Saturday, September 17, 2011

El Monte Legion Stadium Story

THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED
El Monte Legion Stadium "Pink Elephant" around 1965-1966
 By Richard Cortez
Wednesday, 17 August, 2011
“And in the streets: the children screamed, The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed. But not a word was spoken; The church bells all were broken. And the three men I admire most: The father, son, and the holy ghost They caught the last train for the coast The day the music died.”
From the song “American Pie” by Don McLean.

El Monte, Ca.– August 13, 1974 had to be one of El Monte’s worst days in its history. On that day, 37 years ago, the wrecking ball began its destruction of the “Pink Elephant”, or as it was nationally known, “El Monte Legion Stadium.”
The building began as the El Monte High School gym, built in 1927 and completed in 1929. On March 10, 1933 the Long Beach earthquake hit Southern California. The State of California condemned the majority of schools including El Monte High School.
Arial view of Legion Stadium looking mighty majestic around 1929
Since the gym was considered new, it survived the destruction ball that first time. While the new high school was being built, the gym was used for basketball games and graduations. Once the new high school was completed the gym would sit empty until the American Legion Post 261 bought the building on Jan. 16, 1945 for $26,650 and renamed it “El Monte Legion Stadium.”
The American Legion Post used the building first for their meetings, but after WWII it was used for dinners to welcome home our returning veterans. The Legionaires tried to promote basketball games with little success. The Legionaires started to promote dances and had better success. They also tried wrestling, boxing, roller derbys and mini car races. Then one day, a country and western singer came riding into town eyeing the legion stadium for a show he was doing on the radio. Cliffie Stone and The Hometown Jamboree radio show began a long run at the stadium. Cliffie’s show was so popular it began a simulcast on both radio and television. So every Saturday night at 7:30 pm you would hear “From El Monte California, The Hometown Jamboree!”
Cliff Stone

The El Monte Legion Stadium also had other events such as wrestling. Every Thursday you could catch wrestlers like Freddie Blassie, Gorgeous George, The Flying Frenchman, Bobo Brazil and Pedro Morales. Roller Derby was also a big draw to the stadium. 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 our T-Birds Ralphie Valladeres, Shirley Hardman, Ronnie Rains, Shirley Vega, John Hall and Danny Reilly just to mention a few of the players
1972 Los Angeles Thunderbirds
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Boxing was also a big event at the stadium. The boxing events held had some of the best boxers fighting in the ring. Joe Dominguez, Ernest Kirkwood, Rich Tollies, Henry Yerkin, Gene Scott and Joe Rufus were some of the men who slugged it out in the stadium.
Freddie Blassie

Besides the local dances and the local bands came big time promoters that would make the stadium famous all over the Southland. It was the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles school board that made El Monte the Mecca of Rock and Roll. The LA City and School Board would not allow children under the age of 18 to attend a dance in their city, so it was to Legion Stadium they came.
Johnny Otis a rhythm and blues artist had a traveling show and chose the stadium to promote his shows. Others would follow and the one man who literally turned the name “El Monte Legion Stadium,” into a southland destination would be Art Laboe. In 1957 Art Laboe was the number one disk jockey doing shows from “Scrivners Drive-In,” in Los Angeles. Art Laboe, if you did not know, was the first DJ to play rock and roll on the radio on the west coast. Art Laboe began his oldies but goodies shows in El Monte in 1957 and for three years every other week would bring some of the biggest stars to our town. Jerry Lee Lewis, Ritchie Valens and Rosie and the Originals were some of the big stars that played on the El Monte Legion Stadium stage. These shows brought a positive aspect to the City of El Monte.
Inside view of the stage area before the wrecking ball

In the 1960’s things began to relax in Los Angeles and night clubs were opening up to the younger crowds. The stadium started to see a decline in mainstream concerts. Weddings were bringing in some money and the stadium was booking small events and the wrestling and boxing continued until the late 1960’s. The Pink Elephant was now costing the legionaires more money than they were bringing in. In 1973 the US postal service made an offer to buy the building and land to build a new post office.
This time our Pink Elephant could not dodge the wrecking ball. On Friday, August 13, 1974, the demolition began. People would walk by or drive by as the big ball would bounce off the wall of our building. You could feel a pain in your heart with every hit of the wrecking ball, or feel the building groan with pain. And as you watched maybe a tear welled up in your eye from what you were seeing; your mind racing with memories of your wedding or the dance you attended.
The saddest days
Or the time you saw one of your favorite rock stars appear live on the stage that would soon be gone. It was a time of lost innocence, a time of sadness that a building so noble would never be again. There was no protest and there were no people chaining themselves to the building. Did we let the Pink Elephant down? It is best said by Don McLean;

“I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The Day The Music Died.”

1 comment:

  1. My dad and his brothers owned a shell station right across Valley Boulevard from the stadium. On a typical Saturday night we might give direction to twenty parties looking for the stadium--which sat back from the road and was partially blocked from view by a market. Vern Hartman used to amuse himself by sending them out of the station onto Columbia Road, "down to the first stop sign, which is Tyler, right on Tyler till you come to Valley Boulevard, then right on Valley. You'll see a Shell station on your right. The stadium will be set back on your left." Then Vern would stand there till they had run the three legs of the triangle back to where they'd started, and offer a friendly wave when they saw they'd been had.

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