My Brilliant Career: Inside the wild outlaw world of pre-WWF pro wrestling in Chicago

By on November 19, 2015

In the early 1970s, before Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (today World Wrestling Entertainment) turned professional wrestling into a pay-per-view cash cow, pro grappling was a wide-open game run by maverick regional promoters and catering to lunatic fans. I got to experience this incredible world intimately: For two years, I served as “publicist” for the promoter in one of the biggest wrasslin’ towns in the country, Chicago.

I was fresh out of college back in 1972, and returned to my old room in my mother’s apartment in Evanston bearing a seemingly worthless bachelor’s degree in English and no immediate prospects for gainful employment. Fortunately, my father believed in nepotism.

After a long career as a TV executive that had garnered him two Peabody Awards, my dad was then the general manager of WSNS, a Chicago UHF station that broadcast on Channel 44. It was a low-rent operation that my old man helped legitimize by securing telecasts of White Sox games. (He loathed Sox announcer Harry Caray, who would get hammered out of his skull while working in the booth, and rightly thought major league screwball-turned-color man Jimmy Piersall was out of his mind.)

Though such questionable WSNS programming as a daily late-night weathercast delivered by a buxom negligee-clad blonde stretched out on a heart-shaped bed was a thing of the past, colorful holdovers from the old schedule remained. And thus my dad called me one day to say he could get me some part-time work doing PR for Bob Luce, the local pro wrestling promoter, who mounted the weekly show “All Star Championship Wrestling” on the station.

Naturally, I was hired on the spot at my first meeting with Luce, who was something of a legend in Chicago sports circles at the time. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Bob Greene captured had him perfectly in a famous column in which every sentence ended with an exclamation point.

Stocky, florid of complexion, and as loud as his off-the-rack sport coats, the outsized Luce was the dictionary definition of the word “character.” You’d sit down with him in a restaurant, and the other diners would duck and cover. Constantly agitated and gesticulating wildly, his stentorian conversation was a manic torrent of hype and madness, punctuated by explosive laughter than sounded like a machine gun going off next to your ear.

Fittingly, before joining the wrestling biz, Luce had edited a tabloid, the National Tattler. Like the National Enquirer of that frontier era, the rag made its bones with totally fictitious “news” stories featuring lots of cleavage and outré bloodletting.

At one lunch, to the very evident embarrassment of the neighboring clientele, Luce regaled me with the tale of one inspired Tattler cover story, which I will recount Greene-style. Imagine it at full volume: “I got this idea, see, for a story about a sex orgy! [He pronounced “orgy” with a hard “g,” as in “Porgy” of Porgy and Bess.] But it had to be a different kind of orgy! So I got my wife Sharon to take her clothes off and covered her with peanut butter! And we took some pictures, and the lights were HOT, and the peanut butter melted all over her! They were great pictures! We called it – ha ha HA! — ‘PEANUT BUTTER ORGY!’”

Luce had graduated to promoting pro wrestling events in Chicago and other Midwestern markets, in partnership with the American Wrestling Association’s star attractions, Verne Gagne and Dick the Bruiser, of whom more in a moment. (His sweet, funny, but definitely tough wife knew the business: She had wrestled under the name Sharon Lass.)

As the noisy host of All Star Championship Wrestling, Luce would interview the stars of his upcoming promotions, show footage of recent contests, and pump the next matches. Thrusting a finger at the camera in one of his windups, he would shriek, “BE THERE!!!”

Ever the sales impresario, he also served as the show’s principal pitchman, appearing in tandem with some of his hulking charges — and occasionally with special guest hucksters like former heavyweight champ Leon Spinks — to spiel for a long line of sketchy local advertisers. They are among the greatest and most hilarious commercials ever made.

As Luce’s publicity rep, commanding a monthly paycheck of $200, I was charged with lightweight duty: writing and mailing press releases promoting the bi-weekly Friday night matches at the Chicago International Amphitheatre, assisting the WSNS camera crew at the gigs (sometimes by protecting their extra film magazines from flying bodies at ringside), and calling in the results of the matches to the local papers.

(The last task proved to be the most onerous. I’d ring up the local sports desks late on the nights of the matches and harangue some half-drunk, bored assistant editor whose interest in the “sport” could not have been more infinitesimal. When I finally managed to get the Sun-Times to print the results of one match, I felt as if I’d qualified for a Publicists Guild award.)

