Ringside Memories and More at the Memorial Aud
by Dr. Robert J. Bryla
In 1961, there was not another ten-year old boy in Oneida County that looked forward to the Sunday morning newspaper more than me. The Sunday newspaper had the first advertisements for that week’s upcoming Saturday night wrestling matches at the newly constructed Utica Memorial Auditorium. After Church, my father would buy a newspaper and then our family would go out to a restaurant for breakfast. I could not, or would not, wait until we got home to open up the paper to learn of the thrilling battles that were only six days in the future. To me, these ads were meticulously crafted works of art that commanded attention. Occasionally, the single column wide ad extended the full length of the entire page. When that occurred, I just knew that something extra special was going to happen at the Aud that week.
My father was the Ringside Physician for the New York State Athletic Commission and I felt privileged to be able to accompany him backstage as he examined and treated the wrestlers. While my peers idolized Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas and Wilt Chamberlain, my heroes had names such as Killer Kowalski, Gorgeous George and Bulldog Brower. It is hard for me to recall any greater feeling of self-importance than arriving early at the Utica Auditorium carrying my father’s medical bag and having the Auditorium usher hold the door open for us as my father stated, "This is my assistant." As we entered the hallowed structure, the Aud’s ambiance of sights, smells, sounds and impending drama were indelibly imprinted in my mind.
As a General Practitioner, my father spent countless days and nights performing surgery, delivering babies and making endless hours of house calls. Thus, his time at home was very limited. However, at the Aud, not only did I have time to spend with him but I also saw him practice medicine in a very compassionate manner. Four decades later in 1998, wrestler Billy "Red" Lyons told me, "All the boys (wrestlers) loved coming to Utica because your dad was so good to us." Lyons actually recalled stories from almost forty years earlier concerning my father and how the grapplers even involved him in a wrestling "angle" one night. Therefore, my recollections regarding the Aud have strong emotional ties that have yet to be weakened with the passage of time.
Unless you were a wrestling fan in the 1960s, you would not be aware of the many famous people who participated in Utica Auditorium bouts during that era. Woody Strode was an African-American athlete/actor who broke the NFL’s color barrier and he is perhaps best remembered as the gladiator who fought Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus." Another actor/athlete who appeared at the Aud was Mike Mazurki. Although his name may not be immediately recognized, his face certainly would. He appeared in dozens of movies including 1944's "Murder My Sweet" in which he portrayed psychotic brute Moose Malloy. When my father met Mazurki, he asked him why he wrestled when he was such an accomplished actor. Mike explained that making films lacked an immediate audience feedback, which he desired. Therefore, Mazurki said that he wrestled for six months of the year and then made movies for the other six months! Ballet dancer-turned-wrestler Ricki Starr also graced the Aud’s squared circle. Starr was featured several times on the 1960s talking-horse television show, "Mr. Ed." Starr told me that he had wrestled all over the world but that the Utica Auditorium was the nicest facility in which he had ever performed.
The Aud hosted scufflers such as an honest-to-goodness wrestling bear, midget wrestler Sky Low Low, female wrestler The Fabulous Moolah, 601 pound Haystacks Calhoun, Karl von Hess (an alleged Nazi who in reality had served in the United States Navy as a Frogman in World War Two), veterinarian/wrestler Dr. Big Bill Miller and myriad other colorful characters not often seen in polite society. However, these athletic entertainers were generally congenial, intelligent and articulate. One of my personal favorites was 1952 Syracuse University football team captain, Dick Beyer, who earned Bachelors and Masters Degrees from S.U. He later became world-famous when he donned a mask and campaigned as "The Sensational, Intelligent Destroyer." Dick, at eighty years of age, still wears a mask but it is now trimmed in orange to commemorate his days as both a player and assistant football coach at Syracuse.
In 1985, a patient of mine told me that her family and several neighbors were traveling to the New Jersey Meadowlands to watch live wrestling, which had really hit the mainstream by that point in time. Venues such as Utica were no longer prime stops on the grappling circuit. Exercise Physiologist and All American Fitness Center owner Jim LaFountain and I decided to bring big-time pro-wrestling back to the Utica Aud and sponsored an Election Day show on November 5, 1985. Incidentally, if you want to get the feel of being a "sports impresario," just rent the Utica Memorial Auditorium for a night. In 1986, we followed up with another show at the Aud but trying to compete with the World Wrestling Federation proved to be quite an uphill battle. We figured that from that point onward, we should just buy tickets and enjoy the shows!
My familial attachments to the Aud extend beyond my father. My mother was an artist of local renown and although she had no interest in professional wrestling, she was always looking for unusual subjects to paint or sculpt. She attended our 1986 show and ended up painting four beautiful pieces that now hang on the walls at the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum in Amsterdam , New York . Additionally, both of my daughters enjoyed decades of skating with The Skating Club of Utica, which utilizes the Aud for its practices and yearly ice shows. My twenty-seven year old daughter continues to appear in the annual show as a member of the alumni group. Watching them skate at the Aud made me feel a great sense of pride partly because they were performing in the same venue that my wrestling heroes displayed their skills.
Several years ago, the first poster made to advertise the Utica Auditorium’s wrestling shows came available on eBay. I told my wife that I was going to bid, and keep bidding, high enough to win that auction. She replied, "Oh, I don’t like the sound of that!" The poster may actually be the first advertising piece for the Utica Aud because it was not made for a specific event on a specific date. Instead, it pictured wrestlers and stated that professional wrestling would begin "every Saturday night." While wrestling was not the first event ever to be held at the Aud, this piece of 1960 cardboard is a unique item of Aud memorabilia.
In 2008, I was hired as an Inspector for the New York State Athletic Commission. In that capacity, I have been involved in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany events, One of my remaining life goals is to work a wrestling show at the Utica Memorial Auditorium and make the journey complete.
Originally printed in the September issue of the Utica Phoenix
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