Mention the town of Memphis to most folks, and chances are the first name that comes to mind is Elvis.
Mention the town of Memphis to any longtime wrestling fan, and chances are they’ll start talking about Jerry “The King” Lawler, Jackie Fargo, Sputnik Monroe or some of the other legendary figures who helped make Memphis one of the most successful and longest-running territories in the business.
A new book, “Sputnik, Masked Men and Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling,” helps capture the style and splendor of that era in grand pictorial fashion.
Author Ron Hall and editor Sherman Willmott have done a terrific job putting together an attractive, coffee table-style volume that contains nearly 400 nostalgic black-and-white images from a bygone age in wrestling history in one of wrestling’s most enduring cities. Most of the book’s photos are from a period ranging from the early ‘50s to the late ‘70s, and many of the images have never been published before.
There’s even a bonus CD of rare music tracks by Memphis favorites Sputnik Monroe, Jackie Fargo, Jimmy Valiant and Len Rossi.
Lawler, who was regarded as “the King of Memphis” long before his stint as WWE color commentator, wrote the introduction to the book and notes that he patterned his speaking style after another famous Memphian.
Instead of his politeness,” the current Memphis mayoral candidate writes, “I subverted his mannerisms into cockiness and projected myself as the truck driver side of Elvis. I even took his leer and turned it into a sneer that would curdle your toes.”
The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, incidentally, was a big wrestling fan and a frequent visitor to the Monday night shows at the old Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, and even dated wrestling star Penny Banner several times.
The book consists primarily of old posed and action photos, but also includes reproductions of Memphis wrestling posters, clips and 45s.
Hall, a post office clerk by trade, pursued the project after writing a couple of nostalgia-based books on Memphis’ garage band history: “Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis, 1960-75)” and “The Memphis Garage Rock Yearbook.”
A longtime music buff, Hall unwittingly helped create a new audience for the genre when many of the groups he wrote about decided to reform years later. It was through ingenuity and a little luck that Hall got the idea for the books.
Hall came across a “treasure trove” of material while going through files and documents that were housed at the University of Memphis Museum. Much of the material previously had been the property of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, a Scripps-Howard afternoon daily that closed its doors in the mid-’80s.
“Everything that had been written about folks in Memphis was probably in their collection,” says Hall.
Once the newspaper closed shop, he says, most of the photo archives were earmarked for disposal.
“They had the stuff out on the dock,” says Hall. “They were going to throw it in the Dumpster. And somebody suggested that they call the University of Memphis, and they sent a truck over there. I think they had to make around five trips. It was a ton of stuff. But all that stuff would have been thrown away.”
It was a godsend for historians like Hall.
“You wouldn’t believe the stuff I found going through there. It’s unbelievable. They had a great catalog.”
As Hall sifted through volumes of documents, he came across some rare photographs of Elvis and various area rockabilly performers, along with photos of the many garage bands that had performed in Memphis over the years.
But what also caught his eye was a vast array of pro wrestling photos. They reminded him of his younger days when Memphis wrestling was a Saturday morning television staple leading up to the weekly Monday night shows at the Ellis Auditorium and later the Mid-South Coliseum.
“As I was going through bands, here would be a picture of the Baby Blimp. It was so cool,” recalls Hall. “It just brought back all these memories. I started looking for things. The more I found, the more I looked for more. The (music) yearbook was hardly even out and I was already looking to put out this next thing.”
“The museum scanned the photos and put them on a disc — at no charge. All they asked is that I credit them on the pictures and bring them a copy afterwards.”
Hall also bought a big batch or original wrestling posters to add to his collection. “It just kind of snowballed from that.”
Hall and his editor were sure that pro wrestling, much like the garage rock bands, would strike a nostalgic chord with a unique audience. For most of the 20th century, Mondays night in Memphis had meant one thing — professional wrestling. At the Ellis Auditorium and later the Mid-South Coliseum, pro wrestling was a major event in a town also known for Elvis, the blues, barbecue, cotton and the civil rights movement.
Hall has been working on the project on-and-off for several years. The success of the movie “The Wrestler” propelled Hall into high gear.
“Everyone who knew I was working on the book started asking me when I was going to finish it,” said Hall. “It lit the spark again. I really went full force after that.”
Hall says early response to the book has very positive.
“The response has been really good ... even from the wrestlers. Jerry Lawler loved it. All of the wrestlers have liked it because it brings back so many memories.”
Hall made sure to include photos of not only main-event stars who came through Memphis, but also some of the mainstays who may not have achieved that level of popularity, but who made their mark in the territory. He also wanted to display some of the other attractions that helped shape Memphis wrestling.
“I didn’t want to leave out any of the women. I didn’t want to leave out the midgets. I didn’t want to leave out the bears. I didn’t want to leave out anything that was connected to Memphis wrestling,” he says. “Anytime you went to wrestling, it was like going to the circus. There were all these attractions. It was great.”
Hall says he eventually acquired photos of most of the talent he was looking for. He purchased a number of images from an individual who owned a vast collection of photos that from that era.
“I had a list of people I absolutely wanted for the book,” says Hall. “When you find something you really need, it was big. I went through those files thinking I had missed something. There were certain icons I just had to have. I wished I had more of referee Jerry Calhoun. He’s really a great guy. I felt so bad I didn’t have a picture of him in the ring.”
