Thursday, May 22, 2014

Wrestling's Greatest Pitchman--Mean Gene Okerlund

Sure, there were some great talents of the past who had the ability to talk you out of a few bucks and into a wrestling arena.  After all, a tookus every eighteen inches is the name of the game, but it takes some magic to get there.  When the wrestlers couldn't quite entice you to an event, there were men (and occasionally women) to help them along.  Whether it was an extra boost of confidence or maybe just a way to get the interview back on track, the individual holding the microphone was an integral part of the package.  When you heard the familiar lead in of "Come on in," you knew that it was the one and only Mean Gene getting down to business and attempting to keep order.

If you've been watching WWE Legends House, you can't help being entertained by Gene Okerlund.  As one of the eldest members of the crew, Gene's almost Fred Mertz-esque curmudgeonly character has been a highlight of the WWE Network reality show.  Initially, I questioned why both Okerlund and ring announcer Howard Finkel would be included in the same cast, as if there was a singular "announcers spot" in the lineup.  As we've come to find out, they each bring something very different to the table.

Mean Gene was an icon long before his Legends House stint.  Interviewing his way through Verne Gagne's AWA in the '70s and early '80s, Okerlund would become a household name in the era of "Rock N Wrestling."  Mean Gene had a way of making even the most insignificant interview segment appear like a feature on the nightly news.  With the turn of the microphone, the balding broadcaster could switch that importance into pure entertainment.

Fans of all ages recognized Mean Gene, thanks to his WWF career, as one of the authoritative voices of pro wrestling.  Appearing in live action segments of "Hulk Hogan's Rock N Wrestling," Okerlund was further able to showcase his entertaining side.  Armed with his famous microphone, Gene was also one of the first non-wrestlers to be produced in LJNs WWF action figure line.  Along with figures of a referee and Vince McMahon, Okerlund was included in an extension of the line that mainly featured the managers of the WWF.

Mean Gene is one of two LJN figures, along with fellow Legends Housemate Hillbilly Jim, that I distinctly remember seeing on store shelves early in my wrestling fandom.  Who could forget the shrugging, tuxedoed gentleman with the befuddled look on his face?  In recent years it has come to light that a prototype of the figure actually had arms outstretched down and to the front with a microphone nowhere in sight.  I think we're all glad that we received what turned out to be the finished product.

Other figures of Okerlund have been produced both by Toybiz for WCW and by Jakks for the WWE Classic Superstars line, but none have captured the personality of the legendary mic man like the LJN version.  Seeing as that personality was such a big part of the Mean Gene character, this is no big surprise.  For anyone who has ever denounced the LJN line for lack of articulation need look no further than this figure for everything that was right with the toys.

Cards, promo photos, and even toy microphones were also produced with the Gene Okerlund's likeness featured.  Gordon Solie appeared on some merchandise, but those were mostly regional items.  Gorilla Monsoon's memorabilia was largely confined to his wrestling days until some other items became available after his passing.  Mean Gene Okerlund was the first truly marketed wrestling announcer.

Why did it work for all of those years?  Probably because, like most great wrestling characters, what you see is what you get.  Self-appointed bartender for a night of drinks?  Checking out and coyly flirting with the vivacious Ashley Roberts?  Tossing a pickled pigs foot onto the lawn?  It's all Gene Okerlund, on-screen and off.  To many of us, he's a voice and persona that we all grew up with.   To the world, he's one of the most distinct personalities to come from the wrestling business.  You would think that he's done it all, but one can only imagine the response he would give if presented with such a thought...

"Give me a break!"

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