- Sports and Recreation
WWF Wrestling: Lou Albano and The Bruiser Ballet
Depression Era Fun - Dancing Non Stop for Months
Tony Altamore and Lou Albano - The Sicilians
Albano is his Elvis Years (old/fat)
He was really a teacher - but in the ring, George 'The Animal' Steele
Prof. Tanaka and Mr. Fuji
by Bill Russo
When last we left this little series on the Salad Days of Professional Wrestling, we were at Boston Garden where 13,909 fans regularly packed the joint for Boston Bruins games and Pro Wrestling. Often, it was hard to tell a Bruins hockey game from the ‘Bruiser Ballet‘. They had pretty much the same fan base.
This chapter moves you 40 miles South of Boston to the town of North Attleboro, Massachusetts where the wrestling was conducted in a much smaller - but no less spirited venue.
Hugging busy Route One, Jack Witchi’s Sports Arena was a Southeastern Massachusetts fixture for almost five decades. Built in 1934, its early fame was gained by hosting those dance marathons you might have heard about. Couples would dance 24 hours a day in a crazy endurance contest that could last for months. The contestants had to dance 45 minutes of each hour. They were allowed 15 minutes of rest - and could sleep for up to 11 minutes.
Fed 12 meals a day, (during the great depression this alone was reason enough for some people to get involved) the dancers kept going until they dropped. The battle finally ended when all the couples but one had fallen out. The winners would split a prize that could amount to several hundred dollars.
The announcers played a big part in the marathon. Doing everything from pumping up the contestants, throwing ice water on the ‘sleepers’ and entertaining the crowds; their job was almost as grueling as the dancers. Jack Witchi’s Arena found an unknown kid from Indiana and gave him his first show business job. He later would have his own radio and television show and become a legendary comic: his name - Red Skelton.
After the thirties and the great depression finally expired, the 1940s saw Witchi’s become a stopping place for the greatest musicians of the day. Regulars on the bandstand were Glenn Miller, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and many more. Even the up and coming country star, Johnny Cash played North Attleboro.
But the Jack Witchi Sports arena gained its greatest fame in the 1960s and 70s when it hosted Friday Night Wrestling. The biggest names in the promotion played Witchi’s. Bruno Sammartino, Chief Jay Strongbow, Frankie Scarpa, Don Leo Johnathan, and many, many others would regularly fill the 1500 seats as they traveled from gigs in New York, Providence and Boston.
In this episode, I will reveal the full story of Professor Tanaka’s alleged bone breaking attack on a fan and subsequent trial, but first I will share my favorite Witchi match ever.
Long before Lou Albano was a famed manager, pal of Cindi Lauper, and television personality, he was a regular contract wrestler. He was pretty much a journeyman brawler and in the late 1960s was just beginning to form the ’character’ that would later become ’Captain Lou’.
I was in attendance the night in North Attleboro where Lou took his first step to becoming a major figure in the ‘sport’ and here’s what happened.
It was a tag team bout. I do not remember the names of any of the participants other than Lou, so I will assign names to them which may or may not be the correct ones.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Jack Witchi’s Sports Arena. Tonight’s main bout will be the best of three falls.
It will be a Tag Team Match. In the blue corner, weighing 288 pounds is George ‘the Animal’ Steele.
His partner, hailing from Houston, Texas and tipping the scales at 350 pounds, is “Apache Bull Ramos”
The crowd hissed and derided the pair, as the “heels” were introduced. Then they cheered as the ‘good guys’ entered the ring.
“In the red corner- a new tag team called the “Sicilians“, weighing 221 pounds, the master of the Cannonball, it’s Tony Altomare. His partner weighing 214 pounds, is Lou Albano. This event is Three Falls or less, with a 90 minute time limit."
The match opened with The “Animal” tangling with Altomare. Steele was a rookie at the time and had just started perfecting his character. As the bout opened, the Animal put Altomare in a Hammerlock. He tweaked the lock for a full minute, weakening the “Sicilian” and then he put his new signature move on the hapless Altomare. Steele lifted Altomare off his feet by the hammer locked arm and threw him to the mat where he lay unconscious. Steele then dashed over to the turnbuckle, tearing it with his teeth. Then he took the stuffing and stuffed it into the mouth of the still ‘knocked out’ Altomare. The Animal pinned his foe and gave his team a one fall lead in the match.
For the second fall, Bull Ramos came out against Lou Albano. Lou, as an inexperienced youngster, had no signature move and was relatively unknown in the game, while Ramos was a three year veteran who routinely flogged his opponents with a genuine Bull Whip.
Albano went right after Ramos, and began punching him like a boxer. The much more agile Albano was able to quickly knock out the ‘heel’ and even the bout at one fall apiece.
When George “the Animal” Steele saw his partner pinned, he went wild and began pummeling Albano, while Altomare watched from his corner and did nothing. Ramos revived and both ‘Heels’ began stomping the now bloodied Albano.
Steele grabbed Albano by the arm and used the ‘Flying Hammerlock’ to throw him across the ring where he landed with his arm horribly distended.
Suddenly the house lights went dim and the 1500 rabid fans heard the sound of an ambulance. Three white suited attendants rushed into the ring and put the badly wounded Lou Albano on a stretcher and took him to nearby “Sturdy Memorial” Hospital in Attleboro.
