by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With a rapidly rising economy and increasing leisure time, especially for the wealthy and the growing middle class, it was not surprising that a bicycle craze broke out in the late 19th century. In greater Los Angeles, there were many clubs and amateur and professional races that proliferated in the region and even an elevated wooden cycle causeway that was planned between Los Angeles and Pasadena, though only a portion of it from the latter to South Pasadena was completed. In time, however, as most do, the fad faded away.
Of course, bicycle riding continued for pleasure and as an alternative means of transportation in ensuing years, but it proved to be more exciting for speed jockeys and fans when the new sports of automobile and motorcycle racing developed in the early 20th century. Speedways opened up in several places, including in south Los Angeles, Culver City and the west side of Los Angeles, while many steep local hills drew thrill seekers to race up and down the slopes in front of often large crowds.
Still, there was a brief resurgency of bicycle racing in the Angel City in the first years of the Roaring Twenties and tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is a program for an event at the Los Angeles Stadium on 29 April 1921. The venue, situated at Washington and Hill street south of downtown, was outfitted with a steeply curved board track and, in fact, was frequently referred to as the “Los Angeles Bike/Bicycle Stadium.”
In February, the California Cycling Association was formed for the purpose of holding contests at the newly reconfigured facility and the Los Angeles Express, in its brief mention in its edition of the 7th, reported that the “opening meet is scheduled for Sunday, February 20” and that “more than 40 riders worked out yesterday afternoon before a large crowd of enthusiasts.”
On the 13th, the Los Angeles Times observed that an all-day qualifying trial would be held that day and “seventy-five candidates for speed honors have entered the meet and will be put through the paces under the supervision of the California Cycling Association.” There would also be a sole cyclist selected to represent the Angel City in the state championship.
The paper added that there were four classes, with the fastest comprising an “A” group and others occupying the others through the “D” cadre. Among the entrants was local champion Earl Thompson, Los Angeles Polytechnic High School’s George Vigliano, “Cyclone” Black, the best rider from Riverside County, and a couple racers with ties to the film industry, including the brother comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (whose high-flying career came to a stunning end when he was arrested later in 1921 for rape and murder, though he was acquitted after three trials) and an entrant bankrolled by film star Charles Ray (whose own career went into decline just a few years later.)
The day prior to that first race, the Los Angeles Record‘s Darsie L. Darsie (best known for a 1950 book in which golfers shared their finest moments on the course) wrote that “bike racing, leading sport of a decade and a half ago, is to be reintroduced to Los Angeles sports enthusiasts tomorrow at the opening of the Los Angeles stadium at Hill and Washington streets.”
Darsie noted that “from the large entry list it seems certain that lively brushes, close finishes and body bruising spills will feature the opening day’s program.” He added that the promoters (Ira Vail, Jake G. Griffin and Bill Pickens, officers of the Los Angeles Stadium Association, owners of the venue) “have built an elaborate track, grandstand and garden” and expected some 5,000 attendees.
On opening day, the Times noted that “Bicycle Bowl Makes a Blushing Debut Today” and journalist Harry A. Williams began his piece by observing,
“Wheels in the head,” a very common ailment some years ago, as again stricken the population on the eve of opening the new bicycle speedway at Washington and Hill streets this afternoon.
The event began at 3 p.m. with nine races, an appearance by Fred St. Onge riding the old high-wheel bicycles of days of yore and seeking to break a world record for an eighth-mile, and entries that were “the last word in bicycle skill and science” through the trick riding of Paul Gore, of whom it was said that “there has never yet been designed a metal mustang or a cast-iron cayuse that he couldn’t subjugate.”
In going over the various class-based contests, it was noted that there was, for the “D” group, a Barney Oldfield diamond medal, with Oldfield being a bicycle racer before becoming one of the most famous auto races before he retired in 1918. There was also a half-mile state championship and it was noted that the stadium was recently graced with a garden while a twelve-piece jazz orchestra was to entertain the spectators.
In fact, the Record of 3 March played up the movie industry connection to the new series, stating that cowboy star Tom Mix was “unwilling to let “Fatty” Arbuckle corner the film end of the bike racing game through having a brother with a pair of legs fast enough to clean up the bunch.” Mix decided to enter a racer “who will wear a red domino [mask] in training and in the races” and who was to remain anonymous. Cleared by the California Cycling Association, the mysterious rider was to denoted as “Mix’s Masked Marvel.”
