What does a small-town Southern boy take away from watching grown men in tights faking their way through “Boston Crabs,” “Sleeper-holds,” and “Neck-Breakers?”
When I was growing up, I remember that the weakest of our four TV channels—WBMG 42—aired from its very studios a Live Wrestling card every Saturday night at 10:30, well after sundown even in summer months. In that era, mid-1960’s Birmingham, amidst the picketing and street-rioting, thousands of supposedly respectable or anguished citizens tuned in habitually to watch a faked sports “contest,” and then snatched a few hours sleep before rising on Sunday morning to attend the church of their choice. Clearly, people in Birmingham were able to keep their activities segregated on a broader basis than mere race.
Though I’m not so proud of it, my family was devoted to TV wrestling; we were also regular church-goers. We attended the First United Methodist Church, my Mother, brother, and I, and we lived in a respectable, middle-class neighborhood in Bessemer, a town fifteen miles southwest of Birmingham. However, we never attended live wrestling matches at the TV studio, though I think I recognized a few of our neighbors from time to time as the camera panned the “crowd.”
The Saturday night bouts were a mere appetizer for the big events each Monday night at Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium. Normally, 6000 people turned out for these Monday night quadruple cards, when some championship belt was always on the line. Our daily paper, The Birmingham News, even reported the event, giving Monday’s lineup and Tuesday’s results in a one column, five-inch, four–graph piece. Only God knows why.
On those Saturday nights we’d sit in our den, my mother, brother, and I on the couch, my father in his faux La-Z-Boy. Centered in the room between two windows overlooking our terraced back yard was our 20-inch, mahogany-encased Motorola TV, the household deity, which my mother polished with Pledge almost every day. My brother, being only four or five during this era, was really too young to stay up that late, but since the night’s bouts were almost all we talked about from supper to opening bell, we chose to pacify him. Rather than putting him into some submission hold, my parents would allow him to sit up for the first twenty minutes, and by that point, he was usually drooling on one of our arms.
More unbelievably, my Mom, an antiques dealer-interior decorator-gourmet-chef-and amateur-florist, watched with Dad and me as each week some hulk’s eyebrow was gashed open–the blood (or cherry juice) spurting freely– or some other bum’s head was battered with a metal folding chair (And there was ALWAYS an extra chair somewhere nearby).
“Ya’ll are just crazy for watching this mess,” she’d admonish us, though she herself never looked away.
For there is something spectacular about a grown man who will jump on another grown man from the topmost rope and slam him into a cushioned mat.
There is also something strangely mesmerizing about grown men strutting around a wrestling ring, like the peroxide blonde Carson Brothers did each week. Or maybe Mom, whose people hailed from the Appalachian foothills of North Alabama, was hooked by “The Grapplin’ Hillbillies,” Rip and Chuck. All I know is that she’d watch at least an hour’s worth before heading off to bed.
But my Dad and I lasted till the bitter end. I suppose it was just the thrill of the contest that hooked him. Still, two or three times a show he’d remind me that everything we saw was fake. To be fair, my Dad was a true sports junkie. He’d watch bobsledding, cliff diving, roller derby—though his true passion was football. But if it was fake, then there was surely another reason that 42’s Live Studio Wrestling had an appeal for him.
Dad knew most of the sponsors.
Now it’s true that he didn’t know them all. He had never met Eddie Gaston, the African-American proprietor of “Eddie’s Seat Covers” where you could get your car’s interior looking like new (or new to you) for only $59.95. Nor did he know Arly Roberts, the balding white owner of “Powderly Auto Sales” where you could buy a semi-vintage Dodge for $249, with the only guarantee being that the vehicle would be “clean.” I think now that there had to have been some sort of connection here between these two, but at nine years old all I could see was that Arly smiled too much, and Eddie, not nearly enough.
My Dad’s world seemed so alien to this one—the one where seat covers were almost as expensive as a car; the one where grown men yelled at and then clobbered each other to the cheers and jeers of the fifty or so audience members in attendance. Dad managed Roseman’s Jewelers, a wholesale store in business since the 1920’s and owned by his first cousin Arnold. Two of the biggest sponsors of TV wrestling were Levy’s Loans and Diamond Shop–operated by “Cousin” Joe Denaberg who was also one of Birmingham wrestling’s main promoters–and Epps Jewelers, run by Mr. Taft Epstein, who had as much personality as the Channel 42 studio floor and who reputedly saw one wife leave him WHILE they were on their honeymoon in Vegas.
