A chunk of my childhood was in black and white. Or, to be more accurate, my recollection of the outside world as-it-was when I was young, my memory of historical events, is in black and white because television was in black and white, and that was the conduit to the outside world. The Vietnam War, the Brady Bunch, Richard Nixon, the funeral of Martin Luther King, and even cartoons. Saturday nights when I was a pre-teen belonged to black-and-white UHF stations, to Big Time Wrestling.
One of the stars from those days was Pat Patterson, whose obituary in the New York Times this week caught my eye. He was Canadian; he was gay; he was a legend. But all of the wrestlers loomed larger than life. It was the nature of their business to loom.
Big Time Wrestling
Wrestling, like so many forms of circuses in our world of bread and circuses, has evolved multiple times over the centuries. My grandparents probably saw it as a sideshow in a circus or attached to vaudeville acts before the invention of TV and mass media. It did not spring forth in whole cloth as it is today, in pay-per-view, with lasers flashing, tens of thousands of fans, and heavy metal music blaring. The version I saw was on that tiny (9-inch) TV screen on grainy channel 40 in a musty half-filled Sacramento auditorium. But it was essentially the same.
Professional wrestling today is a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry. However, in the 1970s it was supremely local, which was part of its charm. Some I had seen a few years earlier in Detroit, before moving to California. Wrestling was the same, on UHF channel 50, a program appearing before “The Ghoul,” a Cleveland-based precursor to Mystery Science Theater, would come on to play C-grade horror movies. Many wrestlers came from Canada, apparently, to contest with others from Buffalo and Cleveland in shadowy-Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit. These venues were also home to legitimately good entertainment, to Aretha Franklin and Bob Seger, but on the tiny screen, wrestling always looked cheap, like it was held in someone’s overgrown backyard shed.
Big Time Wrestling was the program name that the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) used in its regional affiliates, kind of like franchise versions of what would be swallowed up into WWE. Thus, there was Big Time Wrestling in Detroit , matches featuring Dick the Bruiser and “the Original Sheik.” When I moved to Sacramento, there was also Big Time Wrestling, this time operated out of San Francisco, a West coast hotbed of alliances that also controlled performances that ran throughout Sacramento, San Jose, and even Fresno. If you’ve been to Fresno, you can well imagine that big time wrestling in 1972 really was the most entertaining ticket in town.
In San Francisco, they wrestled at the Cow Palace. In Sacramento, they wrestled in the 50-year-old Memorial Auditorium, which was condemned a dozen years later and rebuilt to become part of the concrete, modern Convention Complex. Which is more or less what happened to wrestling as a whole.
When I was a kid, I found Big Time wrestling amusing and repetitive, as I did cartoons. The characters were lively and played their parts with relish. The action was nonstop, including off the stage, when they were likely to attack each other, disrupting the interview. The wrestling itself became repetitive. It was not just that you knew for any given match whether the villain or hero would win, but the mechanics of who used the Camel Clutch or the helicopter move. The wrestlers also moved very slowly, which I didn’t find curious at the time, but wonder at now. Perhaps that’s why I have such a fascination with “real” wrestling now, since successful moves are almost too fast to see.
My mother was irritated that I watched wrestling and tried to point out to me that it was all fake, the way older brothers tell you, as soon as they can with confidence, that Santa Claus isn’t real. (They’re wrong on that count by the way.) Whether it was real or fake wasn’t really the point. It was television; most of what was on television was “fake,” wasn’t it? Unless you watched something officially labelled “the news,” then it was all fake. Nowadays, even the news isn’t all real, either, given the way it was chosen, edited, and produced. (Actually, nowadays even the facts are faked in some quarters.)
Wrestling relied, as most theater does, on what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief”:
The poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge … in 1817 … suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.
Wrestlers were certainly human and that “semblance of truth” came from them being called “professional wrestlers” as opposed to… amateurs? Olympians? athletes? real? … the other kind, the kind who aren’t paid to be hit over the head with a chair during their after-match interview. Wrestling even has its own term to describe this suspension: kayfabe.
Kayfabe is the term used inside the wrestling biz to describe the need for all to maintain their wrestling world persona even after the performance is over. Part of the entertainment value is that it is live; performing in front of the live audience achieves the sense of immediacy that overrules the gut sense that something is fishy. Thus, wrestlers have to keep their stage persona during interviews even after the show’s over.
Sometimes wrestlers would call out “kayfabe” if someone not in-the-know would come into the dressing room where they might be discussing business, such as who ought to win the next week’s match in order to build up drama for some future showdown. Pat Patterson tells a story that the guy who would bring in their coats once protested, “Hey, my name is not Kayfabe, it’s Mark!” because that’s what they shouted whenever he entered. The problem, of course, was that the audience was referred to as “marks,” so they couldn’t call him that.
The Passing of the Great Heels
Lonnie Mayne and Frankie Caine were the two gentlemen that I remembered best. They were the “heels” of Big-Time Wrestling in 1972, the two most popular villains who took on the “faces” or heroes of the time. I found them both fascinating and irksome.
