Vaudeville may be dead . . . but the Theatre’s future is in good hands as long as the grunt-andgroan boys don’t run out of gags—Coleman
THE THEATRE in the United States and Canada currently is enjoying one of the most amazingly prosperous periods in its history. All its branches are sharing in the monetary harvest, including the professional wrestlers. There are a few carping purists who will complain that professional wrestlers belong in the sordid field of sports but such critics doubtless have been confining their theatrical appreciation to the offerings of such groups of serious thinkers as The Little Theatre and the Neo-Socialist Repertory Players.
The Wrestlers Guild, which embraces «ome of the most accomplished Thespians now treading the boards, is staging eminently successful productions in centres of culture throughout our glorious Dominion. Only a few week« ago 12,000 members of the intelligentsia struggled into Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens to watch a handsome juvenile named Whipper Billy Watson co-star with a beetle-browed character actor who rejoicas in the salty sobriquet of Hard-Boiled Hannigan. The performance concluded happily about 10.30 p.m. when, to the accompaniment of rapturous applause, Watson hurled Hannigan into the fourth row of ringside seats. For all we know, Hannigan may be lying there yet.
Similar scenes are being enacted in such enlightened metropolises as Montreal, Ottawa and Windsor and one of the road companies of The Wrestlers Guild is reviving this branch of The Theatre in Vancouver. The prairies invariably have been singularly unresponsive to the quaint antics of the wrestlers but, after all, it has been reported that even such a redoubtable artist as Mary Garden laid an egg on her first theatrical venture into the veldts and foothills of the West. Probably there is no connection between the two facts, but it is worth mentioning that some people claim the incidence of insanity is lower on the prairies than in any other section of Canada.
In any event, the members of The Wrestlers Guild are harvesting a bumper crop of long green bank notes in the aforementioned cities and they can afford to cock a snoot at the prairies—a section of the country which, according to the wrestlers, is unappreciative of true art.
The squirmers are playing to audiences of 8,000 -weekly in Toronto, for instance, and in that city professional hockey is the only sport which can outdraw them. Business is so good that the Guild operates road shows in such communities as Peterborough, Belleville, Oshawa, Hamilton, London and Niagara Falls.
These sterling characters are paid on a percentage basis and the current “Champeen,” Bill Longson, is chuckling evilly as he collects approximately $50,000 per year. Lesser stars are struggling along on annual pay of $20,000 while the bit players and extras are forced to subsist on $7,000 or $8,000— the poor fellows!
The genesis of wrestling is shrouded mercifully in the inpenetrable mists of antiquity but there is evidence that the gruesome pastime was popular in the days of Homer, a Greek poet who had no connection with the restaurant business or horse racing. Homer attained immortality when he dashed off an epic poem concerning one Ulysses, a guy who got into trouble with as much facility as Little Orphan Annie. The poem was called The Iliad, and in one memorable passage Ulysses was involved in an acrimonious debate with Ajax. Inevitably the debate reached a state bordering on physical violence and they determined to settle their differences in a wrestling match.
Homer has described the preamble to the match in the following words:
“Then Achilles, son of Peleus, ordained the prize« for the grievous wrestling match; for the winner a great tripod for standing on the fire, prized at 12 oxens’ worth; and for the loser he brought a woman into the midst, skilled in manifold work, and they prized her at four oxen ...”
Due to the difficulties of wartime communications, it has been impossible to obtain any recent quotations from the Athens Livestock Exchange but most of the professional wrestlers are agreed that the price of four oxen for one woman is a trifle exorbitant.
Professional wrestling has come a long way since the days of Homer but it is impossible to determine whether it has come up or down. It is certain, though, that the modern wrestlers owe some debt to the Greeks and it is rumored that a few of the scripts in use today
were written by Aristophanes. If they weren’t, they should have been.