I also performed certain functions for Luce when he was out of town or too busy to handle them. One weekday afternoon I accompanied Superstar Billy Graham, later a big WWF name and a sort of proto-Hulk Hogan, to Wrigley Field, where he was interviewed by nonplussed announcer Jack Brickhouse between innings of a Chicago Cubs radio broadcast.

Every other week for nearly two years, I’d take the El down to the Amphitheatre, located on Halsted Street on the far South Side, adjacent to the old Chicago Stock Yards. (I held onto the job even after I secured a similarly nepotistic but full-time position – writing about cheap component stereo systems for Zenith Radio Corporation.)

The antique, immense Amphitheatre had hosted big political conventions, auto shows, circuses, rodeos, and shows by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin, but Luce’s dates at the venue, as you will see, attracted a distinctly different class of customer.

The pre-match staging area, where I’d meet Luce and the crew, was the Sirloin Room of the adjacent Stock Yard Inn, not far from the site of the old South Side cattle slaughterhouses. This is where Luce’s employees and pals would also convene before the night’s entertainment began to swill a couple of cocktails and shoot the breeze.

It was a cast worthy of a Damon Runyon story. Luce employed a bodyguard, a towering ex-Chicago cop named Duke, who had reputedly shot six men before being relieved of duty by the PD. He stood about six-four and dressed exactly like John Shaft. He emanated an aura of extreme menace. Once, when I asked him what he would do if someone actually started any serious trouble, Duke wordlessly pulled back the lapel of his full-length leather coat to reveal a shoulder holster bulging with a .44 Magnum.

The promotion’s bagman, charged with collecting the night’s cash receipts, was a diminutive cat everyone called Bill the Barber. I never knew his last name, but he did in fact run a South Side barbershop. He’d invariably show up dressed in a sport coat that looked like a TV test pattern and a skinny-brim fedora, with watery eyes that sometimes flicked nervously above his pencil-thin mustache. He kept a .38 strapped to his belt.

Many nights, a mysterious character referred to only as “Carmie La Papa” would put in an appearance. This elderly Italian gentleman was always treated with great deference and ate on Luce’s tab. I never found out exactly what he did. But he looked a lot like the mobster played by Pasquale Cajano in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, and I thought it wise not to inquire about his line of work.

There were also bona fide wrestling groupies, well-stacked, slightly haggard old-school broads who draped themselves on the bar, sipping pink ladies. One night, Luce leaned over to me in the Sirloin Room and said, in a whisper that could be heard 20 feet away, “After the matches, these girls and the guys go to a motel up in Prospect Heights, and they have orgies.” (Again, pronounced with a hard “g.”) The most popular of these was reportedly Gloria, a tall, pneumatic redhead of uncertain but rapidly advancing age; Luce confided, “She will do anything.”

The matches themselves were something to behold. I’d usually watch them in the company of WSNS’s young, jaded camera crew, from the dilapidated press box high above the ring in the center of the Amphitheatre. The crowd – thousands of poorly dressed, myopic, malodorous, and steeply inebriated men – was a product of what may be called the pre-ironic era of pro wrestling. There was no such thing as a suspension of disbelief among these spectators. Disbelief did not exist. Though the matches were as closely stage-managed as a production of Richard III, these rubes accepted every feigned punch and bogus drop kick as the McCoy.

Pro wrestling is the eternal contest between virtue and evil, and the wrestlers were identified in equal number as good guys and heels. Most of the good guys on the undercard – there were usually half a dozen matches, with one main event – were young “scientific” wrestlers whose Greco-Roman moves were no match for the brazenly illegal play of the dirty heels, who almost invariably won their bouts with tactics that would not pass muster with an elementary school playground monitor, let alone a legitimate referee. About the only one of these “babyfaces” (or, alternatively, “chumps”) who was vouchsafed an occasional victory was Greg Gagne, son of the promotion’s star attraction and part owner.

By the early ‘70s, Verne Gagne had been wrestling professionally for more than two decades; drafted by the Chicago Bears and then rebelling against team owner George Halas’ prohibition of a sideline on the mat, he had chosen the ring over the gridiron. He was 46 years old when I started working for Luce; he was still in decent shape, and, unlike almost all of his opponents, he still had all of his teeth.

