EARLY MEMORIES OF PRO WRESTLING
by Dale Iwataki
In 1950 or 1951, when I was just a kid growing up in Kansas City, Mo., my parents bought a TV set. It had a tiny screen, and it showed only black and white programs on one channel until a few years later when two other TV channels came on.
Among my earliest memories is watching wrestling on TV, along with Hopalong Cassidy movies and Howdy Doody. There was wrestling from Hollywood Legion Stadium on kinescope. Gorgeous George, Wild Red Berry, Danny McShain, Baron Michele Leone, Gino and Leo Garibaldi, Killer Karl Davis, Wee Willie Davis, Vic Christie, and, of course, Lou Thesz would perform. There was Texas Wrestling featuring Cyclone Anaya, Danny Savich, Duke Keomuka, Ricki Starr. Eventually, as time went on and TV channels increased, there were Chicago wrestling programs from the International Amphitheater, Rainbow Arena, and Marigold Arena.
There was a whole bunch of great wrestlers featured in the Chicago bouts of the 1950's: Verne Gagne, Pat O'Conner, Yukon Eric, Hans Schmidt, Roy McClarty, Ray Gunkel, Buddy Rogers, Argentina Rocca, the Mighty Atlas, Killer Kowalski, Don Leo Jonathan, and so many others.
Another L.A. wrestling program came on the air later on, this one featuring Jules Strongbow (not the WWF character, but a former wrestler from the 1930's) as promoter and announcer. I saw Wilbur Snyder for the first time on this program and the first Great Bolo (Al Lovelock).
Everyone in our group watched wrestling in the early 50's -- partly because there were very few "sports" programs on TV and TV was a novelty. In the early days, there was just roller derby and wrestling. My friends and I would, like a lot of kids, try wrestling holds on each other. (In those days, we were just doing hammerlocks, wristlocks, leg locks, Boston crabs, other submission holds -- none of those chair shots or jumping from six feet or higher onto the ground that you see today.)
What happened as the 1950's went on is that the networks began to get more sophisticated about programming. They turned out comedy, western, variety, and drama shows made for TV ("I Love Lucy," "Gunsmoke," "Arthur Godfrey," "Playhouse 90" etc.), and people got tired of wrestling because of over saturation and (frankly) consistent reports of fakery that led to newspaper exposes. "Real" sports like baseball and football began to be broadcast regularly.
With the decline in national broadcasts or kinescopes shown nationally, wrestling went to a strictly regional basis from the late 50's on until the advent of cable TV in the 1980's and the prolific use of videotape. Not only Vince MacMahon, but Fritz von Erich and those behind Georgia Wrestling and the UWF deserve credit, as well as Ted Turner, for the wrestling renaissance of the mid-1980's.
As someone pointed out in the wrestlinglegends egroup forum, on a regional basis, wrestling popularity ebbed and flowed with the stars who were performing in those regions. In the early 50's there is no question that the national headliners were Gorgeous George, Argentina Rocca, and Buddy Rogers. Lou Thesz was tremendously and highly respected, but he didn't stir the blood like the other three. (Thesz was Otto Graham, Rogers was Bobby Layne; or a Stan Musial to a Ted Williams.)
No one captured similar popularity on a national scale as these guys, though some claim Bruno Sammartino did, until Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant came along.
Pro wrestling in America was as popular as boxing in the early days of Frank Gotch and Strangler Lewis, so I am told, then went into a steady eclipse despite Jim Londos and others, until television came along for a shining moment in the 1950's. Then, once again, wrestling faded from the national scene until the 1980's and the present day.
On a grand scale, I see a wrestling heartbeat with three large blips upward at the beginning, middle, and end of the 20th century. In between those blips there are lower, calmer moments of steady but much quieter throbs. Some of us (like me) took time out during throbs, some of us became great fans.
As the wrestlinglegends egroup shows, there are a hell of a lot of folks who love the wrestling that WAS. Thanks for the chance to stroll down memory lane.
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