•As far as Canada is concerned the current cycle began late in The Torrid Twenties. The wrestlers, with their exhibitions of modified mayhem and their low comedy, were an instantaneous success in Montreal. The mercurial Gallic temperament of the inhabitants proved acutely responsive to the grappler’s particular brand of buffoonery and the customers would shriek ecstatically when one of the contestants gnawed on his opponent’s ears, or jabbed fearsomely with a vagrant thumb in an attempt to impale one of his opponent’s eyes thereon.
Things were tougher for The Wrestlers Guild in Toronto. The promoter in that city was a sad-eyed Russian moujik named Ivan Mickaloff, who talked in a voice that was strangely reminiscent of the Hound of The Baskervilles. The staid Torontonians suspected that someone was trying to sell them a gold brick and they shunned the wrestling shows as they would shun the boll weevil. During this period Comrade Mickaloff grew so thin that he was forced to tie his trousers around his neck to prevent them from falling into the gutter.
Then one night a noble grappler known as Stanislaus Stasiak had foresight to fracture a leg during one of the bouts. After that the Torontonians flocked to the wrestling shows in thousands, hopeful of seeing some benighted wrestler dismembered and fricasseed in cold blood.
About this same time Emil Klank, a portly and arthritic gentleman, spread the gospel of professional wrestling on the Pacific coast of Canada. Mr.
Klank’s road company— which operated on a “guest star” basis, featuring what-
ever “world’s champions” happened to be operating in the western territories—enjoyed great success. Mr. Klank was possessed of a cheerful disposition and, inevitably, would succumb to spasms of mirth when watching his pachyderms in action. These convulsions, quite naturally, played hob with his arthritic joints and, reluctantly, but for his physical well-being he yielded his promotorial duties to a faithful friend.
Those were great days for the professional wrestlers. Those were the days when American college football players eschewed engineering and medical degrees in favor of jumping directly into the profitable gruntand-groan trade. Those were the days when practically anything was countenanced in the ring and the boys drew the line only at bowie knives and machine guns.
But then the reaction set in and wrestling declined in popularity. It is impossible to say with any great degree of accuracy what caused this reaction. Possibly it was merely that the public tired of watching these great artists perform. After all, the Shuberts staged a couple of flops on Broadway about the same time and even Jimmy Durante found it tough to make a dollar.
The collapse of wrestling in Vancouver was explained simply. During a particularly hilarious bout in Seattle the referee was thoughtless enough to drop dead. The boxing and wrestling commission in that city promptly banned all displays of the squirming art. The Wrestlers Guild held a meeting and decided that any further operations in the Pacific northwest would be unprofitable. From that day onward Vancouver was unable to lure more than a few of the stars of the circuit and the customers succumbed to ennui.
IT is even more difficult to explain the sudden increase in wrestling’s present popularity in the cities of eastern Canada. A superficial examination of the situation might suggest that, “war nerves” finally have caught up with a large section of the population—worries over income taxes have caused many normal citizens to give way at the seams mentally. But one factor may be that wrestling is one form of entertainment, the personnel of which hasn’t been depleted by the armed service draft calls. It was decided that none of the wrestlers would be of any earthly use to the war machine unless they could be
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equipped with armor plate and used as tanks. Most of the familiar wrestling faces still may he seen leering happily through the ropes at customers. They are the same playful fellows—older hut funnier!
Take the case of Toronto. Until a couple of years ago The Wrestlers Guild had been struggling along fairly comfortably in Toronto, staging shows during the autumn, winter and spring. Now the wrestlers are operating 52 weeks each year and the patrons are shouldering each other scandalously in the rush for tickets.
Frank Tunney, the Toronto agent of The Wrestlers Guild, is as mystified as anyone. Mr. Tunney is a gargantuan young fellow who served an apprenticeship as chauffeur to his predecessor before taking over the promotorial reins. Mr. Tunney is distinguished further by a head so large that no milliner yet has been able to build a hat to fit him and, as a result, Tunney cannot pass a lamp shade in a hotel lobby without casting covetous eyes on it. His head hasn’t become enlarged as a result of his successes — it just happens that they grow ’em large in York County. He is a gentle and humorous fellow and is only mildly resentful when it is suggested that he writes the scripts for his shows. “Do you mean to suggest,” he will exclaim, his eyebrows lifting three inches and his eyes popping out like a brace of light globes, “that my bouts aren’t on the level? Why, I assure you that anything that happens in the ring is a great surprise to me.”