For the meet of 20 March, the Times reported, “the million dollar-a-week stars may motor to the stadium in Rolls-Royces, dolled-up Packards and family-crested Cadillacs, but the luxurious cars will be left outside while their owners gather around the track and cheer the lowly bike.” The paper added, though, that there was a “studio championship with four star riders selected through grueling elimination contests.”
These gladiators were under the sponsorship of Ray, Douglas Fairbanks, the comedy team of Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran, and the biggest star of them all, Charles Chaplin. Notably, George Mulder of San Francisco was reported to have pled his case for reinstatement by the California Cycling Association after he “distinguished himself by taking a punch at one of the other riders three weeks ago, drawing a life suspension from the track as a consequence.
By early April, further expense was incurred as electric lights were installed and which were said, by the Record, to be such as “will enable the riders to see at night as well as they do in the day time.” The paper noted “years ago, the evening bike races used to pack the old Main Street velodrome.” The use of lights also allowed the races to be moved from Sunday afternoon to Friday evenings, but the first of the events had to be postponed a week because the night weather was such that “it was feared [it] would make it too cool for the comfort of the spectators.” The first evening races, on the 15th, drew over eighty entrants and that number was repeated for the second Friday night offering.
For the third set of races on the 29th, that number increased to near ninety riders while “two state championship races are also scheduled,” as noted by the Record. Moreover, there was “an added feature of the meet” as Al Halstead of New York sought “to lower or equal the world bicycle record for five miles” and was to be paced by a motorcycle such that he was to keep within six inches the entire way. A day or so prior, there was, as reported by the Los Angeles Express, an additional race called the Ira Vail (he was the stadium’s president) sweepstakes involved a three-mile “French Repechage” race, with quarter mile qualifying heats, and which had a pair of motorcycles pacing the riders.
In its summary, the Express reported that Halstead rode so fast, trailing the pace motorcycle which was going fifty miles per hour, “that he broke off a pedal.” Joe Palmier won the Vail sweepstakes, besting such stellar cyclists as Vigliani, Frank Testa and Santa Ana’s Gerwing brothers, George and Robert, who were also longtime motorcycle racers. Testa and Harvey Ernest fended off Red French and Floyd Schwab in an “unlimited pursuit race” in which, as the program noted, “if one rider of either team passes both opponents his team wins [the] race.”
In a match race between Gus Hakanson, known as “The Terrible Swede,” faced off against Mulder, denoted in the program as “The Scrapping Kid,” and who was reinstated by the California Cycling Association after his lifetime ban. It was a best two out of three contest and Hakanson won the first. In its report the next day, the Times, after slyly observing they entered “with chips on their shoulders and emerged with splinters in the seats of their pants,” noted that
when they came out for the second heat they jockeyed each other all over the track and finally tangled on the steep turn in a beautiful spill.
Both leaped to their feet and started swinging heavy rights and lefts, but were separated. According to Bill Pickens [who was general manager of the venue] the final heat wasn’t run because they stadium hasn’t a boxing permit, but as a matter of fact Mulder’s bike was so badly smashed that the race had to be postponed.
With respect to the program, the front cover listed the meet’s officials, including a referee who also mediated boxing matches in the Angel City, judges (including Halstead), timer, the announcer, scorers and “surgeons.” The other three panels listed the thirteen events, providing names of many of the participants and had a great many advertisements (how else could the program been provided to spectators for free?)
Naturally, all of these were from bicycle and motorcycle shops, sporting goods stores, including E.L. Parmelee, whose bicycle repair business was in Lincoln Heights, but who was also the “paddock judge,” meaning that he was responsible for inspecting all of the bikes entered in the races to make sure they adhered to standards established by the California Cycling Association; W. E. Thompson, who had a bicycle business at Main and Third streets downtown and who was a judge; Claude R. Short, manager of a motorcycle and bicycle shop at Main and 9th and who was also a judge; Pierce Arrow distributor for California and Arizona, John T. Bill, another judge; Max Fluckinger, a timer and “clerk of the course” who owned a cyclery west of downtown; and fellow timer Glenn Duvall, whose sporting goods and bicycle store was in the South Park area.
While the stadium also hosted boxing and wrestling matches, in addition to the bicycle races, the attempt by its officers and the California Cycling Association to make racing a going concern fell short and they look to have ceased by summer. Still, the program is a reminder of an earnest effort to add to greater Los Angeles’ growing roster of sports events as the Roaring Twenties was just starting to find its voice.