Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Territory Photo Albums--Pittsburgh 1967

 Fans nowadays have it easy!  If they want to know who's officially on the WWE roster, they can simply pull up the WWE App and a fully interactive listing is available at their disposal, complete with photos, facts, and even videos.  Back in the territorial days of wrestling, this would've been looked at as something out of science fiction.  The more advantageous fan might contact or even visit the offices of their local wrestling promoter in order to gain more info and facts, but that was about as far as it went.  If the fan wanted a "Who's Who" of wrestling stars and info they could usually purchase a program at an event, but one item was just a tad better: the photo album.

Most territories eventually released a publication billed as either a photo album or something similar.  These books were program/magazine sized and printed on a variety of materials.  Some had color, some did not.  Some had thicker, sturdier covers while others were all on standard paper.  A few were produced by the promotion itself, while others had some help from other publishers.  No matter the differences, they all served to advertise and promote the talent to the masses.

Since so many different albums were produced, it'd be an injustice to lump them all into one entry.  As a continuing series, we'll take a look at photo albums from territories around the country featuring many of the all-time greats and even some forgotten names.  For a few reasons, we'll start right here in the home city of this very blog, Pittsburgh, PA.

The photo albums put out by the Pittsburgh wrestling office, known as Spectator Sports, were titled "Tri-State Wrestling."  To many, they're known as the "Studio Wrestling photo albums," as "Studio Wrestling" was the name of the much-missed Pittsburgh wrestling television program, most famously hosted by Bill Cardille.  Growing up, I would constantly hear the WWF and other then-current wrestling promotions referred to as "Studio Wrestling" by adults.  I later figured out that the name is simply what these folks grew up on, so it became a generic title for which to refer to any form of pro wrestling.

Five of the Pittsburgh Tri-State Wrestling photo albums were produced in all, ranging from roughly 1963 to 1969.  The albums were sold through advertisements on arena programs and on the Studio Wrestling show itself.  For a nominal fee, you could own an album showing you full page shots of your local wrestling favorites, and even some national stars that were thrown in for good measure.  In the days before the over-saturation of televised wrestling, not to mention the Internet, these albums were the kind of thing that fans stared at for hours.

Exact release dates on these albums are fuzzy at best, but most agree that the edition shown here today is from around 1967 and would've been the third of the five released.  As with all but one of the Tri-State albums, the WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino is featured in a classic pose on the cover.  These Tri-State covers were usually very colorful, and this one is a mix of color and glorious black and white.  Interestingly, Sammartino is referred to as the "Holder Of World-Wide Wrestling Federation Championship."  It is often recalled that the title was usually just referred to as the "World Championship" on Studio Wrestling broadcasts.

In addition to being fun to look at, these albums also often provided a great place to obtain autographs in those very early days of wrestling merchandising.  Subsequently, it is not unusual to purchase any territorial photo album that contain signatures.  Long time readers of this blog may remember this Tri-State album, as I once uncovered a photo of the late Chief White Owl autographing the cover of one.  Whether or not this is the exact one or not will never be known, but the one in my collection does indeed have White Owl's signature right on the cover.  I've since been able to add Sammartino's signature as well as other living Pittsburgh wrestling legends, but it's always interesting to see just who the original fan was able to meet up with all of those years ago.

The Tri-State albums are a mix of promotional style photos and action shots.  In addition to men who competed in the Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania area like Sammartino, George Steele, Gorilla Monsoon, Bill Miller, Johnny DeFazio, and The Battman are wrestlers who had either passed through the area at one time or may never have really spent any time here at all such as Bobo Brazil, Arman Hussain, Toru Tanaka, and Luke Graham.  It was a smart idea by the Pittsburgh promoters to make the promotion seem even larger and more important.

Another fun gimmick that the promoters used to make the promotion seem larger can be seen in several of the photos, most notably in the in-ring photo of Steele.  Though crowds at the WIIC (now WPXI) studios were boisterous, fake fans made of cardboard helped to fill out certain sides of the ring in an attempt to make the studio seem even larger.  In the days before high-definition television cameras, this most likely worked to a degree, despite being blatantly obvious here in print.

