Sunday, October 25, 2020

Open Air Wrestling in Toronto

 Maple Leaf Stadium is one of the forgotten wrestling venues in the city. First opened in April 1926 at the foot of  Bathurst St. it was built for the baseball Toronto Maple Leafs. 

Record Attendance for baseball in 1945- 20,000+

Touted for it's accessibility and convenience, as well as 'the tremendous seating capacity' of over 20,000. For contact sports Boxing was first, in June, with the Shamrock AC (who later promoted wrestling) in charge. 

'The only thing disappointing about last night's open air bouts at the Maple Leaf Stadium was the crowd. The new stadium is an ideal place for an open air show, and the layout of the ring over home plate and the lighting and ringside seating arrangements were well planned. The night was a trifle chilly, but it takes more than that to account for the smallness of the crowd.'
Star 1926

The promoters lost $2,000 on that first try and the negatives of open air events was evident. The weather was always a factor but there also the fact the the Stadium was a bit out of the way compared to venues in the core of the city. 

When Ivan Mickailoff first brought weekly cards to Toronto in 1929 they ran at Arena Gardens aka Mutual St Arena. Maple Leaf Gardens opened in 1931 and right from the start was the premier spot to hold wrestling in the city. Despite having the huge stadium by the lake which would later see its fair share of pro wrestling, the first outdoor card was held in 1959 at the East York Stadium

EAST YORK COLLEGIATE MEMORIAL STADIUM

In July 1949 Frank Tunney, now in charge, would run his first outdoor show at the East York Collegiate Memorial Stadium. Whipper & Pat Flanagan took on Fred Atkins & Sky Hi Lee and the bout ended in a riot after Lee was attacked by the fans. The Stadium could be considered to be in Whipper's backyard, and the East York fans would break through walls to save their hero. They did, using chairs and anything else they could handle. Lee and Atkins finally make a run for it (over 300ft) to the dressing rooms to escape the crowd. Tunney said he was satisfied with the attendance and layout but would have more ticket booths as several hundred fans went home when they couldn't get tickets before the the first bout. They would also tie the ringside seats together (as was mandated as a permanent measure later after another incident) to prevent fans from tossing chairs into the ring. 

It did well enough that they ran again a week later. 



BOARD UP EAST YORK WINDOWS, THE PACHYDERMS ARE RETURNING
The peace and quiet of the neighborhood adjacent to East York Collegiate stadium looks to be a inch to be rudely shattered Thursday night when Frank Tunney unleashes his transplanted wrestling program. If the four-bout preliminary card doesn't smash windows form blocks around, the main event where Whipper Watson will fly at Sky Hi Lee, the mountainous character who created so much havoc here last week, will. 

They managed 5,000 fans at that one, and roughly the same over the five cards that summer. The fans around the area also caught on, watching from their porches or bedroom windows, or like a few young fans, up on the roof of their houses. 

MAPLE LEAF STADIUM

In Aug 1959 a Russian festival took over at MLG and Tunney had to find a temporary home for the regular Thursday night card. He was able to book Maple Leaf Stadium which hadn't seen a ring set up over home plate since an Archie Moore-Jams J Parker  heavyweight boxing bout in July 1956. The seating would remains basically the same as MLG but the fans will be able to 'cool off considerably, an escape from the Garden's heat.' 


This was the first time wrestling was set for the Stadium and Frank had a great night lined up. Whip vs Don Leo Jonathon in the main along with an all-star card. Much like the East York shows, the chairs would be an issue. With 6,000 in attendance Whipper was disqualified after using a piledriver which had been banned since the Longson days. Whip went for the pin, appearing to win the bout but ref Joe Gollob raised Jonathon's arm. To further infuriate the fans number one villain Gene Kiniski came to the ring to congratulate Jonathon all hell broke loose. Gene took off for the fans but two police officers held him back while the chairs started flying. When it was over Jonathon had suffered a bruised foot and lower leg, while the tough Gollob had taken a direct chair head shot from an overzealous fan and required stitches. 

