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In L.A., He Was King of the Ring

Sporting Los Angeles in the 1930s was home to racing dogs, floating crap games and a unique display of machismo called professional wrestling.

Each week, all over the city, brawny men with odd nicknames entered the ring to battle opponents with whom they had rehearsed a few days earlier. Fans--encouraged by splashy stories and pictures displayed in the local press (whose journalists were often on the promoters’ payrolls)--bet wildly and illicitly on their favorites.

In the midst of this tarnished glamour stood Lou Daro, “Carnation Lou,” a robust wrestling promoter who had once been a circus strongman but soon was keeping fit by lifting the sacks of cash that came his way. Even years after he left the circus, he often boasted that he had the greatest chest expansion of any man alive.

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Until World War I, professional wrestling here was as legitimate as Wall Street, and almost as dull. Then Lou Daro arrived in L.A.

Daro had a show business flair and a booming, German-accented voice that rumbled across the Grand Olympic Auditorium, which opened in 1925. He was an imposing figure in his costly suits with his trademark red carnation in the lapel.

Born in Austria in 1887, he ran away from home at the age of 10, joining a flying trapeze act with the Barnum & Bailey circus. Daro never went to school, but in his world travels he learned to speak eight languages.

While still a young man, he traded in his circus costume to be billed as the “strongest man in the world” at the New York Hippodrome and Madison Square Garden. There, at matinees and evening performances, an automobile loaded with passengers would slowly roll across his chest.

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In the early 1920s, in what would be his last professional test of strength, he fought a tug of war with eight harnessed Clydesdales. One reared up in fright, and the injuries put Daro in a body cast.

He took what money he had and headed for Los Angeles with his brother, Jack.

The wrestling impresarios’ road to fame began in 1924, when they advertised instant cash to “anyone who can stay two minutes or three rounds with the Strangler"--Ed “Strangler” Lewis, one of the colorful figures whom Daro managed.

To guarantee a crowd, Daro gave away 50,000 free passes for a match in the downtown Philharmonic Auditorium, which seated 5,000. As thousands pounded on the doors, Daro--to his delight--was arrested for inciting a riot, giving him publicity that led to a fortune.

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The bouts used the basic choreography of today’s “performance” matches. Among the wrestlers Daro signed were heavyweights “Man Mountain” Dean and Jim Londos, known as the “Golden Greek,” who smeared his body with olive oil.

After a decade of 433 wild, staged, overcrowded exhibitions and occasional riots at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, Daro’s savvy showmanship had brought in more than $6 million in box office receipts.

Despite his millions, it was a $249 car repair bill--unpaid for almost 10 years, since Daro’s first impoverished days in Los Angeles--that helped bring him down.

The auto mechanic, Leo Focher, showed up at the Olympic on July 10, 1935, to collect. Daro said he was too busy, and when Focher persisted, shouting at Daro, a Daro crony yelled, “It’s a stickup!”

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Focher ran to his car and when police arrived, Daro ordered, “Get that car!” A few blocks away, they stopped Focher’s car and as Focher leaped out, one officer shot him in the leg; another shot him through the heart.

It was ruled justifiable homicide. But to clear Focher’s name, his widow gave the bloodstained bill, which had been pierced by a bullet, to a reporter.

The reporter sent it to Daro and said he would clear Focher’s name without mentioning the bill if Daro put $25,000 in a trust fund for Focher’s family. Begrudgingly, Daro did.

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The Daro brothers’ career as fight promoters ended in 1939 after a special state investigating committee found that the “wrestling czars of California” had an illegal monopoly and had paid more than $200,000 over four years to sportswriters, radio announcers, politicians and public relations firms for their “good will, advice and entertainment.”

Daro kept going for a time, but lawsuits and poor health eventually caught up with him, and in 1958, he died at the age of 71. He was buried with his signature carnation in his lapel.


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