Top Ten Venues in SoCal History – #4 Hollywood Legion Stadium

Hollywood Legion Stadium in 1938 – Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Located at 1628 El Centro Avenue, the Hollywood Legion Stadium saw a who’s-who of the biggest stars of its day come through its doors, both in and out of the ring. Owned and operated by the Hollywood American Legion Post 43, the stadium was the most successful wrestling and boxing venue in Southern California of the 1930s.

By 1919 the motion picture industry in Hollywood was booming. Bu the early 1920s Hollywood would become the fifth largest industry in the country. With World War I having just ended a year before, veterans who worked in the motion picture industry chartered American Legion Post 43. Hollywood legends such Cecil B. DeMille, Adolph Menjou, Walter Long, and Mary Pickford were all instrumental in getting the post off the ground. One of their first acts was to purchase land on El Centro Avenue, just south of Hollywood Boulevard, the future home of Hollywood Legion Stadium.

Hollywood Legion Stadium first opened in 1919 as an open air stadium, four years before the Hollywood(land) sign would be constructed. On November 11, 1920 Legion Post 43 held a large Armistice Day memorial at the site to celebrate the two years since the end of World War I. People in Hollywood were tired of having to travel to Los Angeles for boxing however, and in 1921 construction began on turning the land into a boxing arena.

On August 5, 1921 Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer, who had been in office just over a month, drove a platinum nail into the building, and construction of Hollywood Legion Stadium was finished (almost). The 8,000 seat building officially opened on August 12, 1921 with a boxing event. In late November the building was closed for a couple of weeks while a roof was built, and reopened on December 16, 1921. The building was also equipped with electro hot blast heaters to keep fans warm in the winter.

With the Hollywood location, the weekly Friday night boxing matches would be filled with celebrities of the day. Rudolph Valentino, Jean Harlow, Clara Bow, and Charlie Chaplin among others all frequently attended the fights. Hollywood Legion Stadium would be the most successful boxing venue in Los Angeles of the 1920s.

Professional wrestling would its debut at Hollywood Legion Stadium in 1922. On August 26, 1922 the building saw W?adek Zbyszko, claiming to be the world heavyweight champion, go to a time-limit draw with Toots Mondt.

On January 10, 1923 the biggest event in the early history of Hollywood Legion Stadium saw Ed “Strangler” Lewis, who was in the midst of a 1,042 day reign as world heavyweight champion, defend the title against Demitrus Tofalos in front of 7,000 fans; the largest crowd to watch wrestling in Los Angeles history until that point. That same night, a 26 year-old Jim Londos was in the opening match, defeating Angelo Taramanaseki. Londos would become one of the biggest wrestling stars of the 1930s and 1940s (also of note, there was an exhibition jiu-jitsu match on the same event between K. Ikuta of Waseda University in Japan and M. Nita from USC).

On July 11, 1923 the building would temporarily close again the sink the ring six feet to give everyone in attendance a better view of the action. A ventilation system that would recycle the air every 10 minutes was also added. The addition of the roof on the sinking of the ring reduced the capacity to about 4,500 fans (the Los Angeles Times from the time period claims the capacity was 5,100).

With the arrival of Lou Daro, and then the opening of the Olympic Auditorium in 1925, wrestling dried up at Hollywood Legion Stadium. Daro was given exclusive control of the territory, and no one else could get a license to hold wrestling events.

The California State Athletic Commission had repeatedly refused to grant a license to Hollywood Legion Stadium to promote wrestling in order to protect Lou Daro’s wrestling at the Olympic Auditorium. Under state law Legion posts were not required to pay a 5 percent tax to the state for professional sporting events, so Hollywood Legion Stadium had been holding boxing events tax free. In order to be granted a license for professional wrestling Legion officials agreed to pay the tax going forward, with the money to go to the Yountville home for war veterans. On March 10, 1931 Hollywood Legion Stadium was granted a license for professional wrestling events.

Professional wrestling returned Legion Stadium on April 6, 1931 as part of a joint boxing and wrestling card. Ed “Strangler” Lewis, who was in training to meet Ed George the next week for the world heavyweight championship, wrestled an exhibition match against Bill Beth. The first full wrestling card in years was held on May 7, 1931 in front of only 1,200 fans. On that show Charley “Midget” Fisher successfully defended the world lightweight title against Lloyd Kennedy. Wrestling would begin running at Legion Stadium every two weeks.

In the mid 1930s boxing and wrestling matches from Hollywood Legion Stadium began being broadcast on the radio on station KNX. In 1936 the matches began airing weekly on Monday nights at 9:45 p.m. (later pushed back to 10:00 p.m.).

By early 1938 the wooden stadium began to show its age and the decision was made to tear the building down and rebuild a new, modern Hollywood Legion Stadium with a larger seating capacity. The final wrestling event in the original Hollywood Legion Stadium took place on May 2, 1938 with Danny McShain defending the world light heavyweight championship against Wild Red Berry. While the stadium was being rebuilt, wrestling would move to Gilmore Stadium, a football venue that was home of the Los Angeles Bulldogs.

