|Tuesday, June 3
|The Olympic Auditorium: Still Standing|
By John Beyrooty
Oscar De La Hoya won the first of his many world titles at the Olympic Auditorium. Oscar's grandfather (Vincente), father (Joel) and thousands of boxers have fought at the legendary 18th and Grand venue the past 77 years. If you wanted to distinguish yourself in the sweet science, the Olympic Auditorium was the place to do it.
The Olympic is Los Angeles. It was completed in 1925, the same year as the main Public Library Building was completed downtown, airmail service began in Los Angeles and the Sears-Roebuck building on Ninth Street opened.
The first major international event at the Olympic was the 1932 Olympic Games which, despite a worldwide depression and pervasive atmosphere of gloom, was a success both competitively and financially. It earned $1 million and was viewed by 1.25 million people.
The Olympic had magic. Its central location enabled fans to attend from all over by automobile, or in the earliest days, streetcar. The Olympic featured huge pictures on the walls of the lobby covered with photographs of boxers and wrestlers, as well tight little dressing rooms with low ceilings. The atmosphere was conducive to yelling and getting involved.
Measuring 260-by-162 feet, the Olympic had one huge ground floor, which sloped gradually away from the boxing ring in the center, and an enormous balcony that stretched diagonally away in every direction toward the roof. There were no pillars and every one of the seats had a perfectly clear and unobstructed view of the arena. Except for the first 17 rows, the fans sat in seats that had been steeply tiered from the lower floor to the balcony, so that a spectator could always see over the person in front of him or her. It felt like a boxing arena. It smelled like a boxing arena, too, as the aroma of hot dogs and mustard wafted through the place.
The Olympic's grand opening on Aug. 5, 1925, was one of the most gala events of its time. The program consisted of five six-round bouts, preceded by bands, speeches and presentations. That evening, the concrete structure had a distinct air of class and was attended by past and present boxing champions such as Jack Dempsey, motion picture stars such as Rudolph Valentino, politicians and society matrons. The referees were clad in dress suits and the bejeweled spectators in upholstered chairs were similarly dressed, making the event look more like a grand opera than a fight card.
Opening Night tickets for the first and, perhaps only American arena built expressly for boxing, were $3 ringside, $2 mezzanine and $1 for the 4,000 general admission seats in the upper balcony. Winning the co-features were Newsboy Brown and Sammy Shack, who outpointed Frankie Grandetta and Young Nationalista, respectively, in their bouts.
There have been numerous boxing promoters across the years at the Olympic. Among the earliest were Jack Doyle, Snowy Baker and Joe Lynch. Lou Daro was the top wrestling promoter during the 1930s. The most famous, however, was Tom Gallery. Gallery, a silent movie star whose first wife was actress Zazu Pitts, not only promoted at the Olympic, but also was instrumental in bringing a Joe Louis fight to Wrigley Field. Gallery would go on to work with Branch Rickey and became the top man at NBC.
The Olympic suffered through difficult fiscal times during its infancy. By the time it re-opened for the second or third time on July 21, 1942, Cal Eaton was the promoter. Aileen LeBell, who would become Mrs. Aileen Eaton in 1948, served as the business manager, and Babe McCoy was the matchmaker. Frank Garbutt, a vice-president of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which owned the Olympic, hired Eaton, then a boxing inspector for the State Athletic Commission.
LeBell, a bookkeeper and Garbutt's secretary at LAAC, had recommended Eaton for the job. Offering balcony seats, upper and lower, for 25 cents helped the new promotional team draw 2,212 its first show. The following Oct. 13, a crowd of 9,711 paid to watch the great triple world champion Henry Armstrong knock out Juan Zurrita in the second round.
McCoy was the matchmaker from 1942-54. George Parnassus started putting together the bouts in 1957. A packed house turned out to watch world light heavyweight champion Archie Moore retain his title with a seventh-round knockout over Tony Anthony on Parnassus' first show on Sept. 20, 1957. In mid-1965, Parnassus left the Olympic to promote at the Forum.
It was around the time of Parnassus' departure that Cal and Aileen Eaton began promoting weekly, televised boxing shows. The city was loaded with talent and the Eatons would parlay it into the most successful weekly boxing promotion in the world. Mickey Davies was hired as matchmaker. Jimmy Lennon Sr. was the ring announcer.
The fights were televised every Thursday night on KTLA-Ch. 5 from 8-10 p.m., with Davies and a young unknown named Dick Enberg, in his first major gig, calling the action from ringside. Sitting in for Enberg when he was not available were Keith Jackson, Tom Kelly, Tom Harmon and Jerry Coleman. When the fights moved to Saturday nights on KCOP-Ch. 13, Jim Healy called the fights.
