Intrigued by the words (“Wrestling” and “Plunge”) in the same archival document, I decided to look deeper into their connection. I discovered the story of a very imaginative use of Boardwalk space, nearly 90-years ago.
Boardwalk facilities have often been re-imagined for entertainment purposes over the decades. Winter ice skating is the latest adaptation for a unique event. The unusual story I uncovered involves our saltwater swimming pool, a wrestling promoter, and a Seaside Company manager.
“Red” Thornton had achieved only an average rating in state-wide wrestling competitions in the early 1930s when he took a turn at promoting the sport. In late August 1932, he began scheduling weekly outdoor matches in Santa Cruz for the first time. His match-ups occurred at Community Park where the Boardwalk’s Main Parking Lot is now.
Local fans enthusiastically supported the novelty of his late-summer wrestling matches. By the end of September though, crowds were slimming down as chilly, and sometimes foggy fall air became an irritant to spectators. Small gatherings could only attract substitute stand-in wrestlers to fill the evening cards. Mainline “grunt-and-groaners,” as wrestlers were affectionately known, held out for bigger gaggles of on-lookers. Finding a warmer, indoor location to hold his matches was on Red’s mind. Locating one hadn’t been easy. Santa Cruz locales were either too small or rental costs were too high.
On October 13, 1932, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported Thornton had started dickering with the Troyer Brothers, who then managed the Boardwalk’s Casino Ballroom, for the use of that venue. While the Ballroom was deemed impractical, the discussion did not end there.
“Jot” Troyer, one of the three brothers running the Casino Ballroom and the Casa Del Rey Hotel in 1932, had been a one-time national amateur wrestling champion in the 188-pound class. I surmise he likely attended and supported the weekly events being held very near the Casa Del Rey Hotel (also in today’s Main Boardwalk Parking Lot). Jot was a promoter, too.
Thinking outside the box, as the Troyer Brothers were already known to do during their short time in Santa Cruz, Jot directed Red to an empty building that might be useful for wrestling. That same edition of the Sentinel reported, “There is no water in the Plunge now. It wouldn’t be much of a trick to erect a ring in the bottom, put seats around the side and in the gallery, etc.” And so, a deal was struck for this improbable use of our swimming arena for wrestling matches.
Before its demise in 1963, the Plunge had two pools that held a total of 408,000 gallons of water when full. During late fall, winter, and early spring months, the Plunge was closed, and the pools were emptied. The larger “L-shaped” pool deepened progressively from its shallower eastern end to where it widened the full width of the tank at its 15-ft deep western end. This end was the perfect location for a wrestling arena. It was estimated the sloping pool floor, from its shallow point, would seat up to 1,000 spectators. More bleacher seats could be added around the sides of the pools, and some of the best seats in the house could be found in the upper viewing gallery. The facility was free from the chill of fall evenings and there was plenty of room for bigger and bigger crowds. Apparently, Red became convinced the Plunge would be perfect for his wrestling matches. So – he or Troyer – obtained a lease for the empty pools.
On October 21, 1932, work began on “California’s most novel wrestling arena,” as the news reported. Red lined up some of the best grapplers on the coast for his first event, headliners on San Francisco, and San Jose wrestling cards. The first matchups on October 26 included the best two-out-of-three falls, two-hour limit main event featuring Jack “Monkey” Manuel, the acrobatic Portuguese, and Sacramento’s big, blonde “Hank” Oswald. That evening’s bill also featured a one-fall, 45-minute limit, semi-windup event between Nick Velcoff, the clever Hungarian giant, and Pat O’Hara, the strongman from the Emerald Isle. Two other short match-ups of relative newcomers filled out the evening’s card.
While the “Crackerjacks” radio dance band played during interludes, almost 800 attended the spectacle to see Oswald beat Manuel and Velcoff win over O’ Hara. The crowd was well short of capacity and shorter still of Red’s expectations.
A week later, on November 2, in the best two-out-of-three fall match-ups, newcomer Ted Cox squared off against Nick Velcoff, and Hank Oswald took on Ed Hellweg. These were the main events in a four-bout card. Disappointingly, the crowd was even smaller than the previous week. Diehard spectators were not pleased that San Jose referee “Dee” Di Julio let several bouts get away from him, so they thought.
A third attempt to rouse an adequate number of fans for the Plunge venue was set for a week later on November 9. This time, Thornton took off his promoter’s hat and competed in his first Santa Cruz appearance in the ring. Even with Thornton in action, attendance was only slightly better than the previous week and well below his expectations. Thornton’s promotional career in Santa Cruz was not faring any better than his skill at wrestling.
Red stopped scheduling successive November matches. According to Thornton, he was postponing them until he could attract top wrestling talent. He did not want to jeopardize the reputation of his events with poor performances and smaller spectator crowds that would follow.
Evidencing his own weak promotional skills, Thornton simply could not be found in Santa Cruz, and advertisements for the next weekly bout disappeared with him. The Troyer’s had not heard from him either. Local suspicions began to grow that he was dropping his Santa Cruz series.
On November 17, in the ring again for a San Jose match-up with a former national wrestling champion, Thornton lost. Responding to local inquiries about his Santa Cruz plans, Thornton hinted there would be a match just before Thanksgiving. Yet, no official word was forthcoming. Even Jot Troyer was in the dark.
The day before the scheduled bout Thornton had hinted at, a local sports commentator mocked the promoter. He wrote the next day’s card “must feature a whole flock of Masked Marvels for no one has yet been able to get a sight of any of them.” Not surprisingly, no event occurred, nor did any after that.
The Santa Cruz Evening News summed up the demise of Thornton’s wrestling series in its December 13, 1932 edition, “Red’s way of gently breaking the news was to keep stalling, apparently, with no intention of coming back here.”
Red was back, though. In January 1933, he was in Santa Cruz looking to secure the ability to use Community Park for another summer wrestling series. He did pull this off during the warmer summertime. While the Plunge would not have been available at the height of its vacation season, it seems Red did not contemplate using that facility again.
Once more, the original Boardwalk’s headline “Never a Dull Moment” proved true – even in an empty swimming pool.
-till next time –