Mayne went by the name of Moondog Mayne, a crazed redneck from Arkansas. He had shaggy blonde-white hair and beard and would enter taking swigs out of a jug of moonshine. He might come up to the microphone and eat goldfish or simply rant like a lunatic in an inauthentic Southern accent. His bio says that his father was a professional wrestler and that young Lonnie wanted to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, Moondog died young, in a car accident driving into another person’s car, either ill or intoxicated. He was only 33 at the time, which is hard to believe because when I saw him years earlier, he looked like a 50-year-old man. Wrestling was not an easy life.
Frankie Caine followed in the footsteps of many in the early 1970s–his persona was an Arab heel. Caine was the “Great Mephisto,” a wild character born out of the anger by Americans at the Arabs hoarding “our” oil, leading to the first oil crisis in 1973. He would enter followed by three hooded maidens, his “harem.” He would put down a prayer rug and pray to Allah. He would end the match by “tapping the boot,” which held some illicit suspicious object like a steel plate.
Mephisto wasn’t the only Arab villain. There was an Original Sheik from the 1950s and an Iron Sheik in the late 1970s, both of whom were heels. Both the first Sheik and Mephisto were actually guys from the Midwest, both Christian and not Arab, and both wore boots which held hidden objects used “unfairly” to hit opponents. In a famous Sacramento brawl, the face (hero) Pat Patterson took off Mephisto’s boot before he could tap it to deliver the stunning blow. Interestingly, the Iron Sheik who wrestled into the 1980s was from Iran, a member of the Shah’s bodyguard squad, and an actual Greco-Roman wrestler on the Iranian Olympic team. Perhaps that’s why the Iron Sheik was able to wrestle when it turned to color.
Frankie Cain unquestionably borrowed from the Sheik’s act, however he twisted the stereotypical Arab heel into something distinct. The Sheik was a silent psychopath who worked short violent matches often with non-finishes, while the Great Mephisto was a delusional sociopath who had grueling battles with his babyface opponents. The character played upon people’s fears of the unknown both in other foreign cultures and in supernatural realms. In San Francisco, …[h]is mystical promos, his pet rat and his vicious reverse piledriver quickly propelled him into a top spot.From: https://sites.google.com/site/wrestlingscout/profiles-by-country/profiles/greatmephisto.
The Late, Great Pat Patterson
It seems highly fitting to find out that Pat Patterson, with his blonde Beatles-mop of hair and hairless chest, was gay and closeted for much of his life, eventually coming out on a reality TV show. A persona within a persona. Patterson started as a heel, sometimes wearing a mask, and often attacking with a belt or brass knuckles. Later, and when I saw him, he had to be the face, the good guy. That became the rule. Blondes were good, unless they were from Arkansas.
Pat was born Pierre Clermont in Montreal, a Canadian who migrated south to wrestle in the midwest and then out in California. He won an Intercontinental match in Madison Square Garden, and he worked the regional circuits, from Boston to Fresno. When he hit his forties and his goody-two-shoes image started to tarnish, he decided to hang up the boots in favor of management. Patterson was friends with Vince McMahon, so ended up behind the scenes helping to launch WWE.
Much later, on the 2014 show “Legends’ House,” which promoted retired professional wrestlers, he came out to his housemates and the world. While in his fighting days, he’d likely faced continuous homophobia both feigned and real. However, by the time he spoke publicly about his 40-year-old relationship with his “friend” Louie, he was accepted. One giant-sized Fed Ex driver stopped him on the street to thank him for going public. Love is love, and it’s not kayfabe.
Next Generation : Rocky and the Rock
Wayde Douglas Bowles was also born in Canada, in Nova Scotia. He was descended from Black Americans who went north, escaping the southern slave plantations during the Revolutionary War. Bowles was a truck driver and a boxer but interested in the wrestling business. He adopted a stage name from his two favorite boxers, Rocky Marciano and Jack Johnson.
Rocky Johnson by 1970 was a bona fide handsome face, who could claim that he was the sparring partner of George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Johnson would bring the posed photos of Foreman with his arm around his shoulders to prove it. Johnson wrestled in Memphis; he wrestled in Cleveland; and he wrestled in Sacramento, sometimes against Pat Patterson but often tag teaming with Pat Patterson against the heels.
He was married twice, once to a devout Jehovah’s Witness and then to Ata Maivia, daughter of another wrestling legend. Rocky and Ata ended up married for 25 years and, in 1972, while Rocky was in his Big-Time Wrestling heyday, he and Ata had a son, here in Hayward, California, practically my backyard. His son was named Dwayne and he spent time first in New Zealand with his mother, then in high school in Hawaii. Later, Dwayne also decided to follow in Dad’s footsteps, like Moondog, one of Dad’s ol’ pals in the ring. Rocky and lifelong colleague Pat Patterson trained him well. He decided to use the stage persona “The Rock,” and took turns being both heel and face, like many who preceded him.
Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock has had perhaps the biggest post-wrestling showbiz life of all, in movies and television, and most often these days spoofing himself. His daughter Simone has also begun training as a wrestler, which would make her fourth-generation.
However, Simone Johnson probably wrestles in full color, not black-and-white. Which is too bad.