The Kenyon Collegian – October 26, 1972
By Will Morrisey
The gymnasium in Mt. Vernon’s Pleasant Street Junior High School lacks the proper atmosphere for professional wrestling. Brightly lit, clean, well-ventilated: the longtime fan misses the flattened orange drink containers, the obnoxious and greasy teen-aged popcorn vendors and the familiar stench of stale cigar smoke so characteristic of places like Cobo Hall in Detroit and the old Madison Square Garden. But, even with all their grimy magnificence, the old arenas, like the old idols, are falling, and when the wrestlers came into town a week ago yesterday night, they and their devotees were forced to adjust to what seemed an unusual sanctuary.
Most of the (approximately) 600 fans who filled the small gym to near capacity sought and found that sense of moral certitude only wrestling, with its easily identifiable heroes and villains, can offer. But for this reporter it was, above all, a night of ambiguity.
The opening ceremonies prefigured the metaphysical perplexities to come. A little girl (who was, perhaps, two and a half years old) wearing a spotless dress and a sparkling tiara, was introduced as “Little Miss Firecracker of 1972,” the princess of the promotion, which was sponsored by the Safe Fourth of July Committee. Her last name was Clayborn. This, presiding over this night of (democratized) masque was a creation born of clay, yet possessed, as her title implied, with an explosive – indeed, promethean – light.
This microcosm returned to her ringside seat, followed almost immediately by Heather Feather, “the world’s largest female wrestler” – a macrocosm if ever there was one. Tom McCue, the master of ceremonies (imported from a small Episcopal college down the road, doubtless in order to lend the proceedings an aura of the August) announced Miss Feather’s weight as 367 pounds, many of which were contained in a frilly turn-of-the-century-style bathing suit. Her opponent, Tanya West, weighing in at a paltry 179, wore heavy eye makeup and came from Hollywood, so we knew she was decadent. And so she was: refusing to sign autographs, arguing with the referee and the fans, stomping on Heather. At one point, after Heather had hurled her against the ropes and flattened her on the rebound with a quick expansion of that sizeable stomach, Tanya got up groggily and blessed herself. The several hundred Protestants in attendance were not impressed. The match ended when Tanya was disqualified for grabbing her opponent by the throat and ignoring the ref’s orders to desist.
Ten wrestlers were supposed to appear in five matches but, for reasons never explained (probably having to do with the fact that the flat fee of $500 plus 40% of the gate which the group of performers received is more happily divided into a few large portions than many small ones), only seven showed up. One match was cancelled, but almost every wrestler was still forced to appear twice. So Heather and Tanya went back to their dressing room, but returned five minutes later to team up with Lou Klein and the Zebra Kid, respectively. The original Zebra Kid, one of the most famous masked wrestlers, died three years ago; his namesake was a rather sorry imitation. He and his partner were harassed from without by kids who threw pennies and crept up from behind to slap them (one enterprising Mt. Vernon youngster, in a triumph of small-town virtue over big city evil, scored a direct hit on Miss West’s decadent Hollywood posterior). In the ring, they were battered by their opponents, and met defeat when the Zebra Kid found himself on the bottom of a pile-up involving all four contestants and, with some 800 pounds on his chest, was counted out.
While one of the promoters, Mr. Hempfield, admonished the ringside customers for their mischief and the next two wrestlers approached the ring, Mr. Pitts (the photographer) and I walked back to the dressing room to ask for an interview with the Zebra Kid. We entered the dimly-lit room behind the bleachers. As we explained ourselves to the guard, the Kid stood leaning against a locker, his arms folded across his chest, his head moving up and down – looking us over. And even if he was a fraud trading off a dead man’s name, he still came up with the most memorable line of the evening. Glowering, he growled slowly out of the side of his mouth, “What didjuh have in mind?”
Hell, we didn’t come to proposition him.
“Uh, well, an interview . . .”
Lou Klein interceded. “Come on over here. I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” which is wrestler talk for “I’ll tell you what I want you to know.” He sat down on a wooden bench at the back of the room. I placed myself by him. I touched the keys in unison with his con-artist’s imagination. I wish you had heard that rinky melody. He was all insulsity. Watching over my shoulder to make sure I wrote everything down, he gave a detailed account of his early life; too bad he has no control over the contents of this article. He turned pro in 1941 (I would put his present age at about 52), simultaneously holding down a job at the Lincoln Motor Car Company in Detroit. During the ‘40s he worked for the USO, “putting on shows for the Gis – that’s how I kept out of the army.” In 1956 he wrestled Billy Varga in Dayton for the junior heavyweight championship, a bout that lasted fourteen and one-half hours – “the longest match in history,” he lied. Since he deemed to be the mouthpiece for this group of wrestlers, I asked him if they were his proteges. Dropping his voice (despite the fact that the three of us were alone in the dressing room), he intoned confidentially that many of them were, but – ahem – he didn’t think he should mention which ones. However, many stars who weren’t in Mt. Vernon, like Killer Kowalski and The Sheik, have benefited from Lou’s tutelage – “but don’t tell anyone I said that.” His remarks gave the impression that he hadn’t done anything special in the last fifteen years. What he failed to mention was his successful alliance with Red Bastien in the early ‘60s; they were billed as the “Bastien Brothers.” But the erstwhile “Lou Bastien” probably didn’t want us to think that there is too much gimmickry in his profession.
