Everyone has an Olympic Auditorium story, from watching a championship boxing match to cheering on the Mexican masked wrestlers to slam dancing at a punk rock show. For nearly 80 years (1925 – 2005), L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium was a focal point for sports and culture in Los Angeles, serving as the home for visceral entertainment and competition. For the multitudes of Angelenos who entered the massive arena or watched a bout on their living room television screens, the Olympic conjures memories of courage, drama, and communal raucousness.
On August 11, 2023, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes will open 18th & Grand: The Olympic Auditorium, an immersive, multimedia exhibition that will encompass both floors of the downtown museum, remembering characters of a disappearing world and connecting the venue to seminal events and cultural movements throughout L.A. history. The exhibition is co-curated by filmmaker Stephen DeBro, Latino boxing historian Gene Aguilera and LA Plaza curators Karen Crews Hendon and Esperanza Sanchez.
Gathered from multiple collections, including the Theo Ehret Estate, The Bob Willoughby Photo Archive, Jaime Hernández, Frank Aragon, Gary Powers Glenn Bray, and others, the exhibit will feature distinctive objects and relics, including embroidered boxing robes, hand-stitched lucha masks, race-worn roller skates, art, illustration, photography, film, oral histories, boxing posters, wrestling programs, punk rock flyers and much more.
Leticia Buckley, LA Plaza’s CEO recalls, “My dad, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the 50s, recalls fondly the many nights he spent at the Olympic Auditorium. He loves to rattle off the names of boxing greats he was lucky to witness live. Jump forward 40 years, and I’m standing in the parking lot of The Olympic, watching Rage Against the Machine attempt to dismantle a system with a drum beat and a guitar lick.” Buckley continues, “I look forward to hearing from fellow Angelenos about how The Olympic rocked their world, too! I’m thrilled that LA Plaza is the home for the world premiere of this monumental exhibit.”
“Growing up in L.A., the Olympic made an indelible imprint on my childhood memories,” states Steve DeBro, filmmaker, 18th & Grand: The Olympic Auditorium Story. “The T-Birds coming back to win on the final jam, Freddie Blassie’s outrageous trash-talk, Jimmy Lennon’s musical voice, the gallantry of Danny ‘Little Red’ Lopez and the early ‘80s punk rock shows feel ingrained in my DNA. When making my documentary about the Olympic years later, I realized that it wasn’t just spectacle, but a mirror on the city’s history, its vibrant subcultures, and unique characters. It still has a lot to teach us about who we are, and how we got here.”
Gene Aguilera, Latino boxing historian and author, shares, “The Olympic was known as boxing’s epicenter, and from its opening in 1925 to its last fight in 2005, most boxers and their fans were of Mexican and Mexican-American origin. It became the rite of passage for many Mexican boxers to cross the border, make Los Angeles their home, and become a world champion for their burgeoning and devoted Latino public.” Aguilera continues, “I invite everyone to revel in this once in a lifetime presentation of all the important stories and artifacts of the glory days of the venerable ‘Theater of the Violent.’ Los Angeles, this is for you!”
“The Olympic Auditorium was a place that broke rules, transcended social norms, and generated thrilling excitement that energized the public and catalyzed cultural connection,” says Karen Crews Hendon, LA Plaza’s Director of Exhibitions and Senior Curator. “The Olympic was a maker of new heroes, where Black, Brown, and Asian athletes conquered the ring with comradery and competition, championing roles of identity and representation in L.A. that crossed borders and brought people together regardless of their differences.”
“The Olympic Auditorium was a space where social movements manifested in political and civil rights rallies,” adds Esperanza Sanchez, LA Plaza’s Associate Curator. “These gatherings reflect the intersectional stories and histories of diverse communities in Los Angeles. Today, the site remains an important hub for Korean Christians and a community of worshipers attending services and events at the Glory Church of Jesus Christ.”
A series of programs in conjunction with the exhibition is in the works, including an Opening Celebration on Sunday, August 20 featuring family-friendly activities from 12 to 5 pm and KCRW Summer Nights with Jungle Fire from 6 to 10; an afternoon of roller derby memories; a night of lucha libre; the screening of the 18th and Grand: The Olympic Auditorium Story documentary, a series of pláticas / panel discussions featuring boxing, wrestling and roller derby legends; and much more.
The exhibition runs through May 12, 2024.
For more info about the documentary 18th & Grand: The Olympic Auditorium Story visit: www.18thandgrand.com
Theo Ehret (1920-2012), Ruben Navarro and Ray Adigun, July 25, 1968, Black and white photograph, Courtesy of Theo Ehret Estate ©Theo Ehret Estate. Used with permission, all rights reserved
Theo Ehret (1920-2012), Mil Máscaras and Ernie Ladd at the Olympic Auditorium, c.1970s, Black and white photograph, Courtesy of Theo Ehret Estate, Theo Ehret Estate. Used with permission, all rights reserved