Sunday, September 23, 2018

Arena Gardens: Toronto's original wrestling palace (1922-1938) : Gary Will's TWH

Maple Leaf Gardens is Toronto's most storied wrestling venue and is one of a handful of sites that can credibly be called a pro wrestling mecca. For 64 years, the Gardens was host to top level pro wrestling matches, including four NWA world title changes.

But before there was Maple Leaf Gardens, there was another Gardens that was Toronto's primary wrestling venue -- the site where major league pro wrestling became established in the city. That was Arena Gardens -- later known as Mutual Street Arena.

Arena Gardens was where Ivan Mickailoff began promoting weekly shows in 1929. It was also where he presented his final Toronto show in 1938 -- the last time the building was used for pro wrestling.

Even before Mickailoff came to town, Arena Gardens had been the site of two matches between Stanislaus Zbyszko and Canadian champion George Walker in 1922 and 1924 (see ad at right).

Some of the names that Michailoff presented at the Arena included Strangler Lewis and Toots Mondt, as well as reigning world champions Gus Sonnenberg, Ed Don George, Henri Deglane, Jim Londos, Ali Baba, and Everett Marshall, who all defended their title in the building (as did light heavyweight champion Billy Weidner). Toronto-made world champion Vic Christie defended his title there once as well.

Rival promoter Jack Corcoran also promoted some shows at the Arena in 1931 before moving over to Maple Leaf Gardens when it opened in November of that year.

Arena Gardens was built in 1912 for $500,000 and was at the time the largest indoor arena in the country. It was located east of Yonge on Mutual Street between Dundas and Shuter, not far from Massey Hall, which was also used at times for pro wrestling shows, particularly when the Arena was closed for repairs. Sir Henry Pellatt, the man behind Casa Loma, was one of the Arena's primary backers.

The NHL's first Stanley Cup winners, the Toronto Arenas (1917-18), were named after the building and played their home games there, as would the Toronto St. Pats and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In 1938, the Arena was leased to William Dickson who turned it into a recreation facility offering ice skating in winter and roller skating in summer. Dickson bought the building in 1945 and it remained in the family for the next 43 years. Curling sheets -- 18 of them -- were added in a 1962 renovation, and the building was renamed The Terrace, a name it kept until it was sold in 1988 to become the site of a condominium complex. It closed its doors on April 30, 1989 and was demolished a few months later.

In the Toronto Star, Jim Proudfoot wrote:

The birthplace of professional hockey in Toronto is about to disappear - torn down and replaced by, yes, yet another picturesque pile of residential condominiums. Before long, people will dwell at Cathedral Square and they'll have no idea, most of them, that their homes sit precisely where so much of this city's history took place. A Stanley Cup was won there and the Maple Leafs started out there. Sammy Luftspring fought there and Frank Sinatra sang there. The Harlem Globetrotters entertained there and Torchy Peden rode his bike there. Foster Hewitt broadcast his first hockey game there.

Soon it'll be gone and shortly after that, forgotten.

And so it's goodbye forever to another chunk of what's made Toronto what it is today, about to join Sunnyside [amusement park], Thorncliffe [racetrack], Dufferin [racetrack], Icelandia [skating rink/arena], Ravina [Gardens -- one-time practice rink for the Leafs] and Long Branch [racetrack] in a dim and distant past - just a trivia question of the 21st century.

- by Gary Will

Friday, September 21, 2018

Smiling John: The forgotten Tunney: Gary Will's TWH

I am so pleased to start presenting the original articles from Gary Will's Toronto Wrestling History. Gary has graciously allowed me to integrate his content here and it will make a great addition to the MLW site. We will stagger the articles and collect them all on the main TWH page that will be tabbed above on the main bar as well as in the Quick Filter menu on the left side.

Gary's research was the reason I originally delved more into the history side and is a direct result of that work. Thank you Gary ! and enjoy

Smiling John: The forgotten Tunney

Frank Tunney was Toronto's greatest wrestling promoter and one of the most successful and respected promoters in the world.

