House of horrors: The ghosts of Memphis wrestling’s past
In the spirit of Halloween, I can’t help think back to my childhood fascination with the Mummy, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster, which can be traced to my love of the famous black-and-white films from Universal. Over the years, these classic creatures often took breaks from terrorizing local villagers to also wreak havoc on Memphis wrestling.
In an interview conducted with Jerry Lawler in 1985, a freelance mainstream magazine writer asked the King how the Memphis wrestling promotion differed from others around the country. “Ours is a very innovative program,” he explained. “For example, we were the first to use music videos, and now every promotion has them.” Although the rest of the piece was standard kayfabe fare, Lawler spoke the truth on that one.
Even today, the booking influence of Lawler and partner Jerry Jarrett from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s is far-reaching. But in the case of Lawler, a self-avowed comics/horror film fanboy, the results could sometimes be a real horror show by design.
Luckily for the rest of the country, a few things that I saw while growing up in Memphis stayed in Memphis. While I’ve used KFR to sing the praises of Memphis wrestling (actually, I lip-synched them in honor of “the Singing Cowboy” Don Bass), I would be remiss I didn’t highlight some of the territory’s most dreaded booking moves.
Although the Mummy had been unearthed years earlier during Lawler’s brief feud with former manager Sam Bass, Dr. Frank is the earliest memory I have of movie monsters invading the territory. Lawler and manager Mickey Poole opened an episode of the Memphis show in January 1977 by bringing out a huge wooden box that contained the King’s new ally. Throughout the show, grunts and groans could be heard through the makeshift tomb. When Lawler unlocked the top portion of the box to reveal Dr. Frank—think Boris Karloff from the original— my 5-year-old self screamed before quickly changing the channel. (Amazingly enough, I had the same reaction years later watching WWE’s necrophilia angle with Triple H and the late Katie Vick.) And much like the Universal classic, the Monster eventually turned on Lawler, forcing the King to burn his creation with a ball of fire. (Brief clip of Lawler vs. the not-so-jolly green (in every sense of the word) giant from a 1978 bout in Tupelo at the 1:36 mark below.)
When Darth Vader suddenly showed up at the WMC-TV Studios in 1978, it had Lawler’s influence all over the gimmick. The wrestler walked to the ring wearing a Darth Vader mask, black tights/trunks and a black cape. Upon entering the ring, he removed the helmet and cape…and worked under a standard black hood (mask)—and without the heavy breathing and control panel on his chest. Even as a kid, it was tough to buy this gimmick. Besides, didn’t Darth have enough problems with the Jedi and Chewbacca without crossing the King? The real giveaway that this guy couldn’t possibly the disgraced Jedi from the Dark Side: Wouldn’t Vader simply use a lightsaber—the ultimate foreign object—to finish off his opponent?
I’ll hand it to King Fanboy, though: He got to live out every geek’s fantasy by battling some of his favorite pop-culture icons in a wrestling ring. (Well, that was always my fantasy, anyway.) And when Lawler scored a pinfall over Vader (Darth, not Big Van) in what might have been wrestling’s only Texas Tornado Death Star match, it proved that he was not only monarch of the Memphis mat, but also the King of the whole friggin’ universe. (For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why Burger King didn’t offer a glass with Lawler’s likeness; after all, Luke Skywalker had one.)
Over a period of six months at Mid-South Coliseum in 1978, three of the biggest icons from my childhood all made appearances: Lawler, Vader and a bald wrestler billed as Kojak (Len Shelley). That same year, the Kisser (Wayne Ferris, the future Honky Tonk Man, dressed up like Gene Simmons from KISS) appeared to wrestle Danny Davis, years before Eric Bischoff had the same masterstroke to bring in the Kiss Demon. The only hero of mine missing that year was Spider-Man. But that was only because the promotion had already brought Spidey in as well to work Memphis, on Oct. 30, 1977. (Lawler apparently had been impressed with the way young Parker handled himself against Crusher Hogan in Amazing Fantasy #15.) Memphis grappler Ratamyus must have been a tough customer, because he managed to hold Web-Head to a time-limit draw.
