Features & Columns
Picturing San Jose since 1938
at one of San Jose's first sports bars
Earlier this week saw the opening of Shirlie Montgomery: Picturing San Jose Since 1938, a photo exhibit of works by the late local legend, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 94. A freelance photographer for most of the 20th century, Montgomery documented celebrities, politicians, notable folk around town and, especially, professional wrestling during the '40s, '50s and '60s.
She worked for the San Jose Mercury News and the De Anza Hotel, beginning at the onset of the postwar era. She even captured the goings-on at Lou's Village whenever personalities performed at that legendary venue on San Carlos Street.
I never met Montgomery, but I firmly believe those who tell me she was an integral component of the professional wrestling scene in San Jose, most notably at the Civic Auditorium and Angelo Cistoldi's Ringside tavern. It was at the Ringside where the real shenanigans went down. It was there that the after-parties unfolded and where the wrestlers showed up to be treated like celebrities. Montgomery was a regular at the bar and took hundreds of photographs of wrestlers in their natural elements and simply hanging out. Both Cistoldi's daughter, as well as the daughter of original co-owner Glenn Neece, donated tons of photos and Ringside ephemera to the History Park exhibit.
Beginning in the early '50s, the Ringside, located at 307 N. First Street, was probably one of the first bona fide sports bars in San Jose, at least in the modern era, and wrestling fans always showed up to hang with the wrestlers. There were booths along one side, the back of the bar was lit up, and Montgomery's photos, 8x10 framed shots, literally covered the walls on two sides. The wrestlers would dress to the nines and fans relished the experience. Montgomery took hundreds of promo shots of the wrestlers, partying, eating, or intentionally hamming it up for her camera, as they often did.
Angelo Cistoldi was a famous wrestler himself, originally from the Boston area, who moved out West and never left. He occasionally still wrestled at the Civic, while co-owning the Ringside. Cistoldi eventually bought out Neece and took over the whole place, occasionally tending bar himself and functioning as the primary celebrity draw. Cistoldi also threw legendary barbecues at his house near a relatively new Valley Fair, where the wrestlers often congregated while in town.
Cistoldi's daughter, Angi Cirigliano, who still lives in San Jose, grew up at the Ringside and has fond memories. There was no other place like it, she says.
"It was a very, very early view of what a sports bar could be," Cirigliano says. "My dad would charter a bus, and the bus would take the patrons to the wrestling match. And then it would bus them back to the Ringside, of course, to pick up their cars. And, of course, have a couple drinks. And the wrestlers would also come back to the Ringside."
So many friendships were made at the Ringside, thanks to the wrestling scene. Gorgeous George even showed up on occasion. As a fan and photographer, Shirlie Montgomery was always on hand, shooting photographs and documenting the scene, just as she did at the matches. Considering the predominance of freelance lifestyles these days, 60 years later I can say that Montgomery was ahead of the curve in many respects.
"Shirlie was an early, early preview of where women are today in the business world," says Cirigliano. "She was single, had her own business, she freelanced, she was way, way before her time. My dad would have big barbecues at our home with all the wrestlers and she was always there, reporting it."
Cistoldi passed away in 1971. His wife tried to keep the bar afloat for a few years but eventually sold it, just as that part of downtown San Jose began to descend into skid row. But thanks to a veritable treasure trove of photographs by Shirlie Montgomery, now on display at History San Jose through August, we will never forget the Ringside.
Shirlie Montgomery picturing San Jose since 1938
Thru Aug. 10