Sunday, March 11, 2012

Saturday Afternoons With "The Chief"

I happened to be at a friend's house last weekend and, for some odd reason, we found ourselves watching professional wrestling. Go figure. Actually, the reason is not all that odd. Both of us - in our early 50s - were probably simply curious to see how the "sport" has "developed." All I will say is this: Things have really changed. I couldn't take more than ten minutes of the 2012 version of wrestling.

Anyway, watching the action that day allowed my mind to
float back in time - and it was an enjoyable float - which immediately prompted me to think about Friendly's and then . . . I remembered Saturday afternoons at the Getzov house. Usually, there were some friends hanging out. We'd play whiffle ball against the garage door, flip a few baseball cards or play Strat-O-Matic, order Friendly's for lunch and, of course, when the clock struck one, we would make sure were planted in front of the TV. It was time to watch "Championship Wrestling." It was on every Saturday afternoon and was usually sandwiched right smack in between "Candlepin Bowling" and "Roller Derby" ("The fastest growing sport in America!"). We never missed watching wrestling or, for that matter, "Roller Derby." I mean never.

When it comes to the wonderful world of wrestling - to this day - I can easily recite the names of some of the characters who came to life every weekend. I know I am not alone in this because when I just posted something on Facebook about wrestling, some folks immediately started to shoot off names I was then able to add to the following short list: Bruno Sammartino, Ivan Koloff, Special Delivery "SD" Jones, The Black Demon ("From Parts Unknown"), Gorilla Monsoon, Haystacks Calhoun, Killer Kowalski, Tony Garrea, Freddie Blassie, Andre The Giant, Captain Louis Albano, The Grand Wizard - I could go on here, trust me. Oh - The Professor Toru Tanaka and Mr. Fugi (they used to throw salt in their opponent's eyes - funny). And, of course, there was a completely separate list of guys who used to lose all the time; I always felt sorry for these wrestlers, actually. In that way, the formula was always the same: The challenger, (usually one of those guys who lost all the time) would come out smoking, pummeling the champion over and over again. Then, just at the point where the "star" would be taking his last breath, the tide would turn and the more well-known wrestler would soon emerge victorious after smashing a chair over the other guy's head or performing a death-defying leap from the turnbuckle. There seemed to be a thousand ways to entertain us back then - it apparently didn't take all that much. And we loved every single one of them. (FYI - here is one of many old-time wrestling videos you can see on YouTube, but this one really brought a smile to my face: "Andre The Giant Unmasks The Black Demon" )

Rising Above The Rest - I know I listed quite a few wrestlers above but those who watched those programs in the 1960s and 1970s would notice right away that there is one very important name missing. He was a fan favorite. This guy rose above the rest - at least for me he did. His name? "Chief Jay Strongbow."

Sure, the script ran its course every week - and we knew that script well, as I already pointed out. Still, we loved watching Chief work his magic in the ring, time after time. Here's the way it went: Whenever The Chief would be on the verge of losing his match, the crowd would stir a bit and would then start to do the collective Indian "whoop" - cheering on their
struggling hero. The Chief would be on his back, about to be pinned (it's funny now many times a guy would be on the verge of losing that way), gasping for air but . . . then you would notice his head tilting up a bit, signaling that he could hear something. It was as if the crowd's cheers were liquid energy being injected directly into The Chief's veins - a giant shot of adrenalin traveling throughout his body. And, yes, I was right there with the arena's crowds, whooping and hopping around the den with the rest of my friends, so we were very much involved in all of the madness. I mean, we really believed at some level that we, too, were having an effect! It's funny to think about that now. (Here is one video showing The Chief in action against the Professor Toru Tanaka - Click Here.)

Visiting With A Hero - Watching professional wrestling again also reminded me of a special experience I had years ago, something that, as a child, I never in a million years would have dreamed would take place one day: I had a chance to meet one of my special childhood heroes.

As Eldercation was in its very early stages, I had a good friend who worked at the, then, WWF (now, of course, the WWE). At one point, my friend gave me a list of former wrestlers I might be able to interview for the project. When I saw the list, one name was missing so I immediately asked Ed about him.

"You want to interview Chief?" he said.

Within two seconds, Ed had placed a call and I was soon speaking on the phone with the man himself. Two weeks later I was visiting with Chief on his porch as we looked across his Georgia farmland. Amazing.

We sat and talked about all kinds of things. It was a stormy day - the rain was coming down hard and the wind was, at times, howling so much there were moments when my tripod started to shake and I had to reach out to stop it from falling over. Chief sat back in his rocking chair and seemed to enjoy having the chance to reminisce with me about the early days of television wrestling. He shared stories about the struggles he endured, but he also made sure to tell me that it was a lot of fun, too.

Here is one passage from Joe's (that's his real name, by the way) interview, which is included in "gOLD" :

Joseph Scarpa (71) p/k/a “Chief Jay Strongbow”

"Over the years, so many folks at the WWE, they’ve said to me, ‘People know you all over the world; they call the office all the time, wanting to know where you are,’ they tell me. ‘People really love you, Chief.'"
"People would ask me over the years, ‘ Professor Toru Tanaka your friend? Is Fugi your friend?’ They were acquaintances, not my friends. So that stuff about being a star never even crossed my mind. I was just trying to make a living."

"I started as an amateur, traveling down all those highways. There were a bunch of times I slept in the back of the car—I’m not kidding you—back in the ’40s or so. I traveled sometimes 200 miles on ten dollars. Of course, it was a lot different back then—not like these fellas now making all that money. These guys don’t realize what we did to get ’em up in that position to make that kind of money. Wasn’t Babe Ruth paid something like $100,000 for his contract? The first $100,000 pro athlete? Amazing where we’ve come since then, huh?"

Buy "gOLD: The Extraordinary Side of Aging Revealed Through Inspiring Conversations" at (In Paperback and Kindle Versions).

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