His parents had two sons, Fritz and Otto, who were both born in Germany. Their mother died shortly after young Herbert was born, a victim of the flu epidemic that struck New York in 1910. The family moved to Connecticut not long after Herbert’s mother passed.

Herbert contracted Polio at age 8. The disease affected both his legs, but his right leg suffered the worst. It was a long recovery for the young man, and brothers Fritz and Otto would pull him around town in a wagon for the next two years. Herbert slowly learned to talk again, but he was left with a club foot. He eventually fully from the disease and his right leg returned to a normal position, but he was always self-conscious about his legs. He wore sweats throughout his career as a result.

Herbert took a job in a factory as a teenager before embarking on a new career as an auto mechanic with his brother Fritz. They opened a garage in Connecticut and were very successful, but Herbert dreamed of two things: seeing the country, and wrestling. When Fritz saw the money that was possible in pro wrestling, he too took an interest, and the brothers decided to leave the garage for what they hoped would be a more lucrative future.

When the time came to choose a ring name, Fritz and Herbert decided to honor their mother by adopting her maiden name, Schnabel. Herbert chose to work under his childhood nickname Hans, and together, the Schnabel brothers broke into the wrestling world.

During the early 1930s the Schnabels worked for promoter Jack Pfefer, wrestling mainly in New York and Ohio. In 1936, Hans was offered his first shot at the World Heavyweight Championship, but shortly before the match, Hans became so ill, he had to withdraw. Dave Levin took his place and won the Title on a disqualification.

Later that same year, Fritz and Hans left for a tour of South Africa. When they returned to the United States, they were joined on the road by brother Otto. Otto had a tag partner from Denver who wrestled under the name of George Schnabel, but was no relation.

Schnabel worked in Louisville during the late 1930s and had his highly successful run as Masked Superman during 1940 and 1941. By the late 1940s Hans and Fritz were working for promoter Fred Kohler in Chicago as well as several promoters on the West Coast.

By the early 1950s Fritz was ready to get out of the business. He was 45 years old and didn’t have the desire Hans had to continue. Fritz came to Louisville before hanging up the trunks in 1951 for a one night stand as a masked wrestler named Big Red. He appeared once more in a tag match with Bill Longson, looking for revenge against the man who unmasked him, the mysterious “Mr. X.”

With his brother gone, Hans teamed up with his long time friend Lou Newman and wrestled as the Iron Russians. He also worked with another famous mask, “The Zebra Kid” George Bollas.

In 1952 the Masked Superman story came full circle for Schnabel in an interesting way when he appeared on television with TV’s Superman, George Reeves. Schnabel appeared in the episode “No Holds Barred” playing a wrestler working for a crooked promoter. The life long heel did the job at the end of the show for the Man of Steel.

Hans Schnabel’s final match, according to his son Phil Moeller, was in May 1960. Hans Schnabel retired at the age of 52 after a career spanning 26 years. He wrestled all across the United States, Hawaii, South Africa, and Japan. The young boy who suffered a devastating bout with Polio overcome life’s hard knocks and become one of professional wrestling’s greatest heels.

Hans Schnabel passed away on July 2, 1980. He is buried in Chatsworth, California.

“Wee Willie” Davis Comes to Louisville

What do you do after winning a huge prize on a game show? For “Wee Willie” Davis, the $24,000 answer was, “You open a wrestling promotion.”

Allegedly standing at 6’6” and weighing 285 pounds, “Wee Willie” Davis was a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute with a degree in horticulture and a masters in mechanical engineering. Davis applied his engineering skills when he and fellow wrestler Prince Ilaki Ibn Ali Hassan invented the Glowmeter, an early version of a “heads up display” that projected a car’s speed on the windshield – this all the way back in 1950.

A football player and track and field athlete in college, Davis made a smooth transition to professional wrestling. He was often paired with Frank Jares, either as a tag team or as rivals, and he is credited with giving former boxer Primo Carnera his first cauliflower eat.

Having moved to the West Coast after college, Davis parlayed his success as a wrestler into a successful film career. His film credits include Reap the Wild Wind, Mighty Joe Young, Samson and Delilah, Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion, The Asphalt Jungle, Son of Paleface, and To Catch a Thief.

Davis only made a handful of appearances for the Allen Athletic Club in the 1940s and 1950s, but it was after a pair of game show spots that Davis made his biggest mark on Louisville wrestling. Davis won $16,000 on The $64,000 Question and another $8000 on The $64,000 Challenge. An avid gardener, Davis appeared on the former show as an expert on horticulture, surprising many viewers who only knew him from his movie roles and wrestling persona.

