Ruminations on professional wrestling
by Kent O. Stever
Actors and wrestlers in China have been notified that they can pursue their professions three years longer, after which they must follow a more useful and honorable calling.
A Telegraphic Brevity, “Winona Daily Republican, January 16, 1873.
Along with evenings spent at the Hurry Back Pool Hall and Billiards Parlor on Third Street where we watched semi-pros play “snooker,” visiting Kegler’s Klub Bowling Alley’s upstairs to watch hand-set games of local bowling champs or later “dragging the gut” on Third Street in a hot rod (or a parent’s sedate old car) looking for night action, my early teen years were spent on one enterprising activity after another.
Wow! The characters I met, the action I saw along the way. There was never a dull moment in the ‘50s in Winona.
I discovered professional wrestling at age ten
Five hundred was a full house at the Red Men’s Wigwam. The atmosphere was electric (although the bulbs were dim) as we entered the large wooden doors on the second floor. Flashing capes and sweaty bodies overcame the darkness of winter nights. It was a world removed from the one we knew. The balcony was filled. An adjacent apartment gave residents a living room view of the action.
Television was yet to enter our homes. We heard radio shows throughout the week, with criminals being chased by the Green Hornet and J. Edgar Hoover. Gillette Blue Blade boxing matches on Friday night held our attention through every bell of every round. We could only imagine the criminals and the behemoths of the ring. But here they were—up close and personal—in long hair and flashy tights! Some were good guys. Some were threatening. Like Abe Zvonkin, some were mild-mannered—but for him, “everything goes in the ring.”
A newfound treasure
Today I’m rediscovering the names and the wild action of professional wrestling in Winona in its heyday. Professional wrestling!!! GRRR!!! This is too much fun.
The Winona Opera House was the “packed-house” setting of presidential speeches and “toss ‘em out of the ring ‘rassling’ action” for Winona’s sports addicts. In April 1911, scheduled wrestling had 167-pound Fred Beell taking on 180-pound Carl Busch (The German) in the first documented start. Busch called Beell “the biggest little man that ever lived.”
Before tackling “The German,” Beell had defeated World Champion Frank Gotch on December 1, 1906. Quite a claim to make, for Gotch, of Humboldt, Iowa, became undisputed champion from 1908 to 1913, “when the contests were largely legitimate.” He is known as “The John L. Sullivan of Wrestling.” Beell beat Busch in two falls. Local artist Lex Clayton was also on the bill. The action heated up that night and for fifty years thereafter.
The Opera House started the action in 1911, and the Winona Armory hosted many city events from the 1920s into the 1950s. While I saw Bobby Benson of the B-Bar-B (a cowboy radio personality) at the Armory in the 1950s, the Armory wrestlers of the 1920s had moved on in the 1930s to the Athletic Club and Catholic Recreation Center (with 600 fans there for Bronko Nagurski in 1937).
All wrestlers settled into Winona’s premier wrestling domicile—the Red Men’s Wigwam—in the 1940s and ‘50s.
A bit of local history
In 1937 in the column “Diet and Health” in the local paper, Logan Clendenning, M.D., had written about wrestling injuries. His study didn’t cover injuries to patrons of wrestling matches, and Clendenning may not have considered all injuries to wrestlers that resulted from wrestling holds—the stretches, arm locks, chokes, leg locks, drop kicks, scissor holds, and undefined techniques of the well-versed, world-wide competitors who tripped one another in the Red Men’s Wigwam ring. We watched for the “armpit claw,” someone “skinning the cat,” the “cobra clutch,” and the ultimate, “Tree of Woe.” One wrestler even used hidden pencils to stab opponents in the face. These were tough guys who may not have reported every “owie.” Dislocated arms were pulled back into place—and the match continued.
Female wrestlers were a regular part of the action at the Wigwam and the Armory, and sellout crowds were predicted when women were on the ticket. They were “top contenders among the country’s women performers in the grunt and groan game,” and included Dot Dotson of Tampa, June Byers of Houston, Texas, Bonnie Bartlett of Hollywood, Shirley Smith of Little Rock and Dolly Dalton of Chicago. They were often on the program, along with the likes of the Purple Demon and Champ Killer Thomas.
The 1939 series sponsored by the American Legion (in support of Junior Legion baseball) brought to town the likes of “Dirty Dick” Raines and “Handsome Don” McIntyre, a Washburn College all-star. Raines, Hawaii Champ of 1939, brought his skill set directly to Winona to finish of ff McIntyre, popular Minneapolis area wrestler who was “second to Bronko as the most popular wrestler in Minneapolis.” It wasn’t only McIntyre’s good looks that made him popular. At 226 pounds, he was described as “fast, flashy, scientific—and a perfect sportsman inside and out of the ring.” How could Dirty Dick even stand a chance against Superman?
