As a young sports reporter for the Newark Ledger/Star-Ledger in the late 1930s, my first professional sports assignment on an ongoing basis was the Thursday night wrestling bouts from October to May at the Laurel Garden sports arena at 457 Springfield Avenue, near the intersection of 18th Avenue and South Tenth Street.
The weekly wrestling program, while out of favor in New York City, was still wildly popular in Newark and attracted a loyal following to the Springfield Avenue arena for the weekly mayhem, orchestrated by Polish born Jack Pfefer, who 'owned' and programmed the weekly shows in a number of metropolitan New York area cites, among them Newark, Paterson, Teaneck, and Jersey City.
My assignment came from Ledger sports editor Joe Donovan, and I dealt with each week's happenings as I would with any other regular sports assignment.
Little did I know then that there was a family connection between Donovan and Willie Gilzenberg, operator of Laurel Garden, and that I'd most likely been given the assignment as a compromise between ignoring the matches entirely and wasting the talents of a senior sports reporter.
About the year that I began wrestling coverage for the Ledger, wrestling was under a great deal of cynicism from both the public and the press after an expose of wrestling's fakery had appeared in the New York Daily Mirror. That year also, Madison Square Garden had dropped professional wrestling entirely as a result of the bad publicity from that expose.
I recall, after the Laurel Garden matches, taking a No. 25 Springfield bus down to the Ledger office, writing my story, and later billing the Ledger 10 cents on my weekly expense voucher for "Laurel Garden Wrestling", five cents for the bus each way.
Who were some of the wrestlers who performed at Laurel Garden from Jack Pfefer's 'stable'? Names I recall after more than 60 years include the five wrestling Dusek brother, Wally, Ernie, Emil, Joe, and Rudy. I also remember Maurice LaChavalle, "The Swedish Angel" and "The Golden Angel."
Many of Pfeffer's wrestlers were European 'imports' - Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians, whom he built up as contenders against popular American names, sometimes former 'name' athletes. Pfefer's wrestlers with Eastern-European ties would attract a wide following in the foreign-language press and it helped to ensure good attendance at their wrestling matches.
Ring Magazine had written at that time that these matches were, after all, only exhibitions, and that there could be no kick from the fans because they knew what to expect and got what they came to see - good entertainment.
Whatever the Laurel Garden wrestling matches were, the Laurel Garden management expected the press to deal with them as sports events. I remember after I returned from a night's coverage at Laurel Garden, as I typed my story for the next day's Ledger, I saw, peering over my shoulder, one Carmine Bilotti, the Laurel Garden publicist. Apparently he must have been satisfied with what I was typing because he made no comments or suggestions.
All of the wrestling matches I covered at Laurel Garden, and, I understand, all that followed, were refereed by one Hymie Kugel. I never focused my attention on Kugel as he performed his labors, but one former Laurel Garden regular who did recalled for me that the burly referee was "one tough cookie."
To the best of my recollection, the last wrestling show I covered at Laurel Garden was on Thursday night, December 4, 1941 - less than 2 full days before the infamous Pearl Harbor attack that started World War II.
One year later, on that same date, I was in uniform, rifle resting against my shoulder, and marching in formation down the boardwalk in Atlantic City with other Army Air Force recruits, my basic training having been completed that day at nearby Brigantine Field.
Willie Gilzenberg, the Laurel Garden wrestling promoter, and later manager of the boxing career of "Two-Ton" Tony Galento , died in 1978 at the age of 79.
Laurel Garden is no
life as a sports arena ended May 30, 1953 l,
just before the building was demolished. But for
former Newarkers who witnessed the matches at one time or another at Laurel
Garden, or perhaps my write-ups of the Laurel Garden grapplers as I described
them in the Ledger sports pages, this recollection may evoke some warm memories.
Some Laurel Garden Boxing History
Long before I involved with reporting the wrestling shows at Laurel Garden, the wood-framed building on Springfield Avenue had been famous since the 1920s as a boxing arena 2. Some of the biggest names in boxing's history had seen action in the Laurel Garden boxing ring.
Among them was Mickey Walker, Tony Canzonieri, Harry Greb, Billy Petrelle, Joe and Vince Dundee, and Young Bob Fitzsimmons.
Louis Firpo's first two American fights were there; also Max Schmeling. And heavyweight James J. Braddock knocked out George Gemus in a Laurel Garden slugfest in 1929.
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