Heavyweight champion lived in Glendale
The Willard family in front of their Blanchard Drive house. From left, daughter Frances Reding, daughter Enid Mace, Hattie and Jess Willard (he is holding Mary Ann Mace). To the right, James Mace, Sr. Photo circa 1940. (Photo courtesy Jim Mace)
Recently, Willard’s grandson, Jim Mace, of Carmichael, Calif., saw a photo of his grandfather’s house posted on the Glendale Historical Society’s website. The house was described as a “Jewel of Glendale.” After viewing the website, Mace sent an email to the society.
“That house on Blanchard used to be my grandparent’s home, from 1936 to about 1946,” his email said.
Mace sent along a photo of the Willard family in front of the house.
In subsequent emails, Mace told me more about his grandfather, who was born in 1881 and grew up on a small Kansas farm. As a young man, Willard trained horses. “He was too big to ride horses as a cowboy,” Mace wrote.
Willard married Hattie Evans in 1908 and, after the newlyweds moved to Texas, he traveled around trying to find work. One day, Willard wandered into a gym, thinking he could make some money in the boxing ring, Mace said.
Willard’s boxing career is well documented online. Known as the Pottawatomie Giant, he was one of the tallest heavyweights in boxing history, according to the International Boxing Hall of Fame website.
Willard, more than 6 feet 6 inches tall, began boxing professionally in Oklahoma and his astonishing 83-inch reach and effective left jab, plus his size and speed, made him a formidable foe.
His growing fame as a boxer also brought him a measure of fame in movies.
In 1915, just before the championship bout, Willard starred in “Heart Punch,” a one-reel movie filmed in New York about a family man struggling to leave his ranch, Mace said.
Willard met the reigning champion, Jack Johnson, in front of a huge crowd in Havana, Cuba. After 26 grueling rounds on a very hot day, he knocked out Johnson, according to Wikipedia.
“After he became champion, my grandfather joined the 101 Ranch Wild West Show,” Mace said. “He traveled with it from 1915 to 1918.” In 1919, nearing 40, Willard prepared to defend his title against Jack Dempsey and again appeared in a film released shortly before the fight. This time it was a feature film titled, “The Challenge of Chance,” filmed in Los Angeles, Mace said.
On July 4, in Toledo, Ohio, Dempsey knocked Willard down seven times in the first round and Willard was unable to continue after the third round.
After losing the Dempsey fight, Willard went into semi-retirement, bringing his family to Los Angeles in 1921.
In 1923, Willard returned to the ring, fighting Floyd Johnson at the newly opened Yankee Stadium before 63,000 spectators. Predicted to lose, Willard knocked Johnson down in the ninth and 11th rounds, earning a technical-knock-out victory.
Later, Willard faced Luis Firpo in New Jersey, in front of more than 75,000 people. Willard was knocked out in the eighth round and then retired from boxing.
Soon, the Willards and their five children moved from Los Angeles to a house on Wabasso Way in Glendale. Their fourth child, Enid, Mace’s mother, graduated from Glendale High in 1932.
Over the years, Willard had various businesses, his grandson said. He refereed boxing and he opened a grocery store at Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street called the Jess Willard Food Department Store.
“But this was in 1932, well into the Depression and it closed in 1933,” Mace said. In 1933, Willard had a small part in “The Prizefighter and the Lady,” with Max Baer and Myrna Loy.
The Willards moved from Wabasso to Blanchard Drive in 1936 and stayed until 1946. Willard died in 1968 and is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003.
Readers Write: “I enjoy reading your columns about Glendale history and have a suggestion for a future column,” wrote Frank McNulty. “At the time the part of the city I live in was being developed in the 1920s-1930s, the contractors had a practice of placing a stencil in the cement sidewalks. For example, in my neighborhood, the sidewalks are stenciled with “Bates & Borland.” Nearby sidewalks are stenciled with “Haddock-Nibley.”
As those sidewalks age and are replaced with new cement, the stencils are lost. Most of these contractors are no longer in business. Since they largely built the city’s residential neighborhoods, their role is a part of the city’s history that should be documented before the remaining sidewalk stencils are lost.”
So, readers, if your neighborhood sidewalk has a contractor’s stencil on it, let me know. And, if you know the history of the contractors, that’s even better.
If you have questions, comments or memories to share, please write to Verdugo Views, c/o News-Press, 221 N. Brand Blvd. 2nd Floor, Glendale, CA 91203. Please include your name, address and phone number.