Hall says his favorite wrestling performer was Billy Wicks. For years his bout with Monroe at Russellwood Park held the Memphis attendance record of 13,000 fans. Several thousand reportedly were turned away.
“Without a doubt. Sputnik was close behind. I also liked Rowdy Red Roberts. There was just something about him. It seemed like he wrestled every Saturday. He was a mean-looking wrestler with that bald head. Guys like that and the Galentos (Spider and Mario) were great. As a fan I really wasn’t that interested in the scientific wrestlers.”
Of course, before Jerry Lawler became the “king” of the Memphis wrestling scene, there was Wildman Jackie Fargo.
“Jackie was great. Jackie had that bar or restaurant in Memphis, and he liked to tip one every now and then. A wrestler told me that he’d lock the doors after hours and want to wrestle with the young guys. He was a real brawler.”
The book also draws from the substantial collection of Robert W. Dye. Dye was an amateur photographer who shot photos of entertainers around Memphis during the ‘40s and ‘50s. But he had more than a passing interest in pro wrestling, says Hall, and his photos help give the book a window into the early world of Memphis wrestling.
“I don’t think he went to the matches more than four or five times, but he took a lot of great photos.”
As a youth Hall was a fan who watched wrestling on television and, like many of the younger followers of that generation, practiced it in their back yards.
“Everybody would watch it and then go out in their yard and have tag-team matches with their neighbors and beat the heck out of one another. Everybody did. You would even mimic the mannerisms of wrestlers ... like hiding something down in your shorts. It was a lot of fun.”
Coming across the photos years later helped rekindle that interest. The most interesting thing about writing the book, says Hall, was just the thrill of discovering the material that still existed.
“These images, when I first came across them, brought back so many things in my mind. I had a shoebox full of clippings of all the wrestlers and matches.”
Hall says he wants readers to have as much fun going through the book as he had putting it together.
“I just want people to have fun with the book. It’s the type of thing you can just set on the coffee table and show your friends. Even if you don’t like wrestling, just going through these images would be enjoyable.”
Unfortunately the book’s photo display ends in the late ‘70s. Conspicuously absent was a later period in Memphis wrestling history that featured Lawler’s red-hot programs with the likes of Austin Idol, Terry Funk, Randy Savage, Jimmy Hart and late comedian Andy Kaufman, the creation of The Fabulous Ones (Stan Lane and Steve Keirn), and the emergence of Jerry Jarrett as the territory’s promotional driving force. Jarrett took control from longtime promoter Nick Gulas, who lost Memphis TV’s Channel 13 to Jarrett, along with Memphis’ biggest star (Lawler) and popular announcers Lance Russell and Dave Brown.
Gulas, his co-promoter and TV announcer Harry Thornton, and his main star, Jackie Fargo, all retired in 1980. By the start of 1981, Jarrett was running most of Gulas’s old towns.
Hall says he made a conscious decision to end the book in the late ‘70s. Although Memphis wrestling continued to thrive for a few more years, the wrestling business was heading in a different direction, making way for cable television and the national expansion.
It’s also when Hall, for the most part, stopped watching.
Like many of his friends, he says, he moved on to other things, such as music, girls and high school. It would be many years before he would watch wrestling again, but only while his children were growing up, and only in small doses. It was a new generation and a new product. It would never be the same again.
“My attraction to wrestling stopped pretty much when this book ends. It was in the late ‘70s.”
Manager Jim Cornette, who made his debut in 1982, would emerge a little too late for Hall, who says Cornette would have fit in well with those who came before him.
Hall admits he just didn’t have a touch on that era. Cable TV had become the new means of presenting the product to the masses. Business was now being played out on a national stage.
“It started changing. Cable TV and all that. It was a different scene as far as I was concerned.”
It also was harder, he says, to obtain newspaper photos after the late ‘70s.
“Newspapers virtually stopped the kind of promotion they did in the ‘50, ‘60s and ‘70s. They would have a photograph of a wrestler every Monday in the paper. Later all they would run is the card.”
Jimmy Hart, one of the best managers to ever come out of Memphis, also had been featured in Hall’s previous books on Memphis garage bands. Hart had been part of the ‘60s musical group, The Gentrys, whose million-selling hit “Keep On Dancing” reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.
“I’ve known Jimmy for a long time,” says Hall, who has dabbled in the music business for years. “He and I played together in a softball game between “The Hippies” and “The Police” back when things were really stressed in Memphis. It was around 1970. Jimmy was on a team with me, and we played the Memphis Police Department at Blues Stadium. We drew 11,000 people. Hart was a really good athlete.”
“All the Gentrys are like icons here in town,” he adds. “They’ve all stayed pretty visible even though some have moved away.”
Hall still has a special place in his heart for the garage bands.
“There were more than 145 groups who cut at least one 45 here in Memphis. A lot of them came from Arkansas or West Tennessee, but they came here and recorded. The second music book covered a lot of the bands that didn’t record but who were very popular in the area. It was done like a high school yearbook. It’s a lot like the wrestling book with a lot of photos, flyers from concerts and dances, and all kinds of stuff like that. It was very popular.”
“Sputnik, Masked Men and Midgets” ($25, Shangri-La Projects), which will be released Sept. 15, is available at www.shangrilaprojects.com or amazon.com.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at (843) 937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org.