When Wrestling Was King
The Hawaii All-Collectors Show 2005 this weekend is the place to be for 50th State Big Time Wrestling fans
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Wrestler Curtis “The Bull” Iaukea and Wayne
Nishimoto of Hawaii Nostalgia Studio
From 1962 to ’74 the Civic Auditorium was the place to be on Wednesday evenings. Friday night and Saturday afternoon were reserved for KGMB replays and the state’s first regionally produced live broadcast program.
The 50th State Big Time Wrestling was more than just a TV show and something to fill the entertainment void in the middle of the week.
It was the event. Big men. Even bigger stars. Loved and hated. Men capable of drawing the awe of young boys and the irritation of old women. And everyone had their favorite. Curtis “The Bull” Iaukea, Ripper Collins, Tosh Togo, Johnny Berand, Chief Billy White Wolf, Nick Bockwinkle, The Masked Executioner, Sam Steamboat, Neff Maiawa and of course, possibly the most influential person in Hawaii wrestling, Lord James “Tally Ho” Blears.
For a teenage Ilene Wong, it was The Missing Link who got her blood going.
“I remember watching him on TV and he was my favorite. I guess I was kind of disappointed that I didn’t become Mrs. Missing Link,” says Wong, who along with partner Wayne Maeda is producing the Hawaii All-Collectors Show 2005 at the Blaisdell Saturday and Sunday. The show will feature a special display recalling the golden age of wrestling in Hawaii.
Maybe it was his wild hair, his Argentinean accent or the seven languages he spoke — Pampero Firpo was the man of her dreams and a fantasy come to life.
“They were the superheroes and villains of D.C. Comics come to life, and in our own back yard,” says Wong. “Bigger-than-life, outrageous characters in a grand soap opera every Wednesday night.”
Professional wrestling gained a foothold in Hawaii in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until promoter Ed Francis took over the Hawaii region of the National Wrestling Alliance in 1962 that things really start rolling. Francis, father of former NFL tight end Russ Francis, was a champion wrestler in his own right, winning individual titles three times between 1959 and 1973, and tag team belts with Pedro Morales in 1969, in ’70 with Billy Robinson and in ’73 with Ripper Collins.
Harry Suga, fight card artist
With Francis as promoter, Blears as wrestler, announcer and bookmaker, and a stable of colorful characters, wrestling became popular and influential. Hawaii wrestlers invented gimmicks still in use today, such as the locker room interview and the cage match, after Blears became tired of The Masked Executioner cowardly ducking him after carefully planned assaults.
As with any wrestling promotion, the fans’ role is as critical as the wrestlers themselves. At the Civic it was no different.
“They came up with better stuff than we did,” Blears says of the people who found creative ways to get the wrestlers’ attention. For some it meant throwing things into the ring. For others, it was more vocal. Even a bit nasty. And age was no factor. Everyone got into it. The most remembered of these tireless fans was a group of older women who regularly attended the matches and vented their frustration. No doubt the loving matriarchs of their families, these aunties were not to be messed with.
“They would yell at me ‘get up you fat ****,’” laughed Iaukea. “They would give me the finger.”
Iaukea remembers one night when an audience member was giving him a particularly hard time.
“My auntie, she one big wahine, 5 feet 10 inches, 220 pounds. She climbed over people and started scrapping. Everybody stopped and watched my auntie get going!”
For her efforts, The Bull’s aunt was banned from the arena, a fact that didn’t escape the memory of those who attended her funeral three weeks ago. They all remembered and talked about the night when she moved to protect her 330-pound nephew.
Laura Blears, Lord’s daughter, can also attest to fans’ memories regarding local wrestling.
“One time I was flying on Hawaiian Airlines and this lady asked me ‘is your dad Lord Blears?’ She said, ‘your father is a household name around my house. My grandmother, we had to tell her to calm down, she got so upset. We couldn’t let her go anymore.’”
The Blears family came to Hawaii in 1955 when he was booked to wrestle and to recuperate from injuries. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he had just found his new home, especially after finding a place in the Steiner Building which sat on the grounds of the current Waikiki police station.
“That’s when we fell in love with Hawaii,” Blears says.
Most wrestlers are divided into two camps: heels and babyfaces. And for 50th State Wrestling fans, it was hard to find one more hated than Ripper Collins. Collins demanded everyone call him “King.” The fans responded with “The Yellow Rat.” They even bought rubber rodents which they painted and would hurl at him while he entered the ring. How could they not? He gave no respect and he received none. Especially the way he mangled Hawaiian words. Hilo became High low, Kauai was Kwa, and Maui was Moo-wee. Fans hated it. Blears loved it. The gimmick began simple enough. During a taping Blears gave Collins a list of cities being visited. Collins, with his deep Southern accent, asked about Hilo, mispronouncing it. Blears saw gold and told him never to change it. He knew local fans didn’t want to hear this haole butchering local names. He was right.
But if Collins was hated, perhaps no one inspired more fear than Iaukea. In his prime, The Bull wrestled at what Blears describes as “300 pounds of pure muscle who didn’t mind getting hurt.” “Oh, man, I swear, he was so big. You just didn’t take any chances,” says Wayne Nishimoto, owner of Hawaii Nostalgia Studio and one of the main people bringing the 50th State Big Time Wrestling exhibit to the collectors’ show. “The presence he showed. You just got the hell out of the way.” Escorted by police in and out of the building,
no one had a chance to ask The Bull for an autograph. Few even dared. But thanks to Nishimoto and many others, it’s going to be much easier — and safer. From 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Curtis will be at the collectors’ show recalling his days at the Civic, while meeting fans and yes, even signing autographs, all to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Association. In addition to autographs and photos, T-shirts and a limited number of prints featuring the old Civic Auditorium will be on sale. “This is a very rare opportunity to get his signature,” Nishimoto says.
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