This is not a definitive history, if you are a member of the Tunney family the article is intended in a respectful manner with the intention to try to add info that may not be readily available already. If you note corrections or additions please contact me and I will update.
We will focus on the Toronto office as more in depth issues such as Tunney's involvement in the NWA can be found at other sources, some of which are linked to in the article. We will look at the years beyond in a future article.
The Tunney family originated from Ireland. Frank's great-grandfather Peter Tunney immigrated to Toronto sometime prior to 1849 when he married a Bridget Potter in St Pauls Church in Toronto. Peter and Bridget had 7 children. First born Hugh in 1851 would marry Ellen Quigley in 1873 in Newmarket, ON living life as a farmer before retiring in 1919. Hugh (d. 1931) and Ellen (d. 1933) would have 3 boys including first born Thomas Peter in 1875 or 1876 in the township of Whitchurch Stoufville.
|With French Angel 1942|
Thomas Peter Tunney later settled on a farm in Hagermans Corners near 14th Ave and Kennedy Rd in the town of Markham. Thomas Tunney had married Markham born Annie Corcoran (born 1873) in 1901 and they beget three children, the youngest of which was Frank.
We can note that Frank's mother Annie bears the same name as the longtime Boxing and Wrestling promoter Jack (John Joseph) Corcoran with whom Frank and brother John began working for in the 1930's. In the marriage announcement of Franks parents on Nov 8 1901 (date of marriage Nov 4) Annie is said to be daughter of one John Corcoran (d.1911).
Was there a family relationship between Frank's mother and his future employer? While Corcoran was not an uncommon name, given the fact that Frank went to work for Jack, would assume that it's quite probable that Frank's mother was related to Jack whose family also had ties to the Markham area. At least publicly there was no admission of a family connection between the two.
Thomas and Annie Tunney had three boys. First born John in 1907 (d.1940), Thomas Peter (Jr) in 1910 (d. 2000), and Francis Martin (Frank) in 1912. It is not clear when Thomas Sr settled on the Markham farm as both John and Thomas were listed as born in Scarborough. The Tunneys had first had a farm in the Milliken area (now Agincourt), while Frank is generally listed as being from Markham.
Frank, the youngest of the three boys was in later years described as growing up doing the usual farm chores. In 1927 when Frank was just a teen his father would pass away at the age of 51. There would be a fair amount of tragic circumstances in Frank's family as the years went on.
As a high schooler Frank was apparently quite athletic, he would compete in football, sprints and high jump at Markham and was said to have won a junior championship. In a 1947 piece (bearing in mind -the usually tongue-in-cheek sports writer) Joe Perlove referred to him as the 'Markham speedball'. In that same article it says Frank started as secretary to Corcoran and later got brother John a job.
A 1944 article from the Stoufville Tribune states that due to physical ailments Frank was unable to join the army but that he was doing his part to ease the monotony of army life by bringing leading wrestlers to the various 'camps' without charge. As far back as 1939 it was noted in the Star that he (and John) were also bringing members of the military to Maple Leaf Gardens to watch Wrestling and Boxing on his dime and was said to have entertained '7 thousand' over the year 1939 alone.
Corcoran and The Tunneys
|with Strangler Lewis 1942|
In Toronto in the late 1920's the local wrestling scene was growing. Ivan Mickailoff had begun weekly shows in 1929 at Arena Gardens (later Mutual St Arena and then The Terrace, a long time roller rink, a great spot if you grew up in the 1970's) and in 1930 Boxing promoter Jack Corcoran and his Queensbury Athletic Club obtained a wrestling license.
Corcoran, who had been promoting boxing in the city since the early 1900's formed the Queensbury Club with Ed Rudd who ran the Rudd Athletic Club. Jack would grow into the leading wrestling promoter in the city, arranging to be the matchmaker for shows at the newly opened Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931. Corcoran was said to have partners in Paul Bowser and Toots Mondt. His first card at MLG on Nov 19 1931 fell a week after Frank's 19th birthday.
Exactly when Frank -and later his older brother John- began working at Corcoran's office remains somewhat unclear. He was initially described as a 'secretary' while brother John was later to be the 'matchmaker'. There is nary a public mention of brother John until March 1939 when he is described as taking over matchmaking duties for an ailing Corcoran for the March 23 card. Frank merits public mention earlier as both boxing promoter and secretary in 1938.
When John passed away suddenly soon after his 32nd birthday in January 1940, it said he had been handling duties for Corcoran for 6 years placing him in the office about 1934. It should be noted that Corcoran was still listed (publicly anyways) as 'Matchmaker' into 1939.
