"All lights go out at Capitol Arena"
Washington Post, June 27, 1965
by William Gildea
The wrecker's giant steel ball has swung perilously close to the delightful and dilapidated Capitol Arena.
The rubble from along the block stretches up to the back door of the old place and the tenant's lease expired a year and a half ago. On the antique marquee with the naked bulbs visible through the cracked panes is the lettering: "Wrestling Every Thursday Night."
And so last "rusday" night the humble origin of what has become a glamorous television wrestling network stretching into 14 states was finally closed. Capitol Arena, nee Turner's Arena, will be torn down next month.
The property has been purchased by the Washington City Orphan Asylum, a charity organization that plans to build a clinic on the 14th and W Streets NW. site.
If the scarred old building looks more like a garage than a boxing and wrestling emporium, that's because it once was. There was a lubrication pit, it is said, where the ring is now.
In 1935, the late promoter, Joe Turner, converted the place into an arena with only 1,880 permanent seats.
"The finest arena in the South," it was called. But the present promoter, Vince McMahon, isn't certain the facility was ever up with the times, even then. "It was never a cathedral," he admits.
Seven boxing champions have fought there. So has every wrestler from Gorgeous George to Bruno Sammartino, the most prominent torso-twister today. There were revivals and rhythm and blues sessions, hillbilly festivals and dances, union meetings and political meetings.
Tommy Dorsey played there; so did Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole. Singer Jimmy Dean, appearing with the Grand Ole Opry stars, was discovered there.
Among the wrestlers who made it famous were Antonino Rocca, Crusher Casey, Betty Grable (sic) and the midget, Fuzzy Cupid. Primo Carnera and Tony Galento also wrestled. Abe Simon and Max Baer refereed.
Henry Wallace and Harold Ickes spoke. Sens. John McClellan (D-Ark) and Olin Johnston (D-S.C.) often visited, McMahon says, as did the late Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn). Gary Cooper once did, too.
According to McMahon, two regular wrestling fans via television were the late Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Mrs. Harry Truman. MacArthur, McMahon says, limited his Thursday night engagements so that he could watch the weekly shows.
The late Edward R. Murrow on his "Person to Person" show once asked Mrs. Truman, upon her return to Independence, what she missed most in Washington. "Wrestling on television," she replied.
In 1947, Turner died, and his wife, Florence, became promoter. She hired McMahon, a New Yorker and son of promoter Jess McMahon, who helped Tex Rickard open the present Madison Square Garden.
McMahon took over the building's lease in 1954, along with three other area businessmen, Frank (Nap) Proctor, Charles O'Connell, Jr., and Phil Gray. Dressing up for TV, McMahon changeed the name from Turner's to Capitol.
Television has vaulted McMahon into a high income bracket, but in 1956, when TV first struck its big red eye into the Capitol ring, McMahon, with no sponsors, footed the bills for two weeks.
Over McMahon's desk is a panorama of Comiskey Park, Chicago, June 30, 1961, the night he and Fred Kohler promoted the Buddy Rogers-Pat O'Connor world's heavyweight title match, which drew the largest crowd (34,995) and gate ($127,171) for a pro wrestling show.
"All of this grew out of the little garage on W Street," McMahon says. "We're going to miss the old place. You know, they'll probably start tearing it down on my birthday." McMahon will be 51 July 6.
One dreary moriing this week, one of its last, the shabby building sat in the rain, testimony to those who endured its inadequacies, and could even laugh about them.
Outside, the water leaked through the porous spouting and down the white and green and yellow walls. Inside, only the whirring fans could be heard in the big, quiet room, with its walls chipped and peeling from dust, steam and smoke.
A clock in the back was stopped at 8:55 with no promise of ever running again. The scene was one of complete disarray -- clothes hangers on the pipes of the sprinkling system, the cord of an electric fan draped over a wash bowl, ticket stubs strewn about the floor.
In the darkness of a small, unkempt room, a man slept soundly, but silently. A homeless alley cat zig-zagged across the main floor. Two birds flew among the steel beams in the ceiing.
Five men, one very old and gray and the others little stronger, dragged forth a giant wrestling mat and lifted it onto the wooden platform for the strong men who would wrestle there later.
It was a great struggle, and the mat very nearly whipped the five of them.
Finished, the old man sighed. "The last time," he said.