But if it hadn't been for a fluke illness, he may never have had the chance to rise to that level. When Tunney took over the wrestling operations of the Queensbury Athletic Club -- the main Toronto booking office -- from Jack Corcoran in 1939, he was the junior member of the new promoting team. The head matchmaker was his older brother, John Tunney.

It isn't clear exactly when the Tunneys started to work for Corcoran. Frank would say in later interviews that he was working in the office as a teenager at the time of the first Maple Leaf Gardens show in 1931. A story in the Star at the time said the Tunneys became involved in 1933. But whatever the date was, John and Frank spent years helping Corcoran behind the scenes.

Corcoran was reported to have caught pneumonia in March 1939, and Toots Mondt -- who was or had been a partner in the Toronto office (more about that another time) -- came up to run the Gardens show on March 16, which featured a world title bout between Jim Londos and local star Vic Christie.

 The following week, it was announced that John Tunney had become the head matchmaker. Attendance through the rest of 1939 averaged 3,000-4,000 per show, and John brought in Wild Bill Longson (an immediate hit), Bronko Nagurski, Frank Sexton, and Lou Thesz for their Toronto debuts in the fall of that year.

According to the attendance figures in the Globe, John Tunney's biggest show was on Thursday January 12, 1940. The main event was Longson vs Jumping Joe Savoldi with Gus Sonnenberg on the undercard. It drew 6,000. It would also be John's final show at the Gardens.

He started feeling sick the next day, but -- against the advice of friends -- decided to work through what seemed to be a bad cold. On Monday, he made the drive to Ottawa to oversee a show there. "Upon his return, he was ordered to bed by the family physician and his condition was not considered even remotely serious," reported the Globe.

Tunney remained at home -- his house was near Danforth and Woodbine -- but things took a sharp turn for the worse on Thursdsay, the day of his next scheduled Gardens show. He died early that morning at age 32. The Star said it was influenza and the Globe added that he had suffered a heart attack. The Gardens show that night was cancelled.

"The entire sports community is prostrated by this blow which took away one of its youngest, most pleasant and most promising promoters," wrote the Star.

Tunney's wife had given birth two weeks earlier to their fourth child and was herself in the hospital suffering from complications. Among the couple's other three children was their oldest son, Jackie.

John Tunney was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery. Frank immediately became Toronto's head promoter. John's son, Jack Tunney, would go on to work for his uncle Frank starting in the early 1950s and took over the business with Frank's son Eddie Tunney after Frank's death in 1983.

-by Gary Will

Thursday, September 20, 2018

REPOST Sammy Berg, Don Leo, Dick Beyer, Mark Lewin....Earliest MLG debut for a living wrestler.

Earliest MLG debut for a living wrestler

  1. Sammy Berg 89 debut 1951
  2. Don Leo Jonathon 87 debut 1953
  3. Dick Beyer 86  debut 1956
  4. Mark Lewin 81 debut 1956
  5. Johnny Walker 83 debut 1957
  6. Tony Marino  87 debut 1960  
  7. Domenic Denucci 86 debut 1960
  8. Dino Bravo ?  debut 1960
  9. Sweet Daddy Siki 77 (reportedly) debut 1962
  10. Emile Dupree 81 debut in 1965
As of May 19 2018 - MLG Debut listed

Dick Beyer aka The Original Sensational Intelligent Destroyer as he was known here has the distinction of being one of the oldest living MLG regulars - who debuted the earliest.

He will be 87 years young on July 30 and debuted here on July 5 1956 as 'Dick Beyer' earning a draw with 'Mr Canada' Sammy (Samson) Berg.

Sammy Berg who is listed as 89 debuted here in September 1951 and appeared through 1957. He would top the list as it is currently. The earliest MLG debut for a living wrestler. He is also the oldest on the top 10 list.