Speaking of the studio, it seems that the original owner of this album most likely attended a live television broadcast of Studio Wrestling.  The thought behind this is the inclusion of the two gem autographs of the album, the first of which is promoter Rudy Miller.  Miller is often credited with discovering Bruno Sammartino himself, and is in fact listed as such right here in the album.  Although he was probably accessible for an autograph, it likely didn't occur to many fans to ask him for one.  After all, he wasn't a wrestler.  Also shown on the page are various officials, the ring announcer, and Dr. Louis R. Civitarese.  Civitarese, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 92, was the doctor who attended to Sammartino when the legend broke his neck in the 1970's.

The other star autograph in the album is also of a man who was not a wrestler, but rather a baseball Hall of Famer.  Pie Traynor, legendary Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman, is best remembered in the city today for being the pitchman for American Heating Company.  Traynor would do live commercials during the Studio Wrestling program where he would proclaim "Who Can? AmeriCAN!" to a generation of steel town wrestling fans.  Today, mentioning either Traynor or Studio Wrestling to a Pittsburgher above the age of 55 will likely produce an imitation of the famous pitch.

I have a soft spot for Pittsburgh for many reasons that I've covered over the years, but looking through the photo album of any wrestling territory is a thrill.  They're yet another great relic of the wrestling business gone-by, but in some ways they're continuing today.  In upcoming editions of "The Territory Photo Albums," we'll take a look at all aspects of such publications, and I hope that the stars pop out of these entries the way that they do in these albums of ten, twenty, and even fifty years ago.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Cocktail Napkin

Sometimes the best collectible items were never meant to be saved at all.  They didn't necessarily begin their lives as anything significant.  Somewhere along the way, something happened to the item to make it special.  That event saved an ordinary, everyday item from being used, discarded, and ultimately disintegrating into nothing.  We're going to take a look at something just like that.  A small item that would've been destroyed over forty years ago had three specific men not come into contact with it.  That item, now a unique wrestling artifact, is...a cocktail napkin.

I like to refer to the 1970's as the "wild west days" of professional wrestling.  The "boom" caused by wrestling being a hit on the then-new medium of television in the '50s had long passed.  The "Rock N Wrestling" era of the '80s was still far off.  The '70s, from all accounts, still saw major popularity for the sport of kings, but stories of the era create a very exciting and somewhat chaotic image of the decade.  The NWA was still in full force, yet many of the individual promoters were battling outlaw organizations around the country.  The WWWF ruled the northeast, most importantly the gritty and often dangerous New York City of the era.  The AWA, however, is the territory that we may have the best glimpse into all of these years later.

Although a work of fiction, the AWA-backed 1974 film titled "The Wrestler," provides a fun look into the stars of Verne Gagne's promotion and the business in general.  In one of the most famous scenes, Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch participate in a barroom brawl, a concept that creeps into many real-life stories from that time.  I'm sure that not all of the nights in bars ended up that way, but there's no doubt that many memorable moments involving wrestlers took place in various hole-in-the-wall establishments around the world.

Several years ago, I stumbled upon a cocktail napkin that proudly advertises, "River Queen Bar - Lounge - Grand Forks, North Dakota."  On the back of the well-kept piece of ephemera are the autographs of Rhodes, Ivan Koloff, and Dennis Stamp.  The original owner of the napkin claimed that his dad obtained the autographs after a night of drinking around 1971.

Research suggests that the night was more likely in early 1972, as all three men were wrestling in the AWA at that time.  There doesn't seem to be much info regarding the establishment, but one can only imagine the atmosphere, especially when this troupe of grapplers entered the scene.  Adding to the story is the interesting quote of "When You're Out Of Work--Look Me Up...For Sparring!"  It's hard to tell just which one of the three wrestlers added the quote, but perhaps a barroom brawl did in fact break out that night!

