I was 11 years old in 1988. I’d become a bit too much for my mom to deal with, so she shipped me off to live with my dad for awhile. By that time, I was already knee deep in my wrestling fandom and was a regular TV viewer of WWF, NWA, AWA and WCCW. Kerry and Kevin Von Erich were my heroes.
One evening, my dad and were wandering through the local Winn Dixie doing our weekly grocery shopping when I stumbled across some wrestling VHS tapes, one of which was an AWA tape with the Road Warriors on the box. The other VHS was called Wrestling’s Greatest Villains: The Golden Years and had a list of a bunch of black & white matches from the fifties and sixties on the box’s cover. I wanted the Road Warriors tape. My dad convinced me to also get the tape of the black & white wrestling, saying he’d watch it with me. I’d never known him to be a wrestling fan; him saying he’d sit down and check it out with me sounded pretty cool. We grabbed the tapes and headed for the check-out line.
After we got the groceries put away and fixed a couple of plates for dinner, we sat down in front of the TV and put his tape in the VCR. For the next 80+ minutes, I was given a glimpse of professional wrestling from a bygone era. That night, for the very first time, I was treated to matches by Killer Kowalski, Freddie Blassie and Buddy Rogers, but it was the appearance of Gorgeous George that left me captivated. It certainly didn’t hurt that my dad’s face lit up the second he saw him.
A Star Is Born
George Raymond Wagner was born March 24, 1915 in Butte, Nebraska to a poor farming family. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, George dropped out of Milby High School in Houston, TX and worked various jobs to help support the family. He also began competing in the carnival circuit, earning a reported 35 cents per wrestling victory.
By 1932 and at the age of 17, Wagner went to work for promoter Morris Seigel, wrestling for the next 9 years under his real name. While working in Portland in 1938, Wagner won his first championship, the Pacific Northwest Lightweight Championship. It was the first of four reigns he had with the title, carrying it for close to 21 months between May of ‘38 and November of ‘43.
In 1941, the name and character Gorgeous George were born. Having married Betty Hanson in 1939 in a Portland, Oregon wrestling ring (then taking the show on the road, “marrying” several times more during wrestling shows), George was looking for something to take his persona to a new level. According to Betty, said something took place after George overheard a woman in the wrestling crowd exclaim, “oh, isn’t he gorgeous!” Wagner asked Betty’s mother, Elsie Hanson, a talented seamstress, to make him some extravagant robes. He grew out his hair, bleached it blonde and curled it, putting it up with gold plated bobby pins (or, as he called them, “Georgie Pins”).
George then put together an elaborate ring entrance that not only included the throwing of flowers, but also a manservant (Jeffries) to disrobe him and carry his bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume to the ring and a beautiful woman (his wife, Betty) to spray the perfume around the ring. When the referee would check George for illegal foreign objects (see what I did there), he would recoil in horror, shouting, “get your filthy hands off me!” Gorgeous George all but created pageantry in professional wrestling.
Wrestling all along the West Coast and thanks in no small part to the post-World War II television era, Gorgeous George became one of the most recognizable figures in the United States. It has been said he did more for establishing television as a viable entertainment option than any other person in history. So popular did he become with the American public, it is believed he was, by the end of the ‘40s, the highest paid athlete in the world.
With fame came a responsibility to his character and the wrestling business, one George took very seriously. As author Joe Jares wrote in his book Whatever Happened To Gorgeous George?, “On camera, in the ring or wherever, he usually stayed in character, with a little put-on routine for every occasion. Performing the Gorgeous George kiss, he would gallantly take a lady’s hand and bend down to touch his lips to it, but he would turn his wrist and kiss the back of his own hand instead. He would sit in the lobby of a hotel and shriek until the manager had brand-new sheets and pillowcases put on his bed, then he’d have his room sprayed by his valet. He would pull the same sort of act in restaurants, even to the point of having other customers sprayed.”
Holding the Los Angeles version of the World Heavyweight Championship for 699 days between March ‘47 through February ‘49, “The Beautiful Bicep” turned pro wrestling into one of the most popular sports in North America. After losing the championship to Enrique Torres, George went on the road, wrestling in territories all across the U.S. and Canada, including for Sam Muchnick in Missouri, Nick Gulas and Roy Welch in NWA Mid-America and Frank Tunney’s Maple Leaf Wrestling in Toronto. It was actually in Toronto when Gorgeous George had what is, perhaps, his most famous match: a Hair Match versus Whipper Billy Watson. On March 12. 1959 in the Maple Leaf Gardens, 20,000 people saw George’s golden locks shaved from his head. Millions more watched on television from the comfort of their living room.
Peeling Away The Facade
Doctors forced George to slow things down in the early-’60s. He returned to California and bought a cocktail lounge and a 195 acre turkey ranch. In his final match, he again lost his hair, this time to The Destroyer in a Mask vs. Hair Match in the Olympic Auditorium.
His retirement was hardly a smooth one, as financial troubles and the divorce from his second wife led George down a lonely path. Over the years, “The Sensation of the Nation” had developed a drinking problem that only worsened in the final years of his life. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in ‘62, the main contributing factor to his retirement. Less than a year and a half later, on December 24, 1963, he suffered a massive heart attack. Two days later, Gorgeous George was dead. He was just 48 years old.
Decades Ahead Of His Time
“The Model” Rick Martel, “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, Goldust, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and scores of other wrestlers all gleaned parts of their respective gimmicks from the trailblazing ways of the “Toast of the Coast”. Randy Savage’s theme song? It’s called “Pomp and Circumstance” and it was used by Gorgeous George 40 years prior to Savage’s first appearance in the WWF.
Muhammad Ali said on many occasions that through watching Gorgeous George he developed his persona of a loud, brash, fighter who could “talk ‘em into the building”. It is said that George once told Ali, “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.” Even the Godfather of Soul, Mr. “Please Please Please” himself, James Brown, once said Gorgeous George’s bigger than life presence “helped create the James Brown you see on stage”. Imagine directly influencing two of the coolest men (and arguably the greatest in their respective fields) to ever walk God’s green Earth.
Gorgeous George was pop culture before pop culture was even a thing.