Monday, January 30, 2012

Verne Gagne, Paladin

A few months back I went to a wedding in Minneapolis.  It was an upscale event, with a very engaging bride and groom.  It was held at the Calhoun Beach Club.

At the reception I surveyed the assemblage of mostly young hipsters and wondered how many of them knew what the place was formerly known for.

All Star Wrestling.

Saturday morning television was a ritual when I was growing up.  Cartoons for the first few hours then perhaps the Creature Feature horror movies.  But often as not we would opt for All Star Wrestling, a curious Morality Play broadcast every week from the Calhoun Beach Manor.  (The independent TV station that produced the show had studios there).

The straight arrow Paladin of this curious world was Verne Gagne.  He was a local lad, twice NCAA wrestling champion.  He was also at this time middle aged and balding.
His public persona as a "nice guy" seems to have been true.  My fourth grade teacher Mrs. Wagner was a great friend of his, her husband had been his college coach and young Verne actually lived on their sofa from time to time. 

And we needed a nice guy to cheer for, as the world of wrestling was infested with low characters such as:

Baron Von Rashke!  Although he played his part as a German he was actually from Omaha, Nebraska.  Here he threatens with his signature hold "The Claw", which incidentally became a staple of living room carpet 'rassling with my boys as they grew up.  The Baron later worked as a substitute teacher at Nicollet Junior High School in Burnsville, Minnesota.  One assumes he had very few discipline issues.

Here's another baddie:
Mad Dog Vachon.  This guy was notorious for biting, gouging with unspecified "foreign objects" and so forth.  I seem to recall seeing him literally foaming at the mouth during interviews.  Of course in real life Maurice Vachon was a very nice guy.  A friend of mine used to play racquetball against him.  He says Mad Dog talked continuously.  You just couldn't shut the guy up.

The cast of characters for All Star Wrestling was indeed rich and varied.  A few went on to greater things, Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan come to mind.  Others were then and now nearly anonymous.  There was one guy who was always put up against opponents he could never hope to beat.  He was invariably introduced as "The Very Capable Kenny Jay".  But hey, I see he actually has his own Wikipedia entry!  Capable!

All Star Wrestling was essentially an infomercial.  Verne Gagne was on pitching a tonic called Geri Speed.  Supposedly this is what kept him in peak physical shape even though he was just a few years younger than my dad.  In retrospect the name seems ironic, suggesting Geriatric amphetamines, but at the time it was played entirely straight.

Mostly though the Saturday morning All Star Wrestling program existed to encourage folks to come out for the real events held Saturday nights at the Minneapolis auditorium.
We knew, even as children, that the results of the TV matches were pre-ordained.  As to the auditorium bouts, well, I never went to see them but I understand they were spirited competitions.  And if Right prevailed after a tough struggle, or if  defiant Evil carried the day on its way to an eventual downfall, well that's just how the Universe was set up.  It was pure Milton, with lots of sweat.

The Calhoun Beach Manor is now an upscale place with luxury apartments and various bar/restaurant/event businesses. 

And sadly Verne Gagne is suffering from advanced Alzheimer's dementia. 

Johnny Weismueller, who had the same diagnosis, retained some vestiges of his earlier self, still belting out his signature Tarzan yell at the care facility where he spent his final days.

Perhaps Verne Gagne also has a few faint echos of his once mighty "scientific wrestling" technique.  Tragically he injured a fellow nursing home resident in 2009, knocking the fellow over and breaking his hip.  The poor man died of his injuries.

Investigating officials declined to press charges, as The Champ was felt to be incapable of understanding the nature of his actions.


Harry said...

Baron von Rashke looks disturbingly like David Keen. Hmmmmmmm....

Tacitus2 said...

Yes, a little. Interesting. The Baron by the way also had a part time job driving the monorail at the Minnesota Zoo for a while. I wonder if he was able to stay out of character with the rambunctious kiddies.....