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

1935-2018

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?

Thursday, April 5, 2018

MultimediaMania

As the world gears up for WrestleMania XXXIV (we still use the Roman numerals around these parts), it feels like time again to look at the memorabilia of the big event. Instead of keepsakes sold to promote the show or at the event itself, these are items from after the fact. These are the vessels in which fans can take the show home themselves and treasure for a lifetime. These are the pieces of  physical media on which WrestleMania can be played over and over again. It's the entire WrestleMania event that you can hold in your hands.

If I had to bet, I would say that WWF WrestleMania hit more VHS tapes in Pittsburgh before anywhere else. Why? After the closed-circuit feed of the inaugural WrestleMania failed at the Pittsbugh Civic Arena (nearly causing a riot in the process), the WWF presented much of the show on the city's ABC affiliate WTAE around a week later. Surely many Steel City fans pushed the record button on their VCRs to capitalize on this momentous event. Vince McMahon's introduction for this broadcast, done from the set of TNT, recently surfaced on YouTube. A few more weeks would pass before Coliseum Video released the official VHS of the event, which also found its way to Laserdisc as one of four WWF offerings in that form of media. The Laserdisc, the size of a vinyl record, presents the famous Hulk Hogan and Mr. T cover art in a way that the smaller VHS couldn't.

Coliseum Video would continue to present the shows, albeit with some edits, on VHS through 1997. One show that saw few edits but featured a lot of added content on the Coliseum Video release was WrestleMania IV. The show was released as a double VHS set, but the box itself was not to be outdone. Housing these two tapes was a package which opened up into a cardboard "pop-up" of The Hulkster himself. Even thirty years later, few fans would be able to resist just how cool this addition was. The Coliseum Video exclusive interviews and features on this set also truly add to the shows and give it an even more epic feel.

1998 saw WWF Home Video take over for Coliseum Video, and the first thirteen WrestleMania events were re-released in a box set under the new label. The set featured dubs taken straight from the original pay-per-view broadcasts, often with portions of intermissions and merchandise commercials that had been long eliminated from home video versions. While the picture quality suffered in this release, there are zero music edits. Yes, even "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," "Easy Lover," and other unlicensed numbers are all there. I'm still unsure how they got away with that one, but I've always been proud to own the set.

In 1999, the WWF released its first DVD in the form of WrestleMania XV. A few years later came a DVD anthology that was released several ways. These sets were very disappointing thanks to intense, and often unnecessary, music edits as well as blurred WWF logos and a very bland packaging design. They are not unwatchable, but I largely ignored them for years, instead favoring homemade DVD transfers of the 1998 VHS anthology. A limited edition version with a leather outer box signed by Vince McMahon was just about the only decent variation on this otherwise bleak release.

WWE continues to release its biggest annual event on DVD and Blu-Ray. While physical media was supposed to be dead by this point in the digital age, it continues on. There will always be fans like me who enjoy having a tangible item in their hands. Is it any wonder that vinyl records have made a comeback? How about WrestleMania back on Laserdisc? Stranger things have happened...