Twice during each broadcast Cousin Joe and Taft would sidle into the picture to pitch their “merchandise” to us and to TV emcee Sterling Brewer. It’s unclear just what Sterling had done to get this work; he looked like a sickly Jack Palance, and he was tongue-tied, something my Dad never failed to remark. At the pinnacle of a bout—an abdominal stretch or Giant Suplex—Sterling would get so agitated that in his play-by-play commentary, someone like The Masked Superstar became “The Mathked Thupathtar,” and crowd favorite Len Rossi naturally became “Len Rothie.”
A few years after the bouts went off the air—at least on Channel 42—a friend in the Birmingham theatre-world told me that Sterling Brewer was actually a “Raging Queen.” I don’t know if this was accurate information or not, but I never asked for evidence.
Both Cousin Joe and Taft pronounced Sterling’s name “Stoilin.” That was odd or quaint or old-world or “something,” I thought, as was the fact that my Dad also used this same inflection, as did his mother, another secluded wrestling fan, who lived by herself in a the red-brick apartments across from the Botanical Gardens in Mountain Brook. Perhaps more oddly than that, in his on-air time Cousin Joe never referred to his jewelry business; instead, there were other distinct, recorded ads for Levy Loans that never mentioned Joe’s name at all. Nor for that matter did they ever explain who Levy actually was. To this very day he remains an archetypal figure in my memory. I’ve passed Levy Loans on recent visits back to Birmingham, and though I’ve been tempted, I’ve never ventured inside to ask. I suppose I wonder what good it would do. No doubt Joe’s wife was a Levy, but if so, how did he go from there to becoming a wrestling promoter? Was it for greater independence? Or for the money?
At the time of this wrestling epoch, Cousin Joe was in his 70’s at least, and like his namesake on TV’s “Petticoat Junction,” he both moved and spoke slowly. And all he spoke about was Monday night’s “card,” a “Spectacular Card,” as he’d put it, with stars like Tojo Yamamoto squaring off against Buddy Wayne (another peroxide-blond), or Tex Riley defending his belt against Chin Lee who had long, braided hair which he uncoiled just before the bell rang.
Taft’s spots, on the other hand, were geared somewhere between side-show exhibits and city vendors hawking something or demanding your time, your spare change. He, too, barely promoted his jewelry at all, though he did bring enormous displays of it—displays that at some point each week were literally destroyed when the “action” spilled out of the ring. Yep, Taft just stood there, week after week, watching his wares being used to inflict more pain on some middle-aged has-been’s head, and “grinning like an idiot,” as my Mother said.
“That jewelry must be fake, too,” I rather astutely remarked as trays of watches flew screaming into the studio night.
“It doesn’t matter,” Dad replied. “All his stuff is crap anyway. I know what he sells.”
While touting his E-Z credit, Taft would bring out certain gimmicks: The toy monkey that when wound up would grin and clash his cymbals; or the indestructible watch which, when Taft took out a steel file and began trying to scratch it, withstood all his efforts without a mark.
“Yeah, you can’t scratch it,” Dad agreed with a grin that eagerly anticipated his punch line. “It just doesn’t keep good time.”
Soon enough it would be time for the Main Event, usually some “grudge match” pitting the dark, swarthy, kinky-haired Len Rossi (“hailing from Italy”…or Nashville) against a masked giant, maybe Dante (who used a loaded boot) or one of The Medics who always came with medical bag in tow.
The Mighty Yankees, though, were the ones who truly antagonized the crowd as they shouted insults like “Hick” and “Redneck,” while they fought. There were three of them too. Mighty Yankee #3 was almost a crowd favorite. Or at least WE liked him because we weren’t like most other viewers; we weren’t nor ever would be rednecks, though of course we weren’t above staring wide-eyed for ninety minutes each week at sweating and bloated male bodies practicing their so-called profession. For the truth was that Mighty Yankee #3 and I had something in common beneath the masks. And it is only now that I can appreciate that his sardonic wit reminded me, and surely my Dad, of someone we knew and loved: the putdowns, the sarcasm, the feigned belligerence were pure Don Rickles! Best of all, the Yankees were managed by a dapper man in fedora, suit, and black loafers. A man with a moustache and shrewd New York accent. A man named Saul Weingeroff.
Saul was always out to get poor old Len Rossi, once hurling a fireball that he magically pulled from his coat sleeve and that damaged Len so badly he was out for weeks. You could say that Saul almost “crucified” Len. Or at least I will say it now because it never occurred to me then.
Just as I never wondered back then why Dad didn’t have to get up early Sunday morning to go to church with us.
