South Philly’s Asylum Arena will open its doors to new programming and a revamped image in the new year.
Flaming tables, showers of steel chairs and humorous expletive chants from passionate fans are etched in diehard professional wrestling fan Bob Magee’s bloodstained memories of South Philadelphia’s Asylum Arena.
Magee attended countless wrestling matches during the infamous arena’s 19-year history. He recalls having difficulty finding the arena’s location on his first trip when he was told the building was at South Swanson and West Ritner streets.
“In those pre-Internet days, I looked up the intersection on a SEPTA map in my office,” Magee said. “According to that and another map I looked at, the intersection didn’t exist. I found out years later that the members of the [South Philadelphia] Viking Club Mummers group had paved over freight-train tracks and created an unofficial extension of a street [where the building is].”
Magee said he remembers how the matches in the early years had to end before midnight so the South Philadelphia Viking Club’s “bingo ladies” could fundraise for the local chapter of mummers.
Former Philadelphia-based wrestling promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling held events at the building so frequently that a cult following spawned who nicknamed the establishment the ECW Arena.
Hundreds of wrestling legends ranging from Terry Funk, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Eddie Guerrero to the current WWE champion CM Punk and World Heavyweight Champion Bryan Danielson all wrestled at the ECW Arena.
Despite the Asylum Arena’s rich history of moonsaults and piledrivers, new leaseholder and Trocadero Theatre owner Joanna Pang has decided to prohibit sporting events as part of the facility’s 2012 makeover.
Pang met with local wrestling promoters to reveal that the current structure would be rebuilt into a 3,000-seat concert hall and restaurant complex. In order to compensate for the arena’s revitalized structure, the rent price to host events is expected to increase beyond what wrestling promoters can afford.
However, co-owner of the Asylum Arena Leon Silverman is under the impression that wrestling will remain at the arena.
“I have been quoted in the Daily News saying that I do not like wrestling,” Silverman said. “But that does not mean that wrestling won’t occur in the arena. Our goal is for the arena to be used as much as possible so we will do what is best for everyone.”
While Philadelphia’s legacy in the music industry may continue with the arena’s new direction, the future of the local professional wrestling scene appears bleak.
Local wrestling promotions such as Dragon Gate USA, EVOLVE and CHIKARA have followed in ECW’s footsteps by running shows in the Asylum Arena during the past seven years.
Temple alumnus and EVOLVE owner Gabe Sapolsky said he remains optimistic regarding the companies’ future in Philadelphia. Sapolsky is also vice president of Dragon Gate USA.
“Dragon Gate USA and EVOLVE will have to seek out a new venue and start paving out a new history in it,” Sapolsky said. “The biggest negative is that we have to condition fans to go to a new building, well after we find a suitable building.”
Despite the sentimentality that hanging out and throwing fake punches with fellow fans produces, long-time Asylum Arena attendee Joe Collura said he appreciates the economic aspect of Pang’s decision.
“I can’t disagree with the new leaseholder’s plans to make the arena a concert venue,” Collura said.
“Pang knows it is in her best financial interests to be able to draw a broader, and probably wealthier, audience,” Collura added. “This is a big blow to the Philly wrestling scene to have its main venue close after nearly 20 years, but long-time fans have many a memory to draw upon and wrestling in Philly will continue somewhere.”
Regardless of the concert venue’s potential economic boost in Philadelphia, Magee said that eliminating professional wrestling from the Asylum Arena is a slap in the face to the “squared-circle warriors” who sacrificed their bodies in order to entertain the fans during the past three decades.
“It is 19 years of wrestling history being taken away by two center city lawyers, [Elias] Stein and [Leon] Silverman, who actually own the arena, and concert promoter Joanna Pang, who has little or no interest in that fact,” Magee said.
Asylum Arena regular Paul Carboni cherishes the “buzz” that the ECW shows spawned, but said he realizes that the arena will never reach the glory of its heyday.
“I’ve been to 100 Phillies games, dozens of wrestling pay-per-views, three WrestleManias and never was that buzz a living and breathing thing more than it was at the [Asylum] Arena before an ECW show,” Carboni said.
“Truthfully, maybe it’s time we let the arena’s legacy be,” Carboni added. “The legacy is not about independent wrestling, but of ECW at the corner of Swanson and Ritner [streets]. Anything else that tries to replace it is only a poor facsimile.”
John Corrigan can be reached at email@example.com.