Minnesota’s Golden Age of Wrestling: From Verne Gagne to the Road Warriors is a fun and fascinating history of the glory days of old-school professional wrestling in the state. Author George Schire has been a longtime fan, and a writer and columnist for national wrestling publications, as well as a ring announcer. Today he shares with the Press some inside stories of the Golden Age. Schire will also discuss the book and sign copies at Barnes and Noble, Har-Mar Mall, Roseville, on Thursday, May 6, at 7 p.m.
Q: So many wrestling fans across the region remember gathering around the TV Saturday nights (or Sunday mornings) to watch All-Star Wrestling. Early broadcasts date back to the 1940s. But fans could see wrestlers in live matches at arenas around the state. What were some of Minnesota’s favorite venues?
A: Professional wrestling matches were held at city civic auditoriums (the Minneapolis Auditorium and St. Paul Auditorium, for example) and also the local National Guard armories in cities throughout Minnesota. But “spot shows,” as they were called, were also held in VFW and Legion halls and even in high school gyms.
Q: Seems like spectators could be the most dangerous folks in the arena. Did any wrestlers ever get hurt by a local who took the event a little too seriously?
A: Wrestlers will always tell you that sometimes it was the fans they had to fear most. There were always incidents of a fan charging the ring in an attempt to attack a bad guy, or attempting to attack wrestlers as they went to and from the ring. Dr. Bill Miller, who wrestled as “Mister M” in the Twin Cities, was once hit by a two-by-four piece of wood that opened a head wound and required several stitches in the dressing room.
Q: We tend to remember the most famous wrestlers, and each of us have some of our favorites. You talk about so many in the book. Who were your favorites as a boy and teen growing up?
A: Since I was always interested in the inner workings of the business and how matches were worked, I tended to be a fan of the heels (the bad guys)—Doctor “X” and Harley Race, to name two of them. If a heel was successful with his act, he was able to put fans in the seats, and the more fans, the more money there was to be made.
Q: When new talent was “discovered,” how had they typically come to be part of the circuit?
A: Verne Gagne’s Minnesota territory emphasized that wrestlers have a solid amateur wrestling background, and so many times those amateur wrestlers would seek Gagne out for their professional training. But word of mouth was common, too. Many times a guy would be recommended to Gagne (and other trainers) to get his start in the business.
Q: How did wrestlers develop their body types? That is, what do you know of their conditioning routines?
A: Unlike today’s overdeveloped muscle heads, wrestlers of the Golden Age often relied on some weight lifting, running, and various isometric exercises to keep themselves in condition. But remember, most wrestlers would work matches 300 to 365 nights a year, and so oftentimes those 30- to 90-minute workouts in the ring were sufficient to keep them in what Harley Race called, “Mat Shape.”
Q: Wrestlers were real people, after all. Did any of them have surprising off-ring careers? Any interesting post-wrestling vocations or hobbies?
A: Most wrestlers of the Golden Age who were the high-profile stars did not have outside professions while they wrestled. But once their careers were over, it wasn’t uncommon for some of them to get into businesses unrelated to wrestling altogether. Larry Hennig became a successful real estate broker and auctioneer. Baron Von Raschke had a teaching degree and taught school after his wrestling days. Dr. Bill Miller (Mister M, mentioned earlier) was a veterinarian and practiced for many years. Dick Beyer (Doctor “X”) became a high school wrestling coach after his days in the ring, and Nick Bockwinkel developed a career selling life insurance and annuities. Many other ex-wrestlers owned bars and restaurants or dry-cleaning businesses, and some went on to serve in law-enforcement professions.
(Photo courtesy the author: Big K, Schire, Hennig, and Vachon, 1991)