Davis relocated to Louisville with a plan to invest his game show winnings. Less than a year after the Allen Athletic Club closed for good, he partnered with Francis McDonough’s widow Betty to open the Golden Rod Club, a new wrestling promotion licensed in Louisville.

Golden Rod was not the only show in town when they opened shop in 1958. A promoter named Kara George already held a license for the so-called Louisville Athletic Club, but George’s inability to secure a venue opened the door for Davis and McDonough. They held their first show on March 11 at the Armory featuring names like Freddie Blassie, Wilbur Snyder, and Bill Longson.

Golden Rod struggled to find an audience, and early on, Davis found himself contemplating closing the promotion. Golden Rod only lasted a few short years.

Davis found a number of ways to keep himself in the news while living in Louisville. In 1959 Davis was in attendance at a playoff hockey game between the Louisville Rebels of the International Hockey League and the Troy (OH) Bruins. During the third period, a fight broke out in the penalty box between a Louisville player and a Troy player.

Hoping to “do a good deed,” Davis intervened in the melee. He never saw the Troy goalie, John “Plumber” Craig coming as he skated in and whacked Davis across the head.

When order was finally restored, Davis and a Louisville player were taken to Kentucky Baptist Hospital. Davis required 35 stitches to close the gash in his head, and a few days later, he appeared in a newspaper photo sporting a bandage covering his head and holding the goalie’s stick. Davis sued the Louisville and Troy hockey clubs as well as the company that booked the Armory for $12,500.

Davis was the first to admit he made a mistake, telling the Courier-Journal, “I shoulda kept my nose out.” Davis likely had taught a few fans a hard lesson about staying out of the ring in his many years as a wrestler. Hockey players fight, and just like in wrestling, if you step into their ring, you’re going to pay a penalty.

“I don’t blame the guys who hit me,” he said. “I was mad at the time, but actually I had no business there.”

Davis made the front page again in October of that same hear right as the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to open hearings on the legitimacy of television game shows. In the wake of the scandal involving the quiz show Twenty One among others, Davis came forward to claim he had received “no help” in preparing to be on The $64,000 Question. “They wouldn’t even loan me a book,” he said, referring to the reference book question writers used to prepare for his appearance on the show.

In 1961 Davis reorganized under the name Wilemar Athletic Club. As Wilemar, Davis partnered with the Indianapolis wrestling office, which would soon come under control of Wilbur Snyder and his partner, Indiana’s favorite wrestling legend Dick the Bruiser.

In Bobby Heenan’s autobiography, Heenan recalls seeing just how tough Davis could be as a promoter. Heenan was sitting in the locker room back stage at the Armory when Johnny Valentine burst in and locked the door behind him. Valentine had gotten into an altercation in the arena, punching a fan and a police officer, and Valentine was not keen to go to jail. The police pounded on the door, while the teenage Heenan watched a desperate Valentine from a bench, too scared to move.

It was “Wee Willie” Davis, not the Louisville police, who ended the stand off with Valentine. Davis grabbed a fighting stick, went into the dressing room, and beat Valentine over the head until he hit the ground. The cops got the cuffs on Valentine and escorted him from the building.

Davis found himself in custody in September of 1963 following an incident with a masked man at the Armory. “The Masked Terror” had just left the ring and was walking back to the locker room when he decided to take a swing at a fan. The fan turned out to be an off-duty policeman, who was taken to the hospital for treatment.

The Masked Terror escaped out the back door, and the police demanded answers. Davis refused to break kayfabe and tell police who the Masked Terror was or where he might be. Davis was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

“Wee Willie” Davis would spend more time in the Jefferson County jail during the 1970s, but on the other side of the bars. Davis became a sheriff and worked as a guard at the jail for a few years before retiring.

Davis kept wrestling alive during a transitional era in Louisville. He never had the box office success of the Allen Club before him nor Memphis wrestling after, but Davis filled a void for the fans who had not lost their passion for wrestling in the wake of Francis McDonough’s death.

“Wee Willie” Davis passed away on April 9, 1981 at the age of 74 in his adopted home town of Louisville.

New Hope for Louisville Gardens?

1101130843There’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.

Click here to view some photos of the organ on the Bluegrass Brawlers Facebook page. And please give the page a like while you are there!