In May 1952, promoters tried the outdoor Gabrych Park venue to benefit the Winona Chiefs. Only 76 fans appeared. Wrestlers refused to participate. The event was cancelled—and money refunded. The all-time record crowd gathered on April 10, 1952, when 814 rabid fans jammed into the Red Man Wigwam for “Girls and Tag Draw Record.” Adults got in for $1.20, children for 50 cents.
One of the frequent visitors to Winona as manager, promoter, and referee was Wally Karbo of NE Minneapolis, who often arrived and departed in the same vehicle with both opponents—as witnessed by a disappointed, youthful usher I interviewed for this story. He volunteered at the Duluth Shrine Auditorium wrestling shows in the 1950s. Prior to seeing the cheerful carload leaving the auditorium, he had thought all the hateful match-ups were real.
Wally was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of all. He must have had a degree in mathematics in order to create the scribbled round-robin schedule of wrestlers, events, cities, and non-repetitive match-ups. Wally’s acumen and ring control were legendary. He handled all of the wrestlers, no matter what their size. But then, he probably signed their paychecks. Wally and Vern Gagne founded and owned the American Wrestling Association from 1960 to 1991.
On Wednesday nights, Alma, Wisconsin, attracted wrestling fans to the Riverview Hall. Performing on Saturday nights in the same ring was the Louis Schuh Orchestra of Winona.
A memorable date
Ivan Kamaroff, “The Riotous Russian,” came from New Haven, Conn., to take on Con Bruno, known as “Mr. New York City of 1940,” in a match in Winona in February 1951. The “Republican-Herald” announced: “The Villains Meet on Tuesday” at the Red Men’s Wigwam at the corner of Fourth and Franklin.
It was a formidable card, with Minnesota’s “all-time great” Bronko Nagurski on the card at 242 pounds against 218-pound Canadian star Roy McClarity. Roy was a featured television performer on wrestling shows on the East Coast.
Stan Mayslack, a popular 248-pound Minneapolis wrestler often featured in Winona, faced what promised to be the “roughest affair of the night” against Hans Hermann (“Hermann the German”), who weighed in at a mere 267 pounds.
We stepped into Ray’s new Hudson, and found our way to the Wigwam after an early supper to obtain “the best seats in the house,” which Ray always promised. He was my friend Bill’s dad—and a good friend to kids who needed to be out on a school night. Wow, what adventure! And safe!
The heat of the crowd rose as we awaited the toss of one or the other of these hulks into our laps. We surrounded the ring in hard-backed wooden theater chairs that provided little protection to our ten-year-old bodies should the monsters break loose. At one point, Hermann was mad. After being booed by the 356 fans who didn’t like his illegal tactics against Mayslack, he told the audience: “Oh, Shut Up!”
Bronko had become World Champion of the National Wrestling Alliance in 1939 and at that time was fitted with the $10,000 diamond-studded belt. “Sports Illustrated” named Nagurski one of the four greatest athletes in Minnesota state history. A Minnesota treasure, he brought joy and clean excitement to the boys of Winona, Duluth, Rochester, and Minneapolis.
As would be expected, there were several Winonans who took to the professional mat. Lex Clayton, retired wrestler, led the way in 1906. Hippy Ross, 180 pounds, known as the “Winona Strong Man,” debuted in 1935 against Harvey Kahoe of St. Paul. Hippy had been trained by Spike Graham of Winona and was known to be “fast and powerful.” Spike was also a referee.
Hometown favorite Walter (Sailor) Nappy left the waters to take on Charles Taylor of Des Moines, also in 1935. After early boxing success, Hank Olson, at 180 pounds, took on Dude Smith, 192 pounds, of Chicago, at the Winona Armory in 1939. It is not clear whether these Winonans were successful on the circuit. We can only hope that they were given a second chance at Alma’s Riverview Hall.
I was fortunate to be a part of this exciting time in Winona’s history. The stories and names appear to be endless, and I find the discovery of local wrestling history amazing. I am satisfied that I have captured the essence and history of professional wrestling in Winona. In my search, I discovered the words of an esteemed writer for the “Republican-Herald” who visited the Red Men’s Wigwam in 1954. Her response is joyous and telling. Gretchen Lamberton reports:
The other night I went to the most soul-satisfying show I’ve been to in years—a wrestling match at Red Men’s Club. It was soul-satisfying because it was a great big dirty (and expert) fight plus a great big dramatic show with black villains against handsome virtuous heroes, and the audience could and did get into the act.
