Long before Hulk Hogan, WWF, Wrestlemania and whatever they call professional wrestling nowadays, there was live studio wrestling on Saturday nights at Channel 42.
And Len Rossi, a barrel chested, dark-haired good guy. And Tojo Yamamoto, a bad guy supposedly from Japan. And a host of lesser lights, like Jackie Fargo and a pair called the Bounty Hunters. Everybody had a trademark move. One had been a boxer, and when he was on the ropes he’d start punching and soon get the upper hand. Another had some move that consisted of tangling his legs up with those of his opponent, causing the opponent to immediately concede. Rossi’s trademark move was a sleeper hold that consisted of squeezing the other guy’s head from behind until he passed out.
Every Friday, the TV station assembled a ring and set up a few rows of bleachers around it for a show that was broadcast live. Seats were free, and the events were really a big teaser for the Monday night wrestling matches at Municipal Auditorium. Between rounds, there were interviews with promoter Nick Gulas and Cousin Joe Denaburg, of Levy’s Loan Company.
When it was time for the studio match to start, a fellow named Joe Aloia would climb into the ring. Joe was a neighbor and family friend, who had married a girl named Judy Matthews, and they were members of our church (Woodlawn Baptist). His day job was working as a news reporter for WSGN 610. It was the popular Top 40 station, and home of the Good Guys (their name for the colorful DJs), the best known of whom were Steve “The Mop” Norris, and the nighttime king, Dave Roddy. Everybody I knew listened to “Rockin’ with Roddy” every night, as he played tunes by Rick Nelson, The Beatles and Dave Clark Five. They had a real news department, headed by Dave Perry, who had a long career in radio and TV, with a public relations gig wedged in between.
Dad and I watched the wrestling matches nearly every Saturday night. We knew it was fake, but it didn’t matter. We saw Tojo strut around clapping his hands and doing some sort of pre-match ceremony, often interrupted by a good guy opponent itching to get the fight started.
One Saturday, Joe called and asked if I’d like to go to the studio for the matches. I got my friend Andy Young to go along, and Joe picked us up. The studio was cramped and dark, but it didn’t matter. We were there, in the middle of it, as Joe climbed up to introduce the wrestlers. Given the tight quarters, there was little space between the spectators and the ring. I don’t remember who wrestled that night, but when I saw them pass by, a couple of steps away, they were awfully unimposing — basically rednecks with beer bellies.
I guess I could have gone back anytime in hopes of seeing a better show, but it seemed a lot more exciting on TV. Of course, most of the TV matches ended in some kind of dispute which would be settled on Monday night, when you had to pay to get a seat.
When my son Todd was in middle school, the WWF was at its height, and one night, the regional tour was at Boutwell Auditorium. His main observation on the way home: “There seemed to be a shortage of teeth in there.”
Teeth or no, in working on this post, I did come across a video of a retired Len Rossi talking about how tough a business it was. He makes a point.