“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.

Louisville Legends

BluegrassBrawlers-coverI’m working on a new project that will dive deeper into the golden age of wrestling in Louisville, 1935-1957, when the Allen Athletic Club was the hottest ticket in town. Louisville hosted the top starts of the day – Lou Thesz, Orville Brown, Bill Longson, Buddy Rogers, Mildred Burke, June Byers, The Sheik, Gorgeous George – but they also had a number of local favorites. I’m hoping I can scare up some descendants of some of these folks or fans from those long gone days who have stories to share.

Here are a few names I am looking for:

Blacksmith Pedigo – Wrestler and later referee.

Kid Scotty Williams – Wrestler, referee, and later promoter in Owensboro.

Wild Bill Cantrell – Wrestler in the 30s.

Billy Love – University of Kentucky athlete and wrestler.

Fred Davis – Louisville native, played football at Alabama and then for the Chicago Bears, wrestler.

Stu Gibson – New Albany HS grad, U of L grad, wrestler.

Sgt. Buck Moore – Louisville Police Department, artist, and wrestler.

Mel Meiners – Wrestler, aka The Schnitzelburg Giant.

Paul Karem – Louisville native, 1935

Leo Walleck – Wrestler

Railroad Routt – Wrestler

Frank Sgroi – Wrestler

Leo Logsdon – Wrestler

Spurge Nelson – New Albany native, Louisville police officer, wrestler

Officer Tom Moberly – African American wrestler and Louisville police officer

Claude Reed – African American wrestle

Charley Schullman – Long time timekeeper for the Savoy Club and Allen Club.

George Lewis – Legendary ring announcer for boxing and wrestling in Louisville.

Francis and Betty McDonough – Francis owned the Allen Club from 1947-1957. Betty was his wife and worked in the ticket office.

If you have heard any of these names and know stories, please get in touch!

Louisville’s Own Sgt. Buck Moore

Not every star who appeared on a card for the Allen Athletic Club was a national star. Heywood Allen and Francis McDonough brought many of the country’s biggest names to Louisville during the promotion’s 22 years, but they created many local legends along the way.

In January of 1949 Francis McDonough introduced Marvin Moore to the Tuesday night faithful at the Jefferson County Armory. Melvin “Buck” Moore was an eight year veteran of the Louisville Police Department. He was born December 2, 1916 in Lambert, OK and graduated from Louisville Male High School.

Moore served 33 years with the Louisville police department. He rode a motorcycle as a member of the traffic detail and also served as a detective. In later years Moore trained new recruits in skills such as hand-to-hand combat, and his students included OVW announcer Dean Hill as well as former Louisville Police Chief Doug Hamilton, who recalls that many of the moves taught by Moore bore a striking similarity to professional wrestling maneuvers.

Moore was instrumental in the founding of Louisville’s Fraternal Order of Police in 1960. He was also a cartoonist, and for twenty years he entertained his fellow officers with a series of cartoon strips.

Moore’s wrestling career spanned two decades. He was a fixture at the annual Police Benefit Shows in the 1950s, and he faced numerous opponents including Blacksmith Pedigo, Cherry Vallina, Freddie Blassie, Chris Zaharias, Frankie Bockwinkel, Bobby Bruns, Joe Millich, and fellow Louisville natives Stu Gibson and Mel Meiners.

Moore retired from the police force in 1974, when he put his artistic gifts to work as a sign painter.

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The Brief History of the Columbia Wrestling Club

IMG_1740The Allen Athletic Club was the premiere wrestling promotion in Louisville for 22 years. Founder Heywood Allen and Francis McDonough had the contacts to bring in the best talent and a strong sense of what kept the fans coming. Week after week, Allen and then McDonough filled the Columbia Gym on Tuesday nights with fans eager to see their favorite local and national stars do battle.

In the fall of 1948 McDonough moved the Allen Club from the friendly confines of the Columbia Gym down the street to the Jefferson County Armory, now known as Louisville Gardens. McDonough ran every other week in the Armory, trading the weekly pay day for a chance to draw larger crowds, but the move left a vacancy and an opportunity for a new challenger.

In March of 1949, Kentucky Athletic Commissioner George S. Wetherby issued a one year license to the Columbia Wrestling Club, a new wrestling promotion that would fill the vacancy in the Columbia Gym. The man behind the Columbia Club was D.A. “Red” Fassas, a native of Lexington who had run the Lexington Athletic Club for three years.

Fassas promised fans that he would “the best heavyweights and junior-heavyweights in the business to Louisville.” He delivered on his very first show on March 25 with a main event featuring NWA champion Orville Brown and a show-stealing bout between Don Evans and Tug Carlson.

Fassas ran a handful of shows that spring featuring the likes of Don Eagle, Karol Krauser, Martino Angelo, and “Big Jim Wright” before announcing that the Columbia Wrestling Club would go on hiatus for the summer, citing the heat and lack of air conditioning in the Columbia Gym. There were promises of more shows in the early fall and even rumors of a merger with the Allen Club, but the Columbia Wrestling Club never resumed operations.

It appears Fassas did stick around Louisville in some capacity though not as a promoter. He applied for and received a liquor license for the Columbia Wrestling Club in May of 1949, but in 1953, he was indicted for selling liquor to minors. He was fined $30, and his license was suspended.

The Allen Club returned to the Columbia Gym in the fall of 1949. In 1950 they were not only running weekly shows but broadcasting live on WHAS-TV every Tuesday. When the Allen Club reached its fifteenth anniversary in the summer of 1950, Courier-Journal sports editor Earl Ruby noted hat the promotion had welcomed more than 800,000 fans and outlasted seven other wrestling promotions since its inception. As successful as they had been the first fifteen years, the glory days were still ahead for the Allen Club.

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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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).

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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