As a young sports reporter for the Newark
Ledger/Star-Ledger in the late 1930s, my first professional sports
assignment on an ongoing basis was the Thursday night wrestling
bouts from October to May at the Laurel Garden sports arena at 457
Springfield Avenue, near the intersection of 18th Avenue and South
The weekly wrestling program, while out of favor in New York City,
was still wildly popular in Newark and attracted a loyal following
to the Springfield Avenue arena for the weekly mayhem, orchestrated
by Polish born Jack Pfefer, who 'owned' and programmed the weekly
shows in a number of metropolitan New York area cites, among them
Newark, Paterson, Teaneck, and Jersey City.
My assignment came from Ledger sports editor Joe Donovan, and
I dealt with each week's happenings as I would with any other regular
Little did I know then that there was a family connection between
Donovan and Willie Gilzenberg, operator of Laurel Garden, and that
I'd most likely been given the assignment as a compromise between
ignoring the matches entirely and wasting the talents of a senior
About the year that I began wrestling coverage for the Ledger,
wrestling was under a great deal of cynicism from both the public
and the press after an expose of wrestling's fakery had appeared
in the New York Daily Mirror. That year also, Madison Square Garden
had dropped professional wrestling entirely as a result of the bad
publicity from that expose.
I recall, after the Laurel Garden matches, taking a No. 25 Springfield
bus down to the Ledger office, writing my story, and later billing
the Ledger 10 cents on my weekly expense voucher for "Laurel
Garden Wrestling", five cents for the bus each way.
Who were some of the wrestlers who performed at Laurel Garden
from Jack Pfefer's 'stable'? Names I recall after more than 60 years
include the five wrestling Dusek brother, Wally, Ernie, Emil, Joe,
and Rudy. I also remember Maurice LaChavalle, "The Swedish
Angel" and "The Golden Angel."
Many of Pfeffer's wrestlers were European 'imports' - Poles, Russians,
and Ukrainians, whom he built up as contenders against popular American
names, sometimes former 'name' athletes. Pfefer's wrestlers with
Eastern-European ties would attract a wide following in the foreign-language
press and it helped to ensure good attendance at their wrestling
Ring Magazine had written at that time that these matches were,
after all, only exhibitions, and that there could be no kick from
the fans because they knew what to expect and got what they came
to see - good entertainment.
Whatever the Laurel Garden wrestling matches were, the Laurel
Garden management expected the press to deal with them as sports
events. I remember after I returned from a night's coverage at Laurel
Garden, as I typed my story for the next day's Ledger, I saw, peering
over my shoulder, one Carmine Bilotti, the Laurel Garden publicist.
Apparently he must have been satisfied with what I was typing because
he made no comments or suggestions.
All of the wrestling matches I covered at Laurel Garden, and,
I understand, all that followed, were refereed by one Hymie Kugel.
I never focused my attention on Kugel as he performed his labors,
but one former Laurel Garden regular who did recalled for me that
the burly referee was "one tough cookie."
To the best of my recollection, the last wrestling show I covered
at Laurel Garden was on Thursday night, December 4, 1941 - less
than 2 full days before the infamous Pearl Harbor attack that started
World War II.
One year later, on that same date, I was in uniform, rifle resting
against my shoulder, and marching in formation down the boardwalk
in Atlantic City with other Army Air Force recruits, my basic training
having been completed that day at nearby Brigantine Field.
Willie Gilzenberg, the Laurel Garden wrestling promoter, and later
manager of the boxing career of "Two-Ton" Tony Galento
, died in 1978 at the age of 79.
Laurel Garden is no more. Its life as a sports arena ended May
30, 19531, just
before the building was demolished. But for former Newarkers who
witnessed the matches at one time or another at Laurel Garden, or
perhaps my write-ups of the Laurel Garden grapplers as I described
them in the Ledger sports pages, this recollection may evoke some
Some Laurel Garden Boxing History
Long before I involved with reporting the wrestling shows at Laurel
Garden, the wood-framed building on Springfield Avenue had been
famous since the 1920s as a boxing arena2.
Some of the biggest names in boxing's history had seen action in
the Laurel Garden boxing ring.
Among them was Mickey Walker, Tony Canzonieri, Harry Greb, Billy
Petrelle, Joe and Vince Dundee, and Young Bob Fitzsimmons.
Louis Firpo's first two American fights were there; also Max Schmeling.
And heavyweight James J. Braddock knocked out George Gemus in a
Laurel Garden slugfest in 1929.
Site of Galento's First 'Pro' Fight
Tony Galento, in January 1929, just two months shy of his 19th
birthday, went to Laurel Garden with a friend to watch the fights.
When one of the main event bout fighters failed to show up, Galento
substituted for him at the last minute, and won his first 'pro'
bout with a third-round knockout.
A little over ten years later, in June 1939, Galento missed winning
the world heavyweight championship by a few seconds. In the third
round of a 15-round title go with the great Joe Louis, Galento connected
with a left hook and had the champ down for a nine count.
Lou Halper's Start at Laurel Garden
My old Third Ward friend, Lou Halper, got his start as a boxer
there, too. He first started by hawking morning papers outside Laurel
Garden on boxing nights. Later he came inside as a fighter when
exiting boxers told him he could make more money in the Laurel Garden
ring than outside selling papers.
Lou Halper worked his way from the Laurel Garden ring up to a
non-title bout with world champion Barney Ross.
On June 10, 1957, when I staged a "This is Your Life, Lou
Halper" at Hillside B'nai B'rith, I had the thrill of introducing
Barney Ross as one of Halper's surprise guests. Another surprise
guest I introduced that night was Tony Galento.
Laurel Garden Ownership and Management
Laurel Garden had originally been operated as a German beer garden
and show-house for German films. However, sometime in the 1920s,
it was purchased by real-estate wheeler-dealer Charlie Zemel, the
Newark-born son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, whose formal education
ended when he was expelled from the sixth grade in a school in Newark's
Ironbound section. He employed Willie Gilzenberg to manage and operate
the arena's boxing and wrestling programs -- wrestling on Thursdays,
and boxing on Mondays.
On nights when there was no boxing or wrestling, from 1929 to
1933, Laurel Garden was operated by the building owner as a roller
skating rink. Skating was a popular social activity for young people
in that era and the rink attracted huge crowds, charging only a
modest fee for an evening of skating and socializing.
The building owner's teenage daughter, Blanche (now Mrs. Blanche
Herberg), the third oldest of his eight children, worked the refreshment
concession during the skating sessions.
Zemel's ownership of Laurel Garden continued until his death in
1980 at the age of 104 ½, in Miami. At the time of his death,
Zemel had owned hundreds of Newark properties in addition to Laurel
Garden, including more than 1,000 rental units, the Newark Armory,
and three theatres near Newark's Penn Station.