Beyond that it was a night of firsts. First wrestling card at the stadium. First time Yukon Eric had appeared wearing shorts and shoes; he had previously wrestled with workpants (rope belt) and barefoot. And it was the first time that rain had fallen during the bouts. It started in the semi and continued through the main. By the time Jonathon lay prone in the ring it was a 'rain-soaked canvas,'

With the comfortable -and indoors- Maple Leaf Gardens as his wrestling home Tunney wouldn't venture outside again for a while. They had been using East York Arena (indoors) on those occasions when MLG was booked, even in the summer months. 

We could assume that cautious and calm Tunney was soured on the outdoors idea, with the risk of weather hurting attendances. With the talent here and some of the big matchups that were in the air.  Thesz vs Rogers, Bruno vs Thesz, Bruno vs Rogers etc. You would think they could have filled up the stadium a la Comiskey Park and set our own attendance records. As it was they ran those bouts at MLG (in the winter months) with 9,000-14,000 in the seats. You couldn't blame Frank, with all that risk and MLG filling out anyways. He also had an unique arrangement in running wrestling at the Gardens, paying much less than he would at another venue. It was also well situated, the Stadium still a bit out of the way at that time. 

1965-1967

In July 1965 Tunney would try it again. This time with a series of shows at the Stadium. They would hedge their bets on the opening show with World champ Lou Thesz in to face Professor Hiro. It wasn't a great success. Only 2,500. It didn't help that rain had been forecast that day, though it didn't rain during the card. The second with Thesz in again to face Watson did 4,000. It should be noted that the scene was in a bit of a downturn with similar numbers being generated at MLG. However with the summer months it would have been expected to do better. They ran one more at the end of August which did 3,000 for a Whip-Kiniski main. 



The following summer of 1966, Maple leaf Gardens was undergoing renovations so Tunney moved the show to the Stadium. They would run nine card from July through the beginning of September. This time they did a bit better averaging 4-5,000 a card form what was reported. A recent hot angle had the Masked Yankees putting up their masks against Whipper and partner Bulldog Brower. 



"Whipper and Bulldog Brower were feuding with a masked team the Masked Yankees and the bout was a Survivor match with no countouts or dq's and falls count anywhere. Added stipulation was that if Whip and Brower lost Whipper would retire. If the Yankees lost they would unmask. The good guys prevailed and unmasked after Whip had pinned one of the Yankees and he didn't get back up after the one minute count afforded between falls. The card was held at the outdoor Maple Leaf Stadium with the ring over home plate where they said 'the baseball catchers regularly unmask.' Bob Stanlee and Moose Evans were under the masks. Stanlee had been here as 'Big Bob Stanlee', he was a 'wrestling brother' to 'Mr America' Steve Stanlee who was a popular star here in the 1950's and early 1960's. Moose Evans had never wrestled here before coming in as a Yankee. The two teams would have a re-match and the team now dubbed 'Unmasked Yankees' was to leave the area if they lost. They did and disappeared from the scene.'
-Roger 

 The still only managed about 5,000 fans in the seats. Even a WWWF title defense by Bruno couldn't elevate it past that. 

As was now becoming a tradition, Tunney would set up at the Stadium again in July 1967. Tiger Jeet Singh with his partner and manager Fred Atkins were now the top names in the action and much of the summer would revolve around them. The first card with Singh vs Edouard Carpentier did 5,000. Kiniski brought his NWA title in to face Brower with 5,300 on hand. A defense vs Singh about the same. At the end of July Singh was matched up with Johnny Valentine with a 90 minute time limit. The bout would go to an 89:27 curfew draw. The re-match a week later with 2 referees was set for a 2 hour limit to start at 9pm. Singh would be disqualified to set up a return bout. They would meet in a third match with the same stipulations as well as Tiger Jeet to lose his title if he was to lose by dq. This time they went the full 2 hours to a draw. And of course it did rain this summer, quite a bit. You can see in Roger's photo below the hard rain coming down, the policemen in rain coats and the field a bed of mud. 

Outside in the rain 1967

They would finish the summer off with two visits from Kiniski, both vs Valentine with about 4500-5000 in the seats. Maple Leaf Stadium would close down not long after and was demolished in 1968.

