Saturday, April 28, 2018

Attendance in Toronto Part 1

Compiling attendance figures for pro wrestling can be a challenging and frustrating exercise. Most of the figures came directly from the promoter or office and were frequently inflated when reported or ignored altogether. In Toronto there was a bit of both of those.

There were eras when attendance looked to be honestly reported by the office or MLG*, others where the reporter doing the write-up either estimated or went by what he was told by the office, and other times when there were no figures reported at all.
*Maple Leaf Gardens as a whole was covered in different eras breaking down attendance for different sports and events.

Those times when it was reported we could assume they were mostly correct or close. Still there were a lot of 10,000 and 12,000 and 15,000 even type numbers not reflective of 'actual' attendance

All of that makes it somewhat difficult to determine the most successful eras of the promotion but with the attendance figures in hand (reported) and the absence of others (not reported) we can see a pattern that develops from the early days of Jack Corcoran through the last days of the NWA under Jack Tunney.

We will look at some of the better draws, notable draws etc from the early days through the 1980's.

A great source related to this is found at Gary Will's TWH: Top Drawing Matches 1929-1977

Big Show 1924 

Wrestling had been held in the city back to the turn of the century and before, cards being held at Mutual St Arena, Riverdale Rink, St Andrews Hall, Agnes Street Theatre, and other gyms and halls around the city. A Riverdale Arena show in 1909 packed in 2,500 fans (with 1,000 turned away) to see the "Russian Lion' George Hackenschmidt take on four men over 1hr 45 minutes. He beat all four within 56 minutes. A 1911 bout at the Agnes Street Theatre was filled to capacity of 1,200 to see Stanislaus Zybyskzo defeat John Lemm.

Pro wrestling as we know it in Toronto was still in it's infancy in the early 1920's with cards scattered in the early years sometimes paired with boxing. A card in 1924 that was recorded as 'Toronto's first taste of 'big League' wrestling stuff' drew 2000 to see Canadian champ George Walker go down in defeat to former world champ Stanislaus Zybysco. A previous meeting between the two in 1922 alongside a Jack Dempsey exhibition bout did not have attendance reported. Both cards was held at Arena Gardens later Mutual St Arena (and in 1962 and through my era re-christened The Terrace - Roller Rink) which could seat 7500 in the stands and more on the floor.

The Arena at Mutual St would be the regular spot for the big shows until MLG opened in 1931 but cards were held there from 1922 through to 1938 mostly under promoter Ivan Mickailoff. Other spots would host wrestling too, Massey Hall, and around the corner the smaller Labour Temple

Mickailoff would start promoting regular weekly cards in 1929 and the beginning of Toronto Pro Wrestling was off and running. Attendance ranged from 500 to 6500 to see some big stars including Jim Londos, Gus Sonnenberg, Ed 'Strangler' Lewis, and Stanley Stasiak.

Stasiak was the first notable star in Toronto with a bout vs Renato Gardini in 1929 drawing 9,300, at that time an attendance record for wrestling in the city.


Boxing promoter Jack Corcoran got into the wrestling game in late 1930 with a card at Toronto's Massey Hall. He struggled to compete with Mickailoff but still managed to secure the promotion of cards to be held at the new Maple Leaf Gardens in Nov 1931.

In Oct 1931 Corcoran ran the Coliseum on the Exhibition Grounds (now Ricoh) as a prelude to the bigger MLG and drew 7,000 for a main of George Zaharius vs Mike Romano, said to be one of the biggest crowds ever to watch wrestling here.

The next card on Nov 5 held at Arena Gardens drew over 8,000 to see Londos vs Romano , then the most for pro wrestling in the city to date.

Maple Leaf Gardens opened on Nov 12 1931 with an NHL game between the Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks. At opening the capacity was 12,500 plus 5000 standing for hockey. The capacity would change over the years as they renovated and changed seating configurations.

Londos vs Christie 1935

The first pro card was scheduled for one week later on Nov 19 with a main of Londos vs Gino Garibaldi. The attendance was reported by Lou Marsh in the Toronto Daily Star as 15,800 paid $13,000 gate, attendance outdrawing the debut of hockey the week before. There were a couple of different figures thrown out over the years but Marsh, a stickler for details and very by-the-book seems to be the one to trust. They wouldn't eclipse that as the year rounded out and moved in to 1932 with cards staying around the 5-6000 mark.

Mickailoff was still running Arena Gardens and the crowds were split with neither doing huge numbers. Mickailoff would lose his license ('for the good of the sport' according to the secretary of the OAC - the Commission) in Oct 1932, and while his club would continue under 'Crescent AC' and the Shamrock AC was granted a wrestling licence while Corcoran would fight to stay the only big show in town.