Don Leo Jonathon just celebrated his 87th birthday. He debuted at MLG in 1953 appearing in the area through 1956 making him #2 ahead of Beyer. Beyer had a longer tenure, from 1956-1961 and then as The Destroyer from 1979-1984.

Mark Lewin is 81 and debuted here way back in 1956. Incredibly, as we saw him on the Wildman's circuit as late as 1986 and he was still in top shape. He appeared on the MLG cards through 1976.

Johnny 'Rubberman' Walker aka Mr Wrestling II is 83 and appeared here in 1957. But only once. Technically not a MLW regular.

Tony Marino is 87 and debuted here in 1960. He appeared at MLG through 1976 and for George Cannon about a year or two later than that.

Domenic Denucci is 86 and wrestled here as Domenic Bravo in 1960. He put in a full schedule in that year and later came back as Denucci. He wrestled here through 1982 and beyond that on the Wildman's circuit.

The original Dino Bravo- real name- who wrestled here from 1960-1961 and teamed with Beyer a time or two in addition to teaming with Domenic Denucci/Bravo as the Bravo Brothers was profiled a few years back , if still living likely in around the same age as Domenic.

Sweet Daddy Siki doesn't reveal his actual age. Wikipedia has him at 77 but he doesn't tell, likely close to that. He debuted here in 1962 and was a regular in the area on and off through 1986. He was teaming with Mark Lewin on the Wildman shows in 1986, another guy who didn't seem to age

Emile Dupree 81 debuted in 1965
Tiger Jeet Singh 74 debuted in 1965
Rocky Johnson 73 debuted in 1965
Jacques Rougeau Sr. 87 debuted 1967
Gino Brito 77 debuted in 1967
Paul Diamond 82 debuted in 1969
Angelo Mosca is 81 but he didn't debut at MLG until 1969
There may be others from the 1960's but couldn't find anyone prior to 1962 in front of Siki

There are many others who are over 70 but debuted here after 1970
Carlos Rocha would be the oldest at 91 but he debuted here in 1971
Pampero Firpo is 88, debuted in 1971
Danny Hodge is 86 he wrestled here only once, in 1972

If you can correct or add to this list please do

Monday, September 17, 2018

Whipper and Phil Lawson Training: Classic Photo

An interesting and slightly creepy photo of Whipper Watson and manager/trainer Phil Lawson circa mid 1940's.

Lawson was a real powerhouse in the city running shows and training upstarts for many years. An accomplished amateur himself he had been both City and Ontario champion since starting at the YMCA as a kid around 1910. In 1921 he won the Provincial Light Heavyweight Title in boxing, and in 1926 the Canadian Lightweight Championship in Wrestling.

Lawson took over training for the YMCA in 1926 and would start training Whipper around 1931. Officially he would become Whipper's wrestling manager in 1940 but he had already been using his specialized training regimens from the time a teenage Watson had first found the sport.

There were stories about the unorthodox training methods Lawson would use. Having Whipper carry him up the Scarboro bluffs on his back, stuff like that. This one looks designed to strengthen your neck. If you survived.

Whipper would survive and go on to a long and successful career. Lawson, a very fitness conscious and hyper type who was described as literally 'bouncing' around through life passed away in 1949 at the age of 48 from a heart attack.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Fan Action 1950's: Classic Photo

This photo is from around 1954-57. Could be any bout at MLG during that time. Well, not any but many. At first I thought it was a valet, maybe for Athol Layton. He had a couple in succession when he first came in, Gerald notably.

I'm thinking it's just a regular guy, you or me, (they dressed better then) that got 'too into it' and is being dragged off the ring apron by one of  Metros finest with an usher waiting in the wings. The ring was a lot bigger too as you can see where the ramp starts.

It's always fascinating reading accounts from the 1950's when there were frequent riots and 'fan participation' at the wrestling bouts. From all over Ontario there are many reports of Wrestlers and Fans creating mayhem.

