When Baltimore loved its `wrasslin' matches

Baltimore Glimpses

June 22, 1999|By Gilbert Sandler

LIKE it or not, professional wrestling, or what passes for it, is popular again. The "sport" is a key attraction worldwide on cable television, drawing an estimated 35 million viewers.

What viewers see is wrestling-as-show-business, a sort of burlesque. These so-called wrestlers fake everything about the competition -- the holds, the pain, the wins, the losses.

But we shouldn't be too quick to deride them or their game. Baltimore has a history of staging versions of this kitsch to packed houses.

In the 1930s, the matches were held at Carlin's amusement park, then at Park Circle, Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road. The likes of Jimmy "Jeemy" Londos, Dick Shikat, Primo Carnera (a former boxer) went against each other with seemingly torturous airplane spins, hammerlocks, toeholds and bone-smashing body slams. All faked, of course.

Popular pastime

The fans demanded blood and got it -- at least that's what it appeared to be. But actually the "blood" was fake, too.

In the mid-1950s, "wrasslin," as locals called it, drew scores of fans to matches at the Coliseum on Monroe Street near North Avenue.

It was the scene of some wild, out-of-control matches between the likes of Strangler Lewis, Gus Sonnenberg, Rudy Dusek and Gorgeous George (two men wrestled under the latter moniker). The Gorgeous ones' style was to prance down the aisle to martial music; a "slave girl" would follow, spraying perfume.

The matches were televised by WMAR and National Beer was the sponsor. Celebrity sports announcer Bailey Goss (also a color commentator for Washington Senators' baseball games) did the play-by-play.

Notably, wrestling audiences were racially integrated at a time when few public facilities were. White and black fans together hissed, booed, cheered and hollered their insults to the performers.

Another venue

In the 1970s, professional wrestling shifted to the Civic Center (now the Arena) downtown. It was there that longtime Baltimorean Sheldon Shemer recalls seeing a wrestler lying on the mat, screaming for a doctor: "A stretcher came, and they picked him up and carried him out.

"Once he got beyond the curtain and out of view of the audience . . . he jumped off the stretcher and ran out the door."

Just another night of pro wrestling in Baltimore.

Gilbert Sandler writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 6/22/99

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