Balancing school, teaching, and wrestling
Marshall Caplan, aka Flying Bobby Marshall, was well-known in the Cleveland-Pittsburgh-Buffalo area in the early 1970s. Caplan was a regular on National Wrestling Federation TV and house shows for promoter Pedro Martinez, usually on the undercard, at the same time he was attending McMaster University. Later, he earned three degrees. The Hamilton, Ont.
native was a teacher and counselor, and is known for acting and modeling work as well, which he pursues from his home in Vancouver, B.C. The following excerpts are from a recent conversation with Marshall about his career before, during, and after wrestling.
How did you get involved in this?
I was at university and I weight trained with a lot of wrestlers.
That was at McMaster, right?
Yes, in Hamilton. I did a lot of weight training with them and there were actually wrestling mats in the weight room. One thing led to another and I started. That’s kind of how it happened. I was actually a sophomore at university at the time. But I always had an interest in it. My father owned restaurants in the city of Hamilton. One of the restaurants was called Ringside Barbecue and it was full of pictures of boxers and wrestlers. He had a couple of restaurants over the years. He always used to promote the matches. They had the large posters and he put them in the windows of his restaurants and he always used to get tickets. So I’d go with my dad, as a kid. I always had this fascination with it so it was kind of in my mind — “I’d love to do this.” I was doing a lot of weight training because of my football playing and I just learned the business.
I think my first bout was when I was a junior in university and I went to Akron, Ohio and worked for Pedro Martinez. That’s basically how I got started. It was something that I was able to do while I was at university. He used me for eight months a year when I wasn’t playing football. When I finished university, I was drafted to play in the Canadian Football League and that didn’t work out. So I took a job teaching and I still wrestled on the side. So I did it for about seven years.
Do you remember your first match?
Vaguely. I think I wrestled Li’l Abner, and that was in Akron and they had me working as a heel the very first time. I don’t really remember too much about it. But that’s what I remember — being a heel, and it was a lot of fun. I guess I caught Pedro’s eye because I kept working for him.
Did you do any amateur wrestling in high school or was your focus on football?
My background, I took some judo and I wrestled at university for one year. I was a middle linebacker. McMaster is actually one of the top university football teams in Canada now. But in those days, there was no such thing as athletic scholarships in Canada, so I was using my wrestling income to pay my way through college.
What did a good middle linebacker weigh in those days?
I was around 220. But in wrestling, they always bill you higher than what you actually weighed. But I was in good shape and I think Pedro Martinez — he knew I was a student and he knew I wasn’t doing it full-time even though I think I would have liked to. But he just kind of gave me the opportunity to do something different and have a world where I was in academia and have this other world which was so diverse.
Did the people in academia know you were doing this on the side?
Yes, they’d scratch their heads. I’m getting a degree in psychology and I’m studying fourth-year deviant behavior, and here I am in a circus. Not to put down the guys because they were fabulous, but there was such a contrast in what I was doing career-wise, full-time, and here I was wrestling and I loved that opportunity live in both worlds. I was so much fun and I met so many interesting people. It was something that I needed to do.
How did you initially get hooked up with the [Pedro] Martinez promotion?
That was through Bill Terry, who became Kurt von Hess. Bill and I used to weight train together, and Bill introduced me to Pedro and got me my first booking. One thing led to another and, after that, they used me for a lot of the spot shows. I used to originally go down to Cleveland and Pittsburgh to do TV tapings, and the Cleveland shows were then going to be shown in Buffalo, which was our feed into Hamilton at the time. I said to Pedro, “Look, if this is going to be shown in my home market, I want to be put over,” and he agreed. So he billed me as the “Teenage Idol from Buffalo, NY.” He said, “If you can work full-time for me for about seven or eight months out of the year, we’ll see what we can do.” So I did that and it worked out well, up to a point. I guess the point where it became difficult was that I couldn’t do it full-time, so I was limited as to the number of bookings I could do, especially when I started working and teaching. At the time, we were living in Toronto. If I could drive to Buffalo or Rochester from my teaching job, which I often did — so anything that was local and within three hours, he would book me. But the loyalty in that has to be to the guys who are doing it full-time. So he used me whenever he could. It was great. I had a great experience. I wrestled up till about ’75. In 1976, I took a summer off and I went to the Greek Islands. I think I lost about 15 pounds. That kind of did it for me. I couldn’t keep the weight up because I always bulked up for football and wrestling. I just lost too much weight and couldn’t put the weight back on.
