Albany NY Times Union – May 4, 2002
By Paul Grondahl
For a beleaguered city beset by cop scandals, crime-ridden neighborhoods and economic malaise, perhaps there’s nothing like a little old-school smackdown to revive its faded luster.
At least that’s the hope of the organizers of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in a downtown storefront along a stretch of abandoned buildings in derelict Canal Square. The Hall of Fame’s grand opening events are today and Sunday.
To call it a pipe dream wouldn’t be an insult to Tony (Nino) Vellano, 51, a Schenectady native who now lives in Rotterdam and is a partner in Vellano Bros. Inc., a Latham underground utilities construction firm.
“Hey, I sell pipe, but I’m giving this my best shot,” says Vellano.
“And I’m an attorney, but we’re stepping up to the plate,” says Bob McCarthy, 37, of Clifton Park, who handles construction litigation for Vellano.
Neither man – both burly guys on the far side of 6 feet and 200 pounds – grew up as wrestling fans. They took on the PWHF project by default.
“I just told Bob it would be a wild ride, and I think he’s come to regret I ever got him involved,” Vellano says. “But he’s still game to see it through with me.”
The pair were hustling this week to put the finishing touches on the PWHF, a 2,000-square-foot space filled with campy, vintage wrestling memorabilia. There are posters, pictures, clippings, books and costumes of Walter (Killer) Kowalski, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Hillbilly Cousin Luke, George (The Animal) Steele, Superfly Jimmy Snuka and many more from the 1930s through the 1970s. The museum is located at 123 Broadway, near Proctor’s Theatre.
There’s a homemade, smalltown feel to the place. They’ve enlisted their friends to fashion plaques and create displays. Bruce Larsen painted the signs for longtime friend Vellano in exchange for a free ticket to the dinner and a PWHF hat and T-shirt. “Tony’s got a lot of drive and sees his ideas through to the end,” Larsen says.
Despite their inexperience in such a venture, Vellano feels fate is on his side in the location of the nonprofit organization.
“In wrestling, 1-2-3 is a pin and the term for a draw is a ‘Broadway.’ Being here at 123 Broadway seems like someone’s looking over us,” Vellano says.
They’ve created PWHF on a shoestring. Their only funding came in the form of a $15,000 state grant secured by Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna.
The museum’s grand opening is today, during weekend festivities culminating in the inaugural induction ceremonies of the “wrestling legends” at Proctor’s on Sunday.
So far, the response to the low-key, low-budget opening weekend has surprised the organizers. Fans from as far away as Texas, Florida, Missouri and Washington state have booked reservations. A Saturdaynight dinner at $50 apiece at the Ramada Inn is sold out at 300 people. More than 50 vendors have rented tables at a Saturday card show.
“People said we couldn’t pull this off, but we’ve found there are a lot of fans of wrestling out there,” Vellano says.
Of the 13 initial PWHF inductees, only two are living.
And the one inductee who planned to attend, Lou (The King) Thesz, died at his home in Florida at age 86 a week before the induction. Thesz wrestled for five decades and was legendary in Japan, where his fans organized parades for him.
“Lou was very excited to be coming to the ceremony, but he had triple bypass surgery about three weeks ago, went downhill and never recovered,” McCarthy says.
In order to distinguish themselves from splashy World Wrestling Federation events and a rival wrestling hall of fame in Newton, Iowa – which focuses primarily on the sport of college and Olympic wrestling – the Schenectady crew is charting a more populist course.
For instance, they are inducting a female wrestler (Mildred Burke) and a midget wrestler (Sky Low Low).
“People probably haven’t heard of some of these wrestlers, but to be legitimate we had to go back to the beginning and induct the legends first,” Vellano says.
The PWHF inductees are selected by an independent committee of 20 wrestling writers, historians and others with a background in the industry.
Although no inductees will be present, about a dozen people in the wrestling industry are expected to visit Schenectady this weekend. They include wrestlers Dick (The Destroyer) Beyer, Paul (Butcher) Vachon, Billy Two Rivers (a Mohawk Indian) and Ida Mae Martinez. The 73-year-old Martinez is driving up from her home in Maryland with boots, costume and other memorabilia she’ll donate to the museum. Martinez now bills herself as “Maryland’s senior yodeling sweetheart” and is scheduled to entertain the crowd with her yodeling at the induction ceremony.
The PWHF museum and its cast of supporting characters is a world away from the highly profitable WWF juggernaut with its roster of international stars of stadium and screen, such as The Rock.
The PWHF wrestlers were in the business when the top purses were in the tens of thousands of dollars and most barnstormed the nation by car along a low-budget circuit of county fairs and shopping mall openings.
A poster near the front entrance of the museum for the 1974 movie “The Wrestler,” starring Ed Asner, sums up the high hokum factor and sideshow quality of the entertainment. “Athletes? Actors? Assassins? You’ll never really know – until you see.”
Says Vellano, “The way I look at it is they’re athletes entertaining us. It takes a trained professional to get in the ring and do the jumps and flips and falls and make it look real without getting hurt.”
The picture behind the scenes of the brightly coloed tights, garish masks and flamboyant high-topped wrestling boots is not so flattering.
Vellano, who was an inspector for pro wrestling and boxing for the New York State Athletic Commission from 1995 to 2000, saw the dark side that the glitzy WWF ignores.
“These wrestlers didn’t make a lot of money, they had no benefits and they couldn’t retire rich in their 30s like other pro athletes,” Vellano says. “That’s why a lot of them are still wrestling in their late 60s. They need to support themselves.”
“I knew nothing about wrestling before I got involved and I’ve been impressed talking to these oldtimers,” McCarthy says. “They’re very bright. They’re college-educated. They know how much they’ve got in their 401(k)s down to the last dollar. They’re very serious about what they do as a business.”
McCarthy says wrestlers told him stories of a bygone era when a half-dozen wrestlers would pile into one car, each pay the driver 10 cents a mile for gas and stick to a tight budget.
“They spent their careers on the road living out of cheap motels,” McCarthy says.
There is a local flavor to the PWHF museum. One display case highlights the career of native son Carroll (Pink) Gardner. It includes the gold championship belt from the 175-pound division from a 1927 tournament in Columbus, Ohio. Gardner got his professional start in 1913 and earned $1.50 for the match. He retired in 1936 and became Schenectady County clerk and ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress.
The family owned the Gardner building on State Street across from Vale Cemetery. Pink Gardner ran a gym upstairs and the family gravestone business was downstairs. That juxtaposition gave birth to Pink’s motto: “Come visit me upstairs before you have to visit me downstairs.”
Another regional wrestler included is Joe Malcewicz, known as “The Utica Panther.” There are pictures of Malcewicz and a wrestling poster of his big match against Ed (Strangler) Lewis in Boston in the ‘20s. The purse for the event was $40,000.
As for the naysayers, the organizers feel vindicated by the strong response to the weekend’s events and the fact that they’ve made the PWHF museum a reality.
Says McCarthy, “A lot of people have been skeptical about this from the beginning. But I say look at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why Cleveland? They’re getting tens of thousands of fans there every year. We’ve got that potential here.”
Vellano is disappointed there has been no financial support or offers of any coming from officials with the city and county of Schenectady.
“We’ve created it and got it going, but we can’t carry it for long,” Vellano says. “If nobody comes forward to give us a hand, it will be just one more thing that dies in Schenectady.”