The Olympic Auditorium: A Look Back at a Grand Venue (Part 2 of 2)

by Bob Quackenbush / dmboxing.com

 

Though boxing was the sport that put the Olympic Auditorium on the map, legions of young fans in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s remember this place as the hallowed ground of Championship Wrestling.  Throughout the 1930’s, matches were held there regularly; but with the growth of television, later wrestlers such as Gorgeous George, Lou Thesz, Count Billy Varga, Freddie Blassie, the Destroyer, Mr. Moto, Mil Mascaras, Bobo Brazil, John “the Golden Greek” Tolos, Harold Sakata (who played the role of Odd Job in the movie “Goldfinger”), and Rocky Johnson (father of Duane “the Rock” Johnson) became household names.  Presided over by an actor-turned newscaster-turned sports announcer, the great Dick “Whoa Nellie” Lane, they were incredible shows in the pre-WWF days.

Around 1960, a fast-and-furious team event set up shop in the Olympic:  Roller Derby.  The L.A. Thunderbirds were the hometown favorites, with Ralphie Valladeras and his wife, Honey Sanchez, leading the way.  The venerable Lane also provided the commentary and conducted interviews for the programs which were aired locally, as were the wrestling matches, on KTLA Channel 5.

The contests at the Olympic came about through the efforts of a special group of people, the promoters.  Over the years, there were many memorable names, some better known than many of the fighters they signed.  In 1942, Cal Eaton held the job.  Working in the business office was a lady by the name of Aileen LeBell.  She and Cal married and later became co-promoters.

When Cal passed away in 1965, Aileen, known as the First Lady of Boxing, continued on as sole promoter for the next fifteen years.  Her sons from her first marriage, Mike and “Judo Gene” LeBell, also promoted various events at the Olympic.  Gene is well known to this day as a national and international judo champion, master of the art of grappling, and stunt man.  California legends George Parnassus, Don Fraser, and Don Chargin were other influential promoters at this boxing and wrestling hotbed, along with matchmakers Babe McCoy and Mickey Davies.  Other fixtures at the arena were Chief Inspector Joey Olmos of the California State Athletic Commission and publicity icon Luis Magana.

In addition to Dick Lane, there were other famous voices and visages who reported on events at the Olympic.  Well known broadcasters for boxing included  Jim Healy, Tom Harmon, and a young Dick Enberg.

No article about the Olympic, though, would be complete without mentioning a special gentleman who was the Master-of-Ceremonies for boxing and wrestling at this venue, ring announcer Jimmy Lennon.  The father of current announcing great Jimmy Lennon, Jr., and uncle of the singing Lennon Sisters, the senior Lennon was “The Voice of the Olympic Auditorium” and was known for his eloquent style and excellent Spanish accent.  He began as a tuxedo-wearing singer of the National Anthem at the Ocean Park Arena in Santa Monica, CA, and filled in as an announcer one night wearing the same outfit.  He did such a fine job that he was hired to announce full time and the tuxedo-wearing tradition for announcers was born.  Lennon appeared in more than seventy movies and television programs.

Located near Hollywood, the Olympic itself has also been a star of the silver screen.  Some of the movies filmed there include “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, “Rocky”, “The Champ”, “Raging Bull”, “The Main Event”, and “Million Dollar Baby”.  Starting in the 1980’s, it was also the venue for a number of rock concerts.

Closed for remodeling in the in the late 80’s, the arena’s capacity was reduced to 7,500 seats.  It was reopened in 1994 for a special event as local favorite Oscar DeLaHoya won his first professional title, the WBO Super Featherweight Crown, with a 10th round knockout of WBO Junior Lightweight Champion Jimmi Bredahl.

Alas, the Grand Olympic held its last fight in 2005. It was sold to a Korean-American church, and is now known as the Glory Church of Jesus Christ.  For eighty years, though, the cheers were heard on the corner of 18th and Grand, and Los Angelenos will always remember that famous box office phone number, “Richmond 9-5171”!

NOTE:  Bob Quackenbush is a personal best friend and has been a part of dmboxing.com in the areas of proof reading, photo editing, and general “behind the scenes” input. He has contributed this writing, with, hopefully, more to come in the future. I appreciate his services, but most importantly I respect his loyal friendship – thank you!    David Martinez 

 

 

11 thoughts on “The Olympic Auditorium: A Look Back at a Grand Venue (Part 2 of 2)

  1. A great finish for the Olympic Auditorium article. Really enjoyed the detail information about other events held at the Olympic, as well as history on the promoters and announcers. I hope Quack contributes articles in the future. He has a good way of putting the story together.

  2. i remember the olympic auditorium being on tv back in the fifties, sixties and the seventies, i lived in southern california and never got to attend anyting their accept for it being on tv. i once stopped their while being in la one time just to see the building. but i have many memories of thursday night fights and friday and saturday fights that were carried their on tv. i remember being stationed in iceland and watching roller derby and the fights and wrestling that was sent to afrts while i was stationed their, i remember the name don war a week chargin ,and sauder saubo, the destroyer with the figure four leg lock,freddy blassie, don menukien,mr moto, and many others. its to bad it had to endold nellie dick lane covered many events wrestling, and roller derby and he also did auto racing from gardena, had a run in with dick the bruser.many great times of great entertainment. im really sorry to hear it is a church now.i hope others who attended some of the events held their will come into this and give their experiences when they went to the events held their , would enjoy hearing some stories.

  3. In 1965, I was both subbing on sax and keyboard, withseveral Orange County and LA recording bands; and working with Mod Inc., which had a recording contract, but never recorded. Before the contract, September 1965, Radio DJ Emperor Bob Hudson held a battle of the band at the Olympic. We, Mod Inc. was one of the bands; as was the Apollo’s (their bass player looked like Paul McCartney; and Paul gave him one of his 3 special made guitars). We lost, but the Apollo’s won. I also went to Magnolia High School (Anaheim, CA) with Danny Riley (aka Danny Carol or Carroll?). Danny was on the Thunderbird’s Roller Derby team that played at the Olympic; as their home venue. I miss the Olympic; and wish she was still in service with sports and entertainment. Don Kirk, Redding, CA and Medford, OR.

  4. Forgot… If Bob Quackenbush is the same one that grew up in Buena Park, we knew each other; and our Mod Inc. lead guitarist was a neighbor of yours; only a house or two away. His name was Wayne. You were a newspaperboy for my dad selling the Sunday LA Times.

    Don Kirk

  5. Hi, Don: Must be a different Bob Quackenbush. I never lived in Buena Park. Glad you liked the article. Thanks!

  6. My mom took me and my brother to the wrestling matches from 1971 to 1973 . she allways got the best seats 10 rows back max oh man what a great time we got to see the gratest thanks mom

  7. My DAD use to manage and train his fighters with Billy Mitchell and Canonball Green and Jake Shagrue at hoover street gym. As a 9 year old they put the gloves on me with Archie Moore. Every week I was at the olympic auditorium with my DAD. GREAT MEMORIES!

  8. I do not have actual photos of your grandfather – I loved him as a promoter & match maker – I attended many of his fights at the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium back in the 1960’s & 70’s – he was excellent doing TV broadcast on KTLA channel 5 with Dick Enberg – Mickey Davies was a very respected man in boxing – the ONLY person that I know that would have ANY photos would be my 90 year old friend Don Fraser who also was also promoter & match maker – thank you for your comment!

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