Once Upon A Time at Sunnyside Garden

by John Delach

Guest blog by Peter King

Recently, SNY, the N. Y. Mets sports network featured the award-winning documentary about Sunnyside Gardens, the old fight club the famous Queens arena and for many years, the home of the Golden Gloves Tournament sponsored by The Daily News. (I was given an advance viewing of the documentary and think it is terrific. Admission — I make several appearances throughout the documentary.)


Boxing and horse racing were the kings of sports in New York from the turn of the Twentieth Century until overexposure by television killed the old fight clubs. Clubs proliferated in New York City. The granddaddy of them all, St. Nicholas Arena located on West 66th Street and Columbus Avenue reigned supreme from 1896 to 1962.


Eastern Parkway Arena deemed “House of Upset” held forth in Brownsville, Brooklyn from 1947 to 1958. Located at 1435 Eastern Parkway it was the setting for a national boxing show on the DuMont Television Network from May 1952 to May 1954. Teddy Brennan, later of Madison Square Garden fame was the matchmaker who featured up and coming talent like Floyd Paterson who fought there six times during that period.


Other venues included Jamaica Arena on Archer Avenue, the Broadway (Brooklyn) Arena, 1920 to 1951and The New Ridgewood Grove on the Brooklyn / Queens border from 1926 to 1956. These venues hosted their own televised boxing nights on the DuMont Network beginning in the late 1940s. This led to over-exposure as the ever-expanding television coverage of local boxing killed the gate and doomed these arenas. By 1956 most of these arenas had ceased to exist as had the DuMont Network.

Sunnyside Garden was the last of New York’s neighborhood fight clubs. A ramshackle, weather-beaten old building which stood stolidly on Queens Boulevard between 44th and 45th Streets in the shadow of the massive concrete el that carried the elevated Flushing subway line. It was about one mile from the 59th Street Bridge, three blocks from Manufacturers Trust Bank where Willie Sutton pulled his last stickup and four blocks from St. Teresa’s Grammar School where Dominican Nuns threw left hooks that rattled kids’ heads like trash cans full of broken toys.

I lived in an apartment house on 44th Street between Skillman and 43rd Avenues about 2 1/2 blocks from Sunnyside Garden and passed it each morning on my way to school. Next to the fight club was Robert Hall’s clothing store which was always good for a cheap suit. Inside the arena the air was a perpetual thick haze filled with cigar and cigarette smoke. There was a bar just after the front door and beer sales were always heavy. Since there were only a few hundred ringside seats, most of the always boisterous crowd crammed into rickety wooden bleacher seats.
Sunnyside Garden was all real with no frills. It didn’t attract Hollywood, Broadway or political celebrities. More likely to be seen were numbers runners, bookies or nondescript ward heelers. What it did attract were tough local fighters and the occasional top ranked fighters like Hurricane Jackson and Nino Valdez or even an ex-champ like Harold Johnson. One local guy who qualified on both counts was Levittown’s Irish Bobby Cassidy who fought countless times at Sunnyside against other club fighters and went on to become a top light heavyweight contender and a member of the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame.

Sunnyside Garden held its last boxing show in June 1977. Just six months later the fabled arena was torn down to be unceremoniously replaced by a Wendy’s! Today the only indicator of what went before is a monument outside Wendy’s honoring the arena and the gladiators who fought their hearts out there.

The SNY documentary with its vintage footage and insightful interviews captures Sunnyside Garden’s proud boxing history of grit, sweat and blood — as well as the neighborhood spirit of the times. Definitely worth watching!!