Famed Sunnyside Garden Arena in Queens, New York, was a popular boxing and wrestling venue and site of many bouts until its demise in 1977.
Older fans may have had the pleasure of seeing events there, often on Saturday afternoons where they experienced the action close up from ringside or balcony seats. It was a popular destination, especially for the under-14 crowd who could not attend bouts at Madison Square Garden due to age and travel restrictions.
The story that follows depicts how wrestling at Sunnyside Garden Arena became the source of photographs and a book that I recently published capturing one memorable day in the classic history of professional wrestling in the ’70s.
The Rise and Demise of Famed Sunnyside Garden Arena
The Sunnyside Garden Arena was a venerable home for boxing and wrestling from April 8, 1947, till its last show on June 24, 1977, and its demolishment in December of that year.
The red brick arena was located in Sunnyside, Queens, on 45th Street and Queens Boulevard, NYC, where its two large roof gables and large clock made it easily recognizable.
Jay Gould II constructed the building to serve as a private tennis club and carriage house in the 1920s. It was eventually sold in 1947 to Manny Heicklen and Harry Jordan Lee, who saw its potential as a boxing and wrestling arena.
Promoter Mike Rosenberg purchased the venue in 1969, and subsequent owners followed after 1973 until it was demolished to make way for a Wendy’s hamburger restaurant in 1977.
The Sunnyside Garden Arena featured boxing events that included many of the great boxers of the era, along with amateurs who competed in Golden Gloves tournaments.
The arena played a role in the popularization of the sport through matches presented from 1949 to 1950 on Boxing From Sunnyside Gardens, on the Dumont Television Network, enabling fans to experience a ringside view not easily available in the large arenas.
It remained one of the few arenas to survive after many others closed during the 1950s, including the popular St. Nicholas Arena.
It was also the location for political rallies that included visits in 1960 by John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy in 1964 as part of his senatorial campaign.
“Fans of all ages and backgrounds were united by their love of the sport.”
The Sunnyside Garden Arena became a popular destination for fans who could obtain a close-up view of their favorite wrestlers in an intimate setting designed to seat 2500.
Wrestling regulars like Mike Conrad, Stan Stasiak, Karl Gotch, Chief Jay Strongbow, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, Haystacks Calhoun, and Bruno Sammartino performed to the delight of fans of all ages and backgrounds, united by their love of the sport.
The Sunnyside Garden Arena remains to this day a cherished memory in the minds of boxing and wrestling enthusiasts, along with local residents who fondly remember the arena for the important role it played in the history of the community.
Wrestling At Sunnyside Garden Arena, November 27, 1971
In 1971, as a 22-year-old photography student, I had not yet been among the fans who watched wrestling at Sunnyside Garden Arena or even on television. However, Jonathan Panes, my 12-year-old cousin, was a wrestling fan with unbridled enthusiasm.
He convinced me to attend a Saturday afternoon event at Sunnyside with the promise of a great photo opportunity, and I could not resist.
Fifty years later, it became clear that it was indeed the right decision to go.
In 2021, at the age of 71, after a long photography teaching career, I discovered the photographs I took that day while archiving and scanning my black and white negatives for posterity.
Looking back at the photographs taken 50 years earlier led to a number of realizations.
I was surprised at how vividly I remembered the event and the enthusiasm I felt while documenting the crowd and the wrestling action. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the gritty days of boxing and wrestling that conjured an earlier time period and the flashbulb images of Weegee, the famous Daily News photographer.
I was struck by how close I was able to get to the ringside action on the mat to capture the intensity and dramatics of each of the wrestling teams from the point of view below but in the middle of the conflict.
The photographs of the fans waiting in line for tickets, reading the latest magazine, or screaming in support or anger during the action capture the spirit of an earlier and, in many ways, more innocent time.
The crowd reflected the diversity of the city, representing all ages, ethnicity, and cultures – but united as a community in the shared appreciation for wrestling.
A community that accepted the notion of "Kayfabe" — the portrayal of somewhat staged events as "real" and genuine — heightened the excitement, entertainment, and emotional display generated by each match.
As I considered the idea of producing a book of photographs, I realized that I needed to fill in many details that were missing.
There was no record of the specific event in any of the online databases that I could find.
There were records of Sunnyside Garden Arena wrestling matches, but none that corresponded to the approximate time of year and wrestling card captured in the photographs.
From the exterior shot and jackets worn by fans waiting to enter, I could tell that it was likely a late Fall event.
My cousin was able to identify many of the wrestlers from the photographs, but it was only when I was able to find a poster with the wrestling card and results that I could confirm November 27, 1971, as the actual date.
The wrestling card included popular wrestlers from the time, with some who were title contenders and journeymen fighters known for opening events to warm up the crowd.
The photographs came to life with the identification of the combatants in each match:
Chief Jay Strongbow, Karl Gotch, Sky Low Low, Victor Rivera, Stan Stasiak, Manuel Soto, Mike Monroe, Mike Conrad, Rugged Russians, Farmer Jerome, and Little Brutus.
Through my research, I discovered details about each wrestler’s career and history.
It came as no real surprise that Chief Jay Strongbow (Joseph Luke Scarpa) was not an American Indian and that the Rugged Russians (Juan Sebastian and Pedro Godoy) were clearly not Russians.
I also learned about Karl Gotch and his illustrious early career (AWA Heavyweight Champion, 1961), along with the accomplishments of Stan Stasiak, Victor Rivera, and Manuel Soto.
The final event of that day included tag team matches with the illustrious Sky Low Low, the famed "micro wrestler," along with Little Brutus, Farmer Jerome, and Sonny Boy Hayes.
After the publication of the book, while watching the film Requiem for a Heavyweight, I was amazed to see Sky Low Low in the final scene, a wrestling match that provides the backdrop for Mountain Rivera’s (Anthony Quinn) entrance into the ring dressed as an Indian Chief signaling the final chapter of his boxing career.
The inclusion of the win-loss records for the wrestlers in the book provided more of a challenge than expected.
The limited details from various sources often contradicted each other, and the results suggested that record-keeping was less accurate and more informal than data recording today. A number of the wrestlers had so many more losses than wins that it suggested another career path would have been a wise decision.
In the book, the passage of time is reflected through more than just changes in fashion in the black and white photographs.
The photographs of the fans were taken close up at a time when portraits were possible of people who showed less concern for the photographer’s motive and the possible invasion of privacy.
The proximity of fans to the action and the theatrical display of the wrestlers provides a snapshot of the early days of wrestling when suspended disbelief could be the source of great entertainment. And, the sense of community, reflected by the diversity of the audience, seems far removed from the societal polarization we unfortunately see today.
On November 27, 1971, the anticipation of the dramatic clash loomed ahead between admired or despised larger-than-life gladiators in the ring created a shared atmosphere that transcended class and economic distinctions. And even if your favorite wrestler lost, there was always the hope that with cheers and support, your hero would take down his opponent another day and live to fight again on the next Saturday at the Sunnyside Garden Arena.
To learn more, view more photos, or order this fantastic limited edition book, be sure to visit sunnysidegardenwrestling.com.
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