Get ‘Heat’! Documentary ‘Memphis Heat’ is a fire-throwin’, fitting tribute to the heritage of Memphis rasslin’
“[Wrestlers] don’t even know what heat is today. They don’t know what it’s like to go out to your car and find four flat tires and a brick through your window. [Fans] today don’t try to cut you with a knife. Back then, we made the people believe. Hell, we believed.”
–Bill “Superstar” Dundee, on “heat”–the magic behind the mayhem in Memphis wrestling’s heyday
For me, it felt like the summer of 1977 as the opening shots of “Memphis Heat,” the long-awaited labor of love documenting the glorious grappling history of the Tennessee territory, began unfolding on my 52-inch flatscreen earlier this week. I was once again that post-Pop-Tart, sugary-breakfast-cereal-filled kid positioned in front of my parents’ (seemingly 2-ton) Zenith wood-paneled, 25-inch set on so many Saturdays long ago as announcer Lance Russell, “right along ringside,” welcomed me to another BIG day of Championship Wrestling, before giving way to “Davey” (co-host Dave Brown) to run through the “most interesting” lineup of matches in store for the next 90 minutes.
Watching “Memphis Heat,” it was Saturday morning all over again for Scotty Bowden.
There was always an element of nervous energy during those Saturdays of my youth–I imagine it was the same feeling other kids in “real” sports towns must have experienced prior to Terry Bradshaw taking the field at Three Rivers Stadium or Larry Bird warming up on the parquet court of the old Boston Garden. But for me, the anticipation was for the outrageous antics and interviews of my hometown hero/heel Jerry Lawler and his rivalries with the likes of Dundee, Valiant, “The Universal Heartthrob” Austin Idol, Terry Funk and “Lumberjack” Joe LeDuc. In addition to these heated personal issues with his hated foes–which were usually settled in a hair-vs.hair showdown, a loser-leaves-town bout or a no-holds-barred fight within the confines of a steel cage at the Mid-South Coliseum, the King’s chase of the World heavyweight rasslin’ crown, the equivalent of a Super Bowl ring in Memphis, was equally as captivating.
As the “Heat” documentary opens with former Memphis stars Dundee, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant and Buddy Wayne explaining to the viewing audience the concept of “heat”–the goal of every nefarious heel back in the day–I had that same nauseous feeling in my stomach, hoping that executive producers Ron Hall and Sherman Willmott and director Chad Schaffler had nailed this documentary feature like the chain-wrapped fist of Lawler knocking out many a hapless pretender to the throne.
Indeed, “Memphis Heat” is a winner, the Southern heavyweight champion of wrestling documentaries, as the film packs quite a punch with a dizzying array of classic clips, rare photographs, and candid discussions that interweave to tell the complex, fun story of how the Memphis territory became, for a time, the hotbed of the business–all set to a kick-ass, rockin’ soundtrack that I imagine must have been handpicked by Hall, a longtime authority on Mid-South music.
When was I growing up, Memphis was a minor-league sports graveyard, so our “home team” was Lawler, a local who went from being a skinny kid from Treadwell High to the Southern champ in less than five years. (Which, where I grew up, pretty much made you a legend.) The “home field” was a bloodstained mat at the Coliseum that served as a stage to some of the most outrageous gimmick bouts and colorful performers in the history of the professional wrestling business–which is saying a helluva lot.
I suppose it’s only fitting that Lawler, who attended Memphis State University briefly on an art scholarship, continued working on a different kind of canvas–-one riddled with razor-blade-induced blood drops that made it appear like an abstract painting. In the ’70s, the local joke was that if a professional sports franchise were ever to succeed in Memphis, they’d have to present pro wrestling matches at halftime. While short-lived franchises like the Grizzlies (World Football League) folded because of poor attendance, the headlining feud of Jackie Fargo vs. Jerry Lawler attracted an average of nearly 10,000 fans to the Coliseum every Monday night as they battled over the right for rasslin’ supremacy in the River City.
Lawler became a bonafide star in 1974, with the brash cocky upstart eventually unseating the legendary Fargo for the Memphis throne after a series of bouts, including several overflow sellouts at the Coliseum. Memphis promoter Jerry Jarrett recalls that the program basically wrote itself, as Fargo had helped Jerry break into the business: a classic case of the teacher–the aging superstar–fending off his pupil, the young buck trying to knock him off the top of the mountain.
