Aileen Eaton, the grand dame of Southern California boxing for nearly half a century as a promoter at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles and later a member of the State Athletic Commission, died Saturday night at Century City Hospital after a series of illnesses dating to 1968. She was 78.
After recovering from a case of pemphigus--a rare disease that put her in a coma for a week and left her unable to walk for months--almost two decades ago, Eaton was hospitalized with bronchial pneumonia in 1973, underwent a quadruple heart bypass in 1980 and suffered a near-fatal stroke about four years ago.
“If I needed a mother she was there, and if I needed a business adviser she was there,” Gene LeBell said shortly before her death. “What can you say? She’s my mother.”
Despite poor health, the strong-willed, hard-working promoter remained a dominant figure in boxing until 1985, when her three-year term as a commissioner expired and she was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame.
While still active at the downtown arena, where she promoted weekly shows for 38 years, from 1942-1980, she once estimated she had seen more than 10,000 professional fights and staged more than 100 world championship matches.
When the 10,000-seat Olympic proved too small, Eaton took the shows elsewhere, including such sites as the Coliseum and Dodger Stadium, where in 1963 she promoted an unprecedented three title bouts on the same card.
Even in retirement, when she found more time for playing cards--she was an expert at pinochle--her passion for the sport never diminished.
“I don’t think there was a night we didn’t talk on the phone two or three times about boxing,” said promoter Don Chargin, who served as Olympic matchmaker for 18 years.
“Since she got out of boxing, nobody has really tried to develop talent the way she did. There’s been nobody like her, and I don’t think there ever will be.”
Born in Vancouver, Canada, one of three children, Aileen and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was a teen-ager. She graduated from Los Angeles High School and shortly thereafter married Martin LeBell, an osteopath.
Eager for a career, she studied law for two years at Southwestern Law School, but quit when one of her sons became ill. Her husband died in 1941, after a swimming accident, and she went back to work.
While employed as a private secretary for Frank A. Garbutt, president of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which owned the Olympic, the ambitious young woman was sent to the boxing and wrestling arena to determine why the club was losing money and not paying its bills.
She quickly discovered irregularities in the bookkeeping and recommended the hiring of Alvah (Cal) Eaton, a boxing commission inspector, as the new promoter. She also became instantly captivated by a sport to which she had never been exposed.
Six years later, after Eaton had divorced his first wife, they were married.
Although the weekly boxing cards were labeled “Cal Eaton promotions,” it was Aileen who clearly was in charge of every detail. When he died, in 1966, she made it official.
Sportscaster Jim Healy, who announced the Olympic’s Thursday-night television cards from 1970-78, recalled the on-camera interviews he conducted with young boxers who were under Eaton’s thumb.
“You’ve heard of questions being written beforehand,” he said. “Well, she used to write the answers . I had copies of the scripts, and I would devise questions to fit. These poor boxers would try to memorize the answers before we went on, and they were petrified. That’s how scared of her they were.”
Wrote Times columnist Jim Murray in a 1980 tribute to her fighting spirit after she had undergone heart surgery: “Red-haired, blue-eyed, pound for pound she was as tough as any welterweight who ever came down the aisle.”
Concerned about a title match scheduled that weekend, Eaton had phoned the Olympic from the UCLA Medical Center’s intensive-care unit two days after her operation. She was listed in serious condition.
“Listen!” Murray quoted her as saying, “are all the tear sheets out? Why don’t we get more publicity in the papers? We got two champions and an unbeaten fighter on the card! Count the advance and call me back in an hour. And whatever you do, don’t give the fighters an advance!”
Veteran promoter-manager Harry Kabakoff, once asked to describe Eaton during her prime, replied:
“One afternoon you can find her with five hardened managers, screaming, yelling, talking man-talk. Then two hours later she’s having cocktails at the governor’s mansion--all charm.”
Besides her two sons, Eaton leaves three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
The funeral will be Wednesday at 1 p.m. at Pierce Brothers Mortuary in Hollywood.