Suddenly, Lou jumped up excitedly. “Now, some people will tell you wrestling is a fake. They say, ‘Aw, that’s all faked.’” Well, Lou assured us that it’s just jealousy; men tell their sons the matches are fixed because they envy the wrestlers’ physiques. I tried not to glance at Lou’s own bulging abdomen. Besides, everybody fakes. “Take a guy who works in a factory; when the boss comes by he pretends to work harder.” (Lou did a pantomine of a guy working hard.) “Take a student; when the teacher goes by, he pretends to work.” (Lou did a pantomine of a student working.) “Take a little kid: when his parents want him to do something, he starts crying.” (Lou did a pantomine of a little kid crying.) Indeeded, not only is fakery a human trait, but an integral part of Nature itself. “If you go hunting, and shoot a rabbit in the leg, you go over and pick it up, and what do you see?” Blood? No, “you see the rabbit playing dead. Same thing with a pheasant. Did you know that wrestling is the world’s second oldest sport? Pitts asked, “What’s the first oldest?” For a split second, Lou Klein’s fist clenched. Smart ass college kid. “Running,” he answered smoothly; “a caveman would chase another caveman, and when he caught up, they’d wrestle.”
Wrestling, then, the second most ancient sport, is real, and yet faked. And therefore real, as all Nature is a sham. As we were about to leave, Lou spread his arms grandly: “Well, fellas, now you have the whole story.” And, in the one absolutely sincere statement of the twenty-minute interview, he concluded, “If you can make an article out of all that, you’re a born wrestler.” Reader, was this not an interesting scene? Would a journey from Gambier to Mt. Vernon have been too much to obtain such a remarkable interview?
When we got back to our seats, Pitts told me that in one of the wrestlers’ suitcases, lying open on the floor, he noticed a copy of Any Woman Can. We’ve been pondering that one.
The Tex McKenzie/Killer Brooks match was winding up – another disqualification. Mr. Hempfield proclaimed a fifteen-minute intermission. My meditations on the Kleinian Paradox were interrupted by Bob Claster, a Kenyon student of some notoriety. “There’s a twelve-year-old girl sitting in the bleachers who knows everything about wrestling. Why don’t you interview her?” Perhaps, I thought, an interview with a younger person would dispel this suffocating pall of uncertainty – intimations of immortality, that sort of thing. We were introduced, and she turned out to be very intelligent and knowledgeable. A veteran fan (she said she was thirteen years old, not twelve) she had followed wrestling in Nebraska, Pennsylvania and now, Ohio. Her favorites were Johnny Powers and Mighty Igor. I (or was it Claster?) asked her the big question: “Do you think wrestling is for real?” “Some of it must be fake,” she replied, “because they wrestle every day, and I don’t think the human body can take that much punishment.” But, on the other hand, she thought the wrestlers really did hit each other hard: “You wouldn’t see those red marks on their backs if they didn’t.” Once again, paradox. Wrestling is fake, but not fake, rigged but competitive. The intermission was over. I returned to my seat.
Tom McCue was still in fine voice. “In this corner, weighting two hundred and eighty-five pounds, from Poland (cheers from the bleachers) . . . Mighty Igor.” Teamed with Lou Klein against the Zebra Kid and Killer Brooks, Igor was the hit of the evening. His Angel of Rheims smile captivated the audience. At one point in the middle of the match, he jumped out of the ring, went over to an elderly lady sitting at ringside, and kissed her. He walked over to where we were sitting, shook the hand of the ten-year-old kid sitting next to me, posed for a picture, and hurried over to the other side of the gym. There, he climbed into the bleachers, kissed one of last year’s Collegian co-editors, and, for good measure, the guy sitting next to her. He got back into the ring in time to toss the villains around for awhile. When the referee saw Brooks’ manager, Eddie Fishman, tripping up Lou Klein, he declared Igor’s team the winner by (yet another) disqualification.
The crowd filed out, happy that the Zebra Kids and Tanya Wests of the world had been put in their place. Sleet was falling, and the clouds obscured the stars. It didn’t really matter, though, for Igor had illuminated our darkness.