In a future article we will look at some of the incidents that took place back then.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Wrestling Boom of the 1950's - Beyond Tunney

While there were few threats to Frank Tunney's promotion throughout the 50+ years he controlled Toronto and the outlying towns. it did happen a few times. As it was Frank enjoyed the jewel of the territory, Maple Leaf Gardens, of which he had the exclusive wrestling rights and was seeing 300,000 fans a year or more for the weekly cards of the 1950's.

Amidst the wrestling boom of the 1950's Tunney and his affiliate promoters were also busy promoting the towns around southern Ontario. They were running Niagara Falls, Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Barrie, and Oshawa who all had regular seasons, and others that didn't. He had his trusted partners in place in these cities. Pat Milosh, Sammy Sobol, John Katan, and Tommy Nelson but a few.

Some others like the Maich brothers (Joe and Don) in Brantford on a smaller scale and Larry Kasaboski in Sudbury on a larger one ran their own show but kept an amiable relationship with Tunney going back to their wrestling days. Kasaboski's TV Wrestling frequently featured Tunney stars 'Straight from MLG!' Dave McKigney (The Wildman) would start promoting in the mid 1960's but at this time he was a young middleweight working on Red Garner shows.

Garner and Kasaboski were both promoting shows in Tunney's backyard and we will look at them here.

If you are not familiar with Ontario have a look on Google maps at Barrie Ontario and use the zoom 'two time's' to zoom out. That's the small area where many of the towns listed below are located.
Google Map - Barrie, Ontario

Red Garner and the Middleweight Circuit

Garner (pictured) show 1951 
Edwin 'Red' Garner, a former amateur standout was based in the small town of Richmond Hill just North of Toronto. He ran a small circuit using mostly trainees from his gym set up near his home. He started in the 1940's and was going strong by the 1950's.

Using fast and exciting mostly middleweight wrestlers he ran 'real' type pro wrestling and had a strong fan base in Richmond, Hill, Thornhill, and Aurora.

His wrestlers all had an amateur background but it was a pro style. The lighter grapplers didn't pose much of a threat to Tunney. He ran frequent shows in and around Toronto proper also and branched out to Guelph, Stoufville, and other small towns in Southern Ontario.

1952 was an especially good year for Red and company. They were doing brisk business with youngsters including Waldo Von Sieber (later Waldo Von Erich), Jacques Dubois (McKigney), and Toronto born Gori 'Ed' 'Killer' Mangotich who would later find great success in Europe.

New Action In Stoufville

Despite Garner's success, in early 1953 Stoufville Arena announced a change for it's second Wrestling season (the arena opened in 1952) with a move to 'Southern States wrestlers.' Said to be the same stars from the Grapefruit states which were shown on Toronto's film TV shows. The wrestlers eventually featured were not household names. Irish Michael O'Toole,Steve Zaboski, Wes Glazier, a 'Red Demon.' Don Ireland of Oshawa, Ted Swift from Niagara Falls and others from the area.

That outfit ran a few shows and one report claimed it to be the 'best wrestling show that has been offered here since it was introduced here over a year ago.' The only local 'name' that appeared was 'Killer' Jim Conroy (as Bert 'Killer' Conroy.

By 1954 though Garner was back in to Stoufville kicking off the season at the beginning of April with Von Sieber against Mangotich. Garner's matchmaker Roy McMahon (yup) offered a money back guarantee if you weren't happy with the show

Back in 1952 while Garner was filling out the arenas on his circuit Tunney was running Barrie -using famed sportsman Max Hurley as promoter - and Collingwood  (60km away). With his regular stars and guests like Boxing great Jack Dempsey in as special referee, they were regularly drawing 1000 fans to the small arenas. Tunney's shows ran from 75c to $2.50 for ringside while Garner had lower prices of 65c to $1 for ringside.