On those mornings we’d discuss the previous night’s matches, that is if Dad wasn’t already engrossed in the newspaper’s accounts of the real Saturday sport, Alabama football. I’d try to convince Dad that when Don Carson hit Hillbilly Chuck with that steel chair it was real: “I saw the bruise,” I’d plead. But Dad just laughed and shook his head: “It’s just an act. They rehearse it the day before. There’s no magic there, Sonny.” And though I’d still wonder about Saul’s fireball, I was really more unsettled about the name “Saul” which I’d learned in Sunday School was not a name you held onto willingly unless you truly were some sort of villain.
I was too young then to see the larger picture—of my family, of Birmingham, of what was faked and of what people believed was real: of what and how they chose to worship. Two decades later, doing film research in graduate school, I discovered that Americans in the first few decades of the Twentieth Century worshipped Hollywood movie stars. I also learned that Hollywood was founded by Eastern-European, immigrant Jews. But while these Jewish moguls ran Hollywood, they wouldn’t let any actor work under a name that was “too Jewish.” Neither would they approve a script that focused on an obvious Jewish character or theme. The history of Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer, from stage to screen, is an instructive example.
And though wrestling is staged in the lowliest arena possible, what is it, finally, but a form of slum theater, a not-so-glamorous “show?”
It’s also true that, as in Hollywood gangster films, there were many ethnic types facing each other in the Birmingham wrestling ring: Corsica Joe, the Greek aerialist Mike Pappas, the Mad Mongolian, and even the African-American hero Bearcat Brown. They reflected the diverse city that tolerated, and for many years clearly supported their ring antics. It’s funny, troubling, and maybe not so mystifying, though, that there weren’t any Jewish wrestlers. But just as in 1930’s silent-Jew Hollywood, where Muni Weisenfreund, a Yiddish-speaking Eastern European immigrant, became Paul Muni, the actor who portrayed, among other ethnically Italian roles, the gangster “Tony Camonte” in Howard Hawks’ Scarface, I wonder if Birmingham wrestling had its own secret ethnic identity. For as I remember it, the supposedly Italian Len Rossi looked like he could have been my father’s cousin. He looked like his name could have been Leonard Roseman.
So it was that the Jews of Birmingham—there have been at least three congregations for over 100 years—seemed in control of that self-proclaimed “King of Sports,” professional wrestling. No one, it seems to me, recognized it then, and no one much remembers it now. Back then Birmingham lived in the segregated shadows of church bombings, police dogs, and boycotts. Synagogues were threatened with bombs, too. And if black people were barred from attending a white picnic, then Jews were surely the ants that white people either tolerated if there weren’t too many or drove back to their beds if they dared to cluster too numerously and too openly.
I wonder now what my Dad, or anyone else in the viewing area, thought of these Jews acting as fools or villains. And, moreover, what did these Jews think about the scripts they were asked or were paid to follow, or maybe even wrote; the “services” they were asked, or themselves paid, to perform?
Dad never once remarked on the Jewishness of these wrestling times, just as he never discussed with me then exactly why he went to a different “church,” or what being a Jew actually meant. I would learn much later of his pact with my mother: the tacit and silent agreement of their marriage, their decision as to which faith to raise their future children, and what each of them gave, and lost, and compromised.
Wrestling, too, has its compromises: each match has a time limit, and if no one has pinned or forced his opponent to submit before time expires, the match ends in a draw. By the time I could see the broader perspective of the life my parents created for us, there was no question, really, of winning anything. It had all become a matter of time, limited mainly by my failure to ask the right questions when I had the chance to do so.
Wrestling also requires, in its unwritten rules, that masked men have to be revealed at some point, especially if the masked man happens to be one of the “good guys.” I saw it happen on Channel 42 once. “The Mathked Thupathtar” was finally beaten—ganged up on by three villains who then ripped off his mask. Saved by hero Johnny Walker, the Thupathtar, blood-besotted but somehow still invincible, staggered over to Sterling who then asked him what he wanted to be called now. “The Mighty Atlas,” the unmasked man responded in a somewhat Latino accent.
“Well THAT was something!” I offered to Dad.
“But what’s the point?” Dad responded. “We still don’t know who he really is. How dumb!”
Maybe not, I think now, as I reflect on the different colors, sizes, and forms of the masks that so many of us feel we have to wear in order to enter the ring; masks we feel we can never really take off if we are to go on living comfortably, respectably, and meaningfully in cities like Bessemer, Birmingham, and Hollywood. Or even in our own homes.
Terry Barr is a native of Bessemer, who graduated from The University of Montevallo. His is now a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two daughters. He has had other nonfiction essays published in The American Literary Review, moonShine review, and The Battered Suitcase. He was also a contributor to the anthology, The Quiet Voices: Rabbi in the Black Civil Rights Era, for which he wrote the essay on Birmingham’s Rabbi Milton Grafman.