A few months after the series began, Cal Eaton passed away, leaving his widow with the responsibility of running the show. Aileen Eaton, the most successful promoter in Olympic Auditorium history, deserves much credit for keeping weekly boxing alive in Los Angeles all those years.
Don Chargin, who would become known as "War A Week," became the full-time matchmaker in 1969. Chargin, an associate matchmaker at the Olympic for years, had been involved in boxing in various capacities since 1945 and promoted his first fight card in 1950. Chargin remained at the Olympic until Jack Needleman bought the building in 1983.
Since the time of Chargin and Needleman, it has been a revolving door of promoters, with L&M Promotions (Lester Kirschner and Mario Thomas); Azteca Promotions (Rogelio Robles); Five Star Promotions (Bennie/Don Georgino); Celebrity Productions (Harry "Da Beeg Man" Kabakoff/Peter Broudy); MAPS (Harold Smith); Don Fraser Promotions, and Don King Productions all giving it a go.
After being shut down for boxing for seven years, Bob Arum's Top-Rank group moved into the now-renovated Olympic for a series of fight cards that began with De La Hoya stopping Jimmi Bredahl to capture the World Boxing Organization (WBO) junior lightweight title on March 5, 1994.
The boxers who have appeared at the Olympic read like a who's who. They include: De La Hoya; Armstrong; Julio Cesar Chavez; Marvin Hagler; Joe Louis; Jimmy McLarnin; Jerry Quarry; Archie Moore; Sonny Liston; Joe Frazier; Enrique Bolanos; Emile Griffith; Floyd Patterson; Tony Canzoneri; Lauro Salas; Pajarito Moreno; Cisco Andrade; George "Scrap Iron" Johnson; Bobby "Schoolboy" Chacon, and Danny "Little Red" and Ernie "Big Red" Lopez.
Other boxers include Mando Ramos; Hedgemon Lewis; Ismael Laguna; Carlos Palomino; Jimmy Carter; Art Aragon; Sugar Ramos; Pipino Cuevas; Frankie Crawford; Jesus and Jose Pimental; Georgie Latka; Ruben Navarro; Salvador Sanchez; Lou "Rocky" Filippo; Barney Ross; Mickey Walker; Maxie Rosenbloom; Ken Norton; Ike Chestnut; Armando Muniz; Albert and Richie Sandoval; Frankie and Tony Baltazar; John Thomas; Hector "Macho" Camacho; Lupe Pintor; Ray "Windmill" White; Michael Spinks; Carlos Ortiz; Raul Rojas, and Albert "Tweety" Davila.
In addition to boxing, the Olympic was the home of bigtime professional wrestling in Los Angeles. The same week the Olympic opened for boxing in 1925, it also featured a wrestling show with Jim Londos, Ed "Stranger" Lewis, Joe Stacker and Stanislaus Zbyszko as the top attractions.
Mike LeBell, son of Aileen and brother of "Judo" Gene, staged wrestling shows as often as twice a week beginning in the late 1950s. The list of world-famous grapplers who appeared during LeBell's lengthy, hugely successful watch include Freddie Blassie; Gorgeous George; John "The Golden Greek" Tolos; Mr. Moto; Bobo Brazil; The Dusek Brothers; Wild Red Berry; Jules Strongbow; "Iron" Mike Mazursky; Sgt. Slaughter; Lou Thesz; Andre The Giant; Count Billy Varga; Baron Leone; Haystack Calhoun; The Destroyer and Rowdy Roddy Piper. The ring announcer for Wrestling at the Olympic was Lennon. The original "whoa nelle" guy, Dick Lane, called all the unbelievable action on television.
The Olympic also was the home for roller derby's Los Angeles T-Birds. Who can forget John Hall, Red Smart; Teri Lynch; Shirley Hardman; Ronnie "Psycho" Rains; Charlie "Spec" Saunders; Sally Vega; Gwen "Skinny Minny" Miller; Danny Reilly and, of course, the greatest clutch performer this city has ever known, Ralphie Valladeres?
Bill Griffiths Sr. acted as the roller derby promoter. Lane also was the television announcer for roller derby until he retired in the mid-1970s. He was replaced with Dick "Oh Me, Oh My!" Hollway. Bill "Hoppy" Haupt was the expert analyst.
The Olympic also served as home for USC and UCLA basketball briefly. It has hosted countless concerts, religious shows and union meetings, and has been a favorite backdrop for Hollywood movies. Many of the fight scenes in the original "Rocky," "Requiem For A Heavyweight" and "Great White Hype" were shot at the Olympic, as well as the wrestling scenes in Jim Carrey's film "Man On The Moon" (the life story of Andy Kaufman) and "Ready To Rumble."
The historic venue will be working without a script when De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions holds its first card there this Thursday.