Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Books & DVD Reviews’

The best of the bookers: Jerry Jarrett’s new bio recalls the best–and worst–of times

July 14th, 2011 No comments

Our memories of yesterday will last a lifetime
We’ll take the best, forget the rest
And someday we’ll find…these are the best of times

–Teen anthem from my youth

Although I’d worked for the Memphis-based USWA promotion in 1991 and again from late 1993 to 1996, I had never had the opportunity to even be properly introduced to the man who owned the territory and had helped turn professional wrestling into a Mid-South cultural phenomenon.

So I was nervous as I anticipated the arrival of Jerry Jarrett at the 2009 NWA Wrestling Legends Fanfest in Charlotte. Jarrett, along with longtime announcers Lance Russell and Dave Brown, had agreed via e-mail to participate in a Memphis Roundtable Discussion, moderated by yours truly, as part of the festivities that weekend.

Although I had lived my dream to become a part of the Memphis TV wrestling show for a few years and had plenty of experience on the mic with Russell and Brown, I was curious to get to know Jarrett, whose brand of mayhem was a cherished part of my childhood. Maybe not so coincidentally, I was captivated by Memphis wrestling when I was 6 years old in 1977–nearly the exact time that Jarrett split from his former partner, Nick Gulas, and took over the Memphis end of the territory, moving the TV show (along with Russell and Brown) from WHBQ channel 13 to WMC-TV channel 5 in the process.

Memphis wrestling historians: Scott Bowden (left) poses with the men behind The Best of Times, Jerry Jarrett and Mark James, at the 2009 NWA Legends Fanfest in Charlotte.

With the Roundtable scheduled for Saturday on that weekend in 2009, I had two nights to think of all the questions that I assumed most fans in attendance would want answered. Really, it was agonizing. After all, this might be the last time these three legends of Memphis wrestling would be in the same room, let alone participating in a forum, so I wanted it to be as educational and entertaining as possible. Lost in thought on Friday afternoon and heading to my hotel room, I passed Jerry Jarrett in the lobby.

I did a double-take and introduced myself to the Original Double J as he ordered a glass of red wine from the hotel bar. He graciously shook my hand, replying, “Oh, hey, Scott! You’re much younger than I thought you’d be!” He explained that he had been reading some of my columns and, based on my vivid observations of Memphis wrestling from the ’70s, he assumed that I would be an older man. I explained that Memphis wrestling meant everything to me as a kid, so its rich history was as fresh in mind as if those early days of the first series of bouts between Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee had just taken place last week. (My family was also an early purchaser of a VCR, and I taped the programs religiously and watched them repeatedly.)

For the next two hours, we talked wrestling, life, business interests, and even poetry, interrupted occasionally by several of the boys–former Jarrett employees–who stopped by to embrace him and give thanks for their start in the business. He patiently answered my questions, including one based on the first card I ever attended at the Mid-Souch Coliseum: “How in the world did you get Mil Mascaras to do a stretcher job for Jackie Fargo? Jim Cornette claims it must have been Pepe Lopez under a hood!” It was an afternoon I’ll never forget.

I walked away thinking that Jerry Jarrett was not only one of the most creative minds in the business but also a goodhearted, intelligent man. (Yes, I know of his supposed reputation for payoffs, but judging from the reception he received from his colleagues throughout the event, that was a rep created by Gulas that Jarrett was never able to overcome, no matter the packed houses at the Coliseum and around the territory.)

The following Saturday morning at Fanfest, as “Also sprach Zarathustra,” the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” blared over the PA (which I had arranged to the surprise of my guests), I was taken back to pleasant times–the best of times, in fact–of my childhood, spent in front of the TV watching “another BIG day of Championship Wrestling.” During the Roundtable, we talked about everyone from Gulas to Jackie Fargo to Lawler to “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant to Joe LeDuc. But as it often did each Saturday morning, just as it was getting really good, the program ended after 90 minutes. As usual, Jarrett had left us wanting more. Less than two years later, with the help of Memphis Wrestling History’s Mark James, we finally have it: Jerry Jarrett’s Story: The Best of Times was released earlier this week, providing an in-depth look into the man behind the magic.