Items like these are what truly keep the history of the business alive.  The autographs aren't rare and all three men still sign today, but it's the manner and context that make them much more interesting than one obtained in a normal setting.  Surely none of the three wrestlers or the recipient of the autographs ever would've imagined that small, square, early '70s napkin being discussed nearly a half century later, but here we are.  Dusty, Ivan, and Dennis, here's to you and those glory days, and nights, on the road!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Georgia Championship Wrestling...34 Years Ago To The Day

Often we look back on the events in wrestling's past that will never be forgotten.  The WrestleMania's, the Starrcade's, and Monday Night Raw's that will linger in the back of our minds as long as we're fans.  But what about the forgotten shows?  The shows that, for decades and decades, could be found somewhere in the world on any given night of the week.  No record of these shows may exist aside from a card rundown, results, or sometimes even less, but these are the events that kept the business going.  Before the advent of supercards and pay-per-view, these shows were where the money was made, as were the memories.

One of those very shows took place thirty-four years from the date of the publication of this article.  It was a Georgia Championship Wrestling card in Athens, GA on Thursday night, July 17, 1980.  The cover of the program at the time, the weekly Ringsider (Vol. 80 No. 14, to be exact) featured Ole Anderson in a familiar pose.  The gruff grappler is shown on the set of the Georgia Championship Wrestling television program, making a heated point as he is interviewed by Gordon Solie. 

Inside on the first page we are treated to photos and a listing of the then-current champions.  Harley Race was the (NWA) World Heavyweight Champion, while Ivan Koloff and Alexis Smirnoff held the Georgia Tag Team Championship, Tommy Rich was the National TV Champion, and Austin Idol was the Georgia Heavyweight Champion.  Promoter Paul Jones, a man often confused '60s-'80s star wrestler and manager of the same name, is pictured as is Freddie Miller.  Known for his "Beeeeee There!" catchphrase when promoting local cards on television, Miller was also the editor of The Ringsider.

A separate piece of paper is included with the rundown of the night's card.  Fans in Athens were scheduled to be treated to The Assassins versus Ole & Lars Anderson, Bob Sweetan versus Mike George, Tony Atlas versus Dennis Condrey, and Jay Strongbow versus Eddie Mansfield.  In addition to the classic NWA Wrestling logo, a special greeting is included at the bottom.  It seems that the W.F.I.A. (Wrestling Fans International Association) was in Atlanta with their annual convention at the same time that this show was held.  There is no doubt that many W.F.I.A. members attended this card.  Anyone who wanted to be as "inside" to the wrestling business as you could be at the time was a member of that organization.  Even Juanita "Sapphire" Wright belonged to the club!

Next in the program is a full-page ad where Dusty Rhodes declares that he, indeed, "can tell you about pain."  It seems that "The American Dream" was a spokesperson for Stanback Powders at the time.  Grab a boxtop, $4.95, and this filled-out coupon and you would receive a shirt just like the one that Big Dust is shown wearing.  While the shirts are assuredly long gone, a quick Google search shows that this brand of headache powders does in fact still exist.  If only Dusty's magical fro still existed, too.  Nevertheless, this is a great example of the connection with the fans that "The American Dream" had throughout his career.

The next two pages are full shots of Tommy Rich and Austin Idol, the TV and Georgia Champions, respectively.  Rich was less than a year away from the brief peak of his career when he took the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from Harley Race.  Idol would go on to make his mark in several wrestling territories, including Memphis, but never seemed to attain the level of fame and success that his talent deserved.  Looking at both men today, they certainly seem to have lived different lifestyles.  Idol looks almost identical as he did in his wrestling days, while Rich is almost unrecognizable.

Our next page is a recap of some recent tv action.  In this case, it seems that a tag team known as "The Avengers" recently appeared on the Georgia Championship Wrestling scene.  I wonder how many fans knew that these two masked bulks were actually Ole and Lars Anderson.  Apparently they unmasked in a scuffle with Koloff, Smirnoff, and manager Rock Hunter.  I guarantee that Ole's often commanding promos convinced many a fan into buying a ticket to see this feud play out.

