Shirlie Alice Montgomery • June 9, 1918 – Nov 5, 2012

Shirlie always had her camera handy.
Shirlie Alice Montgomery was born on Chapman Street in San Jose on June 9, 1918. She was an only child. To her friends and neighbors she was a treasure trove of history. Shirlie remembered it all. She remembered the Great Depression as a child, the Second World War as a young woman, and eventually the transformation of the Santa Clara Valley from a moderately sized agricultural town to the hustle and bustle of modern Silicon Valley. The majority of her memories were supported by the thousands of photographs in her collection.
Young Shirlie Montgomery

Shirlie a few years ago from an article in the Rose Garden Resident.

She was the grandniece of San Jose’s forefather T.S. Montgomery. Shirlie lived a colorful life but professionally she photographed it with a 4X5 Speed Graphic in B&W. She was a celebrated photographer that shot Hollywood stars, U.S. Presidents and pro wrestlers. Although Shirlie did work for the S. F. Examiner and the San Jose Mercury her works remain some of the best representations of pro wrestling from the 40’s thru the 60’s. When asked about her penchant for shooting professional wrestlers she would answer “I always liked the big boys”. Such stories Shirlie had! She passed away quietly on November 5, 2012. She will never be forgotten. God rest her soul.

Obituary written by Shirlie's good friend and neighbor Joe Holt

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Photographing Wrestlers for Fun and Profit

Shirlie Montgomery ringside waiting for the right shot!

Shirlie's dad, Rea Montgomery, was an avid sportsman. He loved to hunt and fish, went wild at boxing matches and wrestling shows, was a great fan of football and baseball. His constant companion on these escapades was his daughter Shirlie. She loved it.

When she first started taken photographs for a living at the De Anza Hotel in downtown San Jose, she also would go to the wrestling matches at the San Jose Civic Auditorium -- the land for which was donated to the city of San Jose by her grand-uncle T. S. Montgomery. When she started working at the San Jose Mercury in the 1940s, her editor noticed her love of "the sport of wrestling" and encouraged her to take photos for the paper to publish. The rest is sporting history.

Big Time Wrestling magazine July 1964 feature article with photographs by Shirlie Montgomery

Shirlie became one of the best wrestling photographers in the nation. Her photos were published not just in the local papers, but were carried world-wide by the wire services. Wrestling magazines routinely used (and credited) her photographs for articles. Wrestlers, promoters and agents sought her out to photograph their events and clients. In the 1970s she was inducted into the Slammers Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Shirlie inducted into the Slammers Legends of Wrestling Hall of Fame

On Wednesday nights, Shirlie would take photos of the matches at the Civic Auditorium. After the show was over, she would gather with friends and wrestlers at the Ringside Bar on First Street and the gang would revel in the prior weeks photos that Shirlie brought to share. The Ringside was owned and operated by Glenn Neece and his family. The walls were covered with Shirlie's photos. Today the Neece family has one the largest collections of Shirlie's wrestling photographs, maybe even more than is contained in Shirlie's archives.
Ringside Bar with wall covered in Shirlie Montgomery wrestling photographs (Shirlie Montgomery)

Shirlie's wrestling photographs break down into three categories: Action photos, which were her favorites and were what she was best known for. These were the ones the papers and magazines would print. Posed photos for press releases, resumes and such. "Candid" photos, showing the wrestlers having fun at the local bars, parties and charity events.

Gorgeous George in his pre-fight routine - reproduced from a negative (Shirlie Montgomery)

Jesus Ortega giving Juan Humberto his patented "back breaker" (Shirlie Montgomery)

The Sharpe Brothers (Ben and Mike) attacking Sandor Szabo (Shirlie Montgomery)

For the published, action photos, Shirlie not only took the photos, she also prepared them for publication and wrote the captions. In her archives there are many of these "ready-to-publish" photos, trimmed or cropped, with publication information on the back.

The standard muscular pose was the common image that wrestlers and their agents wanted. Shirlie took lots of them.

Lou Thesz (Shirlie Montgomery)
Enrique Torres (Shirlie Montgomery)
Ronnie Etchison (Shirlie Montgomery)

Group photos showing the wrestlers in a less combative mood were taken either candidly or semi-posed by Shirlie.

Glenn Neece (owner of the Ringside Bar) with Leo Nomelini (pro wrestler and SF 49er football player) and friends seated in the Ringside Bar (Shirlie Montgomery)

There are a lot of Shirlie's photos out there in the market and collectors cherish her prints. If the prints were made for use professionally, they were normally marked with Shirlie's signature or stamp. Most of the one's in her archives do not have the stamp as either they were not published or were extras.

While Shirlie loved her "big men," she saved a large part of her heart and love for the little guys ... the midgets. She had a lot of stories about the midgets ... how they would bring her gifts from their trips ... how they met her as she deplaned at Honolulu Airport back in 1956 ... and how they would clown around quite a bit more than their full-sized compatriots.

Midget wrestlers (Shirlie Montgomery)

Midget wrestlers (Shirlie Montgomery)


  1. Great Article! I am writing a book on the history of pro wrestling and I love these pics! Who might I talk to about possible use of a few of Shirley Montgomery's pictures for my book? Any info would be greatly appreciated! Thanks.

  2. Much of Shirlie's collection is now in the hands of History San Jose. Any discussions of using the images needs to be worked out with HSJ. I am sure they will be accommodating. Please note that the Shirlie Montgomery exhibit opens on April 14th 2014 and will run through December 2014.

  3. I used to ride my bike all of 100 feet to Shirlie's porch for pennies on Halloween. She had a manner about her that was something like Julia Child. She was incredibly sweet and a gregarious story teller. She was a constant fixture in that chair on her porch, an ever-present smile and a shoulder waving "hellooooooooo!" I really took for granted that every neighborhood must have had a woman like her.
    In March 2000, when I was 14, I mentioned to Shirlie that my family and I were going to Wrestlemania. Her face lit up and she ran back into her little brown house. I'd never seen her move so quickly. When she came out she produced the most amazing photo album. It had pictures of all the classic professional wrestlers, and pictures of her, as a young woman, right there beside them. These photographs in this little book she kept in her little brown house were featured in newspapers and magazines across the World.
    I was blown away. In 14 years we'd talked about cats, dogs, who was moving into the neighborhood, who was moving out, and then I would jump the stairs of her porch, and my friends and I would body slam and drop elbows on each other on the lawn kitty-corner to hers. What must she have been thinking seeing us idolize Hulk Hogan, who was to her an upstart in the industry she helped popularize?
    A few years ago, I went back to my old neighborhood to stroll nostalgic. I saw a couple of my old neighbors and asked about Shirlie. I'd missed her passing by several months.
    Shirlie, here's to you. I hope to live like you did. I hope people across the World do. I hope they find their passion. I hope they smile every day. I hope they watch over the neighborhood kids running amuck. And I hope they leave this world better for having known them.

  4. Thanks for your tribute to Shirlie. You describe her so well. We miss her. I used to visit with her every week, and talk on the phone regularly. I am happy to say that the vast majority of her archives are with History San Jose. After they did an exhibit about her, they also published and online exhibit, which is very well done. Some of her wrestling photos are at HSJ. I have some as well. However, the majority went to a serious wrestling collector in SoCal, who was friends with Verne Langdon (Slammers Gym), and is now merged with the collection he got from Verne. Shirlie would have approved. Bob


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