Louisville Courier-Journal – June 27, 2001
By Tom Heiser
As the doors close on the Gardens, it is impossible not to wax a little nostalgic.
I’ve watched great haunts of my youth — the Vogue, the White Castle in the Highlands — disappear from the local landscape without the benefit of a final lying-in-state, one last chance to say goodbye. With the Gardens I have that chance.
Tonight is “The Last Dance,” a professional-wrestling extravaganza that promoters are marketing as the final event The Gardens will ever host.
Jefferson County government, which owns the building, is negotiating with two groups interested in taking over The Gardens — the owner of the Louisville Panthers hockey team and some investors interested in turning it into a center for high-tech business. But the county isn’t booking events at The Gardens past Saturday.
World Wrestling Federation stars Y2J Chris Jericho, The Undertaker, Kurt Angle and others will mix it up with a cadre of Ohio Valley Wrestling’s best on a 10-match supercard.
Beyond the title tilts and grudge matches, the night belongs to the memories of wrestling in The Gardens. Fans who have trekked to the corner of Sixth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard for years will have a chance to solemnize the historic venue and gaze at a handful of stars from the constellation of greats who’ve wrestled there.
The Fabulous Jackie Fargo, Bill “Superstar” Dundee, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant, Rocky “Soul Man” Johnson — names as familiar to me and other Louisvillians as Darrell Griffith or Harvey Sloane — and others will take a final bow and a final look around the scene of so many memorable nights.
“I’m going to miss it,” said Kevin Hale, my lifelong friend and shadow on many nights of wrestling at The Gardens. “The place was wrestling. Other stuff went on there, but for me, it was home for wrestling — ‘old school’ wrestling. You were part of the action.”
The Gardens is immutable — a dogged stalwart of downtown. It hails from an age when wrestling took place in buildings with square-jawed names like The Civic Auditorium or Municipal Arena. (The Gardens, itself, was The Armory until 1975, when it became Louisville Gardens.) It would never tolerate a corporate logo jammed onto its side like a fraternity pin.
It scoffs at today’s mollycoddling arenas with their well-appointed seats, luxury boxes, gourmet coffee and microbrew stands. It knew its beer was always a tad flat, the soft drinks too syrupy, the popcorn spongy and pretzels a hazard to oncoming molars. It made no apologies.
For me, Kevin and undoubtedly countless others growing up in Louisville in the 1970s, there was a time when Tuesday night wrestling at The Gardens was a passion on par with basketball. We were hoops fans, but scoring tickets to Freedom Hall or Rupp Arena was as likely as a date with Olivia Newton-John.
The Gardens was the locus of our sports dreams, and every Saturday afternoon Lance Russell let us know it.
Russell, a legend in a leisure suit, and his sidekick, Dave Brown, hosted the local wrestling show on WDRB-TV (in later years shifting to WAVE-TV), providing the play-by-play and analysis of the roiling mayhem unfolding in the studio.
Twice each show he promoted the week’s upcoming matches, occasionally having to step aside to allow fulminations from an aggrieved wrestler. After reading the card Lance urged us, “Tuesday night at the Louisville Gardens. Be there!”
Fast forward to the ’80s.
While we skulked around the halls of duPont Manual, turned up the collars on our Izod shirts and fed The Cars and Huey Lewis into our jam boxes, Kevin learned to drive.
Tuesday nights now called for us to hustle a crew together for wrestling. We packed into Kevin’s ’78 Malibu Classic and tore off to The Gardens — Quiet Riot in full throat — like soccer hooligans bound for Wembley Stadium.
After squealing into the parking lot across the street, we were greeted by the imposing severity of the Gardens entrance.
Inside, oxygen was scarce. The air was dense with smoke, nearly unbreathable. We pocketed our general-admission tickets and made our way through the gummy aisles to grab a seat of unrelenting steel and wood.
A truly egalitarian collection of fans poured through the turnstiles each Tuesday night: black, white, young and old. T-shirts and hats checklisted neighborhood Little Leagues, community centers and VFW posts from Portland to Fairdale, Jeffersontown to Shively.
As the arena lights dimmed, a smudged halo surrounded the ring, sending a frisson of anticipation through the crowd. It was bell time.
Only it never really sounded like a bell — more like a tossed hubcap hitting the highway.
Next, combatants in each match paraded in. Fans leapt to their feet in adulation as the “faces” (wrestling appellation for “good guys”) came by waving and shaking hands; streams of obscenities and plastic cups rained down on the dastardly “heels” (the “bad guys”).
Kevin and I always rooted for the heels. They were the most charismatic, the most vicious. They did not need anyone’s approval, nor care how many vulgar gestures were aimed their way.
We loved “Ravishing” Ric Rude, “The International Heart Throb” Austin Idol, The Dream Machine and “Dirty” Dutch Mantell, as well as perfidious managers like Jimmy Hart, Jim Cornette and Downtown Bruno — men who duped unwitting referees, pulled concealed chains from their tights and tossed powder in the eyes of “faces.”
No wrestler was more despised than Rude. A notorious cheater with a chiseled physique and Tom Selleck mustache, he arrived at ringside with a bump-and-grind musical accompaniment and contemptuous sneer. Rude mastered the art of arrogance and abusiveness while wearing a sequined robe and an airbrushed self-portrait on his periwinkle tights.
While the undercard whetted the appetite, epic blood feuds such as the grim and feral Moondogs against the frosted-haired flamboyance of the Fabulous Ones were pure red meat. Chairs crashed down over skulls, two-by-fours tattooed backs and shoulders. When the final bell sounded, the carnage and frenzy would have left Russell Crowe slinking away shamefaced.
No Tuesday night was complete without the main event: Jerry “The King” Lawler, the undisputed, un-faltering embodiment of wrestling in Louisville, against the challenge of some mammoth malefactor. Whether a title match, grudge match or wholesale “Pier 6 brawl,” the exhausting ebb and flow of a Lawler match forced fists to clinch and knuckles to whiten.
Somewhere from the carcinogenic gloom a women’s jangling voice would call out, “Come on, Jerry!” exhorting Lawler to reach down for some last burst of energy to inevitably catapult him to victory — sending the crowd home ecstatic as “Ease on Down the Road” rose with the lights.
Brimming with adrenalin, we would partner up for an impromptu match of our own in the parking lot, usually culminating in one of our foreheads thudding against the hood of Kevin’s car.
On the way home we deconstructed each match, the winners and losers, with the vehemence of the McLaughlin Group, hurling predictions for next Tuesday night and for many Tuesday nights to come.
Then the inescapable: high school ebullience blurred into adult responsibility and later calcified into familial obligation. Our nights at The Gardens receded into anecdotes.
Tuesday night wrestling also receded. The Gardens became an intermittent stop for the WWF and only an occasional home to local federations. With talk of renovation utterly stalled, the likelihood emerged that another precious landmark would slip away in silence.
Not if we could help it. The next step was brutally clear.
Kevin and I cleared our calendars, cleared it with our wives, studied the card and finalized plans to be part of yet another night of wrestling.
We hear you, Lance.
“Tuesday night at the Louisville Gardens. Be there!”
For if this truly is “The Last Dance,” we would not miss it for the world.