On the last inside page, we have a half-page action shot of two men who would go on to much greater fame.  "The Boston Battler" Kevin Sullivan has Tenru in a chinlock.  The young Asian star is better known as "Tenryu" and became a legend in Japan in addition to being a well-known name here in the United States.  The second half of the page is an ad for rentals at Grove Park Apartments.  For just $125 per month, fans of GCW could rent an apartment right on 1401 Bankhead Highway, named for U.S. Senator John H. Bankhead, grandfather of the outrageous actress Tallulah Bankhead.  Apartments are still located at the address, but they no longer bear the same name nor the same low monthly rate.

We end the program with a great shot of "The Big Cat" Ernie Ladd.  Ladd would begin to wrap up his career in the 1980's, and by the middle of the decade was working behind the scenes with the WWF.  So what happened at the matches that night?  Strongbow defeated Mansfield, Atlas defeated Condrey, Sweetan defeated Mike Sharpe, and The Assassins defeated The Anderson's.  Whether or not it was actually Mike Sharpe as listed in the results or Mike George as listed on the card may forever be up in the air.  Both men were active in the territory at the time.  The results were obtained from, an invaluable tool for any fan of territorial wrestling.

I would imagine that like with many of these shows, a good time was had by all that night.  It was a time when wrestling truly was wrestling.  The stereotype of smoke-filled armories come to life.  Pro wrestling will never be like that again.  It's a different business in a different time.  But shows like these will always be the roots of the modern-day product.  In the end, it's about entering a different world for a couple of hours and letting the in-ring action take over.  That's something that, no matter the era, the industry will always provide.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mattel Completes Demolition, Elite Style

Although I've always had a problem choosing my all-time favorite singles wrestler (I've narrowed it down to five), tag teams have been much easier.  When asked, I've never thought twice about it, Demolition is my favorite tag team of all-time.  Some have labeled them as Road Warrior ripoffs, but it really isn't true at all.  While they may have been created so that the WWF could have a tag team with menacing facepaint and attire, that's really where it begins and ends.  Even with the "cartoonish" design of the WWF at the time, Demolition came off to me as much more believable than their "invincible" counterparts.

Ax and Smash could have some great matches with a variety of opponents.  They had power though they did not rely on it, instead being able to change their style to combat teams as diverse as The Rockers, The Powers of Pain, and The Hart Foundation.  They also did not overstay their welcome.  Although the final year was not nearly as strong as the first three, it did introduce a new member into the group, Crush.

Although Crush had other looks in his career still using the same name, many remember him from this first incarnation.  In between WWF stints, Crush returned to his home territory of Portland and continued to wear the Demolition gear.  There is also a story that Crush appeared at ringside in his Demolition garb in late 1993 around the time that he turned on Randy Savage.  While no photographic proof of this has surfaced, it's not that far of a stretch to believe that this happened while his similar "heel" design was being finalized.

Mattel has decided to include Demolition Crush in their Elite Flashback series.  Ax and Smash appeared years ago in Mattel's late Legends series.  Despite them being my favorite tag team, I was less than enamored with the final product.  Ax and Smash just seemed too slight and small for two men who were always bulky.  This was during the early days of the WWE-Mattel relationship when the toy company was providing underwhelming likenesses for larger-than-life characters.

Crush is an immediate improvement with the new Mattel Elite packaging alone.  He fills the window box well, as he should being the tallest Demolition member.  Included are the removable mask, vest, and arm gauntlets that were also included with Ax and Smash.  I have seen Ax's original vest in person and the one included here is an exactly replica.  The mask and gauntlets are very spot on as well.

The figure itself is good and tall, but the bulk suffers as it does with the earlier two members.  Crush just looks too thin to me.  These men were monsters.  One nice touch across the board on all three is that the torso joint pleasantly blends in behind the leather straps that were a Demolition trademark.  Those straps are done as a separate piece which is a nice touch when they could easily have been painted on.

