HOLLENBECK: Remembering the flamboyant glory days of a 'real wrassler'
I've never been to a live wrestling match, but I have seen the sport demonstrated on TV.
Pardon me. I'm told by male members of the Courier staff that I mispronounced/misspelled the event. Real fans, they tell me, call the sport "wrassling."
A thousand pardons.
The attention to wrestling/wrassling came into newsroom discussion because of a planned event next week in Benton. A number of wrestling/wrassling stars will be performing here in conjunction with Benton's first Freedom Fest.
The talk on the opposite side of the room was consumed with chatter about this sport/activity/crime/whatever you want to call it. While I openly concede I'm not a fan, I feel compelled to share — and I'm showing my age here — that I can remember seeing one of the wrestling greats on early television.
This was Gorgeous George, who graced the round TV screens when I was a little girl — during the period when the broadcasting day ended at midnight with the playing of the national anthem and then you were left with nothing but a test pattern till early the next morning.
Jerry Breeden, a former Courier employee now living in Oklahoma, once told me that he would sit up after the 'witching hour watching the text pattern for long periods because he was so fascinated with this new entertainment medium.
In case there's someone who doesn't recognize the name Gorgeous George, let me enlighten you. He was probably as famous a wrestler as this country has ever known, primarily because of the flamboyant showmanship he exhibited both in and out of the ring.
I remember seeing him after my family got a TV in the 1950s. My father had had a heart attack and the treatment for such in those days was six weeks of bed rest. My mother decided that putting a television set in his room would be a way to ease his frustration and thus hasten his recovery.
Sometime during that period Gorgeous George appeared on the screen and was morbidly fascinating to a lot of people, including my father.
According to some Internet research I did, George — who was born George Raymond Wagner — became known worldwide for his ring name. He reportedly got the Gorgeous George moniker from a wrestling match at the Portland, Ore., Armory. As he walked down the aisle to the ring, there were two mature women on his right, two rows back from the ring, who became instant admirers. One of the women loudly exclaimed: “Oh, isn’t he gorgeous!"
The word “gorgeous” struck George and he immediately had found his new professional persona. He would be “Gorgeous George.” His mother-in-law was a skilled seamstress and George asked her to make him some resplendent capes that would accentuate his new persona.
From that day on, George wore these wraps in all his matches. He debuted his new “glamour boy” image in Eugene, Ore., and antagonized the fans with his exaggerated effeminate behavior when the ring announcer introduced him as “Gorgeous George.”
Such showmanship was unheard of for the time, and consequently arena crowds grew in size as fans turned out to ridicule George, who relished the sudden attention.
Gorgeous George soon was recruited to Los Angeles. Known as the "Human Orchid," his persona was created in part by growing his hair long, dyeing it platinum blonde, and putting gold-plated bobby pins in it (which he deemed “Georgie Pins” while distributing them to the audience). Furthermore, he transformed his ring entrance into a bona-fide spectacle that would often take up more time than his actual matches. He was the first wrestler to use entrance music, as he strolled nobly to the ring to the sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance," followed by his valet and a purple spotlight.
He was escorted down a personal red carpet by his ring valet, “Jeffries,” who would carry a silver mirror while spreading rose petals at his feet. While George removed his sequined robe, Jeffries would spray the ring with disinfectant (reportedly consisting of Chanel No. 5 perfume), which George referred to as "Chanel No. 10" ("Why be half-safe?" he was famous for saying) before he would start wrestling.
Moreover, George required that his valet spray the referee’s hands before the official was allowed to check him for any illegal objects, which thus prompted his now-famous outcry, “Get your filthy hands off me!” Gorgeous George reportedly was the industry’s first true cowardly villain, and he would cheat at every opportunity, which infuriated the crowd. His credo was "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!"
This ostentatious image and his showman's ability to work a crowd were so successful in the early days of television that he became the most famous wrestler of his time, drawing furious reactions wherever he appeared.
George’s character exploded into the biggest drawing card the TV industry had known. With the networks looking for cheap but effective programming to fill its time slots, pro wrestling’s glorified action became a genuine hit with the viewing public, as it was the first program of any kind to draw a real profit. Consequently, it was Gorgeous George who brought the sport into the nation’s living rooms, as his histrionics and melodramatic behavior made him a larger-than-life figure in American pop culture.
His first television appearance reportedly took place on Nov. 11, 1947 (several years before the Parnell household in Cotton Plant had a TV). This event recently was named by Entertainment Weekly as among the top 100 televised acts of the 20th century. After that he immediately became a national celebrity at the same level of Lucille Ball and Bob Hope (who personally donated hundreds of robes for George’s collection) while changing the course of the industry forever. No longer was pro wrestling simply about the in-ring action, but George had created a new sense of theatrics and character performance that had not previously existed.
Moreover, in a real sense, it was Gorgeous George who singlehandedly established television as a viable entertainment medium that had the potential to reach millions of homes across the country.
In fact, it is said that George probably was responsible for selling as many TV sets as Milton Berle (good old Uncle Miltie).
And that's the TV history lesson for this week.
Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.