In a 1986 story on John's son Jack (who took over after uncle Frank passed away in 1983) it notes that 'Jack has been promoting since 1956', Frank and John 'since the Gardens opened in 1931'. By that time it was a long way removed from the 1930's so not sure how accurate that is, they may have extended their history a bit, either Jack or the writer. Other stories on Frank or MLG later in the 1970's and '80's generally refer to Frank having 'promoted since 1931'. While he may have been in the office at that time he didn't 'promote' officially until 1939-40
In a 1948 article on Frank, it says he came to Toronto to take a 20$ a week job. A later article put it at 15 a week. In his obituary in 1983 it placed Frank in the office around 1931 straight out of business college. In another article from 1980 with Frank's comments it says he hopped the local (bus) with his diploma from Markham Collegiate and took his first -and only -job at the Queensbury Club. He (Frank) mentions that he 'wasn't all that interested in the fight game, bit I liked the place'. He goes on to say 'I liked Jack (Corcoran), a very fine man, like a father.'
In a Aurora Ontario newspaper report in August 1933, Frank, described as a former resident, son of Mr & Mrs Thomas Tunney, almost drowned at Harvey's pond north of Unionville. He was swimming with a friend when his friend got cramps. Frank grabbed his friend who was a not good swimmer and almost took him to the bottom of the pond. The friend managed to free himself and called for help. A young man jumped in and saved Frank and a Doctor on scene gave administered artificial respiration for over an hour, succeeding in resuscitating him. The young man who saved Frank later received a medal for bravery while the others received lifesaving certificates.
|with Red Shadow and Manager 1943|
On Aug 10 1937 Frank married Edna Mary Layola Kirby at St Brigid's Church in Toronto, the best man is older brother Thomas. The couple would honeymoon in Muskoka before returning to live in Toronto. They would go on to have 4 children including Eddie who would work at the office (in a bookkeeping role) in the 1970's and later officially as partner with cousin Jack after Frank passed away in 1983.
Eddie also worked for Exhibition Stadium in the 1970's. The Stadium was the scene of several large wrestling cards over the years starting in 1977 and later including the Night Of Champions cards in 1983 and the huge WWF Big Event show in 1986.
In June 1951 Frank's 3 week old son died after being found in his crib with breathing difficulties. Another son Frank Jr would pass away after a battle with cancer in 1978 at the age of 38. Both Eddie and Frank Jr. made the Star paper in a 1948 photo of them play wrestling at the Tunney home with the visiting 'Wild' Bill Longson.
On Apr 16 1938 at the age of 65, Frank's mother Annie passes away at her home at 102 Oak Park Ave, Toronto. Services are held at St Brigids
In 1939, Jack Corcoran was said to have taken ill and Toots Mondt had come up to run one show while he was away from the office. There was a front page story not long after about an incident on Lake Simcoe where Corcoran and others almost drowned after his boat capsized on a day out on the water.
It appears that around that time John and Frank buy the now on-the-downside promotion from Corcoran. Other investors are said to include Paul Bowser, Jack Ganson, and Jerry Monahan while the boxing matchmaker is 'Deacon' Allen. Perlove states in a March 1947 bit that John and Frank had lost $2700 in the first 3 shows they put on after taking over. Perlove would also call John the 'hustler and scuffler of the outfit'. Corcoran was also promoting Ottawa at the time and John would become matchmaker for those shows.
Corcoran would somewhat retire from the promotion soon after passing the reins to John & Frank, and from all accounts was very well respected in the city. He appears to have set the tone that Frank would continue for many years. That of the unassuming anti-promoter type, not very common in the Wrestling or Boxing world of the day.
While later articles refer to the Tunneys taking over for an 'ailing Corcoran' (he had a nasty bout with the flu early in 1939), Jack appears to have wanted to retire at that time to pursue other interests. He would retire at the relatively young age of 47 and go on to spend another 25 years in the city. The sudden passing of John and the near death experience on the lake may have expedited his decision.
A 1941 story quoted Montreal Promoter Eddie Quinn as saying that Corcoran was still receiving 5% of the gate from Tunney's shows while he is referred to in the late '40's as 'retired from everything' and keeping a low profile. When noted athlete Lionel Conacher died in 1954 Corcoran was one of the guards of honor at the funeral, alongside Primo Carnera, Red Dutton (NHL Exec.), and others. He was active in real estate in Toronto since the 1920's owning several buildings including the Queensbury Hotel on Scarlett Rd as well as Nealon House on King. He was also involved in owning and racing thoroughbred horses from the 1930's up. He passed away in 1965 at the age of 73.
