Helms Hall in Los Angeles, the finest sports museum and library in the world, was unusually quiet last week. There were no visitors, no chattering schoolchildren, not even a research fanatic poring over Battling Nelson's 21 scrapbooks, all bound in red leather. The well-used mimeograph machine, instead of cranking out news about, say, the Helms Fencing Hall of Fame, was silent. The champions, living there in photographs, cartoons, printed pages and engraved bric-a-brac, were playing to an empty house.
The phone rang in the office of Managing Director William R. Schroeder, breaking the silence. It was a long-distance call from Johnny Weissmuller, the best swimmer and best Tarzan there ever was, and he wanted to know if it was all true: Was the Helms Hall in financial trouble? Were the exhibits closed to the public? Was next January 31 the deadline for getting out? It conjured up the frightening picture of Schroeder and his assistant, Braven Dyer Jr., sitting on the dirt island in the middle of Venice Boulevard surrounded by a ton or so of their beloved memorabilia and ready to impale themselves on Stella Walsh's javelin. Weissmuller envisioned his own medals there, too, next to the javelin, and was worried.
"John, we're going to continue," said Schroeder confidently. "We're looking for a new benefactor, and we should be able to announce something in the next two or three weeks."
"O.K., Bill, I left my things there, and as far as I'm concerned they can stay forever."
September 6, 1970
Forever is what bakery magnate Paul Hoy Helms had in mind when he and Schroeder started the Helms Athletic Foundation 34 years ago. "This foundation is dedicated to the boys and girls of the finest nation in the world," Helms once said. "It has been set up in trust and financed so that it can be perpetuated perhaps forever and can never be altered. Otherwise, I could not accept these valuable trophies which now have a permanent place in Helms Hall."
But permanence is a fleeting thing these days. Though the death of Helms in 1957 did not affect the hall, supermarkets did, and Helms Bakeries, which sold bread and other baked goods from neighborhood touring trucks (a la the Good Humor man), ceased operations late last year. Its marketing method had become outmoded and it was too late to move into the supermarkets. Helms Hall was subsidized 100% by the bakery, there actually was no foundation or trust. So no bakery, no dough. As a result, the museum is for sale in a package with the rest of the West Los Angeles bakery for $3 million.
The cherished items inside the hall and the Helms Athletic Foundation's numerous award programs and halls of fame have been entrusted to Schroeder while the search goes on for an angel. What Schroeder has in mind is, "a representative, wholesome organization."
"Why, it's tailor-made for a big corporation, a savings and loan, an insurance company," says Helms Bakeries President Aaron Raboff.
Considering the money some corporations put into sport, it would seem easy enough to find a company to pick up Helms Hall's annual tab of slightly more than $100,000, but so far the chance to be associated with, say, Jesse Owens' spikes, has not wowed today's executives.
Schroeder recently sent out a prospectus describing the Helms Athletic Foundation as a sports museum "housing the most complete collection of trophies, awards, sports mementos, photographs in the world" and "the most complete sports library in the world." There have been nibbles—Sunkist, Voit sporting goods, a major insurance company and Jack Kent Cooke's Forum in suburban Inglewood—but no strikes.
If money cannot be raised privately, Schroeder will look for public help from a governmental body. One likely site for the hall is Exposition Park, home of the Coliseum and Sports Arena. The Coliseum commission is planning a 308-foot marquee or signboard (which, with a new scoreboard for the Coliseum, will cost $4.5 million), and Helms Hall could nestle comfortably in the base. The trouble is that it will be 10 years before the commission retires the bonds on the Sports Arena, so the hall's million-dollar operating cost over a decade would have to be met by someone else.
"The most important thing is the security of the foundation for years and years to come," says Schroeder. "It's got to go on forever." Schroeder is sure his museum will be saved, but a close friend says, "Bill isn't sleeping nights. He is 65 years old and the foundation has been his life. He couldn't stand to see it disintegrate."
This is the second time that Schroeder has found himself searching for a hall to hold his hobby. By the early 1930s his collection of sports relics had reached such proportions that he had to move it out of his house—or move himself. His initial notion that a company might find promotional use for his treasures through a sports foundation turned up no Depression-era backers. Then in July of 1936 he wrote Paul Helms about his plan. Helms, a prosperous Los Angeles businessman, had Schroeder to dinner, listened to his carefully rehearsed sales pitch and then said he would be willing to back a foundation, but only if the commercial aspects of the plan were toned down.
Of course, Helms did not mind if his sports annex helped move baked goods, but it was primarily a muffin-soft sell. The company did call its main product "Helms Olympic Bread, the Bread of Olympic Champions," a name that never ceased to irk amateur purist Avery Brundage. Helms felt the name was justified because during the Los Angeles Olympiad in 1932 he had his bread delivered daily to the entire Olympic Village. Then in 1936 the Germans asked Helms for his recipes and used them for bread given to the teams. In later years Helms got fresh bread daily to the U.S. teams at London and Helsinki—and Brundage be damned.