“Jackie was a disc jockey in his spare time, and Jerry was one of his interns, or as Fargo jokingly called him, ‘my lackey,’” recalls Jarrett. “Lawler [submitted] some wonderful sketches he’d done of the matches, and Lance Russell eventually started showing them on the air when giving the results of the previous week’s matches at the [Ellis] Auditorium. So when Jerry later became a big star and threatened his top spot, there really was some resentment there, though Jackie did everything he could to get Lawler over.” Lawler’s story of how he broke into the business with his artwork is included in the Extras section of the newly released “Heat” DVD, along with the tale of a diabolical plot involving Mario Galento that could have very well changed the course of Memphis wrestling had he been successful. (To give you an idea of Mario’s evil mug, I believe costume manufacturers used his face as the mold for the traditional Satan rubber masks that rise from the depths of retail hell every Halloween.)
Announcer Dave Brown, who was not interviewed for the documentary, told me that it was Jackie’s willingness to create a new star that made the program so successful–including perhaps the largest crowd ever at the Coliseum, with 11,783 fans on hand on June 24, 1974, for a card headlined by Fargo vs. Lawler.
“The key to the transition was Jackie,” he says. “Jackie was so good at selling [a loss] that he was over even more than he was before–and Jerry was now a star. Jackie had a willingness to make the program work; he could have said, ‘I’m the star, and I don’t want to do it.’ But he was on board.”
Indeed, there are moments in “Heat” where Fargo’s love for Lawler, “the kid,” is still evident. In many ways, Fargo was a father figure for Lawler, whose dad passed away while Jerry was still in high school. In fact, the King still fondly refers to his mentor as “Pops.” And I’ll be damned if Fargo still doesn’t have that glint in his eye and that swagger that made the fans emotionally invest in the tough-talking, brash bruiser back in his day. Hell, in his interview with the “Heat” crew, Jackie still displays more charisma than most of the current WWE roster–and looks like he could even whip half of them.
Fargo also provides insight into the work ethic of Nick Gulas, the man who ran the traditional NWA territory until greed got the better of him, causing his young “partner” Jarrett to ambitiously regroup with rising-star Lawler to wrestle the away the Memphis end and, in a coup, move the TV show–and WHBQ program director Lance Russell and weatherman Dave Brown–to channel 5 from channel 13. Within months, Jarrett and Lawler were playing to packed houses at the Coliseum, while Gulas was forced to pack up and concentrate on the Nashville end before eventually going out of business and dying virtually broke. And to think, the bitter split started over Jarrett’s refusal to book Nick’s goofy, athletically awkward son George as a main-event player in Memphis.
Before Fargo and Lawler, Sputnik Monroe and Billy Wicks were two of the city’s biggest stars in the late 1950s and 1960s. Unlike most of the boys, the Cadillac-driving, diamond-ring-wearing Monroe played to the section of black fans, who were forced to cheer and jeer from “the Crow’s Nest,” the limited number of cheap seats in the Ellis balcony. Steadily, the African-American fan base grew so large that promoters were forced to integrate the seating to accommodate the number of blacks waiting to get into the building. And if they didn’t, legend has it, Monroe threatened to walk out. Sputnik also made newspaper headlines for frequenting “negro” taverns and other black-owned businesses on Beale Street in Memphis. Born Rocco Monroe Merrick in Dodge City, Kansas, he became Roscoe Monroe Brumbaugh in his teens when his mother remarried. In 1945, he began wrestling (i.e., beating the shit out of unsuspecting marks for their money) in the carnivals as “Rock Monroe.” Wrestling lore has it that in 1958, an elderly lady attending the matches in Alabama match became incensed when Monroe entered the auditorium with his arm draped around a black acquaintance–in those days, that was the wrong kind of heat. The enraged old bag called Monroe every derogatory name in the book, including that of the recently launched Soviet satellite. The “Sputnik” moniker stuck on that apparent Commie bastard, who had the nerve to tag with the likes of Norvell Austin in the South.
Several Memphis-area teens identified with the rebel ‘rassler Monroe, going so far as to emulate their hero by bleaching their hair a blonde streak up the middle. Although Sputnik passed away in 2006, the “Heat” producers obtained clips of an interview Monroe conducted before his passing. Thankfully, Wicks, Monroe’s nemesis, is still alive and spoke glowingly of their rivalry that packed the Ellis Auditorium as well as attracted nearly 14,000 fans for a show at Russwood Park, headlined by their bout officiated by former heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano. I was also delighted to see longtime channel 5 sportscaster “Big” Jack Eaton comment on the legendary Monroe/Wicks feud with his usual panache. (Eaton’s tongue-in-cheek Memphis wrestling reports in the late ’70s/early ’80s on the Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon newscasts were priceless.)
