| || |
Lord “Tally Ho” Blears, Ed Francis, Johnny Barend and Me
January 29, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama
A couple of weeks ago I met a Kahului contact who was business-like throughout our conversation, then warmed immediately when he found out I was a pro wrestling fan, just like himself. The “50th State Big-Time Wrestling” Saturday afternoon TV show of Hawai’i TV’s “Golden Age” (mid-1960s into the early 1970s) remained – strangely enough – one of the deepest memories of our childhoods.
Show owner and promoter Ed Francis was the long-suffering “straight” man interviewer, who never cracked a smile at the antics of various wrestlers during the “Locker Room” interviews, including Curtis Iaukea, Ripper Collins, the Missing Link, and Johnny Barend. (Wally Tsutsumi, a former State judo champion, was the referee and I don’t think I ever heard his voice on TV.)
At a towering 6-feet-5 inches and 350 pounds Curtis “Da Bull” Iaukea was the most dynamic "local" wrestler, and was filmed mostly as he sat with his back to the camera. Interestingly, his name “Curtis Iaukea” harked back to the reigns of King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani, when his great-grandfather with the same name served as a chief diplomat in the Royal Court.
“Da Bull” graduated from Punahou School and the University of California at Berkeley and after an illustrious career he passed away in 2010 in Honolulu. He was in pro football before becoming a professional wrestler in 1959, the year of Statehood; so he was already a seasoned wrestler by the mid-1960s, just in time for Ed Francis’s powerful use of television to create a TV-based “viral” community (this was a very early use of the concept of Social Networking, like Facebook) to increase ticket customers to his wrestling shows at the “old” Civic Auditorium and the Honolulu International Center (later Blaisdell Arena).
1965 was the year (pre-Mayor Frank Fasi and his dominance of Honolulu politics of the 1970s into the 1980s) when Honolulu’s population increased to a point when it was no longer a “town”, and with the economy booming, people wanted entertainment. This was also before the renaissance of Hawaiian music, which remained then isolated either in Waikiki nightclubs or homes.
The pro wrestling programs also took advantage of the pre-Boeing 747 era when jet planes were required to land to re-fuel in Honolulu, so Hawaii always had Mainland wrestlers (Nick Bockwinkel, Verne Gagne) dropping by on the way to the fast-developing Japan wrestling market or Japanese wrestlers (Giant Baba, Sakaguchi) travelling to the Mainland.
These visiting pro wrestlers would bring fascinating insights to foreign places (my Kalihi friends and I could never comprehend the English accent of “Lord Tally-Ho Blears”*), new wrestling holds and techniques. All the wonderful (yet fractured) stories actually grew my curiosity about life on the Mainland and Japan – a counterpoint to the Vietnam War raging on the TV news in a way that no young person can understand today. Late 1960s Hawai’i was not a bright and cheery existence, as my friends and I in high school saw others just a few years older drafted into the U.S. Army for the all-consuming war.
One long-term, local-based “bad guy” was Ripper “The King” Collins. His consistent deliberate mispronunciation of Hawaiian place names or historical figures (his mangling of the first King of the Hawaiian Kingdom would invariably draw a rebuke from Ed Francis) or branding himself “King of the Hawaiian Islands” attracted a huge amount of animosity from viewers who called in by the hundreds to complain about his interviews. The commotion must have endeared “The King” to the show’s producers for increasing what we would now call “hits” on a Web site.
Finally, the most memorable character was “Handsome” Johnny Barend**, who wore a cap and top hat, chomped on an unlit cigar, and wore sunglasses inside the studio. He seemed to have fallen into the TV studio through a cosmic gateway from another galaxy or was a distant cousin of the Queen in “Alice of Wonderland”. He used to give long soliloquies inches away from Ed Francis’ face (“Yes Mistah Francis! Yes Mistah Francis!”), filled with obscure references (in retrospect, he could have his own TV show, like an early Steve Colbert). Perhaps his surreal performances reflected the mid-1960s mind-bending American drug culture. I was certainly mesmerized by the interviews.
Lord Blears reportedly developed the unique personalities, costuming, the “storylines”. The use of the “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” theme song to signal Johnny Barend’s entrance to the studio was brilliant use of music to define a complex personality. In a sense, 50th State Wrestling was a precursor of the now-ubiquitous TV “Reality Shows” (Does anybody believe there isn’t a storyline for the “Kardashian” family show?)
By the late 1980s Boeing 747s were overflying Hawaii, so the top wrestlers weren’t stopping by Honolulu any more. Cable and satellite TV (ESPN) became essential monthly expenditures, at the same level as medical insurance fees and mortgage payments, for Hawai’i families. Flashy Mainland shows featuring Hulk Hogan and other Johnny Barend-wannabees occupied the pro wrestling cards – a great disappointment.
And so only memories are left***. Such is childhood, an innocent, halcyon time, in 1960s Hawai’i, barely a decade after Statehood, so far away from everywhere and the growth of a “home-grown” TV culture, separate from all the zillions of Mainland TV shows on cable and satellite channel menus, that makes Hawai’i somehow more “connected” to the Great Culture of the Mainland. Yet a Hawai’i age-demographic group exists with a certain guilty pleasure: 50th State Pro Wrestling.
*One of my cherished possessions is Lord Blears’ autograph.
**Sadly, Johnny Barend passed away in upstate New York State last fall, 2011.
***In 1990s Japan I was watching pro wrestling on TV and I was swept up in nostalgia when I caught a glimpse of “The Destroyer” (always wearing a white face mask to hide his identity), who starred in Japanese commercials and is regarded as a huge media star in Japan. The fact that he was a mild-mannered DOE teacher at Kaimuki High School is the most startling data point, but not surprising in that unique world.
Post a Comment