Former world champion Jim Jeffries' Barn in Burbank was a hit with Hollywood celebrities and other fans of the sport. By Cecilia Rasmussen, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer February 10, 2008 Before pro football came and went, before the Dodgers and Lakers left their hometowns to come here, boxing was the heart of the Los Angeles sporting world. From the early 1930s until the late 1940s, Jim Jeffries' Barn in Burbank drew boxing fans by the hundreds. Although it wasn't nearly as big as the 8,000-seat Olympic Auditorium, L.A.'s other storied boxing mecca, the musty pugilistic monument was as busy as it was beloved. Nearly every Thursday night, the hulking brick-red wooden barn owned by the former world heavyweight champion filled up with about 1,100 fans eager to see amateur boxing matches and special exhibitions and contests. Amid the sawdust of the cavernous barn, wrestler Gorgeous George shocked the sensibilities of the era by entering the ring in outrageous, orchid-colored dresses. Such sports stars as race driver Barney Oldfield and boxing champ Jack Dempsey competed in steak-eating contests. Hollywood celebrities, including Cary Grant, Mae West, Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler and Jack La Rue, rubbed elbows with the blue-collar crowd. During World War II, Jeffries kept a preacher busy performing free wedding ceremonies for more than 500 couples before the grooms -- sailors, Marines and soldiers -- went off to war. Born in Ohio in 1875, Jeffries was the son of a preacher who moved his young family to Cypress Park when his son was 7. Young Jim quit school in his mid-teens and, by 16, had become a toughened boilermaker. He joined the East Side Club in Boyle Heights and learned to box at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. At 17, standing more than 6 feet tall and weighing more than 220 pounds, he won his first boxing match. "But Mother didn't like it, so I waited until I was 21," Jeffries told The Times. In 1896, at 21, Jeffries made his professional debut in San Francisco, where he knocked out future Los Angeles Police Officer Dan Long in the second round. A few months later, he landed the final blow to Hank Griffin in the 17th round at Hazard's Pavilion in Los Angeles. Focusing on more training, Jeffries served as a sparring partner for heavyweight champ Gentleman Jim Corbett and later beat him in the ring. Jeffries won the heavyweight title in 1899 at age 24, by knocking out Bob Fitzsimmons at Coney Island in Brooklyn. He ran out of opponents and retired undefeated in 1905, at age 30. He and his wife, Freda, took his boxing and other earnings and invested in a mining venture, a Spring Street bar in downtown Los Angeles and a 107-acre ranch in Burbank at what is now Victory Boulevard and Buena Vista Avenue. That same year, Jeffries and his siblings sold the family home, at the current site of Nightingale Middle School in Cypress Park. Jeffries Avenue was named for his mother, Rebecca. Friends, promoters and fight fans goaded him into a comeback in 1910, to challenge the widely unpopular champion, the African American boxer Jack Johnson. They fought that year in Reno, where Jeffries, who had been dubbed the "Great White Hope," lost badly. Jeffries retired again to his Burbank ranch, built a 10-room home and began raising prize Holstein cows. He later conceded, "I couldn't have beaten Johnson on my best day." In 1929, Jeffries cleared a small space inside his dairy barn and began training a few young proteges. He wanted a place where teenage boys could train and listen to boxing tales from former champions. "I don't go to [professional] fights anymore," Jeffries said in 1929, nearly 30 years after he won his title. "This is the way I'd rather make a living. I won't make much, but I'll always eat, and I'll have the kids around and the bags thumping." Two years later, he built a dormitory for a dozen boys and began turning his old barn into a recreational hall and boxing ring, while his wife served up her mulligan stew and other specialties. The Barn soon played host to the biggest matches around -- the annual Golden Glove tournaments sponsored by The Times, beer companies and local police departments. For more than two decades, Jeffries' ranch was also where the Elks Club held its annual rodeo, where hundreds of cowboys rode broncos and bulls, wrestled calves and roped steers, competing for fun, glory and hundreds of dollars in prize money. In 1941, Jeffries' life took a turn for the worse. His wife of 37 years was hit by a car in front of their house and killed. Five years later, he suffered a stroke, at 70. He recovered and began making plans to build a bigger and better barn, but the city denied his permit, citing noise and parking problems. On his 75th birthday, his friends presented him with a bronze plaque, which was embedded in the sidewalk in front of his home. It later disappeared. Jeffries died in 1953, at age 77. Two years later, the barn was carted off in pieces to Knott's Berry Farm, where it was reassembled and used as a boxing museum. Later it was the site of "Halloween Haunts" and mazes. It stands today as the Wilderness Dance Hall. If Knott's visitors look carefully at the side of the old barn, they can make out a few faded, painted letters that remain from the sign that once proclaimed "J.J. Jeffries' Barn, Home of the Former Heavyweight Champion." cecilia.rasmussen @latimes.com
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