Thursday, May 24, 2018

Signature Moves: Kerry Von Erich

Collecting signatures of long-deceased stars can often be a trying endeavor. As I've stated at other times on this blog, forged wrestling signatures are few and far between. There just isn't enough reason for someone to do it. The ones that do exist are fairly blatant and/or are sold by some now notorious names on a popular auction site. Even with the realest of the real, there's no true guarantee that anything was signed authentically without you seeing the autograph signed right in front of you. With long gone names, sometimes a really good chain of acquisition and ownership simply has to do. When collecting most of the Von Erich clan, this is usually the case.

The nice thing about collecting Von Erich signatures is that the boys signed a lot. Just pull up any World Class Championship Wrestling episode on WWE Network and you're bound to see a photo or two being signed. WCCW sold many 8x10s for the stars to autograph, and many of their fans have kept these treasures over the years. The boys, being the Texas heroes that they were, also did any number of personal appearances where autographs were given to send the legions of fans home happy. My favorite member of the family, Kerry, was no stranger to this. Even though we just hit the milestone of twenty-five years since his death, his autographs can still be found.

One of the most popular 8x10s of Kerry sold by WCCW included his dog Bo. Another featured Kerry seemingly caught in the light of a sunburst. In the example that I own, father Fritz even signed in the "sun" itself, as if he were the shining light to guide Kerry to stardom. Both of these photos, as shown, feature full "Kerry Von Erich" signatures, but that was not always the case. Some examples were simply signed "Kerry," likely in a rush situation as shown so often on World Class television episodes as the boys were being rushed to the ring at the Dallas Sportatorium.

Many stories of the Von Erich boys signing exist. When you can acquire a signature with a story or even appearance advertisement it makes the item all the sweeter. Many of the female WCCW fans held onto their collections over the years which has been a prime source for myself acquiring the signatures of Kerry and other family members.

Kerry was signing right up until his death in 1993. In January of that year the former "Texas Tornado" appeared at a convention and show in Philadelphia. A series of photos of the stars who appeared at this event seem to have originated here. They are made to look like promotional photos and have a "Legends of Wrestling" logo on them. There are items out there, including my example of the aforementioned photo, signed by Kerry in some sort of silver pen. While normally this would be a red flag when associated with someone who passed away before silver Sharpies came into existence, there were other writing apparatuses at the time which produced a similar look.

For all of troubles that they eventually found, the Von Erich boys were said to be good to others and specifically to their fans. It doesn't surprise me that evidence of such, in this case pressed to paper, still exists long after they have become memories to those who knew them and legends to those who watched them in the ring.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Territory Photo Albums--WWWF 1976

Before the Internet, how did you see the rosters of your local wrestling territory? If you were lucky, your promotion put out a photo album or yearbook! Usually for a nominal fee, plus postage and handling, these publications could be the key to any fan becoming an expert on the stars and champions of any number of promotions. Some areas kept up better than others at maintaining these guides, but most put out at least a few that are known to exist today.

Bruno Sammartino featured heavily in the five Tri-State Wrestling photo albums put out by the Pittsburgh wrestling office in the 1960's. It's no surprise that "The Living Legend" also made the cover of the 1976 World Wide Wrestling Federation album. Officially titled "Championship Wrestling Yearbook," Sammartino is shown on the cover in a fierce battle with longtime nemesis "The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff. Of course, Koloff is also the man who ended Sammartino's first World Heavyweight Championship reign.

Also on the cover is the famous Madison Square Garden logo. These were likely sold at the Garden, though the inside cover shows that these were also marketed through the mail. Just $2.00 ($1.50 for the yearbook, .50 for postage and handling) was all that this forty-page treasure cost 42 years ago. As with so much shown on this blog, if we only had a time machine...

The yearbook features two page spreads on the top stars, while others get single pages (including one each on "The Three Wise Men of The East") and many other get a single photo. All in all we've got Sammartino, Superstar Billy Graham, Ivan Putski, Koloff, Louis Cerdan, Tony Parisi, Buggsy McGraw, Andre the Giant, Fabulous Moolah, Gorilla Monsoon, Spiros Arion, Bobo Brazil, Lou Albano, Freddie Blassie, The Grand Wizard, Haystack Calhoun, Dominick DeNucci, Pat Barrett, Baron Mikel Scicluna, Chief Jay Strongbow, Ernie Ladd, Francisco Flores, Manuel Soto, Pete Sanchez, Johnny Rodz, Black Jack Lanza, Black Jack Mulligan, Jimmy Valiant, Johnny Valiant, Kevin Sullivan, Crusher Blackwell, Dave O'Hannon, Pete Reeves, George Steele, Bob Duncum, Butcher Vachon, Waldo Von Erich, Tony Altimore, The Wolfman, Tony Garea, Dean Ho, Pedro Morales, Taro Tanaka, Susan Greene, Toni Rose, and "The WWWF," which we'll get to.

