I was unmoved even by the musings of French semiotician Roland Barthes, whose 1957 essay about the sport included such phrases as “The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess" and "Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theatres.”
I watched part of the Darron Aronofsky film, The Wrestler, on DVD. I thought Mickey Rourke was convincing in the title role, and the film gave me a deeper appreciation of the torments wrestlers endure to give the crowds what they want (i.e., blood and guts and pain), but it didn’t make me a wrestling fan.
I also don’t care particularly that acclaimed novelist Stephen Dobyns cranked out something in 1995 called The Wrestler’s Cruel Study: A Novel.
However, I recently received a copy of a book about wrestling that is causing me to, at least somewhat, rethink my utter lack of interest, or at least come to appreciate wrestling as a marvelous example of raw, pure 20th century American showbiz and underbelly culture.
The book is called Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling. It was written by Ron Hall, with an introduction by legendary Southern wrestling figure Jerry “The King” Lawler, and published by Shangri-La Projects in Memphis.
Sputnik tells the story of what Hall sees as the glory days of professional wrestling in Memphis, before wrestling became a big-money national spectacle.
Hall tells his story mainly through pictures—his two-page preface and Lawler’s introduction are the longest pieces of copy in the entire book, unless you count the many period newspaper clippings that are reproduced.
Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets contains over 400 wrestling photos and other illustrations, including posters, handbills, publicity stills and original programs.
One of the highlights of the book is a chapter full of action photos taken at matches in the 1950s at the old Ellis Auditorium in Memphis by photographer and wrestling fan Robert W. Dye. I particularly like Dye’s shots of female wrestlers. He took a photograph of Memphis resident Elvis Presley and his band playing in the ring during a December 1955 charity event. Elvis was a ‘wrasslin’ fan, we’re told.
All of the crazy characters from the Southern wrestling circuit of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are found in Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets, including Lawler, a Memphis resident and former college art major who stumbled into the business and became one of the most popular wrestlers on the circuit.
You’ll meet Gorgeous George and Buddy “The Nature Boy” Rogers, two of the first wrestlers to achieve national celebrity.
There’s Jackie Fargo, who looked sort of like Charles Laughton on steroids.
There’s Len Rossi, a guy whose name I recall from childhood because he also wrestled in Birmingham a lot.
The book also includes a bonus CD with music tracks from four wrestlers who recorded some music sides to take advantage of their popularity among wrestling fans in Memphis and the Southeast. The tracks include Rossi's “A Wrestler’s Prayer” and Fargo's “Champ of Champs."
To find out more about Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets, visit www.shangrilaprojects.com. The publisher has also started a blog called www.earlymemphiswrestling.com. And there is a documentary film in the works called Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’.
Jesse Chambers is, somewhat inexplicably, the managing editor of this newspaper. If you wish to curry favor with him, send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org.