Some years ago Al Stark wrote this article for the Queens Gazette about visits to the Sunnyside Garden arena to watch pro wrestling with his dad, brother, and friends. The arena is gone now, but oh the memories of driving down Queens Boulevard, the Champs-Elysee of Queens, and of doing great stuff with your family.
Sunnyside Gardens Lives On in Memories
As I think back to 1962, it seems like light years ago, although many visions are still fresh in my mind.
On many a Tuesday evening, when my father would return from work in the Garment Center, he would eat his dinner and we would get ready for our journey into the night. My brother Lloyd and I and maybe Val, Stevie Raskin, and Cubby would pile into our Chrysler…Sunnyside Gardens here we come.
We always took the same route south down Jewel Avenue, with the 1964 World’s Fair and Shea Stadium under construction on the horizon. We moved west onto Queens Boulevard past the high rise apartments of Forest Hills, listening to B. Mitchell Reed on WMCA Radio, 570 on the dial. Queens Boulevard seemed like such a majestic promenade with Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor, Alexander’s Department Store, the Trylon movie house and the White Castle in Rego Park with its gourmet burgers for only 8 cents. We used to pass the Elks Club, with a new automobile being auctioned off and proudly displayed high above the road, the bumper car ride at the Fairyland Amusement Park, where now the Queens Center mall sits on a very valuable piece of real estate, and the rows of used car lots in Elmhurst, with great deals for everyone! We always stopped at the same candy store in Woodside where my father used to give me a quarter to purchase two special cigars that would be safely tucked into his inside jacket pocket. We proceeded to approach the elevated train above, past Steven’s Appliance Store, with only a few blocks to go to our magical destination.
The anticipation was building. Who would wrestle in the Dark Match, positively not shown on television? Ring announcer Johnnie Addie, nattily attired in his black tuxedo, would step into the ring and the mayhem would begin. My brother would ask him for his autograph every week, sometimes twice in one night, and he always signed, smiling with a friendly pat on the head. We never seemed to have any tickets. Out came those two cigars and my father would give them to the gentleman with the stogie between his teeth at the box office and we would march to ringside. After the usher received his customary tribute, we had our seats and that would be our home for the next three hours. Bearcat Wright lifting my brother on his shoulders and carrying him into the ring to the cheering crowd was music to our ears. From Australia, The Fabulous Kangaroos hurling cardboard boomerangs, as we scrambled for every last one of them.
We used to wait by the dressing room door to watch these huge, gladiators come up from the darkness. Our mission was to sometimes get an autograph, or just stare at these strange looking villains, not wanting to get too close. A young Bruno Samartino with his crushing Backbreaker, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers strutting around the ring applying his dreaded submission hold, the Figure Four Leg Lock, a maneuver I used to use on my brother to end any confrontation. Cowboy Bob Ellis and his Bull Dog Headlock, Skull Murphy and the big-nosed bald-headed guy in the third row always holding up a painting of Skull’s menacing mug as he muttered obscenities and the crowd hissed and booed. Did Gorilla Monsoon really come from Manchuria? Did the Destroyer wear his mask at the dinner table? Would Miguel Torres, the Mexican Bull, ever win a match? Was Chief Big Heart really part of a tribe or was he from the Bronx? Did Haystack Calhoun really weigh 601 pounds? Did it really matter that Baba the Giant couldn’t speak English, even though I saw him order a hot dog and soda at the concession stand? One night we gave Argentina Apollo a lift to the subway station and, in the three-block ride, my brother and I just stared at him afraid to utter a single word. We had programs from every week, 8 by 10 photos pasted, taped, and glued to our bedroom walls in the Pomonok Houses in Flushing. We didn’t care if it was scripted and choreographed. These were nights of staying up late, reporting back to school about who you saw in the “Squared Circle”, memories of Bobo Brazil, Karl Von Hess, Lou Albano, Hans Mortier, Mark Lewin and Don Curtis.
These were real times, real moments of spending time with my father, who probably did not even like wrestling too much but enjoyed hanging out with his sons and their friends. He was the chauffeur, chaperone and banker —He was our father!
There are a new generation of grapplers, masked men and tag teams. Who would have known that my father would be gone before the start of the next decade. Who would have imagined that my kid brother would be gone way too soon.
I don’t really watch professional wrestling anymore, but I often think back on those days that I spent with my father, brother and friends, and that ride in our old Chrysler down Queens Boulevard so many, many miles ago.