On the Fourth of July, 1923, Shelby hosted the world heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons. The fight and the amazing circumstances surrounding it are the subject of “ Ringside Shelby,” a documentary that will be shown at the Orpheum Theatre in Conrad on Tuesday, Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. The screening, which is presented by the Pondera Arts Council, will be free of charge.
The 2003 documentary, produced by Chris and William Wheeler for Montana Public Television, examines how an internationally significant sporting event came to take place in a Montana town with fewer than 500 people. It describes how James Johnson, a local Shelby real estate agent, was looking for a way to spur land sales. He read that several cities were bidding for the right to host the world championship fight, and in an effort to attract national attention to Shelby, he brazenly bid to host the bout. But before he knew it, his bid was accepted and he was in over his head.
Still, in five months Shelby was made ready to accommodate the crowds of fight fans which included Montana’s acclaimed artist C.M. Russell. A 40,000-seat arena was erected in just over 20 days, and the railroad quickly built 60 miles of sidetrack.
The documentary chronicles the fight and aftermath. Several area banks closed their doors because they ran out of cash and the primary promoters wound up with $160,000 in debt.
In the end, only Dempsey and his manager benefitted financially. Shelby gained no lasting prosperity and not one of James Johnson’s lots sold at that time.
Following the one-hour presentation, Chris Wheeler will be present at the Orpheum for a question and answer session about the making of his documentary.
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