The new steel and concrete version of the Hollywood Legion Stadium cost $250,000 ($4,460,780 adjusted for inflation) to build and reopened on September 2, 1938 with a boxing event. The rebuilt stadium now seated 6,000 fans. Wrestling made its debut in the new building on September 5, 1938 with an event that saw Hollywood legends Buster Keaton and Gene Autry on hand to open the building. Autry managed Dude Chick and Keaton was big fan of Danny McShain and a regular attendee at the stadium. Autry may not have been a very good manager, as Chick lost his light heavyweight championship to Bob Keneston on the show.

On November 9, 1939, Hugh Nichols was appointed the matchmaker for lightweight wrestling at the building while Ed “Strangler” Lewis was the matchmaker for the heavyweights. Nichols would later become the sole matchmaker.

The weekly Monday night wrestling events at Hollywood Legion Stadium continued through the 1940s. With the outbreak of World War II in December 1941 the venue was equipped for a complete blackout in case of Japanese attack. All of the windows were painted black and they installed their own generators for lighting in case they were taken off the grid. The scheduled wrestling show the day after the Pearl Harbor attack went on as planned however. The building saw a number of events to help promote the war effort throughout the war, including a 13 man wrestling tournament that included two Pearl Harbor survivors that was won by Danny McShain and a number of events where the wrestlers were paid in War Bonds.

On November 8, 1948 the NWA Worlds Heavyweight title was defended in Southern California for the first time when champion Orville Brown wrestled Buddy Rogers to a 90 minute draw in front of 4,000 fans in the building. At the time Enrique Torres held the Los Angeles version of the World Championship, and it would be another five years before the titles were unified.

In October 1949 Sam Muchnick sent a letter to Hollywood promoter Hugh Nichols inviting him to a National Wrestling Alliance meeting in St. Louis.  Hollywood officially joined the NWA on November 26, 1949. Nichols had been feuding with Los Angeles promoter Johnny Doyle, and in the process of trying to outdo the Olympic had reportedly lost $30,000 fighting Doyle, and could only keep going because he was making a profit in Bakersfield and San Diego. The NWA held a meeting after Nichols had joined and the matter was solved.

Wrestling from Hollywood Legion Stadium began airing on television channel KTSL in the late 1940s too. However the wrestlers themselves were unhappy with the television deals from the various arenas in Southern California, and on February 6, 1950, a boycott was issued by wrestlers to performing on television cameras, due to a drop in gate receipts. The boycott affected the Olympic Auditorium on KTLA, Hollywood Legion Stadium on KTSL, South  Gate Arena on KLAC, and Ocean Park Arena on KECA-TV.

The television boycott was really hurting the promoters because of contracts with television stations to provide weekly wrestling programs.  Hugh Nichols was reportedly considering bringing in independent wrestlers in order to meet his contracted commitments. On April 17, 1950 a majority of the wrestlers booked for the Hollywood Legion show, including stars such as Baron Michele Leone, walked out when the cameras showed up. Rain checks were offered to the 500 fans in attendance and the show was canceled.

The April 17 program was actually supposed to be the return of wrestling on television from Hollywood after the February boycott. Television had been successfully restored in Ocean Park and in Long Beach already but the wrestlers had hired Music Corporation of America as their agent in all television matters.  MCA had arranged a deal that guaranteed the wrestlers $50 an appearance in Ocean Park and Long Beach in addition to what they might draw as a percentage of the gate. Nichols was only offering $48.50 if the gate was under $1000.  The dispute was eventually resolved s after and wrestling from Hollywood Legion returned after a few more weeks.

In 1951 a new series called At Ringside with the Rasslers filmed at Hollywood legion began airing in various markets across the country. While nowhere near as popular as Wrestling from Hollywood, it lasted until at least 1956 and then continued on in syndication in places as far away as Australia until the early 1960s.

Ringside with the Rasslers

While wrestling attendance had been down for some time, one of the biggest blows to Hollywood Legion was the arrival of televised boxing from the East Coast on Friday nights, the night boxing was held in Hollywood. This prompted Hollywood to move boxing to Saturday nights but attendance never recovered.

On Saturday, December 15, 1956, Hugh Nichols, who was no longer the promoter at Hollywood at this point but still promoter in San Diego, placed a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his toe, taking his own life. The speculated reasoning was due to money issues.

Attendance for wrestling and boxing never rebounded with television and a more popular product at the Olympic, where all the big matches were saved for. At one point Hollywood Legion Stadium was bringing in so much revenue that American Legion Post 43 was one of the richest in the country. Now the venue was losing them money.  On September 14, 1959 the final wrestling event was held at Hollywood Legion Stadium, with a card that saw three of the four matches go to a time limit draw.

After closing, Hollywood legion Stadium was turned into Hollywood Legion Lanes, a bowling alley. The bowling alley lasted until the 1980s and an LA Fitness now occupies the site. There is a plaque commemorating Hollywood Legion Stadium near the entrance. The venue was recreated for the 2011 video game LA Noire, which takes place in 1947.

A rematch between Thesz and Leone at Hollywood Legion.

The List

10. The EWF Arena
9. Ocean Park Arena
8. The Bakersfield Dome
7. American Legion Post #308
6. The San Bernardino Arena
5. The San Diego Coliseum
4. Hollywood Legion Stadium
3. ???
2. ???
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