Professional wrestling, distinguished from other forms of wrestling by its tacit fakery and showmanship, has provided performance art for the masses in Milwaukee for more than a century.
The modern American pastime emerged as a spectator sport in the second half of the nineteenth century as strongman acts in touring carnivals. These small-time shows looked to provide entertainment, rather than genuine competition, and wrestlers crafted stage personas in hopes of building their reputations and to attract audiences. An alliance developed between wrestlers and promoters during the early twentieth century, and the matches, still viewed as true athletic competitions, became major attractions by the 1920s. This was the era when Wisconsin-born Ed “Strangler” Lewis became a household name across the nation and appeared on wrestling cards in Milwaukee. Behind the scenes, the powerful Gold Dust Trio promotional group—which included Lewis—helped transform wrestling into a vaudevillian spectacle where monetary interests determined outcomes, eroding any remaining legitimacy in the activity. Fan interest grew in Milwaukee, where German-born favorite Ernst “der Ernst” Scharpegge and his signature “facelock” maneuver drew sellouts crowds at the Milwaukee Auditorium and the Eagles Clubhouse in the 1920s and early 1930s. However, the popularity did not last. In the early 1930s, a drunken reporter in New York revealed the results of the next day’s match, exposing the deception that went to the heart of the pastime. This incident, along with the Depression, helped diminish wrestling’s place in the national consciousness until the television age.
Reggie “The Crusher” Lisowski and Dick “the Bruiser” Afflis headlined pro wrestling’s resurgence in Milwaukee in 1950s and 1960s. The Crusher began wrestling while stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany and launched his career in Milwaukee at the Eagles Club in 1949. He went on to join Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA) in 1963. Known as the “Man Who Made Milwaukee Famous,” The Crusher’s South Milwaukee, working-class credentials earned him many fans. His work as a bricklayer early in his career, along with photographs of the wrestler drinking beer before matches, helped cultivate his everyman image. In the 1960s, he teamed up with The Bruiser (William Fritz Afflis), a former Packers lineman, to win several world tag-team championships.
Wrestling maintained its popularity in Milwaukee through the 1970s and 1980s, with matches selling out the Milwaukee Auditorium and drawing more than twelve thousand to the Milwaukee Arena. The AWA gave way to World Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation in the 1980s, and by the late 1990s these two associations battled for cable television supremacy. The search for viewers led to increasingly adult-themed shows that drew high ratings for pay-per-view matches that brought viewers into local taverns and sellout audiences to the Milwaukee Arena. During this lucrative period, thousands of local wrestling fans dialed Milwaukee’s free Pro Wrestling Hotline, which provided gossip from the world of wrestling, and Milwaukee beverage company King Juice created wrestling-branded sports drinks.
While big league pro wrestling drew crowds to the Bradley Center, several semi-professional organizations also emerged in Milwaukee during and after the late 1990s resurgence. Mid-American Wrestling promoted smaller matches at the Rave and at the Knights of Columbus Hall in West Allis, sometimes with barbed-wire ring ropes that reflected contemporary pro wrestling’s brutality. Great Lakes Championship Wrestling began putting on local shows, including some at Texx’s Victory Hall in Cudahy, which often featured a pro with national appeal taking on a local wrestler. In 2008, local promoters Andrew Gorzalski and Jay Gilkay staged the first annual “Mondo Lucha Variety Show” at Turner Hall Ballroom that combined Mexican Lucha Libre wrestling, burlesque, live music, and freak-show shock. These events continue to function as a sort of everyman’s performance art, though perhaps without the fame and fortune associated with the major companies and their television contracts.
- ^ Professional wrestling defies simply categorization: its scripted performance and showmanship suggest a theatrical form of entertainment—or sports entertainment, as it became known in the 1980s—but wrestling is not painless for the participants and requires significant athletic talent and willingness to endure pain and injury. See Sharon Mazer, Professional Wrestling Sport and Spectacle (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 2-3, and Andrew Muchin, “Theater of the Absurd,” Milwaukee Magazine (February 1996), 78.
- ^ The Unreal Story of Wrestling, directed by Chris Mortensen (A&E, 1999), DVD; Mazer, Professional Wrestling Sport and Spectacle, 23-24.
- ^ Mazer, Professional Wrestling Sport and Spectacle, 23-24.
- ^ Gerald W. Morton and George M. O’Brien, Wrestling to Rasslin’: Ancient Sport to American Spectacle (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1985), 31; Ed “Strangler” Lewis, The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, last accessed July 26, 2017; “Arrange Lewis-Bauer Mat Bout for May 26,” The Milwaukee Journal, May 14, 1926, accessed May 10, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1499&dat=19260514&id=Z6JQAAAAIBAJ&sjid=mSEEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6403,6624820; “5 Races Represented on Wrestling Card,” The Milwaukee Sentinel, April 8, 1930, accessed May 10, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1368&dat=19300408&id=DV9QAAAAIBAJ&sjid=6w4EAAAAIBAJ&pg=3461,1356380; “Paloski Arranges Heavyweight Card,” Milwaukee Journal, November 5, 1941, accessed May 4, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1499&dat=19411105&id=LrRQAAAAIBAJ&sjid=0CIEAAAAIBAJ&pg=1419,2137539; “Olson Meets the Strangler—Lewis at Bahn Frei,” The Milwaukee Journal, October 10, 194?, accessed April 28, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1499&dat=19431010&id=V5kWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=DiMEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5047,4049985; Morton and O’Brien, Wrestling to Rasslin’, 4. Note that promoters preferred the title to change hands often, as it created more interesting matchups (see The Unreal Story of Wrestling).
