The writing on (and off) the wall: Ain’t it grand how the Olympic Auditorium can find its audience again

Tom Hoffarth / FartherOffTheWall.com

Back in the day, when a boxer had a particularly successful night at The Grand Olympic Auditorium, celebrants in the crowd of some 10,000 tossed coins into the ring.

The opposite could also occur.

When a referee’s decision went against someone – most likely a favorite kid who lived in the neighborhood – watch your head. Chairs could be ripped off their mourning. Cups full of beer went airborne like lobbed grenades.

That was beer? Maybe at one point …

You’re in for a treat – with no threat of urine projectiles – whenever the opportunity comes to experience the new documentary “18th & Grand: The Olympic Auditorium Story.

Orange County adjacent on Saturday night is the next stop, a place for history and nostalgia converging into some humorous hysteria. Fight your way through traffic, wrestle for a parking spot and skate over to the Regal Irvine Spectrum. It’s just a couple of sawbucks at the box office (or these days, online pre-paid codes for your phone) to feel a connection to this landmark.

This isn’t a true “Rocky Horror Picture Show”-type of experience, but there is a time warp happening. That’s on purpose. Writer/director/producer Steve DeBro says his 83-minute documentary is meant to whet the appetite — and be seen in a theater rather than your laptop or home TV screen. Communal bonding works on many levels.

Seeing it with viewers who rock to the music, roll with the punches and can recite their shared experiences of this den of dust and dirt, grime and crime figures, Hollywood elite and the common man of the neighborhood just looking to release some energy.

“I tried to make it where you’re carried on a journey that’s almost disorientating, and it should feel like you’re in the Olympic — energetic, fast moving, something that takes you out of yourself,” said DeBro. “That’s why in a theater is the best way you don’t get distracted.”

The screening may be just a one-off event, promoted by boxing matchmaker Roy Englebrecht and his Fight Club OC company, but it doesn’t minimize its journey to this point — and may even confirm the reach it can have beyond its L.A.-based audience. Englebrecht has seen the flick several times and wanted to see if he could generate an audience for it in his neck of the woods.

As some who’ve already seen it live, like Englebrecht, there are repeat customers following these showings.

“The Olympic really had a following from Central California to the Mexican border, and attracted champion boxers like Carols Palomino (born in Mexico and growing up in Westminster),” said DeBro, who could be among the special guests at this O.C. event. “I’m just grateful to them to get the word out and grateful, eager for more to see it, because I think when they see it, the word spreads and spreads.

“We’re thrilled to be able to work with Roy and his team to have the film screened in Orange County. So many great fighters and fans would make the drive from the O.C. to downtown to the fights — this time they won’t have to travel so far to see the action. They’re in for a great night.”

With stops and starts because of COVID infiltration, the doc is back in business and can ramp back up an anticipation we first had when a 2016 piece in the Los Angeles Times gave many of us the promise to revisit a place that has fallen not into disrepair, but more off the radar. That was a year after a Kickstarter campaign launched to get funding for a film that was finally ready for official release in 2021.

The old place can use a new narrative. The one it has now makes it look like it’s doomed to disappear.

In one of grittiest parts of town, some signs try to show the old Olympic still exists. It really doesn’t. It’s a mirage.

The warehouse-like building that today houses a Korean church on weekends and homeless encampments the rest of the time, looking down at it while whizzing past it off the 10 Freeway likely doesn’t resonate for anyone under 40 years old, lest they attended one of the punk rock events trying to prove that it had an indestructible nature. A few more boxing cards took place during its short revival period of the early 2000s, but eventually, it kind of went into its own coma.

The lighting trellis that once hovered above the smoke-filled boxing and wrestling ring and commanded the Roller Derby matches of the L.A. Thunderbirds is now providing illumination over a church’s altar. That’s where we are at this point. It isn’t designated a state historic or cultural landmark – yet – so there’s a chance it could become a teardown upon the current landlord’s wishes, if he sees the property worth far more than the structure.

The film can re-energize a revival of what shape up up as a multi-platform, multi-media experience. It uses a home base with a magnificent website, and links to a collection of videos on its YouTube.com channel, all channeling a neat merchandise store. Thanks, and yes, we’ve already got the “RI.9-5171” T-shirt. It was one of two phone numbers we had memorized as a 4-year-old watching Roller Derby at our grandparents house on Manchester and Vermont (the other was their number: PL.1-8096). No area code necessary for those Richmond and Plaza rotary dial prefixes.

There is a strong social media presence on Twitter, Instagram, and and Facebook. If only Aileen Eaton had access to this stuff decades ago when she ran the place from near collapse at its original incarnation to its own house of worship until her passing in the late ’80s and was then inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

DeBro, the mastermind of this whole adventure through his GenPop Entertainment company, thought he had its first debut in March 2020, a premier set to go at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. COVID canceled it, with more than 600 tickets sold and sure to be a sellout, along with a live music event.

In the midst of pandemic recovery, it poked its head out at a drive-in – the closing event at the Slamdance Film Festival in February, 2021, at the City of Industry’s Vineland Drive-in. Last March, it made its indoor screening debut with a three-day run at Laemmle’s across L.A., with special appearances at the theatre’s Royal, Noho and Pasadena Playhouse locations. It has been part of the last March’s San Diego Latino Film Festival and the recent Bushwick Film Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y.

And now, this in the O.C.

In the future: The release of a Blue-Ray, a local TV airing, and the anticipation of an exhibit at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes on Main Street in downtown in L.A. near Union Station, set for the summer of 2023. There is expected to be a book project with this as well featuring the art of photographer Theo Ehret, who recorded 20 years of its history as the staff photographer.

His passing in 2012 — 10 years ago — reminds us that nearly a dozen people interviewed on screen for “18th And Grand” are also gone – Gene LeBell, Don Chargin, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Dick Enberg among them.

The presence of LeBell’s mother, Eaton, is a driving force not just in this documentary, but could have one done on her all to herself. At least this is there to capture what she did and how she did it. Without her, it’s likely there is no Olympic Audition, which almost collapsed under its own bankruptcy a couple years after its 1925 opening, staying around to host boxing and wrestling in the 1932 Summer Olympics in L.A.

It was supposed to be L.A.’s answer to New York’s Madison Square Garden. It instead tells the history of the city perhaps like no other venue still around – like the L.A. Coliseum or Pasadena Rose Bowl, each in their 100th anniversary mode.

Our vision of the Olympic, even in its present demoralizing form, is somewhat ethereal as it is surreal. The iconic mosaic of Jack Dempsey above the main entrance wasn’t just painted over, but sandblasted away forever. The place just keeps morphing away like a photograph of Marty McFly’s family in “Back To The Future.”

The Olympic’s history, with Dick Lane’s voice resonating in our heads, takes us back to a place thanks to this doc’s brilliance. It’s non-stop entertainment because of all the music DeBro, a former Atlantic Records exec, invested in its storytelling.

Just realize the Olympic Auditorium exists precariously these days, almost in perpetual purgatory. Perhaps like the Forum in Inglewood, it could get off the mat and make some sort of legitimate, reasonable comeback. Maybe even as a part of the 2028 Olympics back in L.A.?

It also could be bracing to be put it out of its misery like so many other L.A. historic sports venues.

Say it ain’t so, “Classy” Freddie Blassie.

If not now, then catch “18th & Grand” as soon as more opportunities arise. A Saturday meet up among friends in the O.C. is as a good as any place to reconnect. Prepare to cheer, and cheer up, again.

Urine may be discouraged, but if we saw a few coins tossed at the screen afterward, we’d probably smile.

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