In the depths of a dusty old building in Boyle Heights, the Mexican art of Lucha Libre wrestling is enjoying something of a renaissance thanks to a body slamming TV show.
Lucha Underground debuted on the El Rey Network in the fall of 2014. It features famous masked Mexican luchadores as well as global indy talents and ex-members of the WWE's main roster. That's World Wrestling Entertainment to the uninitiated. However, the show's set design might be as much of a draw as its wrestlers.
Lucha Underground is filmed in a run down warehouse on Anderson Street by the 4th Street Bridge. It's part arena, part television set, and according to Dario Cueto, the Underground's evil fight promoter and the series' main antagonist, part "temple."
(The Lucha Underground arena. Credit: Grant White)
The multi-tiered arena still has its catwalks and girders intact and features zig-zagging scissor-gates made into audience barricades and wooden bleachers that look like pyramids. All of this angular geometry converges at the ring itself, with an Aztec figurehead painted on the mat. On camera, it all appears almost subterranean.
(L-R: Referee Justin Borden, Aero Star, and Fenix. Courtesy of El Rey Network)
"I compare it to going to Disneyland, going into the Indiana Jones settings," says Sergio Torres, an ex-wrestler and now announcer for the Lucha Libre promotion, UIPW, referring to the lines to get in to a taping. "It's an abandoned warehouse, but once you get in there, it takes you to the underground."
It all comes from the mind of production designer, Kelly Van Patter, whose resume includes penthouse suites for The W Hotel and the Tribal Council from Survivor. The common thread is sustainability. Van Patter found many set dressings already present in the warehouse, as well at salvage yards and flea markets. Then, she beat them up.
(A sparring area for Lucha Underground's stable of wrestlers. Exposition scenes are shot here as well. Credit: Grant White)
"There's always a special aging that has to go into it, because this is a gritty fight club, so it has to look pretty grungy. Some of the things we just take and throw around outside on the ground just to scuff it up and give it a layer of dirt and grime. A lot if it though, is scenically painting it so that it has a certain patina or age to it" said Van Patter.
So how did Lucha Libre end up in a junk-filled warehouse in Boyle Heights? According to Lucha Underground's color commentator, Vampiro (aka Ian Hodgekinson), it began in the early 1900s, when American wrestling used to sell out baseball stadiums.
"Until there was a really famous match where one of the guys had his knee ligaments torn, and before the match there was a deal made where he wouldn't lose, and that was the first actual fixed fight, and the public found out about it. Since that day, pro wrestling started getting the image that it wasn't real anymore and it lost it's appeal as a legitimate betting sport. And then it had to go the carnival route, who can survive 3 minutes with this guy type thing" said Vampiro.
(A 1910 postcard featuring French athletes standing atop a frozen swimming pool, partaking in "French wrestling," a style said to be a precursor to what is now known as "Professional Wrestling." Credit: Casas-Rodriguez Postcard Collection/Flickr Creative Commons.)
The carnival matches were a big hit at the military bases in border towns, where Mexican promoters caught on and started selling out fights in Mexico and Japan in the 1940s. The masks came to Los Angeles, says Vampiro, via the Lucha Libre movies from the 1960s starring El Santo, Blue Demon, and Mil Mascaras. "Latinos who lived in Los Angeles in that era, wanted something from their homeland that was from their youth."
Lucha Libre started appearing in swap meets, and alongside American wrestling and boxing, had renewed glory days at the now defunct Grand-Olympic Auditorium from the 1960s through the 1980s. But by the late 80s, the WWF and Hulkamania had captured the nation's attention.
Today, Lucha Libre may have a chance to steal back some of the pro wrestling spotlight. Not from a sold out pay-per-view at the L.A. convention center, but from a hundred-year-old warehouse by the railyards of the Los Angeles River.
(A vessel that may have been used to transport molten metal in one of the warehouse's past purposes. Credit: Grant White)
"This building...was built in 1915, and at some point it was used to service trains because there are tracks that run through the building, and big giant doors that are big enough for trains to pass through," remarks executive producer Eric Van Wagenen.
Perhaps it makes sense to put something reinvented, like Lucha Libre, in a place with a similar history. Van Wagenen describes Boyle Heights as an area with a long history of immigrant settlement. Sergio Torres, a long time East Los Angeles resident says "It's good for the Lucha business. It's good to get the names out there and show that there's something else aside from the WWE World."
Lucha Underground airs on the El Rey Network, Wednesdays at 8pm ET (English broadcast), and on Uni-Mas, Saturdays at 4pm PT (Spanish Broadcast).