Lead Story 2013/12/04 - Part II: London and the golden era of pro wrestling - Heroes & Villains

Pro wrestling has always been an intriguing form of sports entertainment – a physically demanding activity combining grace and athleticism with the energetic theatre of good versus evil, pitting faces (the heroes) against dastardly heels (the villains) – a morality play with headlocks.

From the 1950s through the ‘70s and beyond there was no shortage of headline grabbing matches in London. Whipper Billy Watson, Lord Athol Layton, The Beast, Dick The Bulldog Brower, Andre the Giant, Johnnie Valentine and Lou Thesz, a veritable who’s who of the pro grappling world made their way to the Forest City on a regular basis.

Over those years Terry Dart was making his presence known in wrestling circles from London to Detroit and all points in between. Known for his impressive photographic skills, an encyclopedic memory for dates, names and matches, his rapidly growing collections of news clippings, he also displayed an uncanny ability to get involved in the action as a ringside instigator. Later, risking bodily injury, he even took on the roles of indie managers.

While still an active follower at the age of 69, he prefers those ‘good old days’ when the Giant Baba would take on the likes of Johnnie Valentine at The Gardens or the nefarious duo of Sweet Daddy Siki and Bulldog Brower locked horns with Bruno Sammartino and Billy Red Lyons at the Arena for the international tag team title.

“Back then they didn’t have all these circus-like trappings and the pyrotechnics they have now, “said Terry. “There wasn’t much music, although Gorgeous George came out in all his glory to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March before Randy Savage used it in later years.

“There were the Georgie pins he and his valet Sherri used to throw out to the crowd. He came to London on many times and fought Watson. In Toronto he lost and was forced to have his head shaved after the match, so he was a real sight. His main move was the flying headlock.

“One time in London, I offered to carry the luggage for his valet. I told him he wasn’t so gorgeous so he responded with an f-off. He said the valet carries the bags herself. It was her job – then picked up a rock and threw it at me.”

It was around 1959-60 when he discovered his knack for getting involved in the action and he didn’t limit his newfound talents to his hometown. During the ‘70s, while sitting in his free front row seat in a Hamilton studio for TV taped matches that featured Olympic weightlifter Ken Patera, he called the six foot-two inch wrestler Ken Petunia.

“Back then I had all the front row fans flex their muscles when Patera came to the ring. Even my 10-year-old son did it. When Ken spotted us, he said, ‘Hey, you bums. The boy's got more muscles than all of you.’”

“Patera used the full nelson for a submission hold and said that nobody could break out of it. Between bouts, I got a long strip of toilet paper and wrote on it, ‘I Killer Diller challenge Ken Petunia to put the full nelson on me,’ then I draped it over the ring ropes. When he saw it, he got furious.

“He called me a punk, saying he would make my neck go "snap, crackle, and pop".   After the matches, I told Ken that I was sorry for cutting up. He said that he liked me doing it because it helped build the crowd heat.”

Drawing some of the biggest names the wrestling world had to offer, London featured sold-out houses until about 1961. Suddenly during the early part of the decade the crowds started to drop off, even though the quality of shows and headliners continued to be top notch along the circuit of the day.

“It was strange,” said Terry. “Even when Dick the Bulldog Brower was here there were only 200-300 people in the crowd. Finally in 1963 in the middle of winter when Frank Tunney said there would be no more wrestling, I called him collect and got through to him directly, in his Toronto office. I was only a teenager but he listened. He was one of the best promoters around.

“He even listed his phone number in the phone book and, being a kind man, he accepted the charges. One time, a fan was down on his luck and couldn't pay his rent.   Frank gave him money to cover it. Bruno Sammartino said that Frank Tunney was the most honest man he had ever met.”

Terry’s memorable call with Tunney lasted for more than hour, during which time the two chatted about wrestling in London and far beyond.

“I said, ‘Frank, I sure wish we would have wrestling back here because everyone here in London just loves the shows.’ We talked about an hour and he told me I would see outdoor wrestling in Labatt Park in the summer. That lasted about six weeks and even great wrestlers like Yukon Eric, Gene Kiniski and Killer Kowalski just didn’t draw.”

In addition to the London Arena, diehard fans could head over to the Gardens at the Treasure Island Shopping Centre on Wellington Road South to see Giant Baba and Yukon Eric do battle or, for an even shorter period of time, go to the Labatt Park for a glimpse of outdoor action. But, over the long haul, it was the Arena that continued to be the one place to go for wrestling.

The Arena opened in 1923, originally designed for hockey. In 1941 it became the only combination ice arena, convention hall, roller arena and ballroom of its size in Canada.  With a 14,000 square foot portable hardwood floor, laid over ice making equipment, it would often see up to 5,000 people tripping the light fantastic.

It played host to musical luminaries like Glenn Miller, London’s own Guy Lombardo, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, George Kirby, Gene Autry, Johnny Cash and Alice Cooper.  But to fans like Terry Dart, it was the home of pro wrestling and the game’s greatest stars of the day like Whipper Billy Watson, Andre The Giant and Angelo Mosca.

In 1976 the Ministry of Labour performed inspections on arenas throughout Ontario. Up to 40 per cent were deemed unsafe, including the London Arena. Its doors closed for the last time October 15, 1976.

There was no virtually no end to the wrestling stories coming out of London and Terry Dart knew them all – the good, the bad and the ugly.

[Photos: Courtesy of Terry Dart]

[Author's Note: Part III – more recollections of the greats of the golden era and how the press covered sports entertainment of the day.]

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.


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