This week's Echo of Our Past is a "rerun" column about a popular entertainment industry of the recent past, and how it had a brief period of popularity in Minden, more than 70 years ago.
The topic of today's Echo is professional wrestling, which has been among the highest rated programming on cable television. Few people know that years ago, before the modern versions, before the Championship Wrestling in Shreveport, even before the television heyday of the original Gorgeous George in the 1950s, Minden was home to professional wrestling. In fact, the brief period that the sport thrived here led to Minden gaining one very outstanding citizen.
In the late 1930s, two new sports came to Minden, the first was boxing, organized and held at the Minden Armory (then located on Gleason Street) many local young men, became involved in this program and the impact of this sport will be examined in a later column. Close on the heels of boxing, came a small-time professional wrestling circuit. Gus Kallio of Arcadia, the self-proclaimed World Middleweight Wrestling Champion, operated this circuit. He, along with several other Greek-American friends from Texas, conducted weekly matches in Arcadia, several towns in East Texas and eventually Minden. A local man, Morris Melton, became the manager of the operation here, which began in late 1935 or early 1936. The first home to wrestling here was a building near the old Webster Parish Library, around the site of today's Blossom Shop. The matches soon caught on, and by the fall of 1936, a new location was located for the weekly contests. The new site was the basement floor of the Miller Building on the corner of Union and Main Street. Star Drug then occupied the main floor of the building. By the time my generation came along in the 1960s, this former site of the wrestling matches was the downstairs toy area of T G & Y, and was later used by other businesses. Today it's the home of the City Art Gallery.
Kallio dubbed the new site the "Broadway Gardens," claiming it reminded him of his favorite place to wrestle, Madison Square Garden. I have no proof that Kallio never wrestled in that famed New York City arena; but if he had, his memory must have been getting foggy when he compared the basement of a Minden storefront to Madison Square Garden. Obviously, that was part of the "hype" involved with promoting the matches. Bleachers were constructed in the building to surround the ring. The one common thread that ran through the matches of those days and the wrestling today was that it was carefully orchestrated and promoted as entertainment, not as a true sport. Kallio's particular gimmick was bringing in wrestlers claiming to represent various ethnic groups and nationalities. Several were billed as Canadian, others were said to be the Mexican champion, the Irish contender, the German champion, and of course, Mr. Chin Lee, the "California Chinaman." Mr. Lee was billed as the nerve specialist for his favorite hold, a mysterious nerve pinch. In reality, most of these men were from East Texas or North Louisiana, and merely adopted these exotic names to add to the entertainment of the shows. However, it was true that in those years of racial segregation, Kallio's wrestling shows did admit both Black and White fans, in an era when such mixed crowds were rare. In fact, after he started including some local boxers on the card, to draw in more local participation, a match between Black fighters was usually included.
In addition to the promotion of using local youths to box, Kallio had other special events to gain favor locally. In January 1937, when flooding on Bayou Dorcheat had been a severe problem, a benefit match was held for flood victims. A portion of the admission charge of $.40 for adults, $.25 for children and $.25 for the "colored section," went to the needy families.
For the first few months, Kallio mainly refereed the matches, claiming that he had been unable to book an opponent of enough quality to face a world champion and wrestling only an occasional "exhibition match." Finally, on March 2, 1937, Kallio successfully defended his "world title" at the Broadway Gardens against Buck Lawson, the "Canadian native, now of Tennessee" who had "spent the last few years preparing" for this ultimate match. The fights were apparently very successful in exciting the crowds, as each newspaper account of the matches included a quote from local residents about how much they enjoyed the show. On resident, Mr. B. S. Alford stated it was, "the most thrilling thing I've ever seen." On other occasions, locals jumped into the ring to defend their favorite, whom they believed were being treated unfairly. These intruders were surprised to find that all the members of the show, including the wrestler they sought to defend, turned against the fan. The wrestlers were all one family and defended their brother of the ring.
Just as wrestling seemed to be reaching its peak in Minden, the shows suddenly ended. A major card was arranged each week at the Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport, and the local small time circuit was absorbed into the big time program in the city.
The pay was better to appear on the under card in Shreveport, than to be the feature attraction in a tiny arena such as Minden. Thus professional wrestling passed from the local scene in the spring of 1937, shortly after our only "world championship match." Yet the impact of those months when wrestling matches were the "talk of the town" is still felt in Minden today.
Several of the Greek-Americans that wrestled on the local circuit, lived in Houston and worked out at a health club in the city. One day they noticed a fellow working out that seemed a likely prospect for their group. This man was a Civil Engineer, who worked out every day during his lunch hour. While common today, such activity was very unusual in those days, and since the man was obviously a good athlete, the wrestlers approached him about joining the circuit. They explained that a good income could be made wrestling on the weekends, and the young father recognized an opportunity to provide much needed extra income for his family during the depression years. The engineer soon signed up and joined the weekend wrestling circuit. One night as the group wrestled in Minden, a local fan, a Mr. Salisbury who worked for the L&A Railroad, struck up a conversation with the new wrestler. When he learned the athlete was professionally a Civil Engineer, he mentioned that he might be able to find work for the wrestler here in Minden. After finding how much the wrestler was paid, Salisbury approached his boss, Mr. Danforth, and soon the Houston Engineer/Wrestler had been offered a 50% raise in pay and a job with the L & A, here in Minden. That wrestler, Mr. John Thomas Alley gladly accepted the offer and in September 1936, he moved his family to Minden. Later he brought his two brothers to the Minden area. Most of the information I have in this article came from the son of J. T. Alley, Dr. Tom Alley, who has spent so many years as a veterinarian and community leader here in Minden. Dr. Alley recalls watching his father practice and rehearse the matches, so they would go off as planned. He remembers on one occasion his father telling another wrestler, to be careful, as in his excitement in executing the matches; he had nearly injured Mr. Alley. After the matches moved to Shreveport, Mr. Alley retired from the circuit, and remained here in Minden. So now you know the story of this Echo of Our Past how professional wrestling once thrived in Minden, and you also now how the brief prime of professional wrestling in Minden, brought us one of our most outstanding citizens, Dr. Tom Alley.
John Agan is a local historian, an instructor at Bossier Parish Community College and a published author. His column appears Fridays in the Minden Press-Herald.