In the beginning, Schroeder and his new Helms Athletic Foundation were installed in the W. M. Garland building at Ninth and Spring streets. Then in 1948 Helms Hall was built, and a wing was added the next year.
The hall was seldom listed with Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and the Farmer's Market as a major Southern California tourist attraction, but it quietly became an institution. More and more champions donated items for the museum: that shoe Owens used to break three world records and tie another in one afternoon in 1935, almost all of Parry O'Brien's medals, the football Georgia Tech used to beat Cumberland 222 to 0. More and more people called in with their sports questions or came by to gawk at Abe Lincoln's ax handle—chopping wood can be sport—or Babe Ruth's last uniform, the one he wore as a coach for the Dodgers in 1938, or a torch used to start the 1936 Olympiad in Berlin.
The most impressive single item in the hall is the World Trophy, which is made of gold, silver, bronze and marble and would cost more than $30,000 to replace today. The trophy dominates Helms Hall's Olympic flag room and honors each year the best amateur athletes of six continents. Schroeder and Dyer have prowled through the library and come up with winner's names going back to 1896, the year of the first modern Olympics in Athens.
Helms Hall was always a friendly and informal place. Even the janitor would stop to gab about sports with the visitors. In the patio out back, under two Brazilian pepper trees, Schroeder, and sometimes Mr. Helms himself, would entertain the touring Korean Olympic team or the kids in the neighborhood. Cocktails and hot bread at 6 o'clock were a tradition.
Helms gave money generously to promote international goodwill through sports, even after one such gesture led him, against his better judgment, to corner the market in Finnish javelins. After the 1948 Olympics in London, a Finnish track and field coach gave a number of javelins to two American athletes who were to sell them in the U.S. The coach himself arrived in Los Angeles a year later expecting to pick up his share of the profits, but found no javelins had been sold. He couldn't afford to get home again. Helms, tipped off about the problem by Schroeder, came to the rescue with a $2,500 check. Eventually a sporting-goods dealer sold all the javelins—it took four years—and the foundation got its money back.
Schroeder is the champion money raiser in Los Angeles for the Olympic Fund and an expert organizer of testimonial dinners. Following one such affair for a local sports editor, there was $700 left in the kitty. Not long afterward Schroeder's "very dear friend" Jim Thorpe died broke in a trailer in Lomita, Calif., and Schroeder used the $700 to buy Thorpe a coffin. He also sent cards to friends all over the country and raised $1,000 more to help Mrs. Thorpe.
One night last week 75 of Schroeder's friends turned the tables on him and surprised him with a party in the patio. It was the last party under the twin pepper trees and it was just like old times, except there was no smell of fresh-baked Olympic bread from the nearby ovens. Schroeder was in shirt-sleeves, and Braven Dyer Jr. got behind the grill and helped cook the steaks. It was a wake, a protest meeting, a rally and a testimonial all in one. Dinner was followed by many speeches, some maudlin, some angry.
USC Athletic Director Jess Hill called for a "future home and an adequate one." A high school athletic official said, "The idea will never die. None of us will let it die." City Councilman John Ferraro, an ex-All-America tackle, said, "We will not let it fall apart. We don't want to lose it."
Nobody does, but it's a bear market in sentiment right now.
A SAMPLING OF THE HELMS RELICS
•Jesse Owens' shoe, worn on May 25, 1935 at Ann Arbor, Mich. when he broke three world records—the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles and the long jump—and tied another, the 100-yard dash.
•Lou Gehrig's shirt, a road-uniform model of a type worn in the mid-'30s.
•Gene Tunney's belt, won on Sept. 23, 1926 in Philadelphia when Tunney first defeated Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight title. Above the belt are two ticket stubs from the 1927 "long-count" fight in Chicago that ended Dempsey's championship career. The background, appearing to be a flag, actually is the decorative sash worn by Jim Jeffries for formal portraits and before each title fight. Most U.S. champions wore such sashes.
•George Woolf's bright red C.S. Howard silks, worn on July 16, 1938 when Woolf rode Seabiscuit to victory in the first Hollywood Gold Cup. Cap and silks in background were used by Eddie Arcaro in 1948 when he won the Triple Crown aboard Citation for Calumet Farm.
•Jim Thorpe's shoes, one of the few personal items left by the great Indian athlete. The shoes were never worn in a game but on a Warner Brothers movie lot when Thorpe was technical advisor for "Jim Thorpe, All-American." In foreground is right shoe of USC's Johnny Baker, which he wore when kicking field goal that defeated Knute Rockne's Notre Dame team at South Bend 16-14 in 1931.
•The ball used in college football's highest scoring game. It was snatched from the field by a Georgia Tech student when game ended after 40 minutes.
•Jack Dempsey's glove known to have been used in the 1913 Fred Fulton fight in which Dempsey knocked out Fulton in 18 seconds. It presumably was battered about informally after that.
•Jack Powell's whisk broom, with which the National and Pacific Coast League umpire dusted off home plate for 20 years.
•The eight-foot Helms World Trophy, which honors the year's foremost athlete on each of six continents. Standing in the trophy room, which is decked with flags from various Olympic Games, is the collection's founder, William Schroeder.