Memories of El Monte
By Richard Cortez
In the spirit of the upcoming 100 year anniversary of the City of El Monte I would like to take you on a tour of some of our past history. Our first stop on our tour begins at the corner of Wiggins and Valley Blvd. Here on this corner was a building of tremendous size. Built in the late 1920’s it got its start as the El Monte High school gym and auditorium. In 1932 the Olympics came to Los Angeles and our gym was enlisted as a practice venue for gymnastics, boxing and wrestling. This began the myth that the gym was used as the wrestling venue of the 1932 Olympics. Sorry but this is not true according to the United States Olympic committee there is no record of our gym as an official venue.
In 1933 the Long Beach earthquake destroyed about 40% of the El Monte High School buildings, but our gym survived. Right after the earthquake the El Monte Union High School District decided to build a new high school two miles from the original high school. The finished high school opened in 1939 and the old gym was used for mostly storage.
1941 brought the United States into World War II and our gym was brought into action. The US Defense Department rented part of the building and Northrup Aircraft Company rented out the main hall until the end of the war. Sometime before the war ended the El Monte Union High School District decided to sell our gym to the American El Monte Legion Post 261. After the El Monte Legion Post bought the gym the war ended so the El Monte Legion Post 261 moved into the basement and used it for their clubhouse with future plans for the grand gym and auditorium.
1945 brought a new owner and new name on the sides of the gym. The El Monte Legion Stadium was born. The El Monte Legion Post 261 used the auditorium for veteran’s dinners and welcoming home celebrations for our returning veterans. The 1950s would bring on a whole new excitement for our gym.
The American El Monte Legion Post 261 was looking for other uses for the stadium and boy did they come a calling. One was a country and western star named Cliffie Stone. Cliffie had a radio show on KXLA 1110 Pasadena called “The Hometown Jamboree”. The show was broadcasted five nights a week and was the highest rated radio show in Southern California. In 1949 KCOP was looking for television shows to fill their empty schedules and you guessed it “The Hometown Jamboree” fit the bill. The show was broadcast live every Saturday night at 7:30 pm.
In 1953 “The Hometown Jamboree” move to KTLA channel 5 and lasted until 1959. During this time KTLA also had a wrestling show with Dick Lane as the announcer which became one of the highest rated Sunday night shows. The producers of the wrestling matches wanted to make use of the popularity of the show so they produced their own wrestling matches at the Legion Stadium.
Most of you probably attended these wrestling matches and saw some of the best wrestlers from television. Guys like Freddie Blassie, Gorgeous George, The Flying Frenchman, Bobo Brazil and Pedro Morales. Unfortunately I was too young to go to the Legion Stadium to see the wrestling matches but I can imagine how cool this would have been to be able to see the wrestlers live and in person from TV.
Boxing was also a big feature at the El Monte Legion Stadium with many boxers moving from local status to mainstream fighters wining many championships. The boxing card is from 1948. I was hoping to write more about boxing but there is little to nothing on the web.
Wrestling and boxing weren’t the only sports that grazed the Legion Stadium “Roller Derby” came to town. The team “The Thunderbirds” or “The T-Birds” would bring their oval racing track set it up in the stadium and skate against some of the toughest teams around. Teams like The Northern Hawks, The Detroit Devils, New York Bombers and The Texas Outlaws against Ralphie Valladeres, Shirley Hardman, Ronnie Rains, Shirley Vega, John Hall and Danny Reilly just to mention a few of the players. Wrestling and Roller Derby was very lucrative to the Legion Stadium every sporting event was filled to capacity. But sports weren’t the only shows in town, the best show in town was about to be born.
One of the first performers to produce a show at the El Monte Legion was Johnny Otis a rhythm and blues band leader who had his own show called “The Johnny Otis Show”. It was so successful that it set the standard for all the shows that came after. Art Laboe later joined in by promoting shows with artist like James Brown, Ritchie Valens, Cannibal & the Headhunters, The Cochrane Brothers, The Carlos Brothers, Don & Dewey, Larry Bright, Bo Diddly, Tony Williams, Brenton Wood, The Penguins, Dick Dale and The Deltones, Righteous Brothers and The Tornadoes. There were two house bands one was The Phantoms and the other was The Romancers they would back up most of the single acts. As a side note while I was working in Huntington Beach many of my clients would tell me how they would drive to El Monte to attend many of the shows as teens. They would talk about how great the shows were and amazed at the diversity of people that would attend. I still can’t believe that in our City of El Monte that there was a place that you could see the most famous recording artist perform live. Today if you want to see a top recording artist you have to travel to Orange County, Los Angeles or Hollywood and put up with bad parking not to mention the price of tickets. I guess we had it pretty good at one time.
The 1960’s and 1970’s The El Monte Legion still had concerts and sports as a matter of fact a band called “The Grateful Dead” recorded a live concert on December 28, 1970 which was supposed to be release as an album but it never made it. There are bootlegged copies if you can find them. The Beatles were seen at the stadium but only via a closed circuit television broadcast from Washington D.C. again another myth has been put to bed sorry The Beatles never played live at the stadium.
Times started changing and sports and concerts were not doing well. With the diminishing draw to the stadium the American El Monte Legion Post 261 decided to sell the stadium. The US post office was looking to relocate the post office to a new building so the federal government bought the stadium and the land it was on. By 1974 the building was torn down and the new post office was built. One bit of interest is while the demolishing of the stadium was progressing gambling equipment was found in the basement. It is rumored that maybe a slot machine or other gambling paraphernalia is still around.
In writing this article I tried to stick to the timeline as approximate as I could but due to the information that I gathered dates would vary from one source to the other. I hope you enjoyed this little journey down memory lane if you were lucky enough to attend a wrestling match or boxing or felt the excitement of the roller derby or saw your favorite rock and roll star that you will smile as you drive by the location of our little gym “The El Monte Legion Stadium.
In my next tour we will visit The Pit, Nashville West and a look at the Rosemead airport.