The Shamrock group held it's first card at Mutual St a short time later drawing 4,500 to see Sonnenberg vs Jack Washburn. Over at MLG they were similar numbers, higher when notables were in town

1935 saw a huge draw for Dan O'Mahoney vs Jim Browning at MLG that saw close to 16,000 (2 figures reported 15,400 and 16,000) while a Londos vs Vic Christie drew 12,000 as did an Ernie Dusek- Browning main.

Over the next several years they would be hard pressed to bring in even 10,000 fans. Only once I can see in 1938 for a Masked Marvel vs Vic Christie bout.

With several years of low gates and personal factors weighing into it, Promoter Corcoran would make the decision to pass the Wrestling side to the Tunney brothers in 1939. It didn't get better overnight for John (who died suddenly in Jan 1940) and younger brother Frank who were in tough right from the start. Star writer Joe Perlove reported that John and Frank had lost $2700 in the first 3 shows they put on after taking over from Corcoran in mid 1939.

During the brief time that John was matchmaker, he would bring in 'Wild' Bill Longson and Louis Thesz. For their initial appearances crowds remained low averaging around 3500 but Longson especially was making an impact have sent his first two opponents out on a stretcher. In his first MLG main event bout in Dec 1939 Longson had thrown opponent Everett Marshall to the floor and went after him only to have the fans attack him. he ended up bloody and beaten and a love (to hate) affair with the fans was born. On that same card Thesz had beat previous Longson victim Jerry Monaghan and the two (Longson & Thesz) would remain good draws in Toronto during their careers.

Longson would firmly entrench himself as a huge draw in St Louis through the early 1940's and would form a close bond with Tunney as the battle to regain the fans moved ahead. A new star was on the horizon and Longson too would be a big part of creating that legacy.

French Angel 1940

A hometown youngster back from an extended U.K. visit where he had worked the sport at the pro level soon made his way onto the MLG cards in 1940. Despite Tunney's partners and peers misgivings about the youngster. the young promoter would decide to use Billy 'Whipper' Watson and it would help pave the way to success at the box-office for the next 20 years.

In later years there were various numbers mentioned as to what Whipper drew between 1941 and his retirement in 1971. A story in 1970 suggested upwards of 600,000 over 600 main events at MLG. After Whipper was forced to retire in Dec 1971 an article quoted Tunney as saying 1000 mains and upwards of 5 million people. That's closer to the facts, I haven't counted all the mains for Whipper but it would be somewhere in the middle of those numbers and in his prime years as a star 1941 to say 1960 with weekly cards at MLG, the fan count would surely be in the millions.

At any rate the arrival of the hometown star would mean a revival in the local scene that would carry on through the 1950's

Another regular in the city Nanjo Singh would also prove to be a help to draws especially once he and Whipper started their long feud.

In 1940 The Angel (aka French Angel - Louis Tillet) came in for a bout vs Monaghan and drew 11,000, the best gate in five years. An early attraction type wrestler, as Andre The Giant was later, Tillet would claim 2 of the biggest houses of the next 2 years, drawing 10,000 in 1941 (vs Masked Wolf), and and again in 1942 vs Ed 'Strangler" Lewis.

Another hometown favorite in the name of Pat Flanagan would come on the scene in 1941 and he along with other local types including big George Richards (clothier and later Mr Big and Tall), the tough John Katan (already a veteran of the area, settled in Hamilton), and amateur standout Earl McCready (born here and returned to live in Stoufville), would bring the excitement and action back to the fans as the decade marched on.

Another attraction type 'The Blimp' the massive Martin Levy would attract 11,000 in march 1943 to flatten usual victim Jerry Monaghan. Monaghan was a member of the extended office at the time, likely why he was the pick for all of those bouts. It was reported that the gate broke the attendance record set previously by the Angel. Not sure what they are referring to as there were already bigger cards than those with Tillet. The Blimp would return to face Al' Bunny' Dunlop the next week with 8000 attending. Also a Whipper -Dan O'Mahoney bout as the main would have helped.

Whipper would start to emerge as a future champ in battles with both Longson and Thesz with their bouts drawing them in in droves to the Gardens Watson and Longson would draw 10,000 in 1942, an impressive 14,000 in1946, and 1947 would prove to be a huge year with Whipper and Longson doing 11,000 and 15,000, while Whipper vs Thesz would do similar numbers for all three of their bouts here in 1947,
Thesz vs Watson 1947

In Dec 1947 Perlove wrote that Tunney had run 300,000 fans through the turnstiles over 44 shows at MLG. That would translate into nearly 4 million dollars today.

In Feb 1947 Whipper would beat Longson for the World Title in St Louis and the future success of wrestling in Toronto was further aided if not wholly assured. he would return to a hero's welcome, getting congrats from then Toronto mayor Bob Saunders and scheduled to make his first defence at MLG vs Sandy o'Donnell. The card would draw 8,000 and a bout a week later with Longson would bring over 11,000. Whipper would stay local during his short reign, just as he did in his later title run in 1956, the title runs proving to be an indelible helping hand to the gates in the city.