In his short career Mr. Tunney has acquired promotorial aplomb and he is practically immune to scurvy blows that would drop a lesser man in his tracks.
One night Tunney was standing in a Maple Leaf Garden’s exit watching two of his behemoths in action. At the north end of the arena were seated 500 young representatives of His Majesty’s Royal Canadian Navy to whom Tunney had given free tickets. The young men were rewarding this courtesy by chanting in unison: “Fake! Fake! Fake!”
An elderly paying customer, who was slightly deaf and entranced by the bout, asked Tunney querulously: “What are those boys shouting?”
“They're yelling ‘great! great!’ ” answered Tunney, not one hair of his head ruffled by t he tempest.
Recently, during a show, the estimable Tunney was asked to account for the increased popularity of this violent pastime.
“A couple of psychiatrists came down here a few weeks ago to figure that out,” said Tunney. “They’ve been back to every show since then. There they are now -over in Box 58.”
A glance in the direction of Box 58 revealed two gentlemen who were gripping the railing in front of them while their eyes revolved alarmingly in their sockets as they watched the bout. Any guard from a mental home, seeing these two savants in action,
would have clapped them into the “violent” ward without giving them an opportunity to apply for bail.
Sir Galahad In Tights
Mr. Tunney’s great gate attraction in Toronto and surrounding towns has been Whipper Billy Watson, who is the living embodiment of all the ideals of the Boy Scout movement and the Legion of Decency. Watson is as handsome as Robert Taylor, as powerful as the SS Queen Mary and as persistent and uncompromising as Dick Tracy in his efforts to exterminate evil. In moments of supreme exasperation he is likely to mutter “Oh, fudge!” but otherwise his conduct is exemplary. He is a paragon of virtue in the ring. If his opponent attempts to decapitate him with a tomahawk, misses and imbeds the tomahaw'k in one of the ring posts, Watson will help him to disengage the weapon. If his opponent strikes him illegally with a brass knuckle Watson merely will smile a sad, brave smile and break his opponent in twain, like a stick of dry macaroni. Watson destroys his opponents with the air of Sir Galahad repelling scorpions, and the customers love him
to pieces. He is generous in victory and gallant in defeat—always extending the hand of friendship to his successful foe. It is regrettable to report that some of his caddish opponents have waited until he extended his hand and then have essayed to kick his teeth into his lungs.
Watson is one of the few “heroes” employed by The Wrestlers Guild. On any given night the performing cast consists largely of “villains.” In this connection it should be pointed out that professional wrestlers are the most accomplished of all Thespians. Even the masterful Lionel Barrymore cannot portray suffering with half the intensity any of the wrestlers put into the same role. At the same time it should be pointed out that never has a wrestler been known to muff one of his lines, although there are some unkind cynics who suggest that this perfection is the result of frequent rehearsals.
And why, you may ask, do the wrestling customers react so violently to these performances when they know in their hearts that the boys probably will be sharing a compartment on the way to their next one-night stand? Why, then, does the mild little lady in Row “G” stand upon her chair and shrilly instruct Whipper Watson to rip his opponent’s leg out of its socket and hurl the amputated limb into the crowd? The answer is that the mild little lady is displaying a fairly normal reaction to a dramatic tour de force. Have you ever shed a furtive tear in a darkened theatre? When Mimi died in “La Boheme,” did you get a lump as large as a cannon ball in your throat? Okay, chum—stand well back and don’t ask why wrestling fans get that way. It’s the same old artistic ham— although sliced a bit thicker than usual.