The many misspellings above are intentional. Those are the misspellings used in the yearbook itself, so I repeated them here for historical accuracy. Most of the photos match up, even if you'll be thrown for a loop at just how young and different the man later known as "The Taskmaster" looks here as regular Kevin Sullivan. It should be noted that the picture used for Toni Rose is actually her tag partner Donna Christanello. The two were often mistaken for each other in photos, and I always enjoy seeing my late friend Donna show up. She is sorely missed.

The last page, listed in the table of contents as "The WWWF," features the brass. The head honchos. The office. Shown are Willie Gilzenberg, Vince McMahon, Arnold Skoaland, Phil Zacko, Angelo Savoldi, and television announcers Vince McMahon Jr. and Antonino Rocca. It's amazing that only Skaaland was misspelled. Of everyone on this page, only Vincent Kennedy McMahon is alive today, though Savoldi just passed away a few years ago and made it as one of the longest living wrestlers on record. If anyone knew where the bodies were buried, it's these seven men.

It's always a blast to look through these publications. Back then, they were a fun look at the stars of the wrestling world as it was in your area. Today they're a time capsule of a bygone era with men and women who are now legends. Featured here were the stars of what the wrestling world knew as "New York." They filled the Garden to capacity and then moved onto the next town, no matter how big or small. The promoters were happy with an ass every eighteen inches, the wrestlers were happy with a decent check and a six-pack.

May those days be remembered forever...

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A Big Bully...Who Was A Great Guy

It's been a tough couple of months for names associated with wrestling in the Steel City. First Johnny Valiant's tragic death, followed by the unexpected passing of the all-time Pittsburgh wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino. Now, Nick Busick, best remembered as Big Bully Busick, has died after a long battle with cancer.

Busick got his start in Pittsburgh in the late 70s, Though he was largely a preliminary wrestler in many areas, that made him no less a name among fans and peers alike. His most remembered stints would likely be in the GWF and, of course, the WWF.

The cigar-chomping Bully's run in the World Wrestling Federation, managed by Harvey Wippleman, was brief but memorable. He had matches with many of the WWF's top stars including Bret Hart and Sid Justice. His run yielded two trading cards in a European set produced by Merlin, as well as inclusion in the 1991 Survivor Series program as he was originally scheduled to be part of the event.

In the Pittsburgh and West Virginia area, Busick was a familiar face. He made various appearances at wrestling, mixed martial arts, and bodybuilding events over the years. Despite being a "Big Bully," Busick had a way of making everyone feel like an old friend, or even part of the family that he cherished so much. Welcoming one and all to his personal Facebook page, his love for his family was regularly waved like a flag.

It was also on social media that many fans learned of his cancer battle, which he was also not shy about. Few put up a braver fight against the dreaded disease, which I'm sure he raised awareness of as he often talked about.

From bodybuilder to wrestler to police officer to family man, Busick was another role model in the vein of Sammartino. His friends and family have a lot to be proud of when remembering "The Bully..."

"Big Bully" Nick Busick


Thursday, May 3, 2018

Toys "R" Us Delivers a Final "Weapon of Mass Destruction"

No one wanted to see Toys "R" Us close. As different as it was from when many of us were kids, it was an institution. As frustrating as things got when action figure collecting was at its height, with rampant stories of employees selling "rare" figures out the back, many of us remained loyal Toys "R" Us kids. Now in 2018, we're all making our last stops to "the world's biggest toy store." Many wrestling collectors have a reason to visit, a last exclusive WWE figure set from Mattel.

The WWE Fan Central series features Mark Henry (as Sexual Chocolate), Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, Triple H, and The Big Show. They're in the 2018 boxy packaging that I love and really could have been part of the previous Toys "R" Us exclusive line, the WWE Network Spotlight collection. It's "The World's Largest Athlete" that we're focusing on today, who has always been one of my favorites to collect as an action figure. There's just something about a legitimate giant that translates well into plastic. Plus, stretching back to the days of the well-remembered and dangerous (did you ever hit another kid with one?) King Kong Bundy LJN figure, you just feel that you get your money's worth with the bigger guys.