As we will see, John Tunney would not be involved as the public head of the promotion for long. Other than the occasional mention in the writeup for upcoming cards, John would figure in only one major item.
A June 1939 bit in the Ottawa paper mentions a 'New Deal campaign to bring fans back by eliminating the so-called champions, masked wrestlers, kicking, eye-gouging, hair-pulling, fights outside the ring and mauling of refs. Real old-fashioned wrestling with real holds is to be the vogue.' Said to include Promoters Paul Bowser of Boston, Tom Packs of St Louis, Jack Ganson of Montreal, John Tunney of Toronto, Jules Bauman of Rochester, and Hans Furst of Syracuse. A.E. Long, the Eastern Rep for the Ontario Athletic Commission gave his approval.
|with Fred Atkins 1949|
On June 5 1939 in Toronto under the byline 'King Kong Cox refuses to accept 'New Deal' bout, John Tunney announced the cancellation of the June 8 card with Dan O'Mahoney. Under contract he offered the bout to King Kong Cox on the condition he obey his edict and cut out the rough stuff. Apparently Cox refused to change his style and Tunney announced the bout was off and Cox would not be allowed to return until he was ready to wrestle instead of 'act like an enraged animal'. Seems quite comical now but the Athletic commission in those days was frequently involved, giving fines and such. Not sure what eventually came of the 'New Deal', suffice to say nothing much changed in the ways of the ring.
Though he had apparently already passed the reins to John and Frank by this point, in a Sept 4 1939 bit by Fred Jackson Sports Editor at the Star he reports 'business back as usual at the Queensbury Club. Corcoran back from his prolonged vacation and near fatal trip on Lake Simcoe, Deacon Allen back from California with Jimmy Webster, (and at the office) Frank and John and Phil Lisner.'
After a summer break the Oct 19 1939 show promoted as the first show of the season, Corcoran is still named. As of Nov 1 1939 he is listed as chair of Sports Service Leagues wrestling and boxing committee. At the end of the year on Dec 26th he is still named as Boxing head at the office.
In Jan 1940 just a few days after his 32nd birthday John Tunney passed away suddenly. He left behind wife Fidelis Merrick (d.1969) and 4 children including John Jr. aka Jack who would later join his uncle Frank in the office.
We will note that when Fidelis passed away in 1969 she was listed as Thomas Tunney's wife. When Thomas died in 2000 it listed his first wife as Fidelis Merrick. We could assume if that is correct, that Thomas stepped in to help John's young family as was not uncommon in those days. Later family notices seem to confirm this.
In John's obit it says his father Thomas was second cousin to Gene Tunney boxer. There is nothing definitive to indicate that is true, many Tunney's purport to be kin to Gene although it is possible, both families following a similar path from Ireland. John as well as Frank and Jack did all bear somewhat of a resemblance to the champ at different times in their lives. Boxer Gene also had a famous son John, a long time US Senator.
The card scheduled for Jan 19 was postponed and on the 20th Frank was said to have 'assumed matchmaking duties for the Queensbury Athletic Club' and was said to be 'brother and partner' of John. The obituary in the Ottawa paper described John as 'First Lieutenant' for Jack Corcoran, a 'genial soft spoken man, reputation for being sincere, a capable executive, a gentleman, and a good sportsman.'
In the 1940's in addition to Toronto, Frank was promoting Ottawa as well as shows throughout Ontario. Whipper especially was in high demand after beating Bill Longson for the NWA (National Wrestling Association) Title in 1947. He would appear on shows across the province from Ottawa to Windsor where Bill Thornton was the promoter with Frank getting co-promoter billing on those shows. Whipper would continue to have working ties to the office through to the early 1970's and would branch out to promoting smaller shows (in alliance with Frank) in and around Toronto in the 1950.s and '60's.
Star of the 1940's Pat Flanagan would also become a big part of the promotion on the inside. In addition to being one of the more prolific wrestlers (and referee) in Ontario from the 1940's to the late 60's, Flanagan would work as a type of booker for Tunney. Barry Penhale told me that Flanagan was the person who set up the outside towns as far as supplying the wrestlers to the local promoters. He would form close bonds with the area promoters such as in Oshawa with young promoter Pat Milosh.
In Oshawa at least, it ran with Milosh booking the arenas, doing the advertising, and running the shows. Part of the net proceeds would go back to the office in Toronto. Frank would frequently have Pat as a guest at MLG for parties and such. He appears to have maintained a close and very amicable relationship with most everyone he dealt with.
