Handsome Johnny Barend has left the arena. One of Hawaii's legendary pro wrestlers, taken down last month at the age of 82 by the ultimately undefeatable opponent: Natural Causes. During the glory days of 50th State Big Time Wrestling, the mid-1960s through early '70s, Handsome Johnny was the man I most loved to hate - and secretly loved.
I was approaching my 'tweens, a little tomboyish and a lot more naive than today's adolescents, an avid wrestling fan, glued to the TV on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, despite my parents' insistence that the matches were all shibai - nothing but show biz. Like the outrageous locker room interviews conducted by iconic promoter Ed Francis and the equally legendary wrestler/host, Lord Tallyho Blears.
Gentleman Ed would gingerly lead the camera to a wooden coffin propped upright against a locker room wall, and knock gently on the lid. "Good evening, Mr. Francis," Barend would rasp, cigar in hand, as he emerged from the smoke-filled coffin. Dressed only in black - top hat, billowing cape, tiny trunks, laced leather boots - he called himself Prince Pupule, the Prince of Darkness, and he played it to the hilt, weaving wacky tales with great relish. Handsome Johnny Barend was the first "bad boy" to stir my budding hormones. He really was handsome, despite - or perhaps because of - the crazy wicked gleam in his eyes. His maniacal laugh captivated me; he made the dark side seem deliciously appealing. I loved that "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" was his theme song. Waving his cane, smirking behind his shades, Handsome Johnny's goofy humor and considerable acting chops won him a place in my heart. And when he married sweet young local girl Annie Lum in 1967, in the ring between bouts at the Honolulu International Center, that place was forever secured. Annie was with him at their New York home when he passed peacefully into the Squared Circle in the Sky.
The biggest baddie of local wrestling was Ripper Collins. In a stroke of genius, he declared himself King, ensuring his place as Hawaii's most despised villain and further infuriating us by constantly mangling the names of our islands. Wearing floor-length sequined robes and a huge crown atop his peroxide-blond crew cut, he would sneer in his Georgia drawl, "People of Moo-wee, y'all better bow down when you see me!"
On his visits to the War Memorial Gym, the self-proclaimed king would receive a less than royal reception. One of the crowd regulars was a wiry local woman in tight capris and giant hair curlers beneath a scarf. "Ripper Collins, kiss my -!" she would shout, emphatically pointing the way. He'd glare at her and shake his fist, and she'd shake back, and we'd all laugh and boo him while she continued to challenge his authority.
The good guys were as colorful as the baddies. Wild-eyed and bushy-haired Pampero Firpo, better known as The Missing Link, roared into town from the Argentine pampas with his trademark "Ohhhh, yeeeeeaaaaaahhhh!" Chief Billy White Wolf would launch into an elaborate war dance before swooping down on his hapless opponent for the final pin. Little did we know that the chief, handsome and gallant in his full-length feathered headdress, was actually an Iraqi named Adnan Al-Kaissie, a Baghdad high school classmate of Saddam Hussein.
We had homegrown heroes too, like head-butting cousins Neff Maiava and Peter Maivia, beloved beach boy Sammy Steamboat, young Dean Higuchi with the 21-inch biceps. But the greatest of all the good guys was the unflappable Wally Tsutsumi, Big Time Wrestling's resident referee from the beginning to the end, 1961 to 1979. The former state judo champion never lost his cool, even when forced to defend himself on the job.
And we had the real king of the villains, Curtis the Bull Iaukea, who conducted his interviews with his huge, hulking back to the viewing audience. He was eloquent and menacing, commanding your attention with his larger-than-life presence.
Hawaii's most famous contribution to pro wrestling was Harold Sakata, or Tosh Togo, an Olympic silver medalist in weightlifting. He became an icon to James Bond fans worldwide as the "Goldfinger" heavy, Odd Job, and the inscrutable persona served him well as he resumed his ring career, flinging his razor-sharp metal bowler around the locker room.
I'm not sure when I finally admitted to myself that wrestling was, indeed, shibai. But I do remember that disillusionment quickly gave way to an appreciation of the showmanship and creative spirit of these actor/athletes. The bombastic 'roid rage of today's ring warriors seems hollow compared to the carefully crafted, quirky characters of the good old days. Those magnificent men, indeed.
Good evening, Mr. Francis. Tally ho, Lord Blears. Good night, sweet prince. Rest in peace. And thanks for the memories.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.