Lead Story 2013/11/21 - Part I: London and the golden era of pro wrestling
- Written by Geoff Dale
It was a typical raucous, ear-piercing, fun-filled Wednesday night back in September 1957. The venerable old London Arena was shaking to its very foundations from the never-ending chorus of cheers, boos and catcalls from the fans and thuds from the glorious gladiators crashing about in the ring.
The near capacity crowd of close to 3,500 screaming diehard professional wrestling fans, men and women alike, young and old, toddlers and grannies among them, either roared their approval or hurled abuse at the antics of the infamous Soviet brothers, the Kalmikoffs and their opponents, the Brunetti Brothers as they did battle in the centre of the squared circle.
This was nothing-out-of-the-ordinary, just standard fare for the Forest City. London stood out as one of the major centres of this wildly popular form of sports entertainment through the 1950s and into the ‘70s. London and cities like Detroit, Hamilton, Toronto and Buffalo, along with smaller communities like Woodstock and Ingersoll, were the places to be along the famous pro-wrestling circuit of the day.
Fans expected the best and that’s exactly what they got every Wednesday night at the Arena. It was no surprise to see world champions like Lou Thesz, Gene Kiniski or Whipper Billy Watson taking on the likes of such nefarious mat villains as Dick the Bulldog Brower, The Sheik or Waldo Von Erich.
This particular three-match card marked the first time a reluctant 13-year-old Terry Dart had been urged to take in the action. Little did he know, it was the beginning of a life-long love affair with the frenetic, action-packed world of pro-wrestling.
It was an infatuation that literally transformed the shy young London native into a camera-waving fan with a virtual encyclopedic knowledge of the sport and an equally impressive talent for imposing himself into the action as a scene-stealing instigator.
“My friend’s dad, who worked for Silverwood Dairy here in London, had two tickets,” Terry said. “He asked me if I’d like to join his son Wilfred at the Wednesday’s card at the Arena. I told him I didn’t like fighting, so I was not really sure. But I went along."
“Once the action started, that was it. I was hooked. It would never be the same for me. I loved everything about wrestling – the crowds, the wrestlers and all the action. We were all one big, happy family. As time went on I became a real instigator so fans saved a front row seat for me when I was late.”
While he followed grappling action all over Canada and the U.S., often making lengthy treks to Toronto, Hamilton, Buffalo, Detroit and points in between, he was more than happy with what local promoters offered up in London every Wednesday evening.
The cards were always top-notch. One night Whipper Billy Watson was tackling Ivan Kalmikoff in a no-time limit bout with two referees, while one of the undercard features saw Terrible Ted, billed as the 600 pound Wrestling Bear, tangling with Al Bunny Dunlop.
On another occasion, Dick the Bulldog Brower, fresh from winning 12 straight matches at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, was making his London debut against the durable Frank ‘Farmer’ Boy Townsend as part of a Friday night card that included the Smith Brothers, Cyclone and Hurricane, fighting Timothy Geohagen and Sandor Kovacs for the International Tag Team Trophy and Japanese star Tario Sakuro locking horns with Johnny Foti in the opening match.
“The Arena could hold up to 3,500 and most of the time it was filled up,” said Terry. “It had 14 straight sellouts with Gene Kiniski and Whipper Billy Watson as the main attractions. In the ‘50s we got three matches and then it was four in the ‘60s. We got the best."
“Frank Tunney, who was with the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance), was the main promoter and he was a great guy to deal with. The whole scene was very different back then. It was more realistic. There were older people in the crowds – those guys smoking cigars and the old ladies like Ma Pickles, who used to get into the action.
“One night she grabbed Valdo Von Erich’s foot. He was kicking the hell out of Billy Red Lyons and he turned around and said ‘that’s right Ma, you hold one boot and I’ll kick him with the other.’”
Everyone wanted in on the action. Some of just strained their vocal chords. Terry Dart, however, became a living and breathing part of the wrestling scene in London and well beyond.
[Author's Note: In Part II we’ll look at the heroes, villains, how the press reported on professional wrestling and the ebbs and tides of the grappling game in the Forest City.]
Geoff Dale is a freelance writer and photographer based in Woodstock, Ontario. Born in London, England, he has been a journalist since 1975 and a lover of film, theatre and books since as long as he can remember. A Stratford Festival reviewer for The Beat, his first work of fiction, an alternative history entitled The Fine Art of Boxing – No Stooge in the Ring, was published in 2013.