How a Legendary Boxing Area Became a Lens for Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — If you’ve driven the 10 freeway from Mid-City to Boyle Heights, then you’ve passed by the Grand Olympic Auditorium — you just might not have recognized it. The legendary sports arena, turned punk rock venue, is now a Korean Christian Church called the Glory Church of Jesus Christ. 

In 18th and Grand, a new documentary feature film produced by Genpop Entertainment, writer and director Stephen DeBro explores the city’s history through the lens of a venue that could only exist in Los Angeles.

The Olympic Auditorium has been memorialized in films such as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), the original Rocky (1976), and Million Dollar Baby (2004). Known as the “Madison Square Garden of the West,” the 10,000-seat venue was built in 1924 and opened a year later in anticipation of the 1932 Olympic Games. While the Olympic Auditorium sometimes hosted Hollywood stars like Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra, as well as politicians and mobsters, the venue’s biggest fans were largely Mexican American and working-class people.

Positioned on the edge of Downtown LA, the Olympic Auditorium garnered a notorious reputation and eventually the nickname “the bucket of blood.” When attendees weren’t happy with the night’s results they would shower the ring with beer and cups of urine. Knives and weapons sometimes made it inside (this was before people were searched at the door) and there were several riots. In an interview with Hyperallergic, DeBro described the auditorium as a “theater of violence.” 

Andre the Giant in the center a Battle Royal in the ring of the Olympic Auditorium (photo by Theo Ehret, courtesy Willard Ford)

In the early 1980s the Olympic Auditorium was sold to a Downtown developer and was briefly converted into a punk music venue. From 1981 until 1986, the Olympic Auditorium hosted some of the biggest hardcore shows in the world, including bands like the Dead Kennedys and Bad Religion.  

DeBro, whose fascination with the infamous venue began a decade ago, started shooting 18th and Grand, his first feature film, in 2014, after a decades-long career in the music industry. “It was clear that if I waited any longer, given the age of many of the main protagonists, I wouldn’t be able to tell the story,” DeBro told Hyperallergic. In total, 10 of the people that DeBro interviewed for the documentary passed away before being able to see the completed film on the big screen.

After raising more than $60,000 through a Kickstarter Campaign in 2015 and years of production, DeBro was eyeing a sold-out premiere at the Arclight Cinemadrome last March, but then the pandemic struck. “Considering the suffering that so many have experienced, I don’t want to complain too much,” DeBro said. “Several members of our post-production team got sick, and my mother ended up in the hospital for a month. Thankfully everyone survived. We hunkered down, tweaked and improved the film, and waited for our moment.”

On Thursday, February 25, 18th and Grand will finally have its moment. The documentary is closing out this year’s Slamdance Film Festival with a world premiere at the Vineland Drive-in Theater in the City of Industry. 

Promoter Aileen Eaton records a boxing promo at the Olympic Auditorium (1967) (photo by Jack Sheedy and George Long, courtesy Adam White)

18th and Grand centers on renowned fight promoter, Aileen Eaton. In the midst of World War II, without any prior boxing experience, Eaton took over operations at the Olympic Auditorium, when the business was unprofitable and there were hardly any women working in boxing. Despite the odds, Eaton managed to thrive in the masculine-centered world.

Eaton had a knack for marketing and a personality that reportedly intimidated promoters like Don King. In the 1960s and ’70s she became one of the most powerful fight promoters in the country and turned Los Angeles into the boxing capital, after a slump during the early 1960s. Along the way, she had a hand in turning fighters and entertainers into stars. According to the film, Eaton was the first person to make the Muhammad Ali “I Am The Greatest” pins and she convinced the boxer to pass them out. Ali fought several times at the venue during the early ’60s and referred to Eaton as “the smartest woman in the world.”

Through interviews with the matchmakers, publicists, fighters, and roller derby stars that made the Olympic, 18th and Grand chronicles the history of the world-renowned venue, from its unveiling for the 1932 Olympics and early history in segregated Los Angeles, to its slump through the early 1960s and resurgence again in the 1970s and ’80s. Backed by an exciting soundtrack from Afro/Latin funk band Jungle Fire and licensed tracks from a list of LA bands close to Angelenos hearts — including War, the Weirdos, and the Dead Kennedys — 18th and Grand will hold your attention, even if you don’t love boxing or wrestling, so long as you love Los Angeles.

As DeBro puts it, “It is the story of a city through a historic building, and the conflicts that were playing out in the city. And it is about memory — not nostalgia — but memory, and loss, and an attempt to understand what all that means.”

18th and Grand, directed by Stephen DeBro, premieres at the ArcLight Drive-In (Vineland Drive-In, 443 Vineland Avenue, City of Industry) as part of the 2021 Slamdance Film Festival on Thursday, February 25.

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