A Tale of Two Photos

In 1950 Louisville wrestling promoter Francis McDonogh signed an agreement with WHAS TV to broadcast live professional wrestling in Louisville from the Columbia Gym on Fourth Street. McDonogh had been offered television a few years earlier, but he was reluctant to sign on fearing (as many promoters did) that television would cut into the live audience.

TV did not hurt the live crowds in Louisville any more than it had elsewhere in the country. Not only did TV bring more fans to the live events, wrestling proved to be the catalyst for many in the Louisville area to purchase their first television.

The two photos below were taken when McDonogh signed the deal with WHAS TV. The first photo appeared in the February 12, 1950 edition of the Courier-Journal when the TV deal was announced.

The photo below came from the personal collection of Dr. Gary McDonogh, Francis’s son. Same location, same faces. A fun “behind the scenes” look at this solemn and seminal moment in Louisville sports history.

WHAS carried live wrestling from the Columbia Gym sponsored by Fehr’s Beer for an hour every Tuesday night for more than three years, ending the run in the fall of 1953. Sadly no tape exists of this show because WHAS did not tape anything until just a few years later.

Read the full story of the Allen Athletic Club and the WHAS TV run in Louisville’s Greatest Show, now in print on Amazon.com.

On Sale Tomorrow!

Louisville’s Greatest show is a labor of love that is truly four years in the making. When I started digging deep into Louisville’s rich wrestling history for Bluegrass Brawlers, I had no trouble finding stories about the OVW and Memphis years, but it was the “golden age” from 1935-1957 that fascinated me most. While I barely scratched the surface when I wrote Bluegrass Brawlers, Louisville’s Greatest Show will give you a year by year account of the Allen Athletic Club – the wrestlers, the shows, and the city that hosted them both.

In addition to the year by year account of the promotion and owners Heywood Allen and Francis S. McDonogh, Louisville’s Greatest Show also features more than twenty profiles of local and national wrestling stars, including:

Indiana University wrestling coach Billy Thom

Lord Patrick Lansdowne

Blacksmith Pedigo

Hall of Fame Hydroplane racer Wild Bill Cantrell

Kid Scotty Williams

Hans Schnabel

Kentucky Athletic Commissioner Johnson S. Mattingly

The legendary Wild Bill Longson

“Cousin Alviry” Elvira Snodgrass

Fred Blassie, before he was “classy”

Promoter’s wife Betty McDonogh

Chicago Bears star Fred Davis

Sgt. Buck Moore of the Louisville Police

Colonel Stu Gibson

WHAS sports director Jimmy Finegan

Ed “Strangler” Lewis

Mel Meiners

“The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell

Louisville police detective and ref Ellis Joseph

Ring announcer George Lewis

Wee Willie Davis

Louisville’s Greatest Show is the story of a city that loved wrestling and the men and women who made wrestling a Tuesday night tradition. The book is filled with never-before-published photos and stories you won’t find anywhere else.

Louisville’s Greatest Show will be available on Amazon.com and other online retailers this weekend!

No More Rasslin’ on WHAS: 1953

A few months ago I posted a story here about how WHAS began broadcasting live wrestling from the Columbia Gym in Louisville. The show went on the air in the spring of 1950 and was abruptly canceled in September of 1953. Turns out there was a reason for the show’s sudden disappearance.

The weekly wrestling program presented by the Allen Athletic Club was the highest rated show in the Louisville television market, much to the delight of sponsor Fehr’s Brewery and much to the dismay of the so-called defenders of good taste. Those who longed to see the show yanked from the air got their wish thanks to an on-air interview not with a wrestler, but with a fan.

WHAS sports director Jimmy Finegan, who called the action during the weekly program, would interview fans about the action in between bouts. One week, a fan who was upset over the actions of a negligent referee became a little too colorful with his language, and as it turns out… that was that.

The Allen Athletic Club had a brief run on WAVE-TV a few years later when they ran on Friday nights, but it only lasted a few months. One of the aforementioned defenders of good taste wrote a scathing article for the Courier-Journal in 1961, celebrating the demise of professional wrestling on the local air waves so many years before. Little did he know that Memphis would come to town nine years later, making live and televised wrestling bigger than ever in the River City.

Incidentally, Fehr’s Beer is poised to make a comeback in the Louisville area just a few weeks from now. A recent post on their Facebook page promised that the first batch of Fehr’s XL, made from the original recipe, will be available shortly after Thanksgiving.

You can read the original story about wrestling on WHAS by clicking here.

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.

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).