Along with Whipper and Flanagan, other former wrestlers would form the core of the office both during their wrestling days as well as after, some in non-official roles. Earlier stars including Al 'Bunny' Dunlop and Kenneth 'Tiger' Tasker stayed on for years as referees as did Bowmanville star Billy Stack. Fred Atkins, after a lengthy career later became a trainer and manager (said to have trained Dick Hutton prior to his NWA reign and also notably Tiger Jeet Singh and Giant Baba) and would referee right up into the 1980's. Athol Layton remained close to Frank also while another former star Billy 'Red' Lyons would become a commentator after his career finished.
With many of the other towns it appears to have been set up similarly where each town or area had a promoter who took care of the shows while working in tandem with the Toronto office. Along with Milosh, there was Joe Maich for Brantford and area, Sammy Sobol in the Niagara region, even the Northland group run by Larry Kasaboski would often feature talent sent up by Tunney 'direct from Maple Leaf Gardens'.
It should be noted that 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 did try to make some inroads in the outside towns (Lakefield -north of Peterborough- for one) but never got close to Toronto that I can see. As with Tunney's on and off again relationship with Dave McKigney later the feuds appear to be few and far between. Whipper too would promote shows in some alliance with Tunney in and around Toronto in the 1950's and up and also join Frank at the NWA conventions starting in 1954. Whipper himself would become a member a year later when he bought into the Seattle territory staying until 1956.
John Katan who had been a big star in the 1930's and '40's also would play a big part in the Toronto history in those early days - in the Hamilton area. Katan became the promoter of the town and running it with Frank's help and wrestlers it became a major stop on the Canadian circuit. Hamilton was also the site for Tunney's TV for many years.
Although Frank wasn't one to get too involved on the wrestling side as far as angles with the wrestlers, in 1941 there was an alleged lawsuit by Whipper against Tunney in regards to a breach of contract. Supposedly Whipper claimed he had been signed to wrestle in the main event against Masked Wolf. When Tunney held an open tournament to determine the number one contender for the world title on May 1, 1941, Watson submitted a copy of his entry form to the Ontario Athletics Commission so that Tunney couldn't claim he didn't enter. He then won four matches in one night to win the tournament. That was the beginning of the 30 year run with Whipper on top.
To Frank's credit, especially as a young promoter in the position he was thrust into, in a 1947 story it was said that Bowser, Gannon, and Monahan had all been against the big push for Whipper. As the 'Pride Of East York' Watson would become the home town favorite earning both the NWA (Association) title in '47 and then the NWA (Alliance) title in 1956. The British Empire Title became Whipper's hometown title which ended up being defended around the country when Tunney had National TV in the 1950's. It would prove to be the decision that saved Toronto wrestling.
In 1945 Frank would make what may have been his only appearance as a referee. He would officiate a bout between Whipper Watson and Whitey Hewitt at the Coliseum on a mixed Boxing-Wrestling card for the Armed Forces.
An item in the Social section in Nov 1948 shows Frank & Mrs Tunney hosted a party at their home after the Loretto dance. Guests included Mr & Mrs Winnett Watson (Pat Flanagan), Joe Perlove, Franks brother Thomas, and a William Tunney and their wives. Also notable is a Miss Lorraine Henning who would become Frank's second wife after Edna passed away on the last day of December 1969.
A 1948 article offers a peek inside the office. It reports 'he (Frank) and staff use 4 rooms and a basement in the NE corner of MLG. His private quarters are well secreted you peer through a little wicket at Frank Ayerst who does a Houdini under his deck. there is a click and presto, you are past the outer guardian or tiler and into a cubicle where nine times out of ten, Phil Lisner confronts you and shakes hands. No doubt Frank has to screen himself from tumultuous wrestlers who, like grizzlies, are playful.' It goes on to describe that office as 'overstuffed, its walls reeking with pictures of assorted fighters, wrestlers, and friends, which Jack Corcoran occasionally uses. The back office where Tunney resides behind a desk 'that wouldn't shame the untidiest editor in the business for the infinite variety of its charming disorder.'
The office once occupied part of the space that became the Hot Stove Lounge, site of many Tunney press conferences and parties. A large portrait of Frank hung on the wall there for many years (alongside one of Whipper) and when Frank passed on his friends and peers gathered there after his funeral.
Tunney also had points in the St Louis office starting in the 1940's. He had formed a relationship with then St Louis promoter Tom Packs and when Packs retired in June 1948 he (Packs) sold his interests in the World Title and offices to Thesz, Bill Longson, Tunney, and Quinn. A year later, Muchnick and the Thesz outfit formed a partnership and Frank followed. At the 2nd annual NWA convention in November 1949 Tunney was present representing Toronto. A later correspondence states that Tunney, along with Bill Longson, Bobby Manganoff, and Whipper Watson held about 34% share in the St Louis Office.