I only managed to spend time with him once. For some reason now lost in the dense fog of time, Luce dispatched me to meet Gagne at the elegant Pump Room of the Drake Hotel near Lake Michigan. There, as cabaret star Dorothy Donegan serenaded us on the piano, the 16-time world heavyweight wrestling champion of the world got me brain-dead drunk, and then poured me into a cab home. He was an excellent guy.

Many of the other good guys on Luce’s undercards were reliable patsies for the baddies. Pepper Gomez, one of the domestic game’s few Mexican stars, was a venerable attraction who was allowed the rare triumph; billed as “the Man with the Cast-Iron Stomach,” he once allowed a Volkswagen Bug to be driven over his gut on Luce’s TV show, where he was a frequent guest.

One of my favorites was Yukon Moose Cholak. Then a veteran of 20 years on the mat, Moose owned a bar not far from the Amphitheatre, but he still worked regularly for his close pal Luce in the AWA. Huge, pot-bellied, and benign, he boasted a ripe Sout’ Side accent rivaled only by Dennis Farina’s. He was hardly an exceptional combatant: He moved around the ring with the fleetness of a dazed sloth. He was a regular on Luce’s show, and often appeared with the host in his TV spots.

The only time I appeared as a guest on “All Star Championship Wrestling,” Moose was the victim of the on-camera carnage that was a requisite feature of the show. At the time, conflict of interest be damned, I was writing a column about wrestling for a short-lived local sports paper called Fans, and was brought in to lend something like legitimacy to the proceedings. Luce offered me a chair on his threadbare set to push a forthcoming match between Cholak, who appeared on camera next to me, and Handsome Jimmy Valiant, a new heel on the rise in the market.

I figured something ugly was going to happen, but I went about extolling the virtues of Moose’s nearly non-existent mat skills in the front of the camera. Suddenly, Valiant crept up from behind the black scrim behind us and whacked Cholak over the head with a metal folding chair. To this day, I believe my expression of outraged surprise was worthy of a local Emmy, but a nomination eluded me.

I was actually very fond of Valiant, whom I interviewed with his “brother” and tag team partner Luscious John Valiant for Fans. Jimmy was a peroxided, strutting egomaniac in the grand Gorgeous George manner, and he had some classic patter: “I’m da wimmen’s pet and da men’s regret! I got da body wimmen love and men fear! And you, you’re as useful as a screen door in a submarine, daddy!” A rock ‘n’ roll fan, he went on to a very successful solo career, appropriately enough in Memphis, the capital of all things Elvis.

After Gagne the elder, the AWA’s biggest attraction was the tag team of Dick the Bruiser and the Crusher. Bruiser had gotten his competitive start as a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, but had been a top wrestling draw since 1955. Somewhere along the way, he had been converted from heel to hero, and the Chicago fans adored him.

Among the merch sold at the Amphitheatre were Dick the Bruiser Fan Club buttons; measuring six inches in diameter, they could either be pinned on one’s chest or, with the aid of a built-in cardboard stand, be displayed as a plaque. I kept mine on my desk at my straight job to freak out my co-workers.

Early in my gig with Luce, I was taken to meet Bruiser in the locker room. He sat on a table smoking a huge cigar. When I was introduced to him, he exclaimed, “Hey, you’re Ed Morris’ kid? You got more hair than your old man!” My father, who was in fact almost completely bald, had been known to associate with winners of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes. I was a little surprised that he ran in Bruiser’s circle.

The Crusher’s career in the squared circle dated back to the late ‘40s. I was even more impressed by him than I was by the Bruiser, for he had been the inspiration of the Novas’ wrasslin’-themed single “The Crusher,” a huge 1965 radio hit in Chicago for the Minnesota garage band the Novas (and later eloquently covered by the Cramps). Bruiser and Crusher were a unique combo: They were “good guys,” but they earned their keep by being badder than the “bad guys” they gutter-stomped.

The villains in that era of pro wrestling were often the object of atavistic xenophobia and hatred. Long before the U.S.’s conflicts in the Middle East, the Sheik (né Ed Farhat in Lansing, Michigan), who took the ring wearing a burnoose, was among the most reviled of heels. Some of the older fans were World War II vets, and they lustily booed Baron von Raschke, who climbed through the ropes with a monocle in one eye, draped in a Nazi flag. He was actually a U.S. Army vet born Jim Raschke in Omaha, Nebraska. His fake German accent was utterly feeble.