It’s always fun to tell off a villain. At a baseball game it’s quite satisfying to shout at the umpire, only you know in your heart that he’s really not a villain and anyway he never shouts back at you. But these wrestling matches are a different kettle of fish. Usually a beefy dirty-wrestling villain is pitted against a big clean-cut hero. The crowd screams, threatens, curses him out and sometimes actually gets into the ring with him, and he screams back with much fist shaking. It’s all great fun and makes you feel good.
She goes on to describe the actions of Dirty Dick Raines and Kinji Shibuya (boos and hisses) in a tag team event against Roy McClarity and Jack Witzig (beautifully-muscled heroes). After noting “dastardly kicks and favorite tricks” by villains, she concluded:
Once when the villain was slammed out of the ring a nice old gentleman in the front row arose and shook his finger under the villainous nose, scolding him angrily. Fans hung out of the balcony screaming at Dirty Dick and the sinister Jap, and they yakked right back, shaking fists and threatening in most satisfactory manner.
Anyway, the upshot was that the two villains won two out of three falls to the noisy wrath of the crowd. I can’t wait to see these same villains rassle the fine heroes again.
I’m sure that virtue will triumph next time.
Kent Stever enjoys doing research and reflecting on Winona happenings from his home in Lakeville. He’s a frequent contributor to the Winona Post and awaits your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
Data for the story was gathered through personal research, interviews, Wikipedia and Winona Newspaper Project searches (1860 – 1960.)
Wrestlers in Winona
•Paul Baillargeon vs. Pete Managoff, 1952. He was tag team partner with Vern Gagne vs “Hard-Boiled” Haggerty and Joe Pazandek in Rochester.
•Tony Baillargeon Quebec. Competed with brother in 1954 vs Abe Kashey and Hans Hermann.
•Fred Beell, 1911, of Marshfield, Wis. The first-listed Winona professional wrestler; he was later a police officer, and was killed when he responded to a theft at The Marshfield Brewery in 1933. Although he opposed “The German,” in 1911, he, too was German, born in Prussia in 1876.
•Don Beitleman Buffalo, NY, vs Don Papaleo, vs Dirty Dick Raines 1952.
•George Bollas, “Zebra Kid,” Hawaii champ 1955, Ohio State Champ, played at 360 pounds. Was down to 320 when he crushed and sent Ali Pasha to hospital in 1952. Dr. Tweedy was called in.
•Billy Burns - 1911
•Carl Busch (The German), 1911. Lost to Beell in two falls. From Brockton, Mass.
•Cowboy Carlson, steer-throwing cowboy vs Kayo Hall of St. Louis. 1950.
•Les Clayton – 1906 and 1911 - First Winona wrestler. April 23, 1906.
•Joe Corbett, 234 pounds, of Boston vs. Mayslack.
•Kasta Davelis , “Tough-looking Greek,” 220 pounds
Purple Demon, 1952.
•Jack Dillon, 250 pounds, of Chatanooga, TN vs Butch Levy, 1951.
•Ray Dunkel, Purdue graduate, champion, 1951 vs Nagurski.
•Stan Dusek, 228 pounds, of Omaha. His famous wrestling brothers Ernie and Emil traded the Canadian Tag team title with Tiny Mills in 1953. Emil was with Butch Levy in Rochester in 1952. His brother (?) Frank tells the story of how Stan Stasiak became World Champion through pre-arrangement (for eight days).
•Eight brothers, family name Hason. Rudy was eldest. In Winona in 1943 after 25 years in wrestling (since 1917).
•Big Ike Eakins, 270 pounds. James D., Harlan, Kentucky coal miner vs Butch Levy 1953, his first time in Winona. Ike died of heart attack (elsewhere) at age 52.
•Billy Evans, Omaha, vs. Bronko, 224 pounds, 1934 at Catholic Rec Center.
•Little Fix, Chicago, 220-pound TV performer, 1952.
•Steve Gob, weightlifter, part of cancelled 1940 Olympic team. 1951.
•Stu Hall vs Johnny Moochy, 1950.
•Hard-Boiled Haggerty, New York, tag team with Eakins 1953.
•Hans Herrman, “Herman the German,” 269 pounds.
•Vic Holbrook, 260 pounds, lost his debut to Leo the Lion. 1950
•Lee Jones of Mason City vs. Stan Myslajek in 1935.
•Harvey Kahoe of St. Paul, 1935 vs. Winona wrestler.
•Ivan Kamaroff, “The Riotous Russian,” New Haven, Connecticut.