We're seeing a few firsts for a figure of The Big Show in this release. This is the first time that this particular head sculpt has been used. How about that beard? This is also the first time to my knowledge that we see a completely closed fist for Show, allowing the figure to properly "knockout punch" any opponent. The left hand of the figure is aptly reused from recent Andre the Giant releases. Maybe I should say "paw" instead of "hand?" The body of the figure itself also seems to be new, showing off a svelter Show than in past figures.

Speaking of Andre, this is the second figure to include the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal trophy. Just as in its original release, the trophy is "breakable" for jealous runners-up to smash in an epic tantrum. The trophy itself doesn't have quite the "shine" that the first release did, but unless the two accessories are side-by-side, you wouldn't really notice. It remains one of my all-time favorite wrestling figure accessories and looks great packaged with, in my opinion, the most deserving of the Andre Battle Royal winners to date.

This whole series is a winner. Why did it have to be exclusive? Many theories abound as to what will happen. Toys "R" Us stores are STILL receiving shipments of this series, thus the secondary market prices have greatly dropped. There are rumors that Mattel took back some of the cases due to the chain closing. Will they show up elsewhere? I wouldn't doubt it. Needless to say, I feel that three of the four figures here (Show, Heenan, and Henry) belong in any collection and the situation does need to be handled to satisfy collector demand. When will we find out? You won't see it comin', but I promise you'll know...

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Losing "Number One"...

In 2017 we had a rough week in the first quarter of the year. The wrestling world lost both George "The Animal" Steele and "The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff within days. As we enter the second quarter of 2018, we have a mirroring situation losing both Bruno Sammartino and "Number One" Paul Jones.

When I first met Paul Jones, I basically only knew his work as manager of "The Paul Jones Army." His group was a rather ragtag bunch, but offered a savage display of heels as opposed to their fellow NWA "bad guy" group, the "classier" Four Horsemen. Jones managed Abdullah the Butcher, Ivan Koloff, the Powers of Pain, Manny Fernandez, and Ravishing Rick Rude among others. Jones, in his almost-Nazi looking attire, barked orders like a general. His feud with "Boogie Woogie Man" Jimmy Valiant? Endless yet entertaining.

It was the NWA Fanfest deemed a "Tribute To Starrcade." Jones was among the first stars that I ran into that weekend back in 2004. "Number One" had a question and answer session that first night, in which it was apparent that he was beloved by many of the Carolina fans, many of which he was on a first name basis with. As my friend and I stood outside of the room waiting to enter the Q&A, Jones, wearing a Stetson, approached us and asked where we were from. Replying "Pittsburgh," Jones quickly retorted, "Well, I won't hold that against you." He was quick to add, "I'm only joking around with you guys," almost as if he were afraid that we were offended. We were not, we had just met "Number One."

I was fortunate enough to see him a few other times at the famous Fanfests and have various items autographed including photos, Wonderama trading cards, and some classic magazines including several issues of the treasured Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling title. One of the latter had a great cover featuring Jones and one of his many partners, The Masked Superstar. After I had it signed by both, I was able to get a photograph with both gentleman and myself holding the magazine.

After that very first meeting, I went back and sought out footage of Jones in his wrestling heyday in both the Carolinas and Florida. It's a shame that Jones will mainly be remembered as a manager, as he was quite the in-ring talent. Seeing these matches, it's easy to see why he was still so popular at the conventions with the fans who saw him live in-ring.

Whether you saw him as a wrestler, a manager, or just a retired wrestler that you met at a convention, you remembered Paul Jones. He was quite a character, and someone seemingly born to be in the wrestling business. It just seemed to be in his blood.

"Number One" Paul Jones


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Eternally Our Living Legend...

Just a few weeks ago, a thread on a popular discussion forum caught my attention. The subject was the popularity of Bruno Sammartino. I felt the need to chime in, as I feared that the Pittsburgh portion of the legacy of "The Living Legend" would be ignored. While his hero status in the Northeast, especially New York, Philadelphia, and Boston is always mentioned, Pittsburgh is sometimes bypassed. Sure, the former three cities were WWWF strongholds when Bruno ruled, but there was a difference...Bruno BELONGED to Pittsburgh.

In that thread, I mentioned that it was not unusual for Pittsburghers who grew up watching Sammartino to mention his name in the same breath as other sports heroes such as Roberto Clemente. In fact, the surnames need not be mentioned. Denizens of The Steel City treat their heroes like members of the family. "Roberto" and "Bruno" would be as welcome in their homes just as much today as they would have been fifty years ago.

