Ben Lopez is young. He's sitting at ringside at 11 a.m., waiting to be called to the scales. Lopez, 20, is wearing a grease-stained, short-sleeve blue work shirt with his first name embroidered in blue script on a little white oval over the left breast pocket. In his right breast pocket are three ballpoint pens and a tire pressure gauge. Lopez has already put in two hours at Joe Evans' Tire Service in Glendale. He has the rest of the day off because tonight he'll have his first pro fight.
Like so many kids who have come here, Lopez, a superfeatherweight, is trying to leave something behind. "I want to fight because I want to better myself in life," he says. "Before, I wasn't getting nowhere. I was smoking marijuana, drinking beer. Nothing too heavy, but I didn't feel good about myself. Now I feel good, I feel clean, I feel closer to God."
Lopez is trained by Franck Muche, whose 55-year-old face sags from the weight of the 317 fights he had between 1940 and '51. For the last three decades Muche has been training fighters at the Pasadena Y. He has never had a champ or a kid who went very far. "I'm a pari-mutuel clerk, and the racetrack's my bread and butter," he says. "But working with the kids is what I love."
In this building they have been playing out that love affair for almost 57 years. The history isn't important to Lopez—he wants to make weight and get on with business—but he's part of the tradition of the Olympic that refuses to die.
The Olympic Auditorium opened on the night of Aug. 6, 1925, with a card featuring a bout between two fellows named Young Nationalist and Newsboy Brown. L.A. Mayor George Cryer cut the ribbon to dedicate the building. Among the first-nighters were Rudolph Valentino, Joseph Schenck, Jack Warner, Sid Grauman, Sol Lesser, William Desmond and Jack and Estelle Dempsey. Were such an opening held today it surely would be the subject of a two-hour TV special.
At the time, the Olympic was an architectural gem. With 10,096 seats it was—and is—larger than any other U.S. arena built specifically for boxing. Spectacular murals, now obscured by dirt and by a Crosshatch of extra beams added as the building deteriorated over the years, decorated the 70-foot-high ceiling. Red velour drapes guarded the entry way of each aisle and added to the air of elegance.
The Olympic was the brainchild of Frank Garbutt, founder of the tony Los Angeles Athletic Club, which owned the arena until 1980. It was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood & Company in the style of the Italian Renaissance: big, blocky and stucco, and was built by A.C. Pillsbury. It was named the Olympic in the hope that L.A would someday host the Olympic Games. In 1932 it was, in fact, the site of boxing, wrestling and weightlifting competitions during the Games. Even then, however, its essential nature was that of a fight club—smoky, dreary, devoted to machismo and honor.
By 1942 the arena had become unprofitable and, out of desperation, Garbutt asked the club's advertising director, a widow named Aileen LeBell, to revive the operation. She enlisted Cal Eaton, an inspector for the state athletic commission. When they arrived at the Olympic, Babe McCoy, the matchmaker and perhaps the building's most valuable asset, threatened to quit; he had no interest in promoting fights with a woman. "Cal told Babe I came with the lease, but that I wouldn't last more than a couple of months," Aileen says.
Aileen lasted as the promoter at the Olympic until 1980. During her 38 years there she refused to buy the building for $80,000 ("That was in 1943," she says. "Cal and I decided not to gamble, and kept on paying rent. I don't know how many millions in rent we wound up paying"); married Cal in 1948 ("We had a wonderful life together before he died in 1966"); kept alive the last weekly boxing club in America; and, in the years between the International Boxing Club scandals of 1959 and the advent of zillion-dollar closed-circuit television championship bouts in the '70s, became one of the most powerful and important figures in the game.
Ask anyone why the Olympic survived, and you usually get a two-word answer: Aileen Eaton. For approximately $125,000 a year, she held the master lease and ruled the place as if it were her fief. She's 73 now and as she sits in the living room of her spacious home in Hancock Park, she's having a good time reflecting on her accomplishments.