Wrestling Returns to Barrie 1954 - with Northland Wrestling

Come 1953 wrestling would be absent from the two towns. In 1954 Barrie announced a new summer wrestling season would kick off on May 25, this time with shows promoted by Northland Wrestling Enterprises headed by Kasaboski. Northland was enjoying a huge upswing at the time due to it's popular live TV wrestling, one of the first Studio shows in North America.

Kasaboski would run Barrie on Tunney's former Tuesday night while Tunney countered in Collingwood on the usual Wednesday night.  At the end of the month Kasaboski ran a card featuring the very popular midget stars as the main event and filled the arena. Tunney would send his biggest stars of the day alongside Whipper. The Mills Brothers, Fred Atkins, Yukon Eric. etc.

Kasaboski 1954 Tuesday Night Aug 10 

Tunney 1954 Wednesday Night Aug 11

A July main in Barrie had upcoming Olympic star Maurice Vachon vs Bobby Ford while Tunney followed with Whipper vs Sky Hi lee in Collingwood. Dory Funk and Don Evans would also appear that summer, many U.S. stars would come up over the years and enjoy the Ontario North. Kasaboski was regularly drawing 700-1200 to the shows. Tunney's attendance was not reported .

At that time Kasaboski's circuit was vast. He was running shows in over 30 towns from La Sarre in Northern Quebec across to Wawa, Ontario, working his way down as far as Brockville on the Canada/U.S. border. He would also run Orillia a few minutes to the East of Barrie.

1954 sharing the page

Tunney Fights Back 

At the 1954 NWA convention Tunney, who had been elected as vice-president, complained about Kasaboski going into his towns and under-bidding him to promoters. Kasaboski was not a member of the NWA so Tunney may have been looking to stop some of the Southern U.S. stars from heading.up.

Tunney takes Stoufville 1957 
In 1956 Tunney would move into Stoufville bumping Garner out with regular cards featuring Dick Hutton, Fritz Von Erich, Whipper, and the rest. They would also run other towns that Garner ran including Newmarket and Bradford. Garner would continue to run Thornhill (Summer Market) and Richmond Hill on alternate days to the Tunney cards. Tunney would promote with 'Big Name Stars' prominent on the ads.

In Sutton (across the Lake from Barrie) in July 1957 Tommy Nelson (Tunney) drew 1,500 fans for a main of Whip vs Kiniski. It was said to be the largest draw at the Sutton Arena for any sport over the past several years.

It's unclear if Tunney had any grievance with Garner who wasn't the same threat as Kasaboski was.

Somewhere along the way Kasaboski and Tunney settled up as some of the names crossed over. One Kasaboski card in September 1958 was set to have a main of  Fred Atkins (billed 'from Frank Tunney's Toronto circuit') vs Bobo Brazil, who were both current stars for Tunney. Bobo no showed forcing Atkins to face Thompson. It said the 'incident will not go unaccounted. Northland promoter Larry K who brings in the Toronto men through his friendly connection with Frank Tunney, is sure to find out the reason why.'  The recap for that bout claimed Thompson made Atkins 'work, probably harder than he has in many bouts.'

Somewhat related was that the Barrie Fair that same month had originally scheduled wrestling (Kasaboski). It was said the OAC said it was illegal to put on wrestling at the fair so the card was cancelled. Have to wonder as many fairs in Ontario at the time had 'exhibition' wrestling.

Northland Winning The Fight

A column in the Barrie Examiner in Sept 1958 looked at the past season and determined the best wrestling was ....Northland.

'While the Northland wrestlers were although a mite smaller, proved far more schooled in the science of the game. They were faster, and did more than hold their right arms up, claiming victory.'

Added was 'Best Villain - Maurice Vachon' and best supporting cast of Bill Curry, Sandy Scott, Louis Papineau, and Frank 'Scotty' Thompson.
Tunney heads North 1958

Tunney would in turn head North into Kasaboski's area promoting some shows at the Bracebridge Community Centre.