In detail, Jarrett recalls his humble beginnings and drive to succeed in wrestling, uncovering a seedy side of the business that rivals the mafia, as the young, determined man from Hendersonville, Tenn., began his unlikely rise to ownership of the most innovative, profitable promotions in the country. The stories of the wide-eyed Jarrett riding with his longtime heroes Jackie Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto brought back memories of my own, working with Lawler, Dundee and Valiant for the first time–I was still in awe of them in the ’90s but trying hard not to let on that I was the mark they knew I was.

The business was so vastly different in Jarrett’s early days, which is illustrated all too vividly as his onetime mentor Roy Welch slips further into dementia and threatens to eliminate the young promoter at any cost. Jarrett might have met an untimely demise at the hands of Mario Galento if not for his intense training sessions with Sailor Moran, a tough-as-nails shooter, i.e., a legit bad ass.

Jarrett provides an overview of his time in Atlanta with Jim Barnett, the Truman Capote of the business, during the territory’s wrestling war, which showcased one of his earliest, greatest gimmick creations: Johnny Walker’s transformation into the masked Mr. Wrestling II, which capitalized on the popularity of the longtime Peach State legend Mr. Wrestling (Tim Woods). During this chapter, he also tells a different version of what I can only assume is the Gary Hart confrontation in an Atlanta bathroom stall. (I liked Gary’s book a lot, but I never believed that Jarrett threatened him unprovoked with a chain.) Jarrett’s success in Georgia paved the way for what would become perhaps his most lasting legacy: control of the Memphis end of the Tennessee territory.

At that point, his life became a “roller coaster without brakes”: enduring a bitter divorce from his first wife and later meeting Deborah Marlin, the love of his life; overcoming the betrayal of Gulas to take command of the territory and earn the trust of the NWA; establishing Lawler as an NWA World title contender and then nearly losing him and Russell in a dispute; nearly losing his eyesight; creating gimmicks like the Fabulous Ones and breaking in new talent like Hulk Hogan; introducing MTV-style music videos to a wrestling program; “negotiating” a Thanksgiving extravaganza with Terry Funk; and trying to co-promote with the likes of Jim Crockett, Verne Gagne and Bill Watts. He recalls Vince McMahon Sr.’s prophetic last words to him and his experiences working with Vince Jr. and the World Wrestling Federation–which unfortunately occurred during the time I was starting as a heel in Memphis, hence my lack of communication with Jarrett at that time.

If you think his wrestling career was turbulent, you’ll find the chapters detailing his construction business equally as riveting as Jarrett somehow becomes $7.2 million in debt and overcomes nearly losing his life’s wealth–just in time to risk it all again to help his son, Jeff, start a new wrestling promotion, TNA, against the odds. His heartbreak over the lack of communication over the years with sons Jerry Jr. and Jeff is apparent as Jarrett pours his soul into these pages. And if you thought you disliked Vince Russo now, wait until you read Jarrett’s experiences working with McMahon’s former right-hand man in The Best of Times (one of those chapters where the book title is certainly ironic).

Reading Jarrett’s autobiography, you’ll get more than insight into his booking philosophy and his opinions on the stars he worked with. The Best of Times delivers the goods into makes Jerry Jarrett a successful yet graceful, humble man–a rarity in today’s world.

You can order it today at amazon.com or pick up an exclusive autographed copy via memphiswrestlinghistory.com.


Prepare to fall in love

February 11th, 2010 3 comments

As far as interesting characters and coherent concepts go, this is a notch below porn.

Ah, if only Missy Hyatt’s bed could talk–the stories it would tell. Probably for the best that it can’t: That bottomless pit of tales of depravity would, much like Hyatt, likely never shut up.

I can’t imagine whom in the world this could possibly interest, but Missy Hyatt recently hosted a “pajama party” with Amy Lee (who makes TNA’s ODP look like Megan Fox), and Lacey Von Erich (hey, she can sink her Claw into me any time…ZING!) and lucky for us, the Kayfabe Commentaries cameras were there.

