If you like professional wrestling you've probably heard of The Rock, The Iron Sheik, and Hulk Hogan. But have you heard of Gorgeous George? He was TV's first big wrestling villain. TV made him a star, and in many ways, he made television. Here's his story.
IN THIS RING, I THEE WED
In 1939, a 24-year-old professional wrestler named George Wagner fell in love with a movie theater cashier named Betty Hanson and married her in a wrestling ring in Eugene, Oregon. The wedding was so popular with wrestling fans that George and Betty reenacted it in similar venues all over the country.
With the sole exception of the wedding stunt, Wagner's wrestling career didn't seen to be going anywhere. After ten years in the ring, he was still an unknown, and that was a big problem: Nobodies had a hard time getting booked for fights.
THE ROBE OF A LIFETIME
Wagner might well have had to find something else to do for a living had his wife not happened to make him a robe to wear from the locker room to the ring before a fight, just like a prizefighter. Wagner was proud of the robe, and that night when he took it off at the start of his fight, he took such care to fold it properly that the audience booed him for taking so long. That made Betty mad, so she jumped into the crowd and slapped one of the hecklers in the face. That made George mad, so he jumped out of the ring and hit the guy himself. Then the whole place went nuts.
"The booing was tremendous," wrestling promoter Don Owen remembered.
And the next week there was a real big crowd and everyone booed George. So he just took more time to fold his robe. He did everything to antagonize the fans. And from that point he became the best drawing card we ever had. In wrestling they either come to like you or hate you. And they hated George.
Out of this hatred, George discovered the shtick he was looking for -and over the next several years gradually changed his look. Where other wrestling villains had always been dirty and ugly, "Gorgeous George," as he began to call himself, set out to become the prettiest, daintiest pro wrestler the sport had ever seen. He grew his hair long, curled it, and bleached it platinum blond. And before each fight, he secured it in place with golden bobby pins and a golden hair net. He amassed a collection of more than 100 frilly, purple robes, made of satin and silk and trimmed with sequins, lace, and fur. He made sure to wear one to every match, and before he would enter the ring, he insisted that his tuxedoed "valet" be allowed to spray the mat, the referee, and his opponent with perfume.
Then, as the lights were dimmed and "Pomp and Circumstance" played over the loudspeaker, George would enter he hall under a spotlight and slowly traipse his way to the ring. He made such a show of climbing into the ring and removing (with the assistance of his valet) his robe, his hair net, and his golden bobby pins, that his entrance sometimes took longer than his fights, giving wrestling's blue-collar fans one more reason to hate him.
Appearances aside, Gorgeous George was no sissy -not out of the ring and certainly not in it. He fought hard and he always cheated -gouging eyes, biting ears, butting heads, punching kidneys, kicking crotches, and pulling every other dirty stunt he could think of. He gloated when he was winning, squealed and begged for mercy when he was losing, and bawled like a baby when his opponents mussed his hair, which they did every fight. All of this was fake, of course, but the crowds either didn't know it or didn't care. They ate it up, fight after fight.
Gorgeous George's antics may not sound like much compared to the wrestling of today, but at the time, they were mind-boggling. He became famous in the late 1940s, not long after the end of World War II. Many wrestling fans were veterans, and the boys who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day or battled their way across the Pacific, and raised the flag at Iwo Jima had some pretty rigid ideas about what it meant to be a man. And bobby pins, frilly bathrobes, and platinum blond hair were definitely not considered manly. Gorgeous George broke all the rules, and these guys hated him for it. People got in their cars and drove for hours to see him fight, just so they could hate him in person. Gorgeous George made 32 appearances at the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium in 1949; he sold out 27 times.
A BOOB FOR THE BOOB TUBE
But what was most remarkable about Gorgeous George was the impact he had on TV sales. In Los Angeles, wrestling matches -mainly featuring Gorgeous George- were broadcast on TV as early as 1945, and they proved so popular that by the late 1940s, many TV stations around the country were broadcasting live pro wrestling every night of the week. It was the perfect sport for television -the ring was small and easy to film and the action was larger than life, so viewers had no problem following the fights at home on their tiny black-and-white screens. Baseball and football players looked like ants in comparison.
TV turned Gorgeous George in to a national star, even for people who didn't watch wrestling. And in the process, he helped make television the centerpiece of the American living room. Appliance dealers put TVs in their store windows and pasted pictures of Gorgeous George onto their screens. People who'd never owned a TV before came in and bought TVs ...just so they could watch Gorgeous George. As Steve Slagle write in The Ring Chronicle,
In a very real sense, Gorgeous George single-handedly established the unproven new technology of television as a viable entertainment medium that could reach literally millions of homes all across the country. Pro wrestling was TVs first real "hit" ...and Gorgeous George was directly responsible for all of the commotion. He was probably responsible for selling more television sets in the early days of TV than any other factor.
YOU'RE MY INSPIRATION
As we told you in Uncle John's Legendary Lost Bathroom Reader, a young pro boxer named Cassius Clay, soon to change his name to Muhammad Ali, reinvented his public persona after he happened to meet Gorgeous George on a radio show in Las Vegas in 1961. "That's when I decided I'd never been shy about talking, but if I talked even more, there was no telling how much people would pay to see me," Ali remembered. That's when he started calling himself "The Greatest" ...just like Gorgeous George.
Muhammad Ali wasn't the only one -Gorgeous George is credited for inspiring Little Richard ...and even Liberace. "He's imitating me," George groused to a reporter in 1955.
THE FINAL BELL
There was, however, a limit to how long American TV viewers could stand to watch live pro wrestling every single night of the week, and by the mid-1950s, the craze had died down. George continued to wrestle until 1962, when a liver ailment -brought on by heavy drinking- forced him into retirement. Nearly broke from two expensive divorces, George had a heart attack on Christmas Eve 1963 and died two days later. He was 48.
Ironically, the fame that made Gorgeous George a national celebrity may have also contributed to his death. Believe it or not, he was a reticent person, and for years he had used alcohol to stiffen his spine and give him the courage to be Gorgeous George.
"He really didn't have the nerve to do all those things," his second wife, Cherie, remembered. "That's why he drank. When he was sober, he was shy."
_________________________This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader.
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