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Pro Wrestling Gets a Grip on Popularity Again

June 07, 1985|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

They categorize themselves as heroes or heels. They wear outrageous garb--spiked dog collars, Scottish kilts or leopard skin tights--and call themselves names like Junk Yard Dog, Superfly, Hulkster, the Iron Sheik and Rowdy Roddy.

They are America's new darlings, in person and on TV. They are professional wrestlers.

They may have faded from the big time in the '60s, but they're back--this time with a vengeance and the biggest national media hype since the Hula Hoop.

Where the Action Is

The new pro grapplers started their promotional assault back East in 1983 under the direction of Vincent K. McMahon, head of the World Wrestling Federation, but recently they've taken on the West Coast territory, turning the Los Angeles area into one of their fast-growing markets.

"The whole West Coast is coming alive with wrestling," longtime pro wrestling figure Capt. Lou Albano said in a phone interview from his New York home. "It's a spectacular."

Whether you believe pro wrestling is sport or spectacle, its hoopla is not new. It's just being reborn with the help of more live shows and television saturation--local, cable and now network.

Each Saturday in the Los Angeles area, for instance, you can watch morning and nighttime wrestling shows on KHJ-TV, and if you have cable, another eight hours of it, starting at 6:30 a.m.

Nationally, NBC just began airing a World Wrestling Federation pro wrestling show, "Saturday Night's Main Event," once a month in the "Saturday Night Live" time slot.

Big-name wrestlers appear in matches once every month at both the Sports Arena and Olympic Auditorium, and the crowds are growing.

The Anaheim Convention Center held its first professional wrestling matches in February and sold out.

"It's just become a real phenomenon," said Larry Robinson, box office manager at Anaheim. "TV's what's making it. The TV people have figured out what the American people are watching and they're causing it to happen. We had 8,900 seats for wrestling in February. And we filled them."

But current promotions aside for a moment, credit really should be given to the pioneer of gimmicks in big-time pro wrestling in the 1940s and '50s, George Wagner, who died in 1963 of a heart attack at age 48.

Fans will remember him as Gorgeous George, the international wrestling star who introduced panache and ballyhoo to the mat game and made a fortune at it.

George wore his hair marcelled in bleached-blond curls and dressed in an orchid velvet robe. Before he got into the ring, his valet sprayed perfume from an atomizer and rolled out a red carpet for George to walk on. George then threw "Georgie pins," gold-colored bobby pins, to the crowd. His valet would assist him in curling his locks before match time.

George, who also was nicknamed "the Human Orchid," would have fit right in with these newcomers.

Ahead of His Time

"Gorgeous George was way ahead of his time," Red Bastien, Western states agent for the World Wrestling Federation, said. "Gorgeous George was the first in line to introduce showmanship into sports."

And Gorgeous George did his hyping on his own. Imagine if he had the Hollywood film and rock star connections some of the wrestlers have today.

Three-hundred-pound, 6-foot-8 Hulk Hogan, the country's current most popular wrestling hero and the WWF heavyweight champ, began to catch the public eye nationally when he appeared as a guy called Thunderlips in Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky III."

Nowadays, Hulk is wrestling's No. 1 draw, makes about $1 million a year and has Hulkster T-shirts, headbands, toys, posters, and heaven knows what else on the market. An animated series based on Hulk and some of the other WWF stars will appear this fall on CBS Saturday mornings.

Another of the WWF's Hollywood connections is rock star Cyndi Lauper, who "manages" the WWF women's champion Wendi Richter. Lauper got wrestling's Capt. Lou Albano, a former wrestler turned manager and actor, to play her father in her 1983 MTV video release, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."

Albano, 52, who's been in professional wrestling since the late 1950s, has just completed a major role in an upcoming movie, "Wise Guys." He also plays Lauper's father again in her just-released video, "The Goonies." Albano is joined by a gaggle of other current stars, Richter, the Fabulous Moolah, the Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and manager Freddie Blassie.

Lauper also sometimes appears at Richter's matches, depending on her own performance schedule, and guest spots have been done by other entertainment and sports personalities, among them the A-Team's Mr. T., Liberace, artist Andy Warhol, New York Yankees Manager Billy Martin and Muhammad Ali.

Popularity Champion

But the Hulk is the reigning popularity champion.

In February, when the Hulkster topped the card at the Sports Arena, he sold out the house, 15,121 seats. He is now on tour in Japan, where wrestling also is enjoying a newfound popularity.

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