They shimmy, they shake their boobies, they have an orgasm-faking competition, and they prank call the Honky Tonk Man. Apparently, Lee loves saying the word “quiff” for shock value as much I did when I was a junior in high school. (Which, incidentally, was around the last time that Hyatt was actually sexy.) And those are the highlights. Just when you think it can’t get any worse…New Jack crashes the party. I’m not sure what Lee’s connection to the business is or why she was invited to the “sleepover,” but she reminds me an obnoxious arena rat in Memphis who used to let the boys use her car, her house and namely, her, in exchange for sex. I believe Ricky Morton used to refer to these transactions as “paying the rent.” (Oh, but Ricky, what a price to pay, my friend.)

Run, don’t walk, away from this DVD. (Instead of wasting your time with those trollops, check out the excellent Mildred Burke bio, The Queen of the Ring. It’s a hell of a read.)

12 days of Christmas Choas (Days Ten, Eleven and Twelve)

January 4th, 2010 No comments

If you’re like me, your friends and family refuse to acknowledge your love for wrestling over the holidays. I suppose they figure we already have a massive collection of books, DVDs and memorabilia devoted to the business, so they’re hesitant–or in the case of my wife, resistant–to  add to our obsession. So, if you didn’t get everything on your on your rasslin’ wish list, here are a few ideas to round out the 12 Days of Christmas Chaos.

Some of it magic, some of it tragic...

Some of it magic, some of it tragic...

From the Hart: Although his book was published shortly after his death, the legacy of Gary Hart lives on in the massive 445-page effort “Playboy” Gary Hart: My Life in Wrestling…with a Little Help from My Friends. Easily the most earnest, thorough, soul-searching wrestling book since Bret Hart’s book, Hart’s bio traces his humble beginnings as a street kid from Chicago to wrestler to manager to booker–all part of one of the most fascinating careers the wrestling business has ever known.

My first exposure to Gary Hart was through World Class Championship, around the time the syndication of the Von Erichs’ cutting-edge TV program exploded. Hart was different from Bobby Heenan Jimmy Hart and Jim Cornette in that his interviews were never comical or entertaining but always effectively menacing with a little street jive thrown him that made him come off as one nasty dude. To me, he was like some sort of diabolical svengali who somehow harnessed the power of the some of the baddest heels around, like the Spoiler (Don Jardine), Kabuki and King Kong Bundy. In one of the most memorable angles of the era, Hart even managed to turn “Gentleman” Chris Adams against his “best friend” Kevin Von Erich to create a new, heated feud shortly after the brothers’ famous run with the Freebirds had run its course.

Hart pulls no punches, promising to “be as open, honest, candid and up front as possible” in the a note to the reader at the outset. In particular, Hart’s pain is evident in the chapters on the Von Erich territory, as he recounts the slow, agonizing demise of brothers David, Kerry, Mike and Chris as well as Gino Hernandez, Bruiser Brody and Adams.

The writing was on the wall as early as fall 1982, when Hart walked in a remote area of the Sportatorium to find the Von Erichs huddled around a table full of cocaine with their hated rivals the Freebirds. Although portrayed very realistically on TV as a thorn in the side of the Von Erichs, Hart was very close to the Von Erich boys, who often referred to him as “Uncle Gary.” Like little boys, the Von Erichs sheepishly apologized, vowing to never to it again after Uncle Gary chastised them. But we all know how that turned out.

Hart was booking Fritz’s territory around the time the patriarch of the Von Erich clan was winding down his in-ring career. Hart wanted to build the promotion around David, Kevin and Kerry, so he slowly, subtly began planting the seeds for Fritz to step aside without bruising his massive ego. The progressive booker correctly called that the fans were tired of Fritz on top, as the former “Nazi sympathazier” turned “Christian family man” only drew a little over 10,000 fans in his final bout against Hart protege King Kong Bundy–a crowd that looked sparse in Texas Stadium. Less than two years later, Kerry would be crowned NWA World champion in front of 32,000 fans in the same facility.

