DOWNTOWN — The widow of professional wrestling pioneer Baron Michele Leone, an ardent fan of the city and one of its most popular residents and flamboyant personalities, donated $100,000 to the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum, it was announced this week.
Billie Leone presented the check to the museum in her husband’s memory to help support construction of the museum’s new home. Presently located at 1539 Euclid St., the museum will soon be relocating to a permanent facility in the Santa Monica Public Library complex at Seventh Street and Santa Monica Boulevard.
“My husband moved to Santa Monica in 1949, and that began his lifelong love affair with Santa Monica,” Billie Leone said.
“He loved everything about the city, from the people to its many scenic attractions like the [Santa Monica] Pier, but he especially loved the sun, the beach and the ocean,” she added. “He was very active and physically fit, and he would go to the beach every day when he was not out of town wrestling.”
The two married in 1955.
Michele Leone, better known as The Baron, was considered a master showman, sporting long hair and a colorful cape into the ring for his matches. Thanks to the invention of television, The Baron become one of pro-wrestling’s most famous personalities, becoming better known than Gorgeous George.
“Baron Leone was extremely popular in Southern California during his career as a professional wrestler, and many Hollywood starlets and actors would attend his matches,” Billie Leone said. “He was liked by men, women and children alike — everyone he would meet. He also enjoyed greeting his fans and would always tell them to eat healthy foods and exercise.”
Michele Leone was born on June 8, 1909 in Pettorano in the province of Abruzzi, Italy, the son of a building contractor. Though his parents disapproved of it, Leone began wrestling at a very young age. He was the champion of his area by age 14, according to the Southern California Pro-Wresting Hall of Fame.
As Leone began to get better, he started to earn cash prizes and he would then reinvest some of the money in wrestling lessons. Though no records of his early European matches are known, reportedly he began to become pretty well known throughout the continent. In the 1930s Leone even traveled to South America to wrestle, but there is even less known about his time there than his European matches.
In early 1938 Leone came to New York City and almost immediately resumed his wrestling career. On May 2, 1938 Leone defeated Mike Kilonis in the opening match of a card at New York’s Hippodrome. A little more than a month later he would be in the main event.
By November 1950 Leone was already the biggest star throughout Los Angeles, and on Nov. 22, 1950 he would meet Enrique Torres for the Olympic version of the world title at the Olympic Auditorium in front of a reported 10,400. Leone was able to capture the second and third falls of the match to win the title that Torres had held for nearly four years.
On May 21, 1952 Baron Michele Leone made wrestling history when he lost the Olympic version of the world title to Lou Thesz at Gilmore Field in Los Angeles, unifying it with the National Wrestling Alliance world title. The event drew 25,256 fans, which is still to this date the second largest crowd to watch a wrestling event in Southern California history, and took $103,277.75 at the gate, pro-wrestling’s first gate of over $100,000.
In June 1952 Leone had to testify in court when Ian H. Caldwell and his wife, Mary, of West Los Angeles, filed a suit against him and Enrique Torres for $30,000. The Caldwells claimed they were injured when Leone tossed Torres from the ring at the Ocean Park Arena in Santa Monica during a match on Jan. 5, 1952. In court Leone testified, “If I could forward pass a man like Enrique, I’d quit wrestling and try for the USC football team.”
The case was eventually thrown out.
After traveling the world as a wrestler, winning several titles, Leone settled in Santa Monica, reportedly moving back to an apartment building he owned aptly called “The Baron’s Castle.” The structure, topped off by a huge dome, still stands in Ocean Park today.
“We are thrilled and honored to receive this donation from Billie Leone in her husband’s memory,” said Louise Gabriel, president and CEO of the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum. “Billie is a life member of the museum and a long-time supporter of its work to preserve Santa Monica’s rich history and culture. Her generous gift gives our Capital Campaign a tremendous boost and helps move us closer to realizing the dream of our new facility.”
The museum has reached 74 percent of its goal of raising $2 million. Other major donors have inlcluded Morley Builders, Macerich Co., Ron and Ann Funk, Bob and Louise Garbiel, Employees Community Fund of Boeing California and the Jean Nolan Trust.
Gabriel noted that the Leone donation would be used to sponsor an exhibit wall case featuring highlights from The Baron’s career in and outside the wrestling arena. Included in the display will be one of the Baron’s colorful capes.
In his later years, Baron Leone traveled frequently with Billie, and also made numerous personal appearances at sporting venues, trade shows and other events where he regaled the crowds with behind-the-scenes stories of his most famous matches and signed hundreds of autographs and photos.
Tragically, he was hit by a car while crossing the street in a crosswalk near his home in November 1988, and died nearly two weeks later from head injuries suffered during the accident. He was 79.
For more information about the museum and how to contribute, call (310) 395-2290 or visit www.santamonicahistory.org.