Cheltingham Avenue in the Hungry Hill section of Schenectady isn’t much of a destination these days, but on a cold January night in 1946 the Royal Roller Skating Rink on the south side of the city was definitely the place to be.
A City Mission warehouse and storage facility for the past 11 years, the building was a popular skating rink during World War II. But on that Thursday night, Jan. 10, nearly 65 years ago, it was turned into a raucous sports arena. A standing-room-only crowd of 2,500 boxing fans squeezed into the place to watch Schenectadian Marty Servo take on Stanley “Baby” Sims in a 10-round welterweight fight.
It was billed as the “biggest fight in Schenectady history,” and after posting a 10-round decision over Sims, Servo won the world welterweight championship three weeks later on Feb. 1 in Madison Square Garden, with a fourth-round knockout of Freddie “Red” Cochrane.
Born Nov. 9, 1919, Servo had fought in Schenectady a handful of times as an amateur, but had never boxed in his hometown as a professional. His manager and trainer, Al Weill of New York City, had helped Servo amass more than 40 wins in major cities along the East Coast before Sugar Ray Robinson won a 10-round decision over him in September of 1941 in Philadelphia. Servo and Robinson matched up again on May 28, 1942, this time at Madison Square
Garden, and again Robinson won a 10-round decision.
Servo joined the Coast Guard soon after that loss and served for three years during World War II. On Dec. 10, 1945, he returned to the ring wars, posting a fifth-round knockout of Freddie Camuso in Providence, R.I. He and Sims had scheduled a bout for December in Washington, D.C., but a snowstorm canceled the fight, giving promoters in Schenectady a rare opportunity to present Servo in action in his own hometown.
Although World War II had ended a few months earlier, it wasn’t a happy time in Schenectady as workers at both the General Electric Co. and the American Locomotive Co. were preparing to strike. Still, even with financial troubles looming, boxing fans in Schenectady weren’t going to miss the opportunity to see Servo fight in person.
Drawing a crowd
Tony Morrette and the Dorp Sporting Club figured it was a money-making proposition, so they took on the project, paid a fee to the Washington promoters, rented the rink and began hyping the fight. They didn’t have to work very hard. Servo himself was plenty enough to draw a big crowd, but also on the card were two other Schenectady favorites, Petey Virgin and Vinnie Vines. There was such a buzz about the event that they didn’t start selling general admission tickets until the day before the fight. A week earlier, ringside seats had gone on sale and sold briskly, and sitting there right in the front row was 10-year-old Fred Saccocio of Rotterdam, accompanied by his father, John.
“There was a huge crowd, and I remember in one of the prelims this guy came through the ropes right at us,” remembered Saccocio. “They had set up all these wooden folding chairs and my chair broke when the guy landed on us. It was quite a night. I was only 10 so I can’t remember all the details, but I really appreciated being there and was thrilled to see Marty Servo. The place was mobbed.”
Schenectady’s Nick Donato, 13 at the time, was also at the fight, sitting back in the bleacher section.
“Marty was everything here in Schenectady, and to see him in person was really something,” said Donato. “Here’s a guy who was going to be champion of the world. Yeah, the place was packed. It was wall-to-wall people.”
The building at 11 Cheltingham Ave. that housed the Royal Roller Skating Rink was built in 1939 as a welding shop. A few hundred feet from where the Oak Street Bridge went over the Cheltingham Ravine to Congress Street, it was turned into a skating rink by 1941 and thrived during the war years. By 1949 it had been sold and turned into a manufacturing business called the Collegiate Industrial Corp.
Sal Madelone, who owns a men’s salon on Guilderland Avenue, grew up at 10 Cheltingham Ave., right across the street, and has plenty of warm memories of the rink and the entire Hungry Hill neighborhood.
“What a beautiful place to grow up, and what a childhood I had,” he said. “I can remember getting a dime from my mother, who would let me walk across the street, get a Coca-Cola from the machine, and then watch all the people skate. Everybody in the neighborhood was connected and nobody locked their doors. There were the Donadios, the Della Villas, the Messercolas, the DePoalas. We were tucked away a little bit from the rest of the city, and even as a young kid my mother would let me wander through the neighborhood.”
Hungry Hill, whose southern edge is in the town of Rotterdam, was indeed in its own little world, and in 2010 that really hasn’t changed. The only way in from the northwest is via Cheltingham Avenue, and to get out you have to continue in a southeasterly direction for about a half-mile to Westside Avenue.
Once there, you take a right and head for Helderberg Avenue another half-mile away.
Hungry Hill is surrounded by trees and two long ravines. On the east is Cheltingham Ravine and the railroad, and on the west is another heavily wooded ravine and an old landfill. There are several streets that head east off Helderberg but they all dead end at the ravine, with the exception of Westside. There are no restaurants or churches in the small community, just a few used car lots and mechanic shops up on Westside Avenue.
Madelone is too young to remember the Servo fight, but that wasn’t the only excitement on Hungry Hill. Each summer throughout the 1950s and into the ’60s, there was the James E. Strates Carnival, a traveling circus show that would draw thousands.
“The carnival was a really big thing that was held each July or August up by Westside Avenue,” said Madelone. “It was the big event every year and to have it right there in your neighborhood was something. That was the best time of my life.”
In the same area as the carnival there was a baseball field, Eagles Diamond, where various teams played, including the Hungry Hill Royals.
The origin of the name of the neighborhood remains a question mark for many people, but in a 1984 edition of the Gazette, columnist and Schenectady County historian Larry Hart indicated that the name was originally Hungary Hill because that area was inhabited largely by Hungarian immigrants who came to Schenectady in the first two decades of the 20th century to work at GE.
Madelone, whose grandparents lived on Cheltingham Avenue at least as far back as 1919, isn’t so sure.
“I don’t know; I never heard of that,” he said. “But it wasn’t because we were hungry. For me it was the best place in the world to have a childhood.”
As for the Royal Roller Skating Rink, it has been home to various businesses the last 60 years, including Ursula of Switzerland, Rayco of Schenectady and Solid Surface Craftsman, now on Freemans Bridge Road in Glenville. Owned and operated by Alan Boulant, Solid Surface Craftsman was in Hungry Hill between 1995-2001 before selling the building to the City Mission.
“I had about 30 people working for me there building cabinets and countertops,” said Boulant. “You could tell it had been a public arena or something like that. The floor was mostly cement, but there were some areas where the old hardwood floors were still visible, and the bathrooms were up front with the old-style ceramic tiles and flooring.
“It was a great building, but we did put some money in it and we cleaned up the grounds,” added Boulant. “It was my pride and joy.”
These days, City Mission pastor Dan Craman and his three-person staff rule the roost there. He knew it had been a skating rink, but Craman had never heard the story of the Servo-Sims fight card that packed the house in 1946.
“We have the area sectioned off, but you can tell it could have been a pretty big, wide-open space,” said Craman. “The warehouse itself is 10,000 square feet, so they might have been able to put that many people in here.”
After Servo beat Sims, Donato can’t remember another fight card being held at the Cheltingham Avenue facility. As for Servo, while he did win the welterweight title by knocking out Cochrane, he fought up in weight class his next fight, against Rocky Graziano, and was knocked out in the second round. He wasn’t the same again and retired from the ring in 1947.
“He shouldn’t have fought Rocky,” said Donato. “He was much bigger than Marty. But it was the war that really hurt Marty. It took away three years of his life right in his prime.”