The AWA’s all-purpose villain, who would go on to bigger things as one of McMahon’s first WWF stars, was “Pretty Boy” Bobby Heenan, dubbed “the Weasel” by the Bruiser. Heenan was featured in his own matches, but he was most reliably entertaining as a manager, of the most duplicitous and cowardly variety, in another villain’s corner. You didn’t need a script to know what was going to happen: Just as it looked like the good guy was going to triumph, Heenan would leap into the ring and smash the apparent victor’s head into a turnbuckle or hit him over the skull with a water bucket.

Heenan featured in the most outrageous story I heard during my brilliant career in wrestling. One night I was sitting with the film crew when Al Lerner, the mustachioed, shaggy-haired, bespectacled WSNS sports reporter, entered the press box with a portable tape machine on his shoulder and a stunned look on his face.

“I’ve interviewed people in front of burning buildings,” Al said. “I’ve interviewed people as they were jumping out of airplanes. But I’ve never interviewed anyone while they were getting a blowjob.”

It seems that while Al was in the locker room recording some audio bites from Heenan, a voluptuous girl standing nearby walked over to the wrestler, kneeled down in front of him, pulled down his trunks, and began giving him the kind of pre-match service Mickey Rourke probably dreamed of but never received. As she went about her business, Heenan continued to spout invective to Al as if nothing extraordinary was transpiring.

With that moment alone, Bobby Heenan earned his place in the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.

I visited Heenan in the locker room on a somewhat less eventful evening, but that night I learned the secret of many pros’ mat success. As I was talking to him, I noticed that his forehead was crosshatched with tiny scars, some of them new and still livid. I later mentioned this to one of the crew, and was told that these wounds – referred to as “juicing” — were actually self-inflicted, so that the wrestlers could easily draw blood during critical moments of violence in their matches.

As Heenan said in a later interview, “If you want the green, you gotta bring the red.” Gore was a staple of pro wrestling, and there was nothing like sitting in an arena filled with 10,000 or 15,000 crazed spectators and hearing a drunken chant go up as a good guy pummeled a heel to the mat: “WE WANT BLOOD! WE WANT BLOOD! WE WANT BLOOD!”

My last hurrah in pro wrestling was one of Luce’s rare alfresco promotions, a multi-bout 1974 card at old Comiskey Park, the White Sox’s stadium, which climaxed with a 16-man battle royal. I don’t remember who triumphed in the main event, but I do remember that someone on the crew brought a bat and some softballs along, and we ended the evening shagging fly balls under the lights where Nellie Fox and Louie Aparicio once played.

The outlaw era of regional pro wrestling is a dim memory for most. The racket would get wilder after I left it: In an interview with Nashville wrestling figure Jimmy Cornette, Heenan said that a fan at a 1975 Amphitheatre match pulled out a pistol and began firing at him, but the shooter only managed to wound four people in the rows in front of him.

McMahon’s WWF brought the regional promoters’ day to a close, pillaging most of the big names in the game in the process. Today, the WWE has been displaced in popularity by the even gaudier UFC contests.

Most of the stars I met – including Bruiser, Crusher, and Cholak – are dead now. Heenan, a throat cancer survivor, has been in poor health for more than a decade. Verne Gagne died this April; in 2009, suffering from dementia, he accidentally killed a 97-year-old fellow resident in a Minnesota assisted living facility. Even the old stomping grounds are gone: The Chicago Amphitheatre was razed in 1999.

Bob Luce passed away in 2007, but his wild-ass legacy may live on via an unlikely champion. There are many analogs between pro wrestling and rock ‘n’ roll, and this April, mat mega-fan Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins announced on Twitter that he had bought Luce’s memorabilia and an archive of 9,000 vintage wrestling photos. Maybe he and former Hüsker Dü front man Bob Mould, a fellow wrasslin’ aficionado who once worked for World Championship Wrestling as a writer, can make something of it.

That would rock.

About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).
  • Patrick Charles

    Great piece!

  • Sam Ford

    You should definitely check out Jim Freedman’s Drawing Heat:

  • Marc Butz

    Enjoyed your article, Chris. I loved watching and listening to Bob Luce years ago from about 90 miles north of Chi-town.