Pittsburgh – Feb. 23, 1949

Gorgeous Who?

You’d think that Pittsburgh wrestling fans would have been starved for action by February 1949. After all, live wrestling had been non-existent in the city for two years. So expectations were high when Gorgeous George, the national TV sensation, stopped by to headline a card in February 1949.

ImageFrom the reviews, though, this was a case of dashed expectations. And it’s also clear that Pittsburgh fans were as indifferent to George as were New York City fans the night before.

Coming off his national TV exposure, George was hot as a pistol at the time. The previous month, he drew more than 11,000 in Buffalo against Ray Villmer, and nearly 12,500 in St. Louis against Lou Thesz. In Pittsburgh, he was lined up to take on Billy Hansen at The Gardens, the main sports arena in town. The facility, located about three miles from where the Civic Arena would later stand, held about 6,500.

The bout received a little pre-match newspaper publicity, though it really wasn’t necessary in 1949 to explain GG to the average wrestling fan. In point of fact, local critics were hot and heavy, as wrestling of George’s sort did not curry favor with traditionalists. No doubt they were unaccustomed to a grappler whose entrance record music blared out:

Arms full of muscles
Head full of curls
Gorgeous George is the man I need

Bill Cooper, Pittsburgh Press: Gorgeous George, a slice of ham who walks like a man, set the perfume industry back 10 years in Pittsburgh last night. He managed to raise an odor in the venerable Gardens that lingered long after the last whiff of Chanel No. 5 had drifted away.

Cooper explained the elaborate ritual of disrobing and atomizing the ring, and referee L.E. Kling of Dormont did his part, touching George on the shoulder only to be shoved back. “Keep your dirty hands off me,” George snarled. George was seconded by Hunter, one of his valets, who kept the atomizer and flit gun handy to keep things smelling like a rose. That was a little much for some