How much would you make for a show in those days?
Fifty to a hundred dollars. Certainly, not lucrative, but in those days, it helped me get through university, let’s put it that way. It wasn’t for everybody. It was an easy travel area. Everything was interstate and within a couple of hours of each other.
We used to quite often meet in Buffalo and I remember Pedro had a big limo. Five of us used to pile in the limo and he’d take us to the various towns. That was quite something. It was really quite an experience.
Was he the one who “changed” your name and gave you a nom de plume?
No, actually, when we were driving down to Akron, there was three or four guys in the car with us and we were trying to come up with a name. That’s the name that we came up with, Flying Bobby Marshall. “Flying” because I used to do flying dropkicks. It was kind of like a young babyface name.
|“I often think I would have liked to have done it for a couple years full-time. To be honest with you, I would have never left because it gets into your blood.”|
It was a good babyface promotion. Johnny Powers was the primary babyface.
Another Hamilton boy. Him and Bulldog Brower were the top guns. Ernie Ladd used to come in and work for them. In fact, I remember driving to Cleveland — I picked up Ernie Ladd in Buffalo and drove him to Cleveland. What is he — 6-10? He had his hair dyed red and he had a red pantsuit on. Can you imagine getting out of the car and going into a restaurant? It was quite a scene.
So many of the guys died early. Bill Terry was good friend of mine. He passed away four or five years ago … Kurt von Hess. A lot of the guys, they just look a lot of bumps over the years and it kind of catches up.
Did you look up to anybody or pattern yourself after anybody when you were young?
I tried to do my own thing because I was fairly agile and I was a good athlete, so I tried to be as acrobatic as I could. Some of the people in the business that I really admired — one was Luis Martinez. He had a son my age and he always talking about my studies. “You’ve got to get your studies. Don’t go into this business full-time.” I really admired him. I just liked meeting with him and working with him. He was quite a good guy.
Was there anybody that you worked with a lot who you enjoyed working with?
I worked with Kurt von Hess a lot. We did a lot together. The cute thing is we’d often travel to the same matches because we were both from Hamilton and if I found out I was working with him, I’d have to get out a block away. He was a great guy and I’m really sorry he passed away.
It was really a hot territory for about two or three years. If you go back and look at the names of the people who were in and out of it … Ladd, Powers, von Erich… it really took a back seat to nobody.
You had top-notch guys. It was just the times. You know, wrestling had always had its up and downs. It’s just too bad that we all missed out on the big promotions that are occurring now. I hear it’s slowing down a little bit, but there’s huge TV revenues. But it’s full of steroids. You take a look at these guys. Those things were not around when I wrestled. We all weight trained. The guys now, they’re just so juiced up … it’s a shame.
Was there anybody you enjoyed watching from behind the curtain?
I enjoyed Bruno Sammartino. He was unique. Ernie Ladd was unique. Bulldog Brower was unique. As a youngster growing up, I can remember Whipper Billy Watson, Don Leo Jonathan, and Johnny Valentine. These were people that I remembered growing up, who were really the top names.
We used to go and see Bruno wrestle a fair amount. It was amazing the kind of reaction he could get in Pittsburgh by doing an armdrag.
Oh, he was such a popular guy in the city. I remember going there once and he sent us out to a restaurant to get dinner after a match. He just told us where to go. He said, “Just tell them Bruno sent you.” I mean, we had a feast. It was free; he didn’t want to charge us because Bruno had sent us over there. He was a very influential guy in Pittsburgh. He did a lot for the community. He was quite a powerful guy.
People would watch the first few matches sometimes and be interested, and so forth. But there was something when Bruno came out, something came across the crowd where all of a sudden, it was real and it was special.
You’re quite right. He had a certain aura about him which you don’t see certainly in today’s wrestling. You know who preceded him who I saw as a kid, was Lou Thesz. and he had the same persona. He walked into the ring just like he was a God, and he had a full length velour rbe, and he was just an icon. He had that same presence. So there were some guys who had that. Sammartino, certainly, was one of them.
Did you drive yourself around mostly?
