by Bill Parry
A wave of nostalgia passed over a bustling corner in Sunnyside Saturday afternoon.
Longtime residents joined community leaders and former prizefighters outside the Wendy’s, at 44-11 Queens Blvd., for the renaming of 45th Street in honor of the Sunnyside Gardens Arena, a historic sporting venue that stood on the site from 1945 to 1970 and remains part of the neighborhood’s fabric to this day.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) joined members of Ring 8 Veterans Boxing Association, a fraternity of retired boxers, in dedicating Sunnyside Gardens Arena Way as a vintage ring bell was struck ten times to honor the fighters who made the building famous.
“We should all remember the building and the men who fought here by unveiling this street sign to remind everyone of this special and hallowed ground,” Van Bramer said.
Floyd Patterson, Emil Griffith, Jose Torres and Vito Antuofermo were all world champion boxers who fought in the storied red-brick arena. Gerry Cooney had his first professional bout there and actor Tony Danza stepped in the same ring several times before moving on to TV sitcoms like “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss” in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“Danza is better actor than he was a fighter,” 84-year-old photographer Frank Carrado said. “He wasn’t too good in the ring. Heystacks Calhoun wrestled here. Now he was something else.”
Railroad magnate Jay Gould built a private tennis club for the rich on the site in the late 1800s and his descendants sold it to developers who opened the sporting arena in 1945.
“That’s when all our GIs were coming back from World War II,” Ring 8 President Bob Duffy said. “So many professional fighters had to put their careers on hold during the war. This is where they came to restart things and it revitalized the whole neighborhood. The crowds would fill the restaurants and bars all around here on fight night.”
The neighborhood was more rough-and-tumble back then. “You had this bar called Gildea’s around the corner and the boxers and their fans would go their afterwards,” United Forties President Don McCallian said. “The old saying was if you were too late for the fight card at the arena, you go there because the undercard would get started after the third round of drinks.”
Longtime Sunnyside resident George Kowalski remembered steering clear of Gildea’s as a young man. “That place was a bucket of blood,” he said. “The owner John was the scariest man in the neighborhood. He had meathooks for hands and he was never shy about using them.”
McCallian remembers something more intimidating at the arena.
“They used to have Bingo here and that was a very big deal for the ladies,” he said. “God forbid you made too much noise and they couldn’t hear the numbers getting called. Oh boy, you’d be in serious trouble with them then.”
Sunnyside Gardens Arena also hosted a campaign rally for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960, a highly competitive industrial basketball league and women’s roller derby. Lifelong Sunnyside resident Leonore Lanzillotti skated with The Chiefs, but only for a short while. “When my father found out about it, he said no daughter of mine is doing roller derby,” she said. “The girl that replaced me smashed her face very badly crashing into the rail. I thought it safer to go into entertainment.”
Lanziollotti went on to star in the City Opera Company and perform with the Guy Lombardo Orchestra. Her father was legendary state Sen. Carlo Lanziollotti, who had his own street-naming just a few blocks away in 2012.
Dave Diamante, the public address voice of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for Nets games and boxing events, was on hand to emcee the ceremony Saturday.
“There are so many historic places that are no more in this city, from Yankee Stadium to CBGBs to this place right here,” he said. “Folks will see this sign and go home and look it up and learn the history of what happened before this place was a Wendy’s when we went from black eyes to Biggie Fries.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4538.