The good times continued with Perlove reporting in March 1948 that Tunney was enjoying the best season of his career. While the business world was suffering Tunney said that Jan and Feb '48 were the best he'd ever had. By miles. March was still roaring and April will be roaring even louder. Over 11 shows so far in '48 -from a low of 6,000 (Bobby Bruns vs Marvel) to almost 14,000 for the first of the year between Whipper and Singh.

Whipper and Flanagan would continue their popular tag team that did well in 1948 drawing 10,000 and 12,420 for bouts with the two against Marvel and Goon Henry, and another with 3rd tag Fred Atkins against Singh, Marvel, and Sky Hi Lee.

The last year of the decade remained strong and my have been the most successful of all, with 7 cards reported at 10,000 or over. A February bout between Whipper and Marvel brought in 14,000 and a series of Whipper against fellow Canadian star Yvon Robert did well with 10,000 on consecutive weeks

Another star was about to emerge to carry the city into the 1950's. Yukon Eric made his MLG debut in 1949 and soon received a main event against Hi Lee in front of 8,500. Two bouts vs Atkins (10,000 & 9,000) and one against Mike Sharpe (9,000) would earn him a rivalled top spot alongside Whipper that would carry on through the 1950's.


Alongside Whipper and Yukon Eric, Lord Athol Layton would become an adopted hometown hero after arriving here in 1950. First as a heel type, then would switch over and become crowd favorite over the next decade. All three would play in to the biggest draws of the year to start the 1950's. Watson and Thesz would again draw 11,000 and yet another bout in the Watson-Singh drama getting 12,000. Former boxing champ Primo Carnera came in and took on Yukon Eric in front of 11,000 and an Eric-Tim Geohagen bout drew the same. Layton, in his MLG debut no less met Sky Hi Lee in front of 11,000 also.

The biggest draw of the year, no surprise, was Whipper vs Eric. They had a series of bouts throughout the year ( face vs face and heel vs heel bouts were quite common in this era) with one drawing 12,000 or 13,000 depending on which paper you were reading. That bout, their first, was touted as possibly breaking the record at MLG still held by that first card back in 1931. World champ Thesz also came in for 5 bouts at MLG during the year and all drew well, averaging 8-9,000 fans.

1951 was more of the same with Whipper filling the Gardens both on his own and with partners Flanagan, Eric, and Sunny War Cloud. Layton would earn his merit battling Whipper and they would earn the top spot of the year drawing 14,000 .

Whipper had settled into his role as the top star holding our top championship: The British Empire Title. Villain after villain, and a few friends would challenge for the title over the next decade and it would remain a good draw for the man referred to as 'that era's Hulk Hogan.'

New arrivals would settle in and take over the mains when Whipper was off or out of town. Bobo Brazil, Hombre Montana, Don Leo Jonathon, and others would do their best to fill the Gardens, but no-one could fill them like Watson. He took an extended leave after undergoing an appendectomy. Gorgeous George came in highly touted and faced Chief Big Heart but with only 8,000 present. Another bout vs Geohagen only brought in 5,000. His next appearance vs Thesz wasn't reported.
Dream team 1953

Even Whipper, when in and facing opponents like Singh and Killer Kowalski was only sitting around 5,500 to 7,000 on average. The did get 10,000 for a Watson-Hans Schmidt draw, Schmidt a big TV star at the time.

Tag team wrestling was turning into a good draw and Tunney took advantage of it by bringing in some wild teams of the day including 'Dirty Dick Raines and Lou Plummer and Al & Tiny, The Mills Brothers (aka Murder Inc.). Both teams were rough and tumble and fans had a real hate on for them right from the start.

Raines and Plummer were crushing everyone in their path so Tunney put together a 'dream team' of the era. Watson and Yvon Robert. The heroes trounced the villains and took the tag trophy. The two would team a week later against Layton and Lord Blears with only 6,500 on hand. Watson and Robert would them meet up with the Mills Brothers and set a new record for attendance in the city in front of 16,000, surpassing the 1931 debut at MLG. The rematch saw The Mills take the trophy in front of 10,000 and a subsequent re-match with Watson and new partner Montana would draw well too with 10,000

Business would stay steady for Tunney through the middle of the decade, additionally he was running all over the Southern end of the province and maintained the Boxing side also.