In addition to all-time greats Len Rossi, Lawler, Rocky Johnson (father of the Rock), Fargo, Dundee, Wicks and Wayne, the doc features interviews with the late Mr. Guy Coffey (to whom the film is dedicated), referee Jerry Calhoun, and Jimmy Hart, who gives the unique perspective of being a teenage Memphis fan who sold Cokes at the Auditorium, later living out a childhood fantasy as the King’s manager shortly after he wrote and produced the song/music video for “Handsome” Jimmy’s iconic “Son of a Gypsy.” I had to laugh, though, when Hart commented how all of wrestling’s biggest stars had passed through Memphis, including “Hulk Hogan…and Brutus Beefcake.” (Ed Leslie did indeed appear in the territory in 1979 as the Hulk’s little brother, but he’s hardly a name I’d mention when describing the legends who cut their teeth and foreheads learning the ring ropes in Memphis.)
It’s a shame more fans nationwide don’t realize just how innovative “Handsome” Jimmy could be in Memphis, as he was among the first in the business to use pop-culture references in his promos. I remember him bouncing off the walls in the WMC-TV 5 studio one Saturday morning in 1978, explaining to Lance that Burt Reynolds and Sally Field had just dropped him off in the parking lot and that the Bandit must have “slipped something in my Coca-Cola, baby!” In the ‘70s, he was wonderfully entertaining, arrogant and a tremendous brawler. Years before his “Boogie Woogie Man” persona, Valiant was in great shape and had a flamboyant, head-turning look that was usually reserved for rock stars of the era–tailor-made for Memphis. You have to credit Jarrett for seeing something in him and handpicking Valiant to be his new singles superstar in Lawler’s absence following the King’s brief retirement angle in 1977.
Valiant’s joy in discussing those glory days for the documentary is clear as he speaks of working in the packed Coliseum, that dazzling “flying-saucer”-shaped arena. And the eclectic cast of characters in Memphis in the late ‘70s was truly out of this world: King Lawler, the hometown hero; Dundee, the scrappy Australian; LeDuc, the crazed, ax-wiedling lumberjack; Tojo Yamamoto, the sneaky Japanese wrestler; Archie Goldie, a.k.a., the Mongolian Stomper; Sonny King; the soft-spoken, almost philosophical black wrestler; Johnson, “the boxer-turned-wrestler;” and Valiant, the cocky boy from New York City.
The “Heat” producers also obtained some brilliant, rare in-ring footage from my buddy Rick Crane over at 70s-tv.com for use in the film, though at times the quality from their other video sources is below average–understandable as the ownership of the footage is in question and there’s no official archive to access.
I began attending matches at the Coliseum on January 29, 1979. In the years that followed, pulling into that Memphis Fairgrounds parking lot and passing that rickety, wooden Zippin’ Pippin’ rollercoaster at the Liberty Land theme park next door gave me goose bumps in anticipation of the “wild and woolly” (a Russell-ism) action ahead that evening. I vividly remember the 50-cent souvenir programs, the stale popcorn, the Cokes with the melted ice sold by vendors in the stands, Mrs. Guy Coffee chain-smoking at the gimmick table, that massive speaker contraption (later replaced by a digital scoreboard) hanging directly over the ring (which I always envisioned snapping from its cables and squashing the wrestlers below), and the circular-shaped ceiling with missing tiles (blown off during the annual Monster Truck and tractor-pull events), which seemed to provide nearly flawless acoustics for the fans’ cheers and jeers as the heat crescendoed. After the matches, the snaking lines of cars while getting out of the parking lot, with intoxicated fans darting in front of our vehicle, was just as thrilling. And if the heels had gone over (won) in the main event, the irate spectators (who all clearly witnessed the obvious rules infraction missed by the clueless and/or unconscious ref) could be rowdier than wrestler Red Roberts. Ah, such childhood memories.
“Heat” follows Memphis wrestling’s meteoric rise into the early to mid-1980s, when it was often the third-highest-rated TV show in the city, including prime time, trailing only “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” By that time, the term “Monday Night Wrestling” (pronounced “Rasslin’) had transcended to everyday conversation to describe any household, schoolyard or workplace ruckus. (E.g., “Calm down, y’all, this ain’t Monday Night Wrestling!”)
For decades, Memphis wrestling’s stranglehold on the town was a phenomenon that was perhaps difficult for outsiders to fathom. Until now. I’m thrilled and relieved that “Memphis Heat” tells the story as it was meant to be told, with entertaining, action-packed footage, riveting interviews and a killer soundtrack…all in 90 minutes–in other words, just like that wrestling show broadcast live from 1960 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, throughout my younger years.
A closing, haunting shot of the now-empty, barren Coliseum nearly brought me to tears, like visiting the gravesite of an old, cherished friend–powerful stuff, pally. Thankfully, the territory’s legacy lives on in “Memphis Heat.”
Mercy, daddy! Order the “Memphis Heat” DVD (and red-hot movie poster) by clicking here. Check out the trailer below, jabroni.
(Clippings courtesy of www.memphiswrestlinghistory.com.)