And then, of course, there was the epic showdown between SuperKing (Lawler in full Superman attire) and Batman (the costumed Adam West from the camp 1960s TV show), which culminated with the TV actor threatening to inform his pal “Supes Baby” that Lawler was stealing his gimmick. Perhaps Batman had been tipped off that the Riddler had been signed to appear in Memphis on the Sept. 27, 1977, card at the Mid-South Coliseum.) Lawler was fortunate Superman never made it town, though I’m sure the King of heels would not have been above pulling some Kryptonite out of his tights if the situation had called for it. (From the clip below, it’s amusing see West wearing the mask…dressed in a track suit; he had supposedly been notified by DC’s attorneys to refrain from wearing the Bat-suit for any televised personal appearances.)
In April 1984, the Memphis promotion, attempting to capitalize on the popularity of the Road Warriors, Hawk and Animal, whose reputation was spreading like “Wildfire” Tommy Rich on the ever-expanding WTBS stage, introduced the apparent third member of the team: Road Warrior Humongous. Based on the Lord Humongous character in ‘The Road Warrior” movie, the sequel to “Mad Max,” the role was originally played by former Memphis State University football player Mike Stark (whom I later had the displeasure of playing for in high school). The gimmick would go on to spawn several imitations, most notably with Jeff Van Kamp in Mid-South and Southeastern/Continental, where Humongous was so over he even received an NWA title bout vs. Ric Flair in Alabama.
With the threat of terror across the nation very real with the release of “Ghostbusters” in summer 1984, Lawler pulled down the strap to protect his then wife, Paula, from the most vile creatures known to man…including Jimmy Hart. (Warning: Careful before you click. Much like the “The Exorcist,” it’s hard not to look away…though you know you probably should.)
If it sounds scary, it was. But it got even scarier when Beelzebub himself, Lucifer (Frank Morrell), and his tag-partner the Prince of Darkness (Duke Meyers) showed up wearing red bodysuits and rubber devil masks with horns. Kevin Sullivan would have cackled with delight.
When Andy Kaufman needed a tag partner against Lawler in 1983, he didn’t call on Ken Patera. Instead, the comedian visited Parts Unknown to secure the services of the Colossus of Death (Meyers again under the hood wearing a rubber movie-monster mask).
Eddie Gilbert’s father, Tommy, and later, his brother Doug, transformed into Freddy Krueger in 1989. (Not to be confused with Lawler’s son Kevin, who became “Freddy Gilbert” in ECW.) Memphis Freddy’s finisher? The claw, of course. (Most area fans would have taken Freddy over Kerry Von Erich at that point, anyway.) Unfortunately for serious fans like me, Tommy initially got over so strong as Freddy that the gates of hell (located somewhere right outside Jonesboro, Ark., I believe) opened, spawning the Memphis debuts of Jason Voorhees of “Friday the 13th” fame, the Wolfman and The Undertaker (not the WWE’s Dead Man, but some guy wearing a rubber mask that looked like Albert Einstein with mixed-up chromosomes). Ironically enough, the Memphis Undertaker worked the territory around the same time The Master of Pain (Mark Calaway, the future WWE Phenom), who had been introduced weeks earlier by Ricky Morton as an ex-convict discovered when the Rock ‘n Roll Express worked a show in an Atlanta prison. (No word if the Big Bossman was a guard at that same facility, or if Morton was an inmate at the time.)
After months of these gimmicks in 1989, the movie maniacs had killed the houses to the point that Jarrett was finally able to convince Lawler to turn heel again for the first time in a decade. Although this move didn’t resurrect the houses of the glory days, the TV show at least became watchable again, if only for Lawler’s one-liners.
Then came the Texas vs. Tennesee feud in the USWA in 1991, when Memphis jobber—and CWA World tag champion—Ken Raper’s career was suddenly reborn as the Leatherface character of “The Texas Chainsaw Masscare,” as part of Eric Embry’s Lone Star stable. (Raper may have been picked for the role only because he was the only jobber around who actually owned a chainsaw.)
For those horrified at today’s wrestling product, take heart. If history is any indication, the wrestling business often gets worse before it gets better.