Either myself, or I’d buddy up with somebody from Hamilton. Quite, often, we’d meet in Buffalo. It just depends how far we’d go. The road trips were something. Listen, I think you have more memories of the guys you worked with than the wrestling; the various drives you went on, the antics you went on. I once went on a wrestling tour of Newfoundland. There were three of us. I roomed with a deaf mute, a midget and myself. And the deaf mute kept writing notes to me accusing me of long-distance phone calls under his name and billing him for it. Here I was, studying for three university degrees and living like this. It was just totally wild.
Let me just toss some names at you from that time that I had talked to relatively recently. Donny Fargo?
I only worked with him a few times. His partner was Greg Valentine. He was pretty good. I only worked with him once or twice. He was quite a character. [Al] Costello; he was an icon. By the ’70s, he had been around for years. I think he had a hip replacement when he was in Buffalo, so we really couldn’t do too much with him. His partner at the time was Don Kent and Don did most of the work. Don was actually a teacher from Ohio, so I had something in common with him. But I did some promotions with Costello. We did some TV shots where we demonstrated holds on television, so that was kind of fun. He was quite a guy. He’d been all over the world. A very interesting guy. He was so well-respected, you’d do anything for him.
The other guy I was going to mention who I think was the toughest guy in the whole group was Hans Schmidt. He was probably the toughest guy I’ve ever met, both inside and outside the ring. I remember one time when he didn’t get paid or got shortchanged. He kicked a chair in that dressing room and all of us just kind of shut up. It was something else.
How was your health? You probably got out of it before you got too hurt.
Yeah, I did. I just turned 60. I was very lucky. I lost 50 pounds from when I was wrestling. I still run every day, I run 3-4 miles a day and work out, so I’m in pretty good shape. I’m very fortunate that I did lose weight. It was good for me. But I still have some bumps and bruises. Between that and football, I took a lot of bumps.
What topic did you teach?
I started off as a phys ed teacher and a football coach and then I moved into counseling. I have a degree in psychology so I moved into counseling about 20 years ago. So I was counseling in the school system and I just finished, actually, last June. I thought after 32 years that was it. So I’ve been doing some consulting part-time, but I’ve also been an actor and I’ve been doing that for about 20 years. I’ve done a lot of print modeling and a lot of acting, so that’s what I do full-time now — I do some consulting, I do some acting, TV commercials … whatever comes my way. Vancouver is a pretty good film city although it’s dropping off a little bit now. There’s always been that aspect of me — I’ve got to have that “other side.”
Acting is not that different from wrestling in a lot of ways.
It’s totally the same. The first commercial I did, I was standing in the shower and people were throwing soapsuds on me. It was just like wrestling; no difference. It was the same thing. There was a great deal of similarity.
Did you ever think about staying with it full-time?
You know, I did. I often think I would have liked to have done it for a couple years full-time. To be honest with you, if I did, I would have never left it because it gets into your blood. I think I made the right decision, but there was always that desire to want to do it full-time. It was just not in the cards for me because I was getting married and I had a job. It was just too difficult. But there was always that temptation — “Gee, I would love to do it, but I know if I did, it would be tough to leave.” With so many guys, it’s just in their blood. They just can’t get out of it. Your wrestling persona takes on your whole character, your whole life.
It’s a tough life. I mean, you’re always on the road. It’s very difficult to make any relationships work because of your travel. The money wasn’t that great in those days, and what have you got when it’s over? You’ve got no pension plan, you’ve got no security. It’s tough.
Was it a rush, though, when you first got your first ovation coming out?
Well, of course. Total. It is a total rush, and it’s very exciting when you have a big crowd. I was in Pittsburgh once, and it was a huge, huge crowd. I even went on a tour of Newfoundland for two weeks and we sold out every arena. There’s definitely a rush; there’s no question about it. I think that’s what gets you going in this business and keeps you there.
Marshall had an even more lasting effect on some students than wrestling opponents. Joe Guarrasi, a one-time student, ended up with a broken wrist, courtesy of the babyface grappler. "Bobby (Mr. Caplan) was my gym teacher at Winston Churchill Collegiate in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada," Guarrasi recalled. "During one of our classes, we were playing volleyball against each other. He went to spike the ball, I went to block the ball. He missed the volleyball and connected with my wrist. He was a great guy and I am glad he is not forgotten."
Thanks to Marshall Caplan and Joe Guarrasi for their recollections.
— Steven Johnson