Now, nearly sixty years since he first captured the hearts and imaginations of the fans who went to the Pittsburgh Civic Arena or tuned into WIIC-TV for "Studio Wrestling," Bruno Sammartino has crossed over. No longer can fans line up to meet this mythical-seeming man at a local Italian festival or sports memorabilia show. The mothers and fathers, explaining to their children in tow how Bruno beat the likes of Crusher Lisowski, George Steele, and Killer Kowalski from pillar to post, will no longer be able to shake this living superman's hand. The man is gone and with him an era.

I can still remember finding a carded example of his first action figure, from the LJN WWF Wrestling Superstars line, for $15 at a local sports memorabilia show. As much as I wanted to open it, my dad told me not to as I would be able to have it autographed someday. While my dad himself never did have the chance to meet Bruno, the figure did end up signed. My dad also never had the opportunity to attend a card headlined by Bruno, despite the story that my grandfather often said he would take his brood to the matches. This is why it meant a lot to me when it was announced that Sammartino would be joining the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. Myself and many others already had tickets to attend the event in New York's Madison Square Garden, but the event did not sell out until this particular announcement. Therefore, in honor of my dad, I attended what would end up being Bruno's last sellout.

He was a superhero without a cape. A humble family man thrust into one of the biggest spotlights ever shone in the world of professional wrestling. And as much as he preferred life with his family, it would surprise me to ever hear a story of Bruno turning down a moment with a fan. The star who waited until the last autograph was signed? That was Bruno.

While others might envision "The Living Legend" entering the pearly gates to greet wrestlers gone by, I would doubt that very much. To Bruno, wresting was a business. Instead, I see Sammartino rushing to see his beloved parents once again. His mother, without whom he would not have survived a childhood marred by World War Two, would be his number one priority. With this reunion in mind, I'm sure that our Italian strongman was not afraid to pass over.

Thank you, Mr. Sammartino. Thank you for brightening the childhoods of my parents, countless Pittsburghers, and millions all around. Thank you for giving their parents and grandparents a hero to root for each and every week, even when their lives were less than hopeful. The opportunity to chant "BRUN-O" in Madison Square Garden just around five years ago is a moment that I will always cherish as a wrestling fan...and a true Pittsburgher.

Bruno Sammartino


Thursday, April 12, 2018

Post-Mania Blues? Look To The Figures!

While it isn't quite 1985 or 1999, wrestling is popular again. There is a lot of variety to choose from in the market. It's that "something for everyone" feeling that opens up a boom period. That being said, with WrestleMania in the books, it's time for the year-long build to start over from the ground up. For regular wrestling fans this is often considered a downtime. If you're a collector, never fear. Mattel is here.

Now eight years into the license, Mattel is stronger than ever with their WWE releases. The vast number of talent available to them, be it WWE and NXT superstars or Legends, is a great help. After what I will always consider to be a shaky start, Mattel truly starting coming into their own once they balanced what they are able to produce with what fans and collectors want. Considering the way that the figures have been flying off of the shelves, many of which gain traction on the secondary market, they seem to have found the right formula.

Mattel has changed the packaging of their lineups nearly every year. The 2018 design is simple and elegant yet catches the eye. The latter is due to Mattel finally allowing the figures themselves take the spotlight, especially in the current Elite packaging. The toy itself should be enough to make a sale. After all, we generally aren't paying for the packaging. A larger ""window" on the box also allows autograph collectors to get a bigger, more satisfying signature.

Store exclusives have allowed the release of many figures that, for whatever reason, the company would not put in their regular lineups. Though the demise of Toys "R" Us will greatly reduce these exclusives, Wal Mart and Target along with online retailers will still see their share. The Target "Hall of Fame" lineups and packaging have been very popular. The "Build-A-Figure" sets as well as those enabling fans to build set pieces seem to be remaining with Wal Mart. The latter two will include the first ever figures of JJ Dillon and Alundra Blayze respectively.

The NXT line, also exclusive to Target, has also introduced many new names into the fray. With the massive amount of talent under contract to WWE, who is to say that some of these names will ever actually get another figure? Things happen. Plus, what's cooler than a rookie figure in unique, eye-catching packaging? It was recently revealed that Paul Ellering will receive a figure in this line. This is the second legend, after Larry Zbyszko last year, to receive only their second figure in their career thanks to Mattel. Both had their first in the Remco AWA back in 1985.

We've seen a lot of great figures this year, and I thought that I'd already had my choice for "Figure of the Year" (Give me a break!). But with all of the product yet to come, I'm just not sure. My five all-time favorite wrestlers will finally be fully represented by Mattel with the release of an amazing looking "King" Harley Race. In addition, Bobby Roode will be getting a "Glorious" third release and the very first figure of "The Leader of The Four Horsemen" will be some tough competition for my first choice. One thing is for sure: collectors are ready. But are their wallets?