Slamdance film tells the story of Los Angeles through famed Olympic Auditorium
Documentary showcases legendary venue
The Slamdance Film Festival closes this year with “18th and Grand: The Olympic Auditorium Story,” a documentary about the Olympic Auditorium, an iconic venue located in the heart of Los Angeles.
Since the City of Angels itself is ground zero for the film industry, it’s fitting the Olympic Auditorium’s history is filled with action-packed scene changes throughout the years that follow cultural heydays of boxing, wrestling, roller derby, punk rock, music videos and salvation, which came to the venue in 2005 in the form of the Glory Church of Christ, said filmmaker Stephen DeBro.
“This shows the versatility of the building, but the commonality of the auditorium is that it is a place of intense experiences,” he said. “There was something in the concrete, the mojo of that place that resonated. The fact that it’s a church now is interesting, because the building, in many ways, is the same. In the center where people speak to Jesus is where the ring was where people bled. That’s an interesting vortex, but it’s still a place of communion, whatever it is being used for.”
DeBro conceived the idea to film a documentary based on the Olympic Auditorium in the mid 2010s, when a friend introduced him to some photographs taken by house photographer Theo Ehret, who passed away in 2012.
“They were boxing and wrestling photos that I thought were so amazing,” DeBro said. “I’m a native of Los Angeles, and the Olympic was always on TV when I was growing up, but these photos really sparked my imagination.”
DeBro decided to dig into the venue’s history and discovered the story of Aileen Eaton, the woman who ran the Olympic Auditorium from 1942 to 1980.
During her tenure, Eaton, who passed away in 1987, saw more than 10,000 fights and produced more than 100 world championship matches, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“To think a woman running any major business during mid-century America is amazing,” DeBro said. “She was the CEO of the place, but so much more. For years, she was the only woman in the Boxing Hall of Fame.”
While the documentary could easily have been about Eaton’s life, DeBro wanted it to be something more.
“I wanted to focus on the Olympic’s touchstone moments in history, because I saw it as a historic mirror to the city,” he said. “That’s what got me interested, and I found it so absorbing.”
The documentary recaps the 1932 Olympics where the auditorium served as a venue for boxing, wrestling and weightlifting, and then hones in on the Mexican-American empowerment movement in the 1940s, which is reflected in the boxing matches of that time, according to DeBro.
“In terms of the demographics of the Olympic, a large portion of the fighters and fans were Mexican American or Mexican,” he said.
To ensure the documentary would be representative, DeBro sought out and interviewed those who were there, including fighters Julio Cesar Chavez, Lupe Pintor and Carlos Palomino.
“I wanted to make sure I didn’t fall into the trap to just include a limited set of voices who weren’t representative of the reality of the place, so we have a broad group of people including Mexican American historians and fighters who could give their perspective,” DeBro said. “We wanted to make sure we gave a picture that was broad enough for the city.”
The film also includes interviews from other Olympic Auditorium movers, shakers and fans including Eaton’s son Gene LeBell, actress Mamie Van Doren, sportscaster Dick Enberg, ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. and John Doe of the punk band X, to name a few.
“When I was making the film, I was cognizant that it was not my story,” DeBro said. “This was the story of the people who loved it, performed in it, bled in it. I wanted to make the voices representative of that. I looked at it as an oral history project. I was interviewing them to get their stories as historic records.”
DeBro began principal photography in 2014, with LeBelle.
“Gene was the first interview I did, and I cold-called him for it,” the filmmaker said. “It took me a second to win him over, but once I did, he was incredibly generous in connecting me with other people including Dick Enberg.”
During each interview, DeBro saw everyone’s emotional connection to the place, whether it was through boxing, music or wrestling.
“It became clear that this was more than an arena to them,” he said. “It was a community gathering place, and the fact that it was Los Angeles, the center of the media universe, meant it’s reach was amplified throughout the world.”
Many of the boxers who fought in the ring became world champions. Many wrestlers, including Andre the Giant, became household names due to careers that launched at the auditorium. The punk-rock scene also hosted some of the biggest indoor shows by Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, T.S.O.L. and the Dead Kennedys at the venue during the late 1970s and early 1980s, DeBro said.
The list of movies filmed in the auditorium include “The Manchurian Candidate,” the first three installments of the “Rocky” franchise, “The Champ,” “Raging Bull” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” among others, and bands such as Kiss, Bon Jovi and Janet Jackson filmed their music videos and concerts there.
Once people found out DeBro was making a film about the auditorium, people began sending him archival materials that include original glass negatives of boxers from the 1920s, celluloid negatives and Super 8 films.
“We’re still contacted by people who are coming forward with their own material,” he said.
While working on the film, DeBro was a little taken aback that no one had made a documentary about the Olympic Auditorium before he did.
“I don’t know why other people haven’t thought of doing this before, but it seemed clear to me it would be a great documentary possibility,” he said. “The hardest part was to make it live up to what I know it could be.”
After roughly four years of interviews, DeBro faced the challenge of creating a film that ran no more than 90 minutes.
“That was a very intense challenge, because this could have been a documentary series,” he said. “That was a thought, but at the same time, as a first-time filmmaker it would have been hard to pitch a doc series that was on this building. I knew I had the material to do that, but it wasn’t feasible.”
In addition, DeBro wanted the film to take audiences on a journey that had momentum and a story arc, but also give fans what they wanted.
“So myself and my assistant editor (Shane McLafferty), who is a story person, dug in to crafting and sculpting the story,” DeBro said. “When you went into the Olympics, you felt as if you were entering a world into itself, and I wanted the film to be a world into itself as a cohesive experience. It’s been a bear to put this together, but it’s been a labor of love. And here we are.”
Where: Slamdance Film Festival
When: Through Feb. 25
Cost: Festival passes are $10
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