Remembering The Akron Armory

Remembering The Akron Armory
Originally published on December 8, 2005
by Dale Pierce

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The lone statue of Akron’s beloved “Guardsman” still stands, just as he did for decades in front of the old Akron Armory, which was condemned in the early 1980s. He used to greet the wrestling fans every Saturday night, in this two level building that was once a hotbed for pro wrestling in Ohio. Now it is all gone and few of the younger fans even remember that wrestling was once held on this location.

“Good,” George Steele once commented in a phone conversation with me, when I told him the arena he used to appear at so often was torn down. “I hated walking up all those steps.” The arena was on a hill in the heart of downtown, a few streets above the main drag, with a level entrance in the back and a gigantic hike for people coming in the front.

Clearly, Steele didn’t miss the old arena, unless he was being sarcastic. Nostalgia buffs, however, are starting to feel differently, especially with even the most obscure of indy promotions not bothering with this city any longer.

It was in the old armory that Sam Sheppard, the doctor accused of killing his wife, made his professional wrestling debut, to a packed arena, full of angry people wanting to see him get tromped. This case was much like the one involving O.J. Simpson, where eventually released in one of the most controversial incidents of the 1960′s, many in the area believed him guilty.

The golden age for this building came from the 1950s through the early 1970s, when Walter Moore ran the shows, using people from Detroit, New York and Pittsburgh as well as other places.

Buddy Rogers was a headliner in this arena, both before and during his title reign. Usually, the public jeered him, but when he confronted super villain, Hans Schmidt, he was suddenly a knight in white armor. The bout went two out of three falls, the first time they met, with no clear decision. The ring fell apart and ended with the two men pounding each other with the free-flying turnbuckles.

Primo Carnera was another big draw at the old arena, where boxing fans and wrestling fans alike came to see him in his new profession. Having lost the bulk of his money to gangster managers (The film, The Harder They Fall, is based upon him), he was forced into the wrestling world for money. While wrestling fans rejoiced, boxing fans considered it a step downward. They were critical of the man for becoming a “phony”, while ignoring just how many of his boxing bouts beforehand (as touched upon in the film) had been rigged.

During the 1960s, Haystacks Calhoun became a top draw, beloved by the audience as a jolly hillbilly who would be pushed only too far, before grabbing the horseshoe he wore in the ring and pounding the hell out of whoever crossed him.

As much as Calhoun was loved, The Love Brothers, oddly enough, were hated. Two hippies with weird clothes, sunglasses and long hair, capitalized on the controversy of the Vietnam War. Supposedly standing for peace and harmony, they perpetrated the vilest tactics known to man when in the ring. Even the most hated of villains, as in the case of Rogers versus Schmidt long before, became instant heroes when confronting these two “brothers” in the squared circle. Even the likes of George “Crybaby” Cannon and crew received cheers when they were pitted against the dastardly duo, but they seldom won. The two heels always had some little, sneaky tactic to help them win.

During the 1970s, all of the big guns from the Midwest were being seen there. The Sheik came in on a regular basis, as did Killer Tim Brooks. Wild Bull Curry was a regular, being booed, while Flying Fred Curry, his son, received cheers. George Steele (lugging his suitcase up the steps) was brought in to feud with Bobo Brazil and Tony Marino. The Stomper was there too; He would later become Jerry Valiant. Domenic DeNucci and Tony Parisi frequently walked the aisle, while Andre The Giant was booked from time to time. As late as the mid-1970s, Hans Schmidt and Bill Miller still did an occasional match with each other, though sadly confined to the under card, where two decades before, they would have been a main event anywhere in the world.

Ernie Ladd, Bulldog Brower, Kurt Von Hess, Bad Billy Coleman, Jerry Graham, Zulu, Iron Mike Loren, The Mongols, Bill Bethune, Ronnie Lee, Chief White Owl, Abdullah the Butcher, Sweet Daddy Siki, The Gallagher Brothers, the Kelly Brothers, Pampero Firpo, Waldo Von Erich, Tex McKenzie, Igor, Vic Rossetani, Eric The Red, Pete Sanchez, Don Kent, Aztec Joe, Don Red Cloud, Jimmy Banks, Jay Strongbow, Bob Durcos, Johnny Valentine, John (Greg Valentine) Fargo & Don Fargo, Victor Rivera, Chuck Richards, The Outlaws, Cowboy Parker, Black Angus, Bull Ortega, Kabuki, Johnny Powers, Cowboy Hondo, Tommy Young, Brady Howard, Danny Miller, El Toro, Ali Baba, Cowboy Bob Ellis and many more all appeared there on a regular basis.

