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Rasslin’
Written October 5, 2010

 

For the first Wrestlemania in 1985, I was in the closed-circuit television audience.  From 1989 through 1997, I provided graphics for Vince McMahon’s live wrestling telecasts from such far-flung cities as Los Angeles, Edmonton, and London.  I’ve told you about this before, in letters such as these.

What I haven’t told you is that my memories of professional wrestling go back even further.

In 1958 I was eleven years old, and my father was the Chevrolet dealer in our small town in central Ohio.  We watched television from the three stations in Columbus.  On one of those stations — WLW-C, the NBC affiliate on Channel 4 — another Chevrolet dealer had his very own show!

Lex Mayers owned a big dealership on the east side of Columbus, near the suburb of Bexley.  Closer to downtown was Old Memorial Hall at 280 East Broad Street.  This 4,200-seat auditorium, with a floor big enough for 800 additional chairs, had once been second in size only to New York’s Madison Square Garden.  Now more than 50 years old and rendered obsolete by the opening of the shiny new Veterans Memorial across the river less than a mile to the west, Old Memorial Hall had fallen on hard times.  So each weekend, Lex brought in some used cars and parked them on the floor in front of the stage, where a wrestling ring was set up.  A couple of black-and-white TV cameras were also positioned on the stage, where they could get shots of the ring and the cars and the audience.

Another boy, three weeks younger than I, was growing up in Bexley.  His name was Bobby Greene.  Later, Bob would become an award-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune.  He remembered the wrestling shows in his 2006 book And You Know You Should Be Glad.

For a while on weekends when we were eleven or twelve, some of us would ride the bus downtown, to Old Memorial Hall on East Broad Street.  A local Chevrolet dealer named Lex Mayers sponsored a television program called “Lex’s Live Wrestling.”  It was broadcast Saturday afternoons, and it was mainly a means for Lex to sell his used Chevrolets.  Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers would wrestle Frankie Talaber or Fritz Von Goering, Handsome Johnny Barend and the Magnificent Maurice would go up against Sweet Daddy Siki and Oyama Kato in a tag team match, but the underlying purpose of the exercise would be to get each fall completed as quickly as possible so the cameras could swing away from the ring and down to the floor beneath, where Lex, a rotund, garrulous man with thick eyeglasses, would be standing next to a Chevy with some miles on it, and would announce with a flourish what a great bargain this chariot of the highway would be for some wise viewer.

That’s why the show was on the air — to display Lex’s cars to the viewers at home.  Lex would call the action in the ring, too, he was the main blow-by-blow announcer, but his passion lay in moving the cars.  Although the audience Lex cared about was the audience at home, he needed an audience inside Old Memorial Hall, too, to provide clamor and background visuals for the broadcast.  Tickets were fifty cents, and for a few years when we were young some of us would be in the seats just about every Saturday.  It was pretty exhilarating, for a kid.

Bob Greene also mentioned the show in one of his Tribune columns.

The big paydays for wrestlers were in New York and Chicago.  But they'd stop in central Ohio on their way between the big cities, to make a little extra money.  ...And then Nature Boy himself would show up in town, and Old Memorial Hall in downtown Columbus — site of "Lex's Live Wrestling," home of the 50-cent-ticket — would feel like Madison Square Garden.

Make that Carnegie Hall — the thrill of a Nature Boy performance was so sublime that it belonged there, not in some mere sports arena.  Unfortunately, this was a minority opinion — wrestling had no cachet back then, it was considered a gutter entertainment — and Nature Boy was virtually unknown to the more educated echelons of society.

Watching Lex was a guilty pleasure for my father and me.  We giggled at the fellow Chevrolet dealer’s over-the-top enthusiasm for rasslin’ and at his outlandish salesmanship.  If he had a used car to sell that had been manufactured by our main competitor, he refused to say the four-letter word.  He spelled it out, F-O-R-D.  My father sometimes affected this attitude himself.

Others remembered Lex on the wrestlingclassics.com message board:

He sold cars.  Some were lined up around the ring. Every once in a while Sweet Daddy Siki would throw Chief White Owl out of the ring and dent a hood up pretty good.  Of course, old Lex would reduce the price.

It was an Al Haft promotion.  One afternoon it was [Karl] Gotch's birthday.  He was given a cake (of course), and (of course) he was "force-fed" the cake by Handsome Johnny Barend and Magnificent Maurice.  Gotch promptly tossed both heels through the windshield of one of the used cars for sale!

Later, in 1964, Old Memorial Hall would be converted into the much more respectable COSI, the Center of Science and Industry.  It would house this science museum for the next 35 years.

But before “Lex’s Live Wrestling” lost its studio, my father and I got to see Chief White Owl and five other grapplers perform in our own little town on a Labor Day weekend.  As the Richwood Gazette reported on September 1, 1960:

Wrestling fans in the vicinity of the Richwood Fair are in for a rare and real mat treat when the All-Star Wrestling Show takes center stage at the Richwood Fair.

The ever popular Chief White Owl tangles with Ali Pasha, the Terrible Turk.  In the second bout, “Wild Bill” Scholl grapples with Mexico’s Pancho Villa.  Beauty replaces brawn for the third event as Lovely Lola Loray faces Beautiful Mary Reynolds in a 30-minute hair puller.

In the main event, Cherokee Chief White Owl and Pancho Villa combine mat efforts against The Terrible Turk and Wild Bill in a one hour, best two of three falls battle royal tag team match.

My father obtained ringside seats, right beside the ring that had been set up at the finish line of the harness track.  As other fans watched from the grandstand, the show began.  My father entered into the spirit of the thing, cheerfully booing and heckling the “heels” as was the custom.  I was the slightly embarrassed 13-year-old boy sitting beside him.

 

TBT

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