1955 and 1956 especially would see an upswing with multiple cards seeing big crowds. Argentina Rocca would be a big crowd favourite even as he battled Whipper in front of 13,000 in Feb 1955 and 10,000 against Edouard Carpentier in Aug 1956. Yukon Eric continued to be the second most loved in the city seeing success on his own and in tags with buddy Whipper. A highly touted bout between Eric and new arrival the Canadian Strongman Doug Hepburn in Oct 1955 drew 10,000. Eric and Whipper teamed to battle another new arrival in the hated Fritz Von Erich and partner Firtz Von Schober drawing 12,000 and 10,000 in two of the bigger crowds in their series. They would see similar numbers as their feud continued into early 1956

While Toronto was no stranger to the NWA Title since it inception in 1948 (Thesz had been in 17 times between 1949-1956) it would become the house title once Whipper beat Thesz here in Toronto in March 1956. The initial bout drew 15,000 as did the re-match 2 weeks later which saw Whipper get the win and the coveted crown.

Watson would defend the title 16 times in Toronto before losing it back to Thesz in St louis 8 months later. Having his own World champ would pay off for Tunney somewhat with an overall strong year but not as much as would be hoped for. While the Watson-Thesz re-match held in St Louis drew 14,000 Watson wouldn't see many huge crowds here during his reign but it remained steady with 7-8,000 on average.

After winning the World Title Whipper had passed his B-E Title to Pat O'Connor. He would also defend against O'Connor twice here during his reign (Whip getting booed! in one of the bouts!) drawing 10,000 and 6,500.

Another newcomer Dick Hutton was doing well with his 1000$ challenge beating all challengers to his cash but his first try against Watson only drew a reported 6,499 while his second try was only 5,500, and third 5,000. Hutton would turn out to be a steady draw here over the next 2 years leading into his 1957 win over Thesz here at MLG.

The best draws for Whipper during the reign were Mr Hito (9,500) and a handicap bout against both Mr Hito & Mr Moto drawing 10,000. After Thesz had regained the title the re-match here saw 11,000 in late November 1956.

We looked at the year 1956 in our MLW Almanac 1956
Big tag 1957

In Nov 1956 Buddy Rogers hopped up in the ring to challenge Whipper Watson. He had been in Toronto before in some filler type matches but was back with a purpose. When the two finally met it was not at MLG (booked for the popular Ice Capades) but the small East York Arena. Attendance was 1,800. For fans at the time, quite a treat I am sure to see stars like that at a small arena.

When they made it into MLG they drew only 7,000. By Jan 1957 they had 10,000 and Gene Kiniski got involved on behalf of Rogers while Pat O'Connor assisted Watson. When the four went at it the next week they managed 14,000. Rogers would come back some years later and make quite an impact as he did most everywhere else he wrestled.

An article in the Toronto Star said that over 48 shows in 1957 they drew 320,000. One of the highlights of the year was in November when Toronto regular Dick Hutton would beat Thesz at MLG to claim the world title in front of 10,000. The largest draw however was the second card in January with Watson and O'Connor facing Buddy Rogers and Gene Kiniski in front of 15,000 or 14,000 depending which report. A Watson and Buddy Rogers single also drew 10,000.

Hutton would defend his title in Toronto 9 times over the next year against some noted opponents including Watson, Thesz, Longson, and Yukon Eric. Hutton and Watson drew 10,000 but a bout vs Longson was reported as the 'smallest house in a while' with only 4,500 fans. Even Hutton vs Thesz was reported at only 6,000. A card at the end of November 1957 had champ Hutton taking on Hombre Montana in the second last bout. Unusual for the NWA title. Whipper vs Fritz Von Erich was the main, though the ads set it up as 'two main events.'

The best draw of 1958 was an unusual one. A Watson vs Al "Bunny' Dunlop bout drew 13,000. Dunlop was by then a full time ref who had angered Watson (and the fans) with his ref work so was challenged to a duel. Watson made short work of Al and he was back reffing shortly after.

New NWA champ Pat O'Connor would come back to Toronto 11 times to defend Between Jan 1959 and Nov 1960. His first defence against Thesz drew 8,500. Many thought of him as an improvement over Hutton but the numbers weren't great either. A re-match against Thesz a week later only corralled 5,000 and another week later vs Hans Schmidt only 6,500. Whipper was notably absent through much of the start of the year though a bout in Feb vs Kiniski had 12,000. Upon his return in March 1959 he again drew 12,000 with Kiniski. The following week with O'Connor back to face former champ Hutton there was only 6,000.

The week after the O'Connor Hutton, Tunney brought back Gorgeous George to face Watson. It was a hit with 14,000 (13,999 according to the Globe). This was the long remembered head shaving of George vs Watson retiring if he lost. An O'Connor vs Ilio DiPaolo a week later had 6,000 while the re-match between Watson and George a week after that drew 12,000,

The balance of 1959 was lean with shows as low as 3,000 in the seats despite the on-going Watson-Kiniski feud and a powerful tag team of Kiniski and Don Leo Jonathon battling Whipper and assorted partners.

1960 - 1990 next