One my personal memories from the place does not revolve around the wrestling, but when my father won a raffle there, from his number in the program and won a large container of potato chips. He was as happy with that as he was watching the matches.

I also remember working up the nerve, when I was a teenager; to actually go up and talk to Hans Schmidt who was loitering by the locker room between matches. He was probably one of the scariest looking individuals I’d ever met, but he was cordial enough and even signed an autograph for me.

I mentioned my father had seen him face Rogers in the aforementioned bout, long before.

“He was a great wrestler, that Buddy Rogers,” was all Schmidt said and walked away, excusing himself. It was as if I’d struck a nostalgic memory for him as well.

It wasn’t always like that though; I remember Killer Brooks slamming the door when I approached him for an autograph. He probably had a good laugh about it on the other side.

The old building has been gone for over twenty years now, but I still think of it when in downtown Akron. There were some great matches there and some great memories, which have, like too many others, slowly started to vanish from the records of history.

What a shame it would be, if in the case of the Akron Armory, those memories faded completely and were lost forever.

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Tom Glunt wrote:

I never had the opportunity to attend wrestling matches at the Akron Armory. However, growing up near Cleveland, I did see many of these same men wrestle at the Cleveland Arena and a few local high schools.

In my youth, I did have a couple of expereinces with some wrestlers. My father had taken me to see “The Wrestling” at a local high school. Prior to the first match, Killer Tim Brooks came to one of the doors that happened to be locked. Seeing Mr. Brooks standing outside, my Dad tells me to go over and let the man in. “Dad, are you kidding! Do you know who that is?” So with a little encouragment I open the door for Killer Tim Brooks. When I opened the door, for one of the biggest heels on the card, the man thanked me and rubbed my head. A few minutes later, I happened to see Louie Martinez, I am extatic to see one of the biggest face wrestlers around. I run up to him yelling, “Louie, Louie, Louie let me hear you say areba.” I can not tell you how upset I was when the man I idolized basically told me to get lost. Later that evening, a teble was set up for kids to go get autographs. When I apporached the table, I got every wrestlers autograph except for Louie Martinez. It took me a long time to understand that these wrestlers were people, not just the gimmick that they used.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading your letter about wrestling from the Akron Armory. It brought back many great memories.

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Bernadette Fiocca wrote:

I was born (1951) and raised in the “Rubber Capital of the World” My dad worked all his years for the city of Akron as a crane operator. I was never that close to my dad growing up, but probably my fondest memories of him are when as a little girl he would take me to the Akron Armory to see the wrestling matches on Sat night.

It was a special occasion to go the mysterious “downtown” and walk with him up those steps . I definitely remember two large lions that stood as sentinels. I would stroke their manes and even kiss them. Since Dale didn’t mention them, I’m wondering, now, if they really were there in front of the armory or somewhere ‘on our way”.

Once inside the armory ,my memory is of being held in my fathers big arms as he talked with Walter Moore, the promoter, who was always smoking a cigar. There is a strong olfactory memory of the mixture of cigar smoke and popcorn.

They would talk awhile , then it was time for everyone to get in their seats. The lights would go down, we would be in total blackness and silence and then dramatically one spotlight would be shone on a large American Flag standing against a beautiful heavy velvet curtain. (in my child’s memory , it is purple) There would be the prolonged seconds of cacophony… the roaring sound of everyone getting to their feet. Everyone would be standing facing the flag and with our hands over our hearts, the sound of all our voices singing the National Anthem would fill and reverberate the hall.

At the close of the last patriotic strains of “land of the free and home of the brave” the lights would come back on and the ringing of the rink bell would sound and it was all excitement from then on!!

Big booming voices would be announcing the program, the “good and the “bad wrestlers would be making their entrances with the appropriate cheers and boos.

We saw Gorgeous George shake his golden locks (who my mother loved which really pissed off my dad)

We saw the Gallagher brothers deliver their famous Gallagher punch, which of course my brothers ( a few years older than me) used on each other at home.

The Gallagher brothers were bad enough, but then came the truly evil VonEriks and their new deadly move, the “claw”! As children we could barely imagine the kind of suffering they were inflicting as they scrunched their hands into this bird of prey formation and went at it , sometimes in tandem, on the “good guy”. Funny how few of the “good guys ” names I can recall!

Like Dale, I remember how thrilled my dad was the time he won the big tin of potato chips and somehow how that made us kids proud of him.

I live in New York now and don’t get back to Akron that often. I wasn’t aware they had torn the Akron Armory down. I’m saddened to hear it , which make the memories all the more precious.

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