Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling

Here’s more evidence that life was better before television. More specifically, life was better before cable television, which, among other crimes, deserves blame for slamming the great American sport of regional professional wrestling into the turnbuckle back in the late 70s/early 80s.

But before it got the final knee-drop, regional wrestling flourished during the 50s, 60s, & 70s in Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, Memphis in those days stood as the biggest, liveliest stop in pioneering promoter Nick Gulas’ territory. Here, at the old Ellis Auditorium and, later, the Mid-South Coliseum, big national names like the Blassie Brothers and Andre the Giant grappled with local heroes Sputnik Monroe, Jackie Fargo, and Jerry “the King” Lawler, while the kinds of characters and story lines that are now commonplace were first worked-up before rabid audiences.

Butch Boyette, the coolest looking of Memphis Wrestlers? That's wife Barbara Galento beside him.

That golden era is now beautifully chronicled in Ron Hall’s book Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets, the Early Days of Memphis Wrestling, published by Shangri-La Projects (the same folks who brought you Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage and Frat Bands in Memphis, and The Memphis Garage Rock Yearbook, as well as the great Shangri-La Records store in Memphis). Thumbing through the wonders contained within the pages of Sputnik, one has to ask whether any greater collection of early wrestling photos, promo shots, clippings, wrestling cards, and records--actually, Sputnik comes with a CD of classics like Sputnik Monroe’s "Sputnik Hires a Band" and Jackie Fargo’s “Champ of Champs”--has ever been compiled. What’s more, Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets gives the reader privileged access to the photos of Robert Dye, Sr., a Memphis entertainment photographer active in the 40s and 50s who also documented the action at Ellis Auditorium. No better vantage point on the figures and faces of this lost world could you hope to find.

Sputnik Hires a Band


Another interesting story that Sputnik touches on is how segregation lurked over the proceedings. Initially black members of the wrasslin’ audience were relegated to the balcony at Ellis Auditorium. Sputnik Monroe, who boasted a large black fan base, played a key role in changing that rule (a story that gets more time in Robert Gordon’s It Came From Memphis). The collection of Memphis wrestling cards re-printed in Sputnik subtly illustrates how, in the 50s, any non-caucasian, non-male wrestler would be stuck in some novelty match slot at the bottom. But by the 60s & 70s, Brown Bashers like Sailor Art Thomas, Rocky Johnson, and Bobo Brazil were featured in title matches, while lady wrestlers, midget wrestlers, Bavarian Boys, Tojos, Shieks, and Scufflin’ Hillbillies had all moved up to more prominent spots on the card.

Sputnik Monroe

Thumbing through the pages of Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets makes for hours of fun, whether you’re a true fan of the “King of Sport,” or just another one out for kicks on a Monday night, when the Mid-South league used to hold matches. Sputnik might be as close as you can get now to the real thing.


Bill said...

Thanks for posting information about this book. I grew up with Memphis wrestling (in Birmingham though). I had just posted some Memphis wrestling photos last night on my wrestling blog. This morning I found your post for Nick Gulas (along with mine) with a Google alert.

Bob Pomeroy said...

Then you oughta love the book, especially the Robert Dye pics. There's loads of 'em.