In June 1971 Tunney ran a card at Varsity Stadium with a main of NWA champ Dory Funk Jr vs The Sheik. With 11 other bouts on the card it was a resounding success with 17,000 in attendance despite rain in the forecast. They figured another 10,000 if it had been a nice night, which could have set a new record for the city (18,000 by that point). Varsity could hold 20-30,000 depending on the configuration and was where they would regularly hold the Grey Cup in the earlier days. 



They didn't return that summer, it could be expected that since business was hot again (30-40,000+ a month a MLG) that it wasn't worth the risk. Though it had been built in 1959, Exhibition Stadium (later locally called 'the mistake by the lake' - I loved it!) would host wrestling for the first time in June 1977. Frank's son Eddie worked for the Stadium in a financial capacity so may have been the catalyst to move over from Carlton St. Times were once again quite tough. The Sheik era, with years of sellouts and SRO, was almost done, this may have been a last grasp to bring the fans back. 

EXHIBITION STADIUM

The first one that summer was to feature Tiger Jeet vs Dusty Rhodes. Rhodes didn't make it in and was replaced by Sheik. No attendance reported but it was sparse. The following card was set for July 10 1977 and would feature both the WWWF and NWA Titles on the same card, a first here. It was an all star card even by Toronto standards. Harley Race vs The Sheik along with Superstar Graham vs Chief Jay Strongbow, and a semi of Andre the Giant vs Ken Patera. They went all out with a nice glossy professional program (done by MLG publicity guy Stan Obodiac) and lots of advertising leading up to the shows. Attendance wasn't officially reported but anywhere from 5-10,000 from fan reports and the video that's available. Jack Tunney did the commentating from ringside but looked to be out in no-mans land. There were no seats on the field and when Race and Sheik started their inevitable brawl onto the field it carried over to the stands for a better view.  


The next one was scheduled to have Superstar Graham vs Stan Stasiak, Andre vs Patera in a cage, and Sheik vs Haystack Calhoun. Unfortunately there was an air traffic controllers strike in the U.S. and  Graham, Patera, and The Sheik were all stranded in other towns. Andre made the drive in from Montreal. They repackaged the card to have a (big) tag bout on top; Andre & Haystack vs Bulldog Don Kent, Chris Tolos, and a TV guy Frank Stanley. The fans weren't happy, all 7,000 of them when they announced the substitutions. That may have been the final nail in the ground for the Sheik era as he would never appear for Tunney again. 

The next time they would return to Exhibition Stadium was in July 1983. Frank Tunney had passed on a few months previously and nephew Jack was now in full control. Jack was no stranger to the office, having worked alongside Frank since the 50s and mostly running things since the 1970s. On top of the tragedy of losing Frank the town was heading fast in to another downturn. The Starrcade extravaganza was still months away when Jack announced 'Night of the Champions' to feature no less than six title bouts. 

ROOKIE PROMOTER IS TAKING A SHOT WITH BIG SHOW
Only through dedicated dieting has Jack Tunney been able to lose 70 pounds since last September. It hasn't been easy. But no the avoirdupois is slipping away as if by magic. Tunney's secret: Worry. 
He took over as Toronto's foremost wrestling promoter after his Uncle, Frank Tunney died in May. There were two shows shortly afterward at MLG, unspectacular productions with modest results. But the new man's next effort is going to be  colossal in comparison. 
-Jim Proudfoot Star


They doubled ticket prices and Jack was quoted with 'Realistically we're looking at possibly a quarter of a million from more than 20,000 people. I'd be disappointed with less, after all we've done. And that would be a record for Toronto. ' 

It was a huge success with 20,000 announced, other sources placed it at less but more than enough to go into the follow up 'Return of the Champions' two weeks later. This one almost as big with a main of Race vs Flair did 14,000 officially. Other sources put it at 11,000. When they returned to MLG 'Return to the Gardens' it was mostly empty. As much as the big shows looked to have revitalized the scene it didn't last long. 

The next big show was a Big Show when the WWF ran the Stadium in 1986. We look at that here - The Big Event 1986. There were other ballparks around Southern Ontario that would host wrestling, Hamilton & Oshawa notably, we may look at all those another time. 

-AC
Photos & items mapleleafwrestling.com collection 
Thanks to Roger Baker , and his pic of a rainy MLS