Pomp And Circumstance: The Brilliance Of Gorgeous George

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. 

Hollywood

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.

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Sputnik Monroe’s Main Event Win Over Jim Crow – Pt. 1

It’s hard to be humble when you’re 235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body that women love and men fear. – Sputnik Monroe

27-year-old Rock Monroe had just completed a long drive from Washington State to Mobile, Alabama. It was December of 1957 and he was in town to work for Buddy Fuller’s Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling, a promotion that, at this point in history, was only about a year and a half old. Somewhere in Mississippi, the exhausted wrestler had picked up a black man looking to hitch a ride in exchange for helping with the drive.

According to Gulf Coast wrestling historian, Mike Norris, “He offered the guy some money (to) help him drive so he could rest.”

Alabama would not desegregate for another four and a half years, meaning Monroe’s arrival to the wrestling show, side-by-side with his new friend wasn’t met with many happy faces. Said Norris, “Monroe heard the crowd grumbling about him being with a black man, so he grabbed (the man) and kissed him on the cheek.” Other stories have him kissing the man on the mouth. Either way, the reaction he received changed wrestling history.

A woman within earshot of the wrestling heel began slinging a variety of insults at the pair, cursing them and carrying on. Eventually, she ran out of obvious insults, piling on with, “you’re a damn Sputnik”. Though mild by today’s standards (and equally corny), the U.S. was knee-deep in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. In this era of post-McCarthyism, “Sputnik” was akin to calling someone a communist, and with the “better dead than red” ethos very much in full practice stateside, this was potentially dangerous rhetoric, particularly in the Deep South.

After spending more than a decade as a journeyman pro wrestler, Monroe smelled money.

Diamond Ring And Cadillac Man

Embracing his new name, Monroe crafted a public persona that infuriated conservative whites. After his move to Memphis in early ‘59, it was not uncommon to find the cocky Monroe in a variety of “blacks only” bars, dressed to the nines, mingling and handing out free tickets to patrons. Often draped in a long purple robe and carrying a diamond tipped cane, the “diamond ring and Cadillac man”, was living his life to the fullest. 

His attire, coupled with a not-before-seen flamboyance in that part of the country, also made him a target of police. Monroe’s look (jet black hair with a dyed white streak parting the middle of his head, made him an instantly recognizable figure and he was arrested a variety of times on ridiculous charges. Monroe usually lost the case against him, paid whatever fine was levied against him and went right back to thumbing his nose at the status quo.

One arrest in particular saw Monroe charged with “mopery” for hanging out in a black-owned bar. To represent him in the case, Monroe hired a black attorney, Russell B. Sugarmon Jr., setting off a firestorm among the more close minded citizens of Memphis. This was the first time a black man represented a white man in a Memphis court. Ultimately, Sputnik was fined $25 by the presiding judge, but his stance was clear: no one was going to dictate to the wrestler how or with whom he should spend his time.

The heel’s heat-seeking ways knew no limits. Former NWA Heavyweight Champion, Dory Funk Jr. recounts a particularly hilarious tale:

“Sputnik Monroe was dressed to the hilt, black suit, white shirt, and red tie. Around his waist was the Southern States Heavyweight Wrestling Championship Belt. Sputnik had won the belt the night before in a 16 man tournament in Memphis, Tennessee. Now he was celebrating with his friend, fellow wrestler Greg Peterson. He’d had a few drinks and was at the Memphis state fair looking for attention and notoriety the best way he knew how. Sputnik was looking for a fight.

He headed straight for the booth featuring TV tough guy Gene Barry who at the time was playing the part of Bat Masterson. When Sputnik got there, he tried his best to get close to the TV star, but there were bodyguards and security all over the place. There was no way he would have a shot at Gene Barry.

Sputnik was juiced up and wanted to fight somebody; that’s what he came here for. He looked around and found a cowboy and insulted him. The cowboy looked at Sputnik and said, “I know you, I watch you wrestle on TV all the time. I ain’t going to fight you.”

Not easily dissuaded, Sputnik insulted the cowboy’s wife. The cowboy still wouldn’t fight the great professional wrestler. He said, “You’re just trying to sucker me into trying you.”

Sputnik turned around and punched the cowboy’s horse in the nose. In a second, the cowboy was all over Sputnik and a hell of a fight broke out and was busted up by Memphis Police.

According to Sputnik, the only reason (he) got a lick on him was because cowboy blind sided him and he didn’t expect it. Sputnik challenged him to come to the arena on Monday night and face him in the ring on TV. There, Sputnik could atone for his embarrassment. The cowboy’s answer came back. “I know Sputnik Monroe let me stay with him at the fair so he could sucker me into the ring in front of all the wrestling fans and humiliate me. No way, I am not going to get in the ring with Sputnik Monroe; he’s too tough for me.””

The Rise Of Sputnik

Sputnik’s attitude and flamboyance, coupled with his attitude towards the South’s Jim Crow laws, quickly turned him into the biggest heel in the territory to a large segment of the Memphis population. To another group, however, he became a hero.

Wrestling had been down in Memphis and segregation wasn’t helping the problem. The lower bowl of the Ellis Auditorium, the section deemed as “whites only”, was regularly empty. This didn’t improve much when Monroe arrived. The small area where blacks were allowed to sit, however, was always packed to capacity to see Sputnik do his thing. Understanding how ridiculous the segregation laws were (while also understanding how empty seats hurt his wallet), Monroe decided to do something about it. He started by bribing the ticket sellers to oversell the area of the upper bowl of the auditorium. They complied, selling close to a thousand extra seats to black fans.

Promoter Roy Welch was incensed, leading to Monroe upping the ante one more time. Staring down Welch, the police and the owners of the auditorium, Sputnik said he would not wrestler should the fans be forced to leave the show. “There were a couple of thousand blacks outside wanting in. So I told management I’d be cutting out if they don’t let in my black friends. I had the power because I’m selling out the place, the first guy that ever did, and they damn sure wanted the revenue.” Welch backed down (or was complicit, depending on who tells the tale). From there on out, Monroe would not wrestle on integrated shows. The result: the name Sputnik Monroe came to carry far more weight than simply that of a champion pro wrestler.

It wasn’t long before the white youth of Memphis embraced Sputnik as well. Said Monroe, “There was a group of wealthy white kids that dug me because I was a rebel. I’m saying what they wanted to say, only they were just too young or inexperienced or afraid to say it. You have a black maid raising your kids and she’s talking about me all of the time, so I may not be in the front living room, but I’m going in the back door of your goddamn house, feeding your kids on Monday morning and sending ’em to school. And meeting the bus when they come home. Pretty powerful thing.”

Memphis wrestling exploded. Shows that barely drew prior his arrival were now selling out. According to John Dougherty, a retired Memphis radio disc jockey, “When (Sputnik) came to Memphis, wrestling shows were averaging 300 people a night. By the time he started wrestling, 7,000 people were coming out to see him. He could’ve run for mayor and could’ve been elected. That’s how big he was in this town.”

Memphis sportscaster Johnny Black echoed the DJ, claiming, “If you would have had some kind of election about who was the best-known face in Memphis at that time – Sputnik, Elvis or the mayor – Sputnik would have been real close to Elvis.”

Thanks for reading Part 1 of a 2-part post on the legend of Sputnik Monroe. Tune in next Wednesday for the exciting conclusion, “same Bat-time, same Bat-channel”!

Memphis Wrestling History: Cards, Matches and Results 1970-1985

Rags, Paper and Pins: The Merchandising of Memphis Wrestling

Sputnik, Masked Men, & Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling