Theo Ehret, an unsung giant of sports photography in Los Angeles, has passed away.
From the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, Theo was the house photographer at the Grand Olympic Auditorium. The cavernous concrete arena did not look like much from the outside. It anchored a decidedly seedy street south of downtown L.A. But as promoter Aileen Eaton and her savvy matchmakers shaped the careers of Danny "Little Red" Lopez, Ruben Navarro, Carlos Palomino, and Mando Ramos - and with a be-tuxed Jimmy Lennon holding court as m.c. - the Olympic Aud. became a raucous punch palace that roiled to life every week.
Theo and his Rolleiflex camera chronicled every aspect of the scene: the press conferences held to announce the bouts, the fighters' training regimens at the local gyms (the Main Street Gym being the most prominent), the weigh-ins, the portraits that were used to publicize the bouts, the head-jarring action inside the ring, and the rowdy crowds that came to cheer on their favorites.
How rowdy? When fans approved of the fighters' efforts, they showered the ring with coins. Displeased, they filled cups with urine and hurled them at the participants.
Likewise, Theo covered professional wrestling at the Olympic. The combatants were larger-than-life physical freaks who alternately delighted and vexed their enormous fan-base: Andre the Giant, Killer Kowalski, Mil Mascaras, "Classy" Freddie Blassie, John Tolos, Giant Baba, Bull Ramos, The Sheik, Gordman and Goliath, Chavo Guerrero, Ernie Ladd, "Superstar" Billy Graham, Hulk Hogan, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, and many others. Ehret covered all of the promotional oddities: cage matches, midget wrestling, tag-team skirmishes, and the 20-man battle royals that inaugurated each season. (Theo and Blassie (left) - L.A.'s ultimate heel - became good pals.)
Typically, Theo's images were seen on the posters that hung in gyms around town and in the programs sold at the arena. They were sent to - and published by - local newspapers, including the Times and the Herald Examiner, as well as international sports publications. Glossy insider magazines - World Boxing, International Boxing, Inside Wrestling, The Wrestler, Wrestling Revue -- also used Ehret's photographs.
You could almost smell the liniment.
Theo and I met in 2004. I had been researching the photo collection of the Los Angeles Central Library for an exhibition I was curating, and I kept running across Theo's images in the files. Many were of the fighters in their put-up-your-dukes pose; Theo liked to call these portraits "mug shots." I included Theo's photo of Andre the Giant holding up jockey Bill Shoemaker, both men beaming, and of Aileen Eaton surrounded by a few of "her boys" in the exhibit and the companion book.
Theo and I began to meet regularly in his cozy Echo Park studio to look over his vast collection of negatives. We bonded over our dogs. He had recently suffered the loss of his beloved Chow Chow. I began to come over with our dog - she is part Chow - and Theo plied her with treats. (Disclosure: I worked with Theo to publish a book of his boxing and wrestling images - unsuccessfully, thus far.)
We talked a lot about his past and how he came to be in Los Angeles. Theo was born in Mannheim, Germany, on July 7, 1920. He was drafted into the German Navy; he lost a finger during World War II and spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy.
In the early 1950s, after working in the motor pool for the U.S. Army, Theo and his wife, Elsbeth, came to America. They arrived in South Dakota, took one frigid look around, and fled to Los Angeles. They had nothing. Theo worked doing auto repairs until he could afford to purchase a large format camera. He found work for a PR firm, shooting for commercial clients.
Finally, in 1963, he set up his own photography studio in Echo Park, on Sunset Boulevard, just down the street from the newly-opened Dodger Stadium. Among his first clients was Aileen Eaton, the public face of the Grand Olympic.
In the days before The Forum began to host fight cards, the Olympic Aud. was in its heyday. Eaton and Co. regularly promoted local Latino fighters to boost attendance. They also brought legends to fight in L.A.: Roberto Duran, Sonny Liston, Alexis Arguello, Emile Griffith, Marvin Hagler. Celebs like Ryan O'Neal and Burt Reynolds, who used to own pieces of fighters, hung out there.
Here's how journalist Richard Meltzer described the scene in the pages of the L.A. Weekly:
As so often happens at the Olympic what loomed as a sure-fire theatre-of-cruelty performance has turned out (thru its inability to deliver even that idealized form) to be something wholly other, maybe Pirandello by way of Bukowski, maybe pre-aesthetic ghetto street theater, maybe Fat City as bumbling improv (maybe something else). But no matter how you look at it, this is the thee-ate-er bargain of this or any year. Mark Taper Forum and all the Equity waiver pits can go take a flying dump. First round to last something excruciatingly real is unearthed re the frailties of human endeavor, a real authentic gusher that, locally, only this dungeon of sweat & poverty can automatically deliver, week in/week out. Oceans of concrete mystery too, like who knows if maybe [boxer Roberto] Torres is reluctant to engage in combat because he once killed somebody with his lethal straight right to the adam's ap? I mean, who the heck knows? So I'm tellin' you right now (unsolicited testimonial time): if you don't come and catch at least a week of this before they tear the place down and turn it into a shopping mall you ain't got culture that adds up to diddle.
Theo shot boxing and wrestling until the early 1980s. By then, Eaton had been forced out at the Olympic. Meltzer's prediction of the Olympic's future almost came true. Today, the Olympic is home to a Korean-American church.
Theo liked to say that he wasn't a huge fan of boxing or wrestling, that shooting at the Olympic was just another gig. That was part of his inherent modesty. His immense body of work compares favorably with the likes of Charles Hoff, the longtime New York Daily News photojournalist who shot boxing during the 1940s and 1950s.
Others agreed. In 2001, publisher Benedikt Taschen produced Exquisite Mayhem, a coffee-table book of Theo's wrestling images (alongside myriad lewd "girlie wrestling" photos that Ehret shot for the glossies.) Later, Taschen used several of Theo's images for G.O.A.T., its tome about Muhammad Ali. And, the late Michael Kelly included Theo's work in "Street Credibility," an exhibition Kelly curated at MoCA in 2004.
Earlier this year, just before he passed away, I accompanied Theo to a Pro Wrestling Reunion event organized by Dr. Mike Lano. Theo drove us to an LAX-area hotel in his spiffy BMW, and we mingled with wrestlers Jack Armstrong, Mando Guerrero, The Destroyer, and Superstar Billy Graham; former Olympic publicist Jeff Walton; and "Judo Gene" LeBell, Aileen Eaton's son (and a fierce fighter himself).
For the occasion, Theo brought along a DVD of his work. For the next half-hour, his black-and-white images transfixed the crowd. Every time a new face appeared on the screen, people started yelling and cheering. Several approached Theo with their copies of Exquisite Mayhem to get his autograph. He was the rock star in the room.
Afterwards, we had lunch and talked for a long time. Then, he drove us home. Once we hit the carpool lane on the freeway, his was easily the fastest car on the road.
Theo Ehret was 91. I miss him, and his generous soul, very much.
David Davis is the author of Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze, Marathon Crasher: The Life and Times of Merry Lepper, the First American Woman to Run a Marathon and Play by Play: Los Angeles Sports Photography 1889-1989. He is a contributing writer at Los Angeles Magazine and his writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the online Wall Street Journal.