Hart had seen firsthand just how hot young stars Terry Gordy and Michael Hayes had gotten over, along with veteran Buddy Rogers, with the Freebirds gimmick in Georgia and gave them an open invitation into the Dallas territory. Instead of debuting as heels, Gary gives Fritz the credit for the idea of the Birds arriving as babyface allies who would later turn against them. They pulled the trigger on Christmas night 1982 as part of angle masterfully put together by Hart during a steel cage match between NWA World champion Ric Flair and Kerry. Easily one of the top five most remembered angles of the ’80s, Kerry gets into a scuffle with special ref Hayes, who shoves the challenger and makes a hasty exit. As Kerry tries to prevent Hayes from leaving, Gordy slams the cage door against Von Erich’s skull, rendering him nearly unconscious as Flair retains the title against seemingly impossible odds. It would be Hart’s first–and last–shot of the famed initial run of the Von Erichs vs. the Freebirds (or has the barefooted Kevin so eloquently put it once on the Sportatorium house mic, “Decency vs. Filth”). This mother of all hot angles led to a $250,000 week for Fritz’s territory.

By that time, along with executive producer Mickey Grant, Hart had helped to create the most exciting wrestling show in the country, with state-of-the-art production values: “World Class Championship Wrestling.” Hart also had the unique ability to see the future was in big shows with inflated ticket prices, like the Reunion Arena “Wrestling Star Wars” extravaganzas that preceeded Starrcarde and WrestleMania. Ironically enough, it was Hart’s booking achievements that led to his initial resignation/firing (depending on how you look at it) as Fritz apparently didn’t live up to his word with promised bonuses. With the territory on fire, Hart claims Fritz was looking to oust him to save a few thousands bucks–which sounds like most lot of territory owners at the time, most of whom were known for their “frugalness.” (For example, years earlier as part of the red-hot turn of Dusty Rhodes to babyface in Florida, Hart claims Eddie Graham lowballed him on his payoffs to the point of it being criminal.)

Unlike, say, Rhodes’s book, Hart covers all the bases of his territory stops: Florida, Georgia (including his brief period as the manager of Jerry Lawler and his controversial run-in with booker Jerry Jarrett), Texas and North Carolina. He recounts in detailed, horrifying fashion the plane crash that killed rising star Bobby Shane and injured the hated manager, pilot Buddy Colt and Dennis McCord (the future Austin Idol). Also included is the never-before-heard story (at least it was the first time I’d ever heard it) of how the wrestler “Often Idle” became “Austin Idol.”

Perhaps most fascinating is Hart’s philosophy of taking on a protege (Pak Song, Spoiler, Kabuki, “Dingo” aka “Ultimate” Warrior, Great Muta, etc.) and establishing a legit managerial-type relationship in developing the gimmick and the laying the foundation for a career.

A detailed, fascinating read, packed with photos and old poster lineups, Playboy” Gary Hart: My Life in Wrestling…with a Little Help from My Friends can be purchased here. Well worth the price. I’d also highly recommend the Heroes of World Class DVD, which Hart participated in a few years ago. The DVD chronicles the demise of World Class through the eyes of a childhood fan of the promotion and includes interviews with Kevin Von Erich (including a chilling walk into the dilapidated Sportatorium), Bill Irwin and referee David Manning.  Click the Amazon link below to order.