•Abe Kashey of Los Angeles and Syria (a “weaver’s son”). Headline read “King Kong Kashey Kolorful Karakter.” 1954. Previous appearances in 1934, ‘36.
•Duke Kotsonares, “The Greek Apollo” vs Professor Sason Takahashi of Japan, ju-jitsu expert, “no holds barred.” 1939, Armory.
•Jack “Sky-Hi” Lee, Toronto 6’8’, 292 pounds. “World’s tallest wrestler” vs Johnny Moochy 1951.
•Butch Levy, “World’s top contender,” 250 pounds, U of M football, Bernie Bierman, coach.
•Roy McClarity, Canadian. Former hockey star. TV – East Coast. 236 pounds. Was married at mid-ring.
• “Handsome Don” McIntyre, 1939 Washburn College star. Second to Bronko in Mpls. popularity.
•Bobby Managoff, Hawaii champ 3 times, Texas champ. Trained by father. Began 1942.
•Pete Managoff. Known as “Pistol Pete” and “The Mad Russian.” 241 pounds of Newland, North Carolina vs. Paul Baillargeon 1952. Father was Russian wrestling champion. He learned “oriental noodle-cracking” from Professor Higami, noted Japanese Judo expert.” vs Butch Levy 1950. “Both wrestlers brought fists to play.” Levy Pins Russian.
•Frank Marconi, Salem, Ohio, 365 pounds.
•Farmer Marlin, Niles, Michigan, 228 pounds. Tag team with Butch Levy. Marlin’s first time in Winona.
•Stan Mayslack, NE Mpls., 241. Later Mayslack’s Restaurant NE Mpls.
•Tiny Mills, roughest wrestler, Mpls. When retired, became a sheriff in Minnesota. Tiny vs. Black Panther 1952.
•Francois Miquet, France vs Ben Hamilton, 1950.
•Johnny Moochy, Balsam Lake, Wis. The “Bad Guy” in first Winona tag team. 1952 vs Firpo Zybszko, Poland 1952.
•Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski, “The Nag,” of Polish-Ukrainain descent, was born in Ontario and lived in International Falls. He led the University of Minnesota football team as an All-American tackle and fullback. Nagurski was discovered and signed by University of Minnesota Head Coach Clarence “Fats” Spears, who drove up to International Falls in 1926. Arriving, he watched Nagurski out plowing a field. According to legend, Spears asked directions to the nearest town, and Bronko lifted his plow and used it to point in the direction of town. He was signed on the spot to play for the Golden Gophers. Spears admitted he concocted the story during his long drive back to the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.
Bronko left Minnesota to play for the Chicago Bears football team in 1930, leading them to a national championship. He offered in 1933, “I prefer wrestling to football—if it’s a matter of making a living—but as a game, I like football best.” In 1934 he came to Winona. He won nearly all of his first 500 matches from that point on. He lost four, avenging three of those.
In May of 1950, he took on Ray Dunkel in Winona. Dunkel, a collegiate champ from Purdue, who disputed popular belief that “wrestlers have (only) lots of muscle and hard heads.” “ It’s a lie!” - the newspaper shouted. Dunkel had a bachelor’s degree and was working on a master’s degree. Nothing was said of Bronko’s college experience. Bronko was re-signed to the Chicago Bears in 1943, was declared 4-F on his military physical in 1944, returned to wrestling in 1945, and continued to wrestle throughout the region into the ‘50s. Interviewed in Winona in 1951 at age 42, he said he was tiring of travel. He lost 15-20 times in 18 years, and suggested “by and large the best wrestler will win the match.” He retired to a farm and a gas station in International Falls, where the high school team became known as “The Broncos.”
Women Wrestlers in Winona
•Bonnie Bartlett of Hollywood.
•Mars Bennett of Detroit, circus performer, 1951.
•Lilly Bitter of Newark, New Jersey. Girls Draw record crowd – 814 in 1952.
•June Byers, 138 pound, of Houston, Texas.
•Dora Coombs of Nashville or Kentucky, hillbilly singer, redhead, 1951.
•Dolly Dalton of Chicago.
•Dot Dotson of Tampa or Orlando, taxi driver.
•Beverly Lehmer of Council Bluffs, Iowa.
•Shirley Smith of Little Rock.
•Therese Theis, age 21, St. Paul,
•Elda Waldek, natural blonde from Custer, Washington
A woman takes revenge.
Zetta Timms, divorced wife of professional wrestler Howard Osler of South Bend, Ind., used rawhide to publicly horsewhip a farmer on Main Street in Niles, Michigan. He apparently insulted her. Didn’t say if she learned technique from Howard.
Daily Republican April 5, 1902
Full lists at www.winonapost.com