Professional wrestlers are by all odds the most intelligent of all types of professional athletes. (Just for the record—professional baseball players are the dullest.) This is due, probably, to the fact that many of the wrestlers are college graduates and practically all of them have travelled around the globe in pursuit of riches and trachoma. A wrestler must be ready-witted and adaptable, too. For instance it is likely that he will play a hero role in Toronto tonight and then discover that he has been cast as a villain in Montreal tomorrow night. It takes a keen mind to undergo this metamorphosis within 24 hours.
Generally speaking it is safe to say that wrestlers are just great big wholesome boys with a pants-kicking sense of humor. The worst that could be said of any of them is that he wouldn’t be above giving his bedridden mother the “hotfoot.”
In case there are any boys and girls in the house who haven’t heard about the hotfoot, this is a primitive form of exquisite torture invented by the Borgias. While the prospective victim is held spellbound in conversation with an accomplice, the hotfoot specialist sticks a match into the ridge between the sole and upper portion of the victim’s shoe. Then the match is set alight. When the flame reaches the victim’s shoes it will probably incinerate at least one of his digits. With plenty of sleep and loving care he should be able to walk again in three or four days.
The gay triumphant spirit of The
Wrestlers Guild is best exemplified by
Ray Steele, who used to wrestle Londos
three or four times a week, using the
names of “Ray Steele” and “Pete
Sauer” on alternate nights. Steele is
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one of a disappearing generation of wrestlers but he is a master japester who specializes in such rugged manifestations of humor as the hotfoot and slipping Mickey Finns into the drinks of unsuspecting colleagues.
There was an evening when Steele and Man Mountain Dean were wrestling on the same card in Toronto. Dean, a sprightly fellow of some 400 pounds, most of which was distributed around bis waist, found it impossible to stoop over to tie his shoes so, habitually, he wore a pair of slipper-type shoes (without laces) into which he slid his feet after dressing. While Dean was in the ring Steele conceived the novel plan of nailing his shoes securely to the floor.
Shoes must hold some strange fascination for Steele because on another occasion when he was travelling to New York by sleeping coach with Toots Mondt, the celebrated New York promoter, Steele crept out of his berth, snagged the sleeping Mondt’s brogans and threw them through a train window. Mondt contributed to the amusement of everyone but himself the next morning by walking through Grand Cent ral Station in his stockinged feet.
They say that Steele once visited a former wrestler who was being treated in a California insane asylum. Intent on cheering his incarcerated colleague, Steele indulged fulsomely in gay badinage. After listening to Ray for five or 10 minutes the patient shook his head wonderingly and exclaimed: “Ray, 1 think you’re sick, too you’d better stay here with me.”
Steele is only one of many friendly zanies in the trade. Promoters still speak in awed tones of Texas Dick Raines who reputedly toughened himself up for bouts by banging his head against the water pipes. And there* was Joe Marvin, who once sued a young lady for breach of promise and who graduated from a correspondence school detective course, completely equipped with a diploma and a set of false mustaches with which to disguise
himself while pursuing his quarry. One of the most successful of these whimsical genii was King Chiwacki, who professed to be a gypsy with a hatred of all white men. When in one of his fun-loving moods, the Chief would smear his wrestling tights with sneezing powder and then clamp his legs over the noggin of his opponent.
Eccentric conduct isn’t confined to the heavyweights in The Wrestlers Guild. The wrestling scene around Windsor is being enlivened these days bv one Dizzy Davis, who recently returned to Canada after playing a
long and profitable run in Mexico City. Davis has become very prophylacticminded. He carries an atomizer*into the ring with him and sprays his opponent with flit and lilac water before the bout commences. He has caused some natural indignation in officiating circles by insisting upon “clean-smelling” referees.
Trachoma isn’t the only contagious occupational disease among wrestlers. Eventually all of them are infected by the desire for some robust form of exhibitionism. Even that sterling character, Whipper Billy Watson, was observed at a recent party presenting exploding cigars to other guests.
But as the wrestlers look out over the crowded athletic abattoirs and mentally count the gate receipts, they can afford to ask themselves: “Who’s crazy now?”
Vaudeville is dead—but the future of The Theatre is in good hands as long as the members of The Wrestlers Guild don’t run out of gags!