Altomare spoke to the fans.
“My partner Lou Albano has been seriously injured by these two cowardly brutes. He may never wrestle again thanks to these dirty fighting punks.
But in memory of my pal, I will fight both of them by myself”, said Altomare.
True to his words, he fended off the brutal attacks of Steele and Ramos for over 30 minutes, until finally both ‘heels’ got in the ring and began to use the dazed Altomare like a rope in a tug o’ war. Steele put him in an arm bar, in preparation for the ‘Flying Hammerlock’ to finish him off.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the announcer said just as Steele was ready to pin his victim. “We have news from Sturdy Memorial Hospital. Lou Albano has been treated and released for numerous injuries including a broken arm. The hospital has said that Mr. Albano will be unable to wrestle for a period of several months.”
At that exact second, the double doors leading to the dressing rooms burst open and a dozen spotlights focused on the entryway as a heavily bandaged figure hobbled through. Slowly the stooped mummy like creature walked towards the ring, his right arm fully encased in a thick plaster cast.
Fans gasped as they noticed that the shrouded man was Lou Albano himself, returning from the hospital.
He walked to the apron of the ring and then somehow he was in the ring facing Ramos and Steele, who’s mouths were agape and who were suddenly fearful.
Without a word Albano walked up to Ramos and smacked him full across the face with his heavily casted right arm. Ramos dropped to the canvas like a duck felled with a 12 gauge.
The Animal began a frenetic attack on the ring posts, slashing them with his teeth and spewing the contents over the ring. Albano followed him like a pointer dog going after prey.
Albano reached into his cast and withdrew a surgeon’s scalpel from it. The animal dropped to his knees and begged as Lou closed in. As the instrument neared his bulging eyes, the Animal let out a howl. Albano threw down the scalpel and launched a chin kick which he followed up with a cast smash to the head. Down went George Steele and the victory came to the “Sicilians”.
Albano overnight became a star on the New England circuit and went on to enjoy a long and profitable career right up until the 2000s.
On the other side of Route One, across from Jack Witchi’s Sports Arena was a local watering hole called Lum’s. The popular restaurant featured ice cold beer and hot dogs boiled in beer, among other good foods. It had several tables and a nice long bar, where the wrestlers would often gather to wind down after a night’s work.
One of the regulars was Professor Toru Tanaka, perennial Tag Team champ and master of several martial arts. Built like a Sherman Tank, the 270 pound wrestler, was a 12 year veteran of the United States Army and a crack pistol shot as well as being a trained boxer and judo expert.
Judo chops were a staple of Tanaka’s wrestling style. It was said that he could quickly kill or maim a man with his fingers, hands, elbows, his feet or his head.
He regularly demonstrated his skill by breaking cement blocks or stacks of wood with his powerful hand chops
Professor Tanaka and a few other wrestlers were sitting at the bar in Lum’s late one evening after their matches. A loud patron who had perhaps, sampled a few too many boiled in beer hotdogs, spotted Tanaka at the bar.
Walking towards Tanaka he effused, “Hey Professor. I love you man! How bout showing us some tricks?”, as he spoke he clapped his arm heavily on Tanaka’s shoulder.
In literally an eye blink, Tanaka whirled around and rocketed a Judo Chop at the guy’s shoulder.
Down went the patron, writhing in pain and grasping his throbbing shoulder.
The injured man was transported to the hospital where it was determined that his collar bone had been snapped by the sharp Tanaka chop.
Police were summoned and Professor Tanaka was hauled away to the lockup where he faced a bevy of charges including Assault with a dangerous weapon, disturbing the peace, causing grievous injury and more.
The next day, accounts of incident were told on WARA radio and it was on the front page of the Attleboro Sun and was news all around Massachusetts and even over the whole country. Tanaka was ordered to appear before Judge Edward P. Lee of the Fourth District Court in Attleboro.
Pro wrestling was worried that one of its brightest new stars would be locked away for an extended period. Vince McMahon, the founder of New England wrestling, dispatched his kid, Vince McMahon Junior, to watch over the situation.
Tanaka’s fans showed up in support of the wrestler.
Judge Lee’s courtroom was packed when Professor Tanaka appeared before the bench to plead his case.
He told of his military service and training. He detailed his various martial arts skills and accomplishments and he explained to the judge that he was sitting at the bar having a beer when suddenly he felt a hard slap on his back. He whirled, by instinct, and delivered a quick Judo blow, that was designed to stop an attack but was not meant to cause a severe injury.
Judge Lee listened patiently and recessed the court. Later in the day, he announced that he had found in favor of Professor Tanaka.
He ruled that Tanaka acted by reflex due to long years of training and that there was no intent to harm, but merely an instinctive reaction to being blindly approached, without warning, from the rear.
The case settled, Tanaka rose to the top of his profession and became one of the most successful performers in the wrestling sphere.
He also went to Hollywood and appeared in many TV shows and films including, “Last Action Hero”, “Perfect Weapon” and others.
Here's the Link to Part One of this Series which features the biggest star of wresting in the 1950s and 60s -- Haystack Calhoun