#6 The San Bernardino Arena
Professional wrestling had been promoted in the San Bernardino area since the 1800s. When the San Bernardino Athletic Club opened on May 28, 1897, in what was said to be the most elaborate event in the history of the city to that point, wrestling was featured prominently in the day’s events. The 1920s and 1930s would see wrestling draw crowds in the thousands to the places such as the Orange Show Arena. However, It was a 1,600 seat arena built on a former circus ground at 137 South G Street that would go down as the most important venue for wrestling in the history of the Inland Empire.
When a fire burned down the Orange Belt Athletic Club in late 1933, promoter Elmer Willson signed an 11-month lease to hold boxing and wrestling events at the Orange Show’s horse show arena starting March 1, 1934. Wrestling ended up debuting at the 3,500 seat Orange Show Arena a little early, with a grand opening on February 16, 1934 that featured Nick Lutze defeating Cy Williams in the main event. The venue occasionally not being available and the desire for a more downtown location would quickly become an issue however.
On September 22, 1937 Ontario boxing promoter George Stewart submitted an application to the city planning commission to build a $15,000 boxing arena on Rialto Avenue between F and G streets. In March 1938 the permit was issued to Stewart and Ontario music store owner G. VanDebergh to build the arena at 137 South G Street, to be constructed by Farrar Brothers Construction at an estimated cost of $25,000 ($437,099 in 2018).
The new San Bernardino Athletic Club formally opened on June 7, 1938 with a nine-bout boxing card. Among the over 1,600 in attendance was former world heavyweight boxing champion James J. Jefferies. At the same time wrestling was having problems.
Wrestling was thrown out of the Orange Show Arena in early 1938, when exposition officials decided to use the space for advertising purposes. Promoter Vic Trenoweth, who took over for Elmer Wilson in 1937, decided he would then move wrestling to nearby Colton, at Colton international Stadium. The gate was less than $200 however, and only one show was ran there. A new deal was struck with the Orange Show, and wrestling returned there in April. The arena had been remolded since wrestling left, and now seated only 1,900 fans. Trenoweth continued to have issues with the Arena, and even stated if he was going to lose money he’d rather “do it fishing in Oregon.” Then in September 1938, a deal was made to move wrestling to the San Bernardino Athletic Club, in what was hoped to be a permanent move.
Pr-wrestling debuted at the San Bernardino Athletic Club on October 7, 1938. A crowd of 1,600 watched as El Pulpo defeated Ted Christy in two out of three falls for the main event. Wrestling had found its permanent home in San Bernardino, one that would last for the next 50 years.
In August 1939, the former matchmaker for Lou Daro at the Olympic Auditorium, Joe Levy, took over as San Bernardino’s promoter. This change saw a shift in wrestlers appearing in San Bernardino. Joe Levy was now aligned with Strangler Lewis, who was the Hollywood promoter, and thus switched from using wrestlers from Lou Daro’s Olympic to wrestlers under Strangler Lewis’ Hollywood promotion.
Originally running every Friday night, in 1941 Louis Miller took over as wrestling promoter in San Bernardino and moved wrestling to Saturday nights. The move was short lived, quickly returning to the regular Friday shows, however in the late 1940s Saturday’s became the regular wrestling night at the Arena until moving to Sundays in the 1970s. Also by the early 1940s the venue would become known as the San Bernardino Arena.
Some of the biggest names in professional wrestling would come through the San Bernardino Arena in the early years. Wrestlers such as Jim Londos, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Wee Willie Davis, Vincent Lopez, Dave Levin, and Wild Bill Longson all wrestled there. There was even a rare Women’s World Championship match on July 16, 1943 when Clara Mortenson defended against Dolores Costello. Women’s wrestling had been banned in California but was briefly allowed during World War II. There wouldn’t be another women’s world championship match in the building until 1969.
On August 1, 1953 two of the biggest stars in Southern California’s wrestling history would meet at the San Bernardino Arena, when Baron Michele Leone defended the Pacific Coast Heavyweight title against Freddie Blassie. Leone, who had lost the world title to Lou Thesz the year before, was still the bbiggest star in the area at the time. Freddie Blassie, who was not yet the star he’d later become, had defeated Tommy O’Toole to gain the right to face Leone. The first fall was won by Blassie in 23:49 with a rolling neck breaker. Then, 10:42 later Leone hit a rolling neck breaker of his own to win the second fall. The third fall was won by Leone in just 9 seconds more, with yet another neck breaker.
The 1950s and 1960s would continue to see the greats of the era visit the Arena. Stars such as Gorgeous George, The Destroyer, Édouard Carpentier, Lou Thesz, The Faboulous Kangaroo, John Tolos, Pedro Morales, and of course Freddie Blassie made regular appearances. On September 6, 1969 the AWA tried to invade the Los Angeles territory by running at the Great Western Forum. The Olympic responded with an all-star show the night before that was headlined with Dory Funk Jr. defending the NWA title against Buddy Austin. The next night San Bernardino was set to go head to head with the AWA, and countered with The Fabulous Moolah defending the NWA Women’s World title against Donna Christanello. It was the first time in the venue’s 31 year history a women’s match was the main event.
In the 1970s wrestling moved to Sundays, where it would stay until the end of the territory era in the early 1980s. Through the 1970s the San Bernardino Arena wrestlers like Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, Black Gordman, and The Great Goliath would appear. While the building was starting to show its age, it held its regular schedule of weekly wrestling until Mike LeBell decided to call it quits as a wrestling promoter in 1982.
Through the 1980s and into the early 1990s the San Bernardino Arena would occasionally be used for independent wrestling. Red Bastien promoted lucha libre there in 1989 and held a television taping that had 25 matches. Wrestlers such as Konnan, Eddie Guerrero, Black Gordman, and Super Boy were on the card. Unfortunately it drew only 70 fans. The last wrestling shows were held at the Arena in the 1990s.
The Arena then found new life as a venue for concerts and raves in 1996, and changed its name to the Masterdome. In early 1999, during a concert featuring the bands Napalm Death and Neurosis, 14-year-old Christopher King made an attempt to stage dive and crowd surf causing him to fall on the concrete, severely damaging his spine. A day later he died due to lethal nervous system shock. This was the only death in the history of the arena.
On August 2, 2001 the San Bernardino fire department, due to a collapsing roof, recalled the entertainment permits and condemned the venue. The final event at the Masterdome was Summer Dreams by 26C in the summer of 2001. The building had already been condemned by this point, so the entire event took place outside. The building was then demolished, and there is now a parking lot at its former location.
Photo credit: Vandal Drummond