Bracebridge -100km North of Barrie, 200km north of Toronto - is the gateway to the North and further than Tunney had gone previously. For two successive shows they ran Yukon Eric vs Kiniski mains.

In 1959 Ricky Starr missed a Tunney show in Barrie. In a column titled 'Bad Feelings' Barrie Sports Editor Steve Jonescu kicked off with 'Francois Tunney, wrestling promoter at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto doesn't have too many friends among the wrestling crowd in the Barrie area.' He reminded readers of the Bobo no-show the previous year but said that Starr hadn't drawn very many anyways - as they weren't advised of the substitution until they entered the arena. Again it was said 'Northland Wrestling Enterprise was quite upset...'

Garner Still Going Strong

All this time Garner wouldn't miss a beat, filling them in at the Thornhill Farmers Market summer shows and in his home base of Richmond Hill. One of Garner's stars Stoney Brooks was from Campbellford in the eastern part of Ontario and they would run shows in the region including Cobourg and other towns. Kasaboski would also occasionally drop south of his usual circuit and run Perth and other towns in the Eastern area.

No Hard Feelings

Both Garner (as Great Kudo) and Kasaboski would return to wrestle at MLG in the early 1960's. Garner was slowing down and would retire soon after but not before a WWWF title shot vs Bruno Sammartino. Larry K would wrestle for Tunney in 1958 and again in 1960. He would come in for a last time in 1964 to face newcomer The Sheik who spent the better part of the 15 minute bout 'chewing on his victims left ear.' Maybe Tunney got his revenge after all.


Garner would team up with Gus Marmon and The Olympic Wrestling Club in the early 1960's for a time and they would have a short run TV show shown in Eastern Ontario. He would retire for good in 1964 and went on to drive the 'Bookmobile' (library on wheels) in North York and later was the head of Woodview Library.

Kasaboski would continue to promote the North through 1975 but wasn't down in the southern part of the province very often after his initial run in the 1950's.

Tunney celebrated the 50th Anniversary of MLW in 1981 and passed on in 1983 after 42 years at the helm. The rights passed to nephew Jack and son Eddy and as far as I know no one else ever had rights to promote at MLG before it closed in 1999.

For more on Red Garner and the CCWA see : Red Garner CCWA

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Barry Lloyd Penhale with Tony Lanza 1955

We have lots of Barry Lloyd Penhale stuff around the site. This photo from a bodybuilding contest with wrestler and noted photographer Tony Lanza in 1955. The contest was held in Toronto with Penhale and Lanza as judges.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Barry Penhale Column WAYLI 1954 Joe Gollob Rene La Belle

Another Penhale column from WAYLI 1954. This time a visit with Joe Gollob, Tex McKenzie, Mighty Ursus,  and an update on Rene La Belle.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

1972 Article on 16 yr old Ray Rougeau

A 1972 look at then 16 year old Ray Rougeau (he would turn 17 later that month) in with the recap of his Feb 6 bout against Ivan Kalmikoff. Ray debuted here in Nov 1971 and later teamed with his father Jacques Sr. wrestling here a bit up to 1974. He would come back in 1986 with the WWF teamed with brother Jacques Jr.

Both brothers were chips of the old block(s). Their uncle Johnny Rougeau was a huge star in Quebec and wrestled here in the 1950's and '60's as did their great uncle Eddie Auger (Jacques Sr. and Johnny's father) who wrestled here in the early 1950's as Pierre LaSalle.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Jimmy Valiant 1982: Classic Photo

Jimmy Valiant making an ENTRANCE at MLG in 1982. This was his 'Handsome Jimmy' persona and to say it was popular would be a huge understatement. He was kind of a precursor to Hulkamania in his own way, a lot of flash and energy, and the fans loved him. You could argue his stuff didn't age well but there were others -Leroy Brown notably - that you couldn't mistake for Lou Thesz, but they had the fans and that's what it's all about.