Or the hundredth.
Yet Sam Tenenbaum — a.k.a. the Great Kaiser — has lived here for almost all of his 64 years, loves it and is considered a community treasure.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In 1960, he was a Shades Valley High sophomore barely making Cs. Teachers called him “mischievous.” Euphemistically. His parents pulled no punches: “Undisciplined and immature,” they declared.
Cut to the Military Institute in Marion, Ala., for junior year, Day One: “I was unpacking my bags in my room, when someone tapped me on the shoulder from behind,” Sam recalls. “Wiry guy, my age, with a flattop and hardly any teeth. He said, ‘My name’s Oop Trailer, I’m from Selma, and this is how it’s gonna be, you sonuvabitch: I run this here company, and you’re gonna shine my shoes and make my bed.’ I thought to myself, You have two choices: Be miserable here for a long time, or do something now. So I turned around and cold-cocked him right in the face, knocking him over the bunk bed.” Sam’s arched eyebrows relax and his hard eyes fill with warmth, transforming his roguish countenance into that of his alternate persona: teddy bear. “Oop got up slowly, then commenced to beat the you-know-what out of me. I had to get tough in a hurry to survive there.”
Sam returned to Birmingham nine months later with 30 pounds of muscle put on in the weight room—“as if my life depended on it”—and self-discipline that couldn’t be gauged. In his senior year at Phillips High School, he lettered in wrestling, earned As and Bs, and gained admission to the University of Montevallo.
In college, he discovered he was a natural tenor. He studied voice and became a devotee of opera. After graduation, he won roles in The Barber of Seville and Susannah at Birmingham’s Temple Theater. With better teachers and bigger stages, Manhattan beckoned.
Sam was torn, though. He’d been lifting weights at the YMCA and come to the attention of Joseph Honeycutt, known to longtime wrestling fans as Steel Dawson. “He thought I’d make a heckuva pro wrestler,” Sam says.
Before opera rehearsals, he began training with Honeycutt — early mornings of running, lifting, throwing the medicine ball and practicing holds. A year later, in 1968, he tried wrestling as a professional for the first time, climbing into a ring on the stage of the old movie house in Oneonta, Ala. Half the town was there, everyone whooping and cheering for the man in the other corner, Nick Carter, an Oneonta native as well as the Alabama Heavyweight Champion. He might as well be the mayor here, Sam thought. Sam was announced as “Bob Kaiser” — Honeycutt had chosen the name to fit Sam’s regal Teutonic features. Per professional wrestling convention, the outcome of the contest had been determined beforehand. “I couldn’t have beat him if I’d wanted to,” Sam remembers. “He let the match last 10 minutes. I got the hell beat outta me.”
Sam went on to lose as many as three matches a week in similar fashion. Yet he was absorbed by wrestling’s physical challenge as well as the whirl of vibrant characters, theatrical pomp, bodacious vixens and chants of insatiable fanatics. And what other job lets you lift a 300-pound masked man over your head, twirl him as if he were a helicopter rotor, then launch him over the ropes into a crowd going bananas?
La vie bohème in New York no longer held the same appeal.
After five years as a “break-in wrestler” (more often than not, you are the one tossed over the ropes), Sam met Dr. Johnny Peebles III. The dynamic wrestling manager thought highly of Sam’s wrestling talent and, as significantly, his voice. “You’re like the Great Caruso,” he said.
Thus “The Great Kaiser, the Operatic Tenor Who Wrestles,” was born.
Practically overnight, he had a following throughout the Southeast to go with a National Wrestling Association contract commensurate with his bulk. The black hood he wore, with its harrowing ghostly visage, became iconic. And he was elevated to main-event status, which meant matches on national television and victories, including several against the biggest names of the era. One of his more memorable bouts resulted in a loss — to a car; in a television commercial, a Ford proved tougher than even the Great Kaiser.
Then came June 16, 1990. Fans crammed into Birmingham Race Course, in spite of a blistering afternoon, to witness his attempt to wrest the NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship belt from Bullet Bob Armstrong.
“We beat each other up until we nearly collapsed from exhaustion,” Sam recalls of his win. Of course the win had been predetermined, but by any standard it was a triumph. “I’d reached the top. I was proud. And it raised my demand.”
He remained in great demand all around the country until 2003, when, at age 59, he faced the Destroyer at Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham. On climbing out of the ring, victoriously, Sam announced that he was climbing out for good. Two years later, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Alliance Hall of Fame.
“I missed out on the million-dollar contracts, but I liked the earlier era because the wrestling was purer, with less showboating,” he says. “I don’t think I was born too early or too late. I had a helluva good time.”
So how does a man like this — a man who bombed around in a shiny silver Lincoln Mark V (if you don’t know cars, think aircraft carrier) — fit on a sedate Mountain Brook street inhabited almost exclusively by businessmen, lawyers, doctors and their families?
During the 24 years they’ve been his neighbors, Dr. Bill Stetler and his wife Nancy have had Sam as a guest at many parties. She relates, “Some people look at him and initially are taken aback. They ask, and I say, ‘Professional wrestler.’ They say, ‘Ah, got it.’ Soon they find that he’s friendly and he has more fun than anyone else. Everyone who gets to know him comes to love him.” She pauses. A recollection moves her. “What we all admire most is his devotion to his parents when they were in their elderly years.”
Retired Westinghouse executive Cliff Smith, 91, lives across the street from Sam and says of him, “He’s a real nice boy.” Similar sentiments are to be found all over the neighborhood.
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In retirement, Sam has settled down. Some. He has switched from muscle cars to an economical Ford Focus, albeit Ferrari red with leopard-skin upholstery. He’ll still have a breakfast of six hard-boiled eggs and a protein shake, followed by a workout at the gym — but his leopard-skin weightlifting belt gets most of its use as a fashion accessory. Whereas he once could “warm up” with a few beers and then devour a 64-ounce steak for dinner, he now prefers a simple plate of spaghetti and a glass of red wine — Lambrusco, because that’s what Pavarotti drank.
Not unrelated is his rededication to singing. His performances have included the “Star-Spangled Banner” — in his Great Kaiser mask — at Birmingham Barons games. His goal is a return to opera.
John Jones, general director of Opera of Birmingham, has been impressed with Sam’s ability as a tenor. “He sings with a lot of passion,” Jones says.
“I don’t want to work too hard at my age,” says Sam. “What I’d love is a small character role.”
A guess is that opera conductors will give him whatever role he wants.
You can learn more about the Great Kaiser by visiting his website: www.thegreatkaiser.com