Ringside Seats

City Can’t Forget Auditorium Was Home to Sports

By R.E. Graswich
December 2018

For those of us who love Memorial Auditorium, it’s nice to see the old brick hulk get some attention from the city. But for sports fans, there’s reason to worry.

The city is spending $10.7 million to revitalize the 1927 Mediterranean showpiece, but none of that money will necessarily make the room better for sports.

Some people are doing just fine off the Memorial rehab. The project’s senior superintendent gets $303,355 for 61 weeks of work, benefits included. The construction manager pulls $267,348.

Theater lovers should be happy, too. The upgrades include millions for theatrical, acoustical, electrical and seating improvements to make Memorial a suitable home for Broadway shows, local ballet, philharmonic and opera. Never mind that those cultural relics draw dwindling and temporary audiences. They will return to the Community Center Theater when it’s rebuilt.

Nowhere in the Memorial plans approved by the City Council is there mention of sports. That’s disgraceful. For most of its life, Memorial served as the city’s classiest sports palace.

 

On Nov. 9, 1931, Sacramento residents eager for live entertainment went to Memorial for a wrestling show promoted by the Disabled American War Veterans. That night, fans cheered (or booed) Tommy Thompson, Wild Bill Beth, Marciano Agrava and Jack Reed. Tickets cost $1 to $2. Women were admitted free.

Disabled veterans put on weekly wrestling shows every Monday night at Memorial throughout the 1930s. Monthly shows at 15th and J streets continued until the early 1980s. Wrestling thrilled generations at the auditorium for more than 50 years.

After World War II, Jim (Thunderbolt) Casey and Francisco Palacio filled seats. By 1966, the Memorial calendar featured Gorilla Monsoon and Cowboy Billy Watts. Come the 1970s, Pat Patterson, Moondog Mayne, Dr. Ken Ramey, Red Bastien and Playboy Buddy Rose played heroes and heels at the auditorium.

Sports fans rightfully consider Memorial a hallowed site for boxing. Among the first events to christen the building was a prizefight on March 4, 1927. Sacramento Bee sportswriter Rudy Hickey wrote, “Never in the history of the boxing game on the Pacific Coast have matches been staged with such a unique and picturesque setting.”

In 1976, local champ Pete Ranzany beat Adolph Viruet before 4,713 fans—an incredible crowd, considering the building’s capacity was 4,200. The 1982 Memorial brawl between Bobby Chacon and Bazooka Limon stands with the greatest prizefights in history.

There were more sports. For decades, Memorial was a regular stop for roller derby. Ann Calvello was 43 years old in 1973, but fans saw her skate with the Bay Bombers at the auditorium. Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics played an exhibition at Memorial in 1957. The Harlem Globetrotters made annual appearances. In 1941, Memorial was site of a national tug-of-war tournament.

Sacramento State was the last regular sports tenant to call Memorial home, playing basketball there from 1996–2000. The Hornets lost 34 consecutive games—a sports legacy best forgotten.

Still, sports deserve a spotlight in the restored Memorial Auditorium. If the city can fix the building for Broadway tunes, there’s room for the legacies of Moondog Mayne.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at reg@graswich.com.

 

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