The Truth Isn’t Always Handsome:Equally as ambitious as Gary’s book but unfortunately not nearly as well-written or researched, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant’s bio comes in at a whopping 566 pages. Although quite candid in recalling some less-than-savory aspects of his life, including a cocaine addiction at the height of his popularity in Jim Crockett Promotions, Jimmy sorely needs an editor to clear up his time lines (e.g., facing Ken Patera in Memphis in 1980 could not have happened and Jim Harris’s Kamala character was not created in 1978) and to establish a more consistent style, as a lot of the book teeters back and forth between kayfabe Apter-style magazine accounts and insider information. (Describing his attack of Lawler during an NWA World title bout with Harley Race on Dec. 18, 1978, he writes, “I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Lawler. I flew into Memphis without being booked that night. I held the bottle high over my head and came down hard, shattering it over a stunned Jerry Lawler’s skull. After I made my exit, the fans were in shock. No one was moving. The show was over. Some spectators started to weep softly with trembling hands covering their mouths, and others cried out loud while wringing their heads in disbelief, shock and bewilderment, while Lawler lay lifeless.”  In a way, though, Valiant gets a pass, because I believe he was retelling his story as he honestly remembered it or at least in the context of the storyline. And like most wrestlers, Valiant is prone to exaggerations (constant “sellouts” at the Mid-South Coliseum that didn’t happen), which sort of makes you question some of the other details in the book as well. For example, in the weeks that followed the attack on Lawler, he writes, “the Memphis Coliseum just kept on selling out.” In fact, Valiant vs. Lawler never sold out the Coliseum; however, they did come awfully close: 10,151 showed up to see the King get his revenge for the bottle attack on  Jan. 2, 1978, and just under 9,000 were there for a “Coward Waves the Flag” rematch on Jan. 9. However, there’s no denying that Valiant was a huge drawing card in the city. It’s a shame that people only familiar with his Boogie Woogie Man character never got to see his heel work in Mempho, because Valiant was outstanding. Lawler and Valiant headlined several straight weeks with various stipulations, usually drawing around 7,000 fans–no small feat with the same matchup.

Explosive feud: The fireworks between the King and Handsome started in 1977 and carried over into the New Year.

Explosive feud: The fireworks between the King and Handsome started in 1977 and carried over into the New Year.

Eventually, Valiant was the one babyface who promoter Jerry Jarrett could count on to spark the houses if Lawler was in a rut or on the shelf with an injury. In particular, Valiant deserves a lot of credit for saving what could have been a disastrous year for Jarrett after Lawler broke his leg in January 1980. With Valiant on top as Southern champion, Jarrett drew many crowds close to 8,000 fans throughout the year with the King gone,working with the likes of Bill Irwin and Paul Ellering. Not quite sellouts, but still very impressive.

Mercy, daddy.

Mercy, daddy.

Another unique aspect of the bio is that the voice of the book is all Valiant’s, something that can’t be said for a lot of wrestling books. (Ric Flair’s, which had two different writers assisting, immediately comes to mind.) Granted, it’s hard to imagine some of the conversations he recounts in the book going down even remotely as he describes, but you gotta give ol’ Handsome some credit: Valiant as a born storyteller. (Other conversations that he describes, like one he recalls with the long-winded Buddy Wayne, sound spot-on.) Another positive: There’s plenty of info on his Memphis days, some of it very funny and a good read.

One story that of course didn’t make the book but is one of my favorites regarding Valiant: My mother, Carole, bumped into Handsome at the Memphis airport around 1980 and shyly approached him for an autograph, explaining that it was “for my son.” According to my mom, Valiant smiled slyly and said, “Sure it is, momma. Sure it is.”

Errors aside, Valiant’s book is a pretty fun read, and it’s evident that the project was truly a labor of love between he and his wife, Angel, who is a lovely woman. You can pick it up at jimmyvaliant.com. Some of Valiant’s most memorable Memphis moments can be found on the DVD below, available through Amazon. The DVD includes rare footage of Valiant working as a heel alongside fellow Memphis baddie Lawler. (Those two were rarely heels at the same time in the promotion, given their popularity.)

Memphis Wrestling History Class Back in Session:Mark James will soon be releasing the third volume of his of his Memphis Wrestling History series, featuring the programs of 1982–one of the greatest years of the Jarrett/Lawler era.

Memphis Wrestling in the '80s: Like, Totally Awesome

Memphis Wrestling in the '80s: Like, Totally Awesome

In addition to high-quality reproductions of every single souvenir program sold at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1982, Memphis Wrestling History Vol. 3: The Programs of 1982will include comments on all the major stars and storylines of the year from Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, Dutch Mantell, Lance Russell, Dave Brown, Jerry Jarrett, Steve Keirn, Jimmy Valiant, Jackie Fargo, Jimmy Hart, Jim Cornette, Jerry Calhoun and more. Check this site or visit memphiswrestlinghistory.com periodically for information on ordering. Mark’s books are required reading for every longtime fan of Memphis wrestling.