When Frank passed away in 1983 Sam Muchnick commented "I first met Frank 46 years ago, we were kids, working for big promoters, and we were witnesses at an anti-trust trial (to do with wrestling) in Columbus, Ohio. It was declared a mistrial -as good as a win- and even better, I acquired a friend for life."
Muchnick chuckled at the memory of Tunney's casual approach to business matters. "Frank had a piece of the action when I was running shows in St. Louis," he said. "I'd mail him a cheque every so often but lost of times years would go by before he'd cash one. The bank would call up to see if they were still any good. They'd have been buried in a pile of stuff on top of his desk. "One time he asked me to pull something out of the heap. It was a hydro bill from a year before. 'Guess that's why they shut off my power,' he said. I pulled again. It was an envelope with several $100 bills in it. He had no idea where that came from."
In the early to mid 1940's there were several boxing promoters in the city alongside Tunney and Deacon Allen. Playfair Brown was the most active, also Sam 'The Furniture Man' Keller was another promoting shows at the CNE Coliseum and at least one card at MLG back in 1937.
Lil' Arthur King a Toronto native and regular at the Massey Hall amateur boxing cards made his debut at MLG for Tunney in 1946. In the midst of a successful career King would switch managers from Dave Yack to notorious Philadelphia mobster Blinky Palmero in 1948 and see his career suffer as a result. In 1956 Tunney helped arrange a buyback to bring King back to Toronto and King was forever thankful for it.
In 1956 Toronto native George Chuvalo turned pro and beat 4 opponents to win the 4th annual Heavyweight Novice Tournament run by Tunney and Deacon Allen in co-sponsorship with Jack Dempsey. Chuvalo would go on to have many bouts at MLG under Tunney including a 1966 title bout vs Ali where he lost by decision. Afterwards Ali called Chuvalo 'the toughest guy I ever fought'. Chuvalo was managed by Deacon Allen up to 1964 when Chuvalo moved to Irv Ungerman
While the boxing side would bring some success, there were many problems from the start and through the years. Boxers illnesses and problems with the commission and other promoters would take its toll.
Tunney would work with - and against - his counterpart in Montreal, Eddie Quinn. Quinn, like Tunney also promoted both wrestling and boxing. In 1945 the two combined to contribute to an Ottawa area boxing & wrestling (mit-mat) card with proceeds to Armed Forces. In 1958 Quinn offered Tunney 10% of the receipts to move an Archie Moore - Yvon Durelle bout from Montreal to Toronto to escape Montreal's Athletic Commission tax of 5% and the taxing of American Television coverage of the bout. Toronto's was only 2%. The bout and a subsequent one ended up being fought in Montreal.
Another dealing with Quinn in 1962 saw Tunney getting an injunction to stop a fight in Montreal between Archie Moore and Robert Cleroux after Cleroux had failed to abide by a contract to face Chuvalo in Toronto and had been barred. The fight was called off with Tunney commenting that Quinn had saved him further legal expenses in the matter. Quinn would see his boxing license suspended for his actions surrounding the booking and promotion of the bout and never promote boxing again, but would still promote a Wrestling card at the Forum 2 days later. He would subsequently lose the wrestling license too but regain it continuing to promote until he retired in 1963. Quinn would die soon after in 1964
Quinn would also promote wrestling in Ottawa (with Tunney moving out) starting in 1946. There was said to be tension between the two as Whipper Watson was being promoted by Tunney as Canadian Champion while in Quinn's realm of Montreal-Quebec-Ottawa his star Yvon Robert was regarded as Canada's best. Robert also worked for Tunney both in Ottawa and Toronto as both a Canadian and a world champ. After Quinn moved in to Ottawa, Tunney would not return to the nations capital for another 30+ years putting on shows starting again in 1982.
Tunney would also have issues with promoter Howard Darwin in Ottawa -also involving fighter Robert Cleroux. Darwin who was promoting both boxing and wrestling in Ottawa in the early 1960's was forced to cancel a proposed bout between Cleroux and Cecil Gray again because of the suspensions over the previous Chuvalo-Cleroux problems. Tunney threatened to take out an injunction to stop the fight while the OAC threated to pull both Darwins boxing and wrestling licenses. The bout eventually went ahead with Ottawa area alderman Robert Guertin stepping in as promoter.
In 1966 Tunney again got the better of Darwin when he was said to secure the Cassius Clay- Ernie Terrell bout at MLG ahead of second choice Hull (Hull is directly across the river from Ottawa). The bout was originally scheduled to take place in Chicago but was canceled after Clay made anti-war statements in the media. Other cities refused to host it also and when it was sanctioned in Toronto, Conn Smythe the builder of MLG and a veteran himself resigned as Director of MLG and sold all his shares in protest.