As far as facial likeness, the paint is spot on.  The flowing black hair is also here.  What isn't here is the face of Brian Adams.  What I'm seeing is the Crush makeup on a rather generic face.  I also felt that the Mattel Smash suffered from this oversight as well.  It's not a complete killer, but it's the kind of thing that prevents a figure from being great.  At least the scowl looks like Crush, but I'm just not seeing Adams, whose likeness has been captured rather closely in the past.

Someone wanting to complete the Mattel Demolition tag team trio or the Legends/Flashbacks in general will want Crush.  In my opinion, even being the Demolition fan that I am, Mattel would've done better with a colorful "Kona" Crush figure.  For as brief as that run was, something with that character resonated with the young fans of the era to where it is the fondest remembered of Crush's personas.

Mattel has obviously found success by releasing Legends in the Flashback spot.  Andre the Giant, Lex Luger, and the Road Warriors are coming and while I know that we'll never get the depth that came with Jakks Classic Superstars line, Crush gives me hope that we'll get more figures of the lesser done names.  Now, if we can only get that Magnum T.A. released...

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jerry Lawler Sings

It is hard to believe that the last time that Jerry "The King" Lawler was the focal point of an entry on this blog was nearly two years ago.  I had decided to reflect on him after his heart attack which occurred live during a broadcast of Monday Night Raw.  Much to the relief of many, "The King" survived.  Although he was very lucky to be where he was at the time of his emergency, which included nearly instantaneous medical assistance, Lawler has always been full of life.  A continuously successful career in pro wrestling for over four decades almost requires that kind of attitude, as well as the ability to adapt.

Some would point to Lawler's home wrestling territory of Memphis as almost an early view at what would later become "sports entertainment."  Crazy characters and even crazier situations would often find their way onto Memphis television and into the Mid-South Coliseum on Monday nights.  Lawler was frequently at the center of this madness, which probably helped him call some of the wacky Monday Night Raw antics so many years later.  "The King" was known for verbalizing some of the all-time great wrestling promos while feuding with the likes of Terry Funk, Randy Savage, and Andy Kaufman, but how about harmonizing?

Yes indeed, Jerry Lawler sang, or as his first LP was titled, "Jerry Lawler Sings."  Lawler produced two albums and about a dozen singles, but "Sings" was his first.  He wasn't the only Memphis wrestling star to be involved with music, keeping company with Jimmy Valiant, Sputnik Monroe, and of course Jimmy Hart.  I guess the pull of Nashville and Memphis' own music history was too much to resist.

Produced by Star Burst Records and recorded at Allied Recording Studio in Memphis, Lawler belted out ten tracks including covers of The Rolling Stones' "Heart of Stone," Buck Owen's "Act Naturally," Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," Dr. Hook's "The Millionaire," and the Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson collaboration "Good Hearted Woman."  The other five songs include "She's In Love With A Star," "Melinda," "If We Don't Make It Better," and "Happy Go Lucky" penned by Richard Ross and "Bumped Out of Love" penned by Earnest Vescovo.

If the cover art looks familiar, it's because Lawler held a copy up at his 2007 WWE Hall of Fame induction.  He also held up the record put out by the man who inducted him that night, William Shatner, and made a few jokes about both efforts.  Recently I was able to have a copy signed by Lawler himself.  He was absolutely stunned to see it and said that even he no longer owned a copy.  I asked what had happened to the copy from the Hall of Fame, and he said that it disappeared after the event.  To the amusement of "The King," I joked that Shatner took it home with him.

Lawler signed it with his amazing signature that is among my favorites of any wrestler, and had a question for me, "Do you still have a record player?"  I do, and told him that I own many of the wrestling records, including Jimmy Hart's "Outrageous Conduct" albums.  He pointed out that he created the cover art on the original release, which indeed was another musical entry from Memphis wrestling that was later re-released during Hart's WWF tenure.

Have I listened to it?  Well, no.  "The King" was amazed that the vinyl looked untouched.  Who wants to scratch up wrestling history?  Some of Lawler's music efforts can be found online, and while his self-depreciating humor regarding his musical career may be valid, you have to give credit to anyone who puts themselves out there in such a manner.  That's just another reason why he always will indeed be, "The King."