- ^ The Unreal Story of Wrestling.
- ^ Pete Ehrmann, “German-born Wrestler Ernst Scharpegge Found Fame on Milwaukee Mats,” Onmilwaukee.com, December 20, 2012 accessed May 4, 2014
- ^ The Unreal Story of Wrestling. See “Paloski Arranges Heavyweight Card,” http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1499&dat=19411105&id=LrRQAAAAIBAJ&sjid=0CIEAAAAIBAJ&pg=1419,2137539, wherein the author notes a card represented the return of “big time wrestling” to Milwaukee in 1941.
- ^ The Unreal Story of Wrestling. Also note that baseball and football had become popular sports which could be broadcast effectively over the radio. Wrestling, on the other hand, did not lend itself to the audio-only medium.
- ^ “Crusher’s Legacy Lives On,” OnMilwaukee.com, February 8, 2009, accessed May 2, 2014; Patricia Sullivan, “Wrestler Reggie ‘The Crusher’ Lisowski Dies,” Washington Post, October 28, 2005, accessed May 4, 2014; “PWHF Induction Weekend—the Crusher and the Bruiser,” Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum website, http://www.pwhf.org/halloffamers/bios/crusher_bruiser.asp. accessed April 22, 2014.
- ^ “PWHF Induction Weekend—The Crusher and the Bruiser,” Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum website, accessed April 22, 2014, http://www.pwhf.org/halloffamers/bios/crusher_bruiser.asp; “Crusher’s Legacy Lives On”; Promoter Wally Karbo and wrestler Verne Gagne established the American Wrestling Association in 1959. The Midwestern enterprise became the most popular wrestling association in the 1960s and 1970s before WWE became the most popular pro wrestling institution. See “The Sensational History of the AWA,” WWE website, last accessed July 26, 2017.
- ^ “Crusher’s Legacy Lives On.”
- ^ Patricia Sullivan, “Wrestler Reggie ‘The Crusher’ Lisowski Dies,” Washington Post, October 28, 2005, accessed March, 2014.
- ^ “Crusher’s Legacy Lives On”; “Wrestler Reggie ‘The Crusher’ Lisowski Dies.”
- ^ PWHF Induction Weekend—the Crusher and the Bruiser,” Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum website, http://www.pwhf.org/halloffamers/bios/crusher_bruiser.asp, accessed April 22, 2014; “Dick ‘the Bruiser’ Dies,” The Milwaukee Journal, November 11, 1991, accessed March 8, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1499&dat=19911111&id=CaAaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ZCwEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6818,3827375.
- ^ Mike Gonring, “Wrestling? It’s Unreal! It’s Big!” The Milwaukee Journal, January 25, 1979, accessed March 31, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=P1waAAAAIBAJ&sjid=mykEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5258%2C2967511; Chris Harrington, “Hulk Hogan’s Drawing Power (1984-1990),” Indeed Wrestling—Pro Wrestling Analytics, September 27, 2013, accessed June 1, 2015.
- ^ Jackie Loohauis, “No Hold Barred when It Comes to Milwaukee’s Love of Pro Wrestling,” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 29, 1999, accessed May 1, 2015, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=eKcaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Ty8EAAAAIBAJ&pg=6974%2C5171285.
- ^ Loohauis, “No Hold Barred when It Comes to Milwaukee’s Love of Pro Wrestling.” According to this article, an Indiana University study from 1998 revealed that a two-hour wrestling show presented an average of only 36 minutes of wrestling, while the majority of the performance featured, “crotch-grabbing, obscene gestures and simulated sexual activity.” See Harrington, “Hulk Hogan’s Drawing Power (1984-1990)” too for some analysis on major pro wrestling’s revenue streams in the 1980s and 1990s. There was also a dip in wrestling’s popularity in the first half of the 1990s in Milwaukee, according to Loohauis, “No Hold Barred when It Comes to Milwaukee’s Love of Pro Wrestling.”
- ^ Lindsay Morris, “Pro Wrestling Contract Fuels King Juice’s Growth,” Milwaukee Business Journal, December 26, 1999, accessed March 25, 2014. See Loohauis, “No Hold Barred when It Comes to Milwaukee’s Love of Pro Wrestling” for a sampling of the World Wrestling Federation’s cable television ratings in 1999, which indicates more than seven million tuned in to a Monday night wrestling event.
- ^ Muchin, “Theater of the Absurd,” 75. Most of these wrestlers had day jobs.
- ^ Muchin, “Theater of the Absurd,” 75. MAW owner Carmine Despirito stated that finding success for his shows required presenting audiences with material that was similar to what was popular on television. MAW shut down in 2007.
- ^ Muchin, “Theater of the Absurd,” 75. For more up-to-date information, see Great Lakes Champion Wrestling website, last accessed July 26, 2017.
- ^ Matt Mueller, “Mondo Lucha Celebrates Its Fifth Year of Mayhem Hitting the Mat,” OnMilwaukee.com, October 29, 2013, accessed June 1, 2015; “Mondo Lucha Is More than Mexican Wrestling,” OnMilwaukee.com, September 23, 2008, accessed June 1, 2015. Lucha Libre is “freestyle” professional wrestling of Mexican origin and is popular through much of the Spanish-speaking world.