Features & Columns

Picturing San Jose with
Shirlie Montgomery

San Jose photographer Shirlie Montgomery shot prolifically
throughout a career of more than half a century
Shirlie MontgomeryROPED IN: Shirlie Montgomery was a diehard wrestling fan, and from the '40s through the '60s, she documented San Jose's then-thriving professional wrestling scene.

I am ashamed and downright embarrassed to admit that I never met Shirlie Montgomery, San Jose's most legendary freelance photographer, who for decades captured celebrities, politicians and wrestlers, all for a timespan of at least 50 years. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 94, and it took this long to sift through all of what she spent the bulk of the 20th century hoarding.

Thanks to History San Jose, a remarkable photo show and exhibit, Shirlie Montgomery: Picturing San Jose Since 1938, will debut this weekend at the Leonard and David McKay Gallery at Pasetta House in History Park. Fans of '50s wrestling will especially enjoy one particular section of the show. Since Montgomery left us thousands of photos, and because she saved everything, it was a monumental task putting the show together.

Born in 1918, Montgomery was the grandniece of T. S. Montgomery, after whom the Hotel Montgomery was named and also the hero that donated the land on which the Civic Auditorium was built in the '30s. A lifelong San Jose resident who never married or had siblings, Montgomery lived a life of unequaled color. As a photographer, she worked for the Mercury-News beginning in the '40s, She was also the De Anza Hotel's house camerawoman, hired to create photographic gifts for hotel guests, while taking pictures of all the celebrities who partied in the bar during the property's heyday in the postwar era. Also a diehard wrestling fan, Montgomery took perhaps more wrestling photos than anyone who ever lived, fully documenting a then-thriving professional wrestling scene at the San Jose Civic (now City National Civic) from the '40s through the '60s, a scene often spilling over into neighborhood bars and barbecues after the matches. Legends like Gorgeous George, Lou Thesz and Ray the Cripper Stevens all came to life in Montgomery's photos. When it comes to celebrity visits, Montgomery took many iconic shots throughout the twentieth century, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Bing Crosby and Lucille Ball, some of which were taken when Montgomery worked for the original Lou's Village on San Carlos Street.

All in all, Montgomery was ahead of every curve. She helped pioneer the entire concept of the freelance photographer in the modern era, and she did quite well, especially during a time when women were rarely expected to engage in such independent pursuits. Her career as a wrestling photographer even landed her in the Slammers Wrestling Hall of Fame in the '70s.

Montgomery lived on Hester Ave in the Rose Garden area and it took a serious effort to pore through all of the materials she left behind: negatives, prints, photo albums, notebooks and other ephemera. Ken Middlebrook became one of the individuals at History San Jose whose job it was to sift through mountains of stuff to assemble the show.

"The first two rooms of the exhibit will focus on notable people, local personalities from the '40s to '60s," Middlebrook explained. "Then a side room will focus on her personal life, because she was an artistic person, who led an interesting life. ... But the biggest part of her life was when she got involved with the professional wrestling circuit. And one of the last rooms will be focused on the wrestling connection."

Since Middlebrook was kind enough to grant this columnist access to the wealth of photos ahead of time, I can surely say that, um, she left behind a monumental body of work. It would take all of 10 houses to adequately display everything. Just the wrestling photos document a time in San Jose that will never happen again, at least as long as Team San Jose prefers to have shows like Yanni and Styx at City National Civic.

Since Montgomery's most significant contribution to culture was her extensive documentation of the wrestling scene, it is also important to note that her photos do not stop with just action shots in the ring. Many of the wrestlers in the '50s and '60s, including the midgets, would show up at the Ringside tavern, a bar at First and Julian, the walls of which were covered with Montgomery's photos. Part two of this column will come off the top rope next week, presenting a space-time continuum-shattering picture of what that bar was like in those those days. Stay tuned.