Harold Ballard, then Executive VP of the Gardens announced how the gate was going to be split up, a look inside the boxing side at the time. Clay would receive 50% of the gate, Terrell 20% with the Gardens taking the remaining 30%. Tunney would put a guarantee in excess of 96k while a full house of 17,500 paying from 10-100$ would net approx 195-225k. The fight did go ahead on March 29th but Clay's opponent due to Terrell backing out amid a contract renegotiation - was George Chuvalo. Tunney would notably show up at the glove ceremony with the wrong size gloves.
For Tunney, the wrestling side would prove to be far more profitable and easy to manage compared to the boxing side. In 1969 on the occasion of his 30 years as Wrestling promoter Frank reflected on his time in boxing in a Jim Proudfoot article and summed it up as 'It got to be a joke after a while'.
In contrast to his often problematic dealings with others in the boxing game, Tunney had much more success on the wrestling side. Wrestlers and promoters alike had only good to say about the genial promoter. Along with St Louis head Muchnick, Frank was close with Vince McMahon Sr in New York and was well liked and respected by the others in the NWA membership. Many wrestlers over the years including Lou Thesz, Bruno Sammartino, and Gene Kiniski had nothing but praise for Tunney, both about his honesty in payoffs and his easygoing demeanor.
He was however not above a good rib, as was just part of being a wrestler in those days. He had a 'electric chair' in his office for many years that was hooked up to an electrical charge and once inviting the unsuspecting mark into the chair he would set off an electric shock. No-one was spared even Thesz who was said to have jumped the highest. One writer was remembered as having on long underwear under his suit and sitting through the whole shock with nary a response.
We will now have a look at the main figures in the Office in the early days of the promotion
Phil Lawson, notably remembered as trainer, manager, and business partner of Whipper Watson, was also an important part of the office after Frank took over. Lawson was a noted amateur wrestler and also boxed in his early days winning the Canadian Lightweight championship in both sports. He had been on the wrestling scene as a promoter (amateur cards) and trainer since the early 1930's and became close with Frank, said to be his 'eyes and ears' and helping with the publicity side.
He was said to be a very outgoing character, confident and aggressive, 'bouncing off the walls in the office' and sometimes being referred to as 'volatile' but he was a big part of the success of the Wrestling office coming out of the 1940's. In May 1949 Lawson died unexpectedly at the age of 48 after some heart troubles. Said to be a health nut who was deep into fitness training his passing certainly left a void in the local scene. As a result Watson would take on an increased role alongside Tunney as the promotion moved into the 1950's.
In addition to his office duties he would be often seen as a 'second' during the cards, escorting wrestlers to the ring, carrying their robes and such (he was the one spraying Gorgeous George's germicide around the ring in 1956) right up to about 1963. Sometimes referred to as 'Tunney's assistant' Lisner passed on in Dec 1967 at the age of 65
Frank Ayerst had been the secretary for MLG's Marlboro's Athletic Organization when it was formed in 1937 and worked for Conn Smythe. For a couple of years at the onset of the 1940's he had also worked at MLG tracking goals and assists during Leafs games.
Through the '40's in his role as a sports writer for the Star, he would also write the occasional Wrestling results before joining the office. At the turn of the 1950's he would variously be referred to as Tunneys 'poll-taker', and the 'voice of Wrestling HQ' and would stay with Frank for 17 years.
Jack 'Deacon' Allen was a long time Boxing impresario in the city. Settling in Toronto in 1936 he would promote boxing at the Palace Pier as well as running a gym and managing boxers, most notably George Chuvalo. Allen was a frequent presence in the office in the early days alongside Corcoran, and would remain right up to the 1960's when Boxing was still a big part of the office. Referred to later as a 'partner' to Frank, he was the one who had in 1959 brought in the ill fated Indoor Soccer to MLG of which Frank said '...all I got was a little bunch of fans behind each goal. Most shots missed and these guys wouldn't give the balls back. I always wondered how anybody makes money off this stuff'. Allen was later in charge of publicity for the Jockey Club and passed away in Oct 1964 at the age of 73.
In one article he is said to be Frank's 'right hand man', and was frequently in the hallway from where Frank and his inner circle would watch the bouts. Monahan also had a hand in Buffalo working as matchmaker there until 1947. In a 1959 article on masked wrestlers it said Monahan was one of the first - and best - Masked Marvels in this area. Looks like he may have been the Masked Marvel here circa 1932 prior to working under his own name. He also did the MM persona in California in 1936. Monahan died at his Crystal Beach home on Jan 10 1947 after complications from surgery the previous September.
There were others still that would frequent the office, mostly writers and boxing associates. Jimmy Webster, a South African boxer who had first appeared for Corcoran in 1938 would help Deacon Allen on the boxing side. Tommy Nelson ran some of the smaller towns around Toronto and was part of Frank's inner circle up until the early 1970's. Another fighter Ed Noonan appears often but I am unsure on what his duties were. Other sportswriters including Johnny Fitzgerald, Ralph Allen, and a young Jim Proudfoot were also often within the inner circle at MLG.
In the early days it was evident that the sportswriters in the city were in a quasi-working type relationship with the office. Joe Perlove in particular was almost an extension of the office and appeared to be close to Frank for many years. His creative and often humorous recaps of the bouts in the Star come off not dissimilar to what a good publicity director would put out. Frank was an astute promoter, he definitely knew the advantage of having the writers close to the office, first with Perlove then with Ayerst. Perlove also notably covered horse racing and was present at many of the 'clambakes' at the King Edward Hotel where much of the boxing and wrestling business went on in the old days, he passed on in 1966. Star sports editors Milt Dunnell and later Jim Proudfoot both had sidebar columns frequently covering wrestling with features and tidbits from behind the scenes.
In a interview in 1980 Frank had this to say about the scribes. 'That old Queensbury was a nuthouse and I loved it! And you know who the biggest crazies were? The Newspaper types...I don't know how they got away with it, hanging around all the time. And then there were the guys who had nothing to do but sit around reading the Racing News all day. They didn't even watch the workouts'. That last point is notable as Joe Perlove, Deacon Allen, Corcoran, and many of the others were all involved with Horse Racing in some respect, either writing, betting, owning, or all three!
The 1950's would see a major resurgence of pro-wrestling in North America and Toronto was no exception. Tunney had weathered the lean years using his main attraction Whipper Watson to his promotional best and would continue to do so along with the emergence of new stars on the scene.
|with Barry Lloyd Penhale mid 1950's|
The NWA Title would change hands twice in Toronto during the 1950's, first with Whipper beating Thesz in 1956, then when Dick Hutton beat Thesz in 1957. While Whipper was champ in 1956 he defended the title here in Toronto 15 times over 9 months before he lost it back to Thesz in St Louis in November 1956. In total the NWA title was defended here 50 times between 1950 and 1959. It also made its way around the circuit with many more defenses in Oshawa, Hamilton, Niagara Falls, and the other stops in Ontario
Newcomer Yukon Eric would then emerge as almost as big a star as Whipper occupying his share of main events and world title bouts staying as a regular in the city until 1964. Lord Athol Layton would also quickly go from being a hated heel to one of the more popular stars over the next 20 years. Like Watson Layton would mostly stay close to home and settle in the city after he retired from the ring. Canadian star Gene Kiniski would also treat Toronto like a home away from home with his feud with Whipper in the late 50's also going nationwide and back. Tunney would continue to run weekly shows through the decade with attendances generally up around 6,000-9,000 with more for the big bouts.
Toronto had become one of the major centers in the wrestling world while Frank was recognized as one of the top promoters in the business. The seeds of the future of the promotion were also planted in the 1950's with the addition of two important figures in the office.
The first public mention of Norm Kimber was in 1953 referring to him as 'buxom Norm' answering phones at the office alongside Frank Ayerst. In a 1954 Wrestling As You Like It mag it described Norm as a 'man Friday' for Tunney. In 1959 there was another small bit in the sports section about Norm Kimber, said to be on Tunneys staff and losing a game of cribbage to Al 'Krusher' Korman. Mostly behind the scenes Norm would first take over the publicity role and then notably replace ring announcer Jerry Hiff in 1973. Kimber would stay on, rarely missing a show right into the 1980's. In 1986 he parted ways with Jack and Eddie Tunney who were at that point running the office. Kimber passed on in 2002 at the age of 70.
|with Whipper 1950|
John's son Jack would join the office in the early 1950's. The earliest public mention I could find was 1955. In 2004 The Wrestling Observer noted Jack had started working with Frank in 1952. Jack would go on to take a more prominent public role in the 1970's running TV among other duties, and appearing at shows here (at the Ex shows in 1977 he was ringside) and in Detroit. We will look more at Jack's role in the promotion in the next installment. Jack passed away in 2004 at the age of 68.
While there were many cancellations over the years for various reasons, one night in 1952 stands out. Tunney, always a man of the people, postponed the June 5 1952 card so the fans could watch the Jersey Joe Walcott - Ezzard Charles championship boxing bout on TV! Apparently wrestling fans were calling the office and Tunney moved the card featuring Whipper vs Hans Hermann to the following Thursday. No VCR's in those days!
A notice in the social section in Sept 1954 listed the marriage of Teresa Tunney, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Tunney with the reception held at the home of Frank Tunney. Jack Tunney, brother of the bride was an usher
The emergence of TV Wrestling in the early 1950's helped bring Toronto Wrestling to a National audience. The CBC would feature wrestling early in its schedule from a variety of Toronto locations, including the network's own Studio One or Four, the Palace Pier, the Masonic Auditorium at Yonge and Davenport (which would feature small shows into the 1980's), and on Saturday nights during the summer, Maple Leaf Gardens. The broadcasts usually included three matches including the main event with interviews in between. Dave Price, Fred Sgambati, and wrestler Pat Flanagan were early announcers. In the early 1960's CFTO would also show bouts taped at what is now known as '9 Channel Nine Court' studios in Scarborough.
Previously the bouts had been joined in progress on Thursday nights on the radio, with Barry Penhale and Bill Hewitt (Foster's son) announcing from the gondola high above the ring at MLG. The advent of TV finally enabled fans across the country to see the stars in action and Maple Leaf Gardens was to be the crown jewel across the nations TV's. Along with the Toronto shows the fans here were able to see wrestling from several other cities including the Chicago show from the Marigold on Friday nights. Many of the the Toronto stars would appear on those Marigold shows as well as to start traveling west in between MLG shows. The Whipper-Kiniski feud over the British Empire Title would draw fans in from coast to coast in the late 1950's.
|in the hallway 1961|
In 1961 during Tunney's term as President of the NWA the yearly convention was held in Toronto. There was said to be 27 Promoters attending the city and also taking in the weekly card held on Aug 24 to see the main of Bulldog Brower take on Lord Layton. Stu Hart was scheduled to make a by then rare-in-Toronto wrestling appearance but was replaced by Tony Manous, I am unsure if Hart did attend the convention.
In Jan 1963 Lou Thesz pinned Rogers after a top spread in front of 9,000 Toronto fans to win the NWA Title. Northeast Promoters (who supported Rogers as champ) led by Vince McMahon contested the decision as Thesz had won the belt in a one-fall match, not the 2 of 3 that the championship bouts were normally held with. In the rematch a week later -a 2/3 falls bout- Thesz defeated Rogers again with 2 falls to cement the title claim. This led to McMahon breaking away from the NWA and forming the WWWF. When Sam Muchnick was tipped off that McMahon was going to make Bruno his champ Muchnick worked with Tunney to book a bout between Thesz and Sammartino on Mar 14 with Thesz winning. When Bruno later beat Rogers in NY for the WWWF Title, the magazines would acknowledge Thesz as the 'real champ'.
Even with all this, Frank and Vince remained friends and continued working together for the next 20 years. Bruno meanwhile returned to Toronto as WWWF champ in Feb 1964 and would go on to make 23 total defenses of the title in the 1960's. In later years Tunney was frequently seen visiting McMahon backstage at MSG and when Frank passed away Vince was an honorary pallbearer at the funeral.
I asked Toronto Writer and MLG photographer Roger Baker who was frequently around the office in those days for his memories of the office.
'I remember going into the office one Thursday evening to secure a working pass, the occasion was to shoot a world title match between then champ Buddy Rogers and challenger Lou Thesz, I was very excited to cover this event, and it was Frank Tunney himself who issued me a working pass to be at ringside, at the time I went to the office Tunney was the lone occupant at the front desk. What a thrill to be at ringside on that memorable bitter cold winter evening of January 24th 1963 when Lou Thesz defeated Buddy Rogers to once again reclaim the coveted world title.'
Roger adds another anecdote about Tunneys friendly disposition.
'(I) had been shooting eight millimeter movies Thursday nights at The Gardens for about six months, these films that I took had been taken for the most part from were I had my paid seat. Brought my two reels of wrestling films to The Gardens to present to Tunney for his viewing pleasure, he was quite pleased by my offer, and could he hold onto the film so that he could show them to the boys when they got together, of course I said it was okay, and he insisted on signing a note that he had borrowed use of the film, and that he would be most careful with it while it was in his possession. He returned my films back to me about a month later, and thanked me so much for the use of them, another pleasant memory from my wrestling experience from the Sixties and early Seventies'.
Thanks to Roger Baker and Gary Will for their help with this article.
The 1960's and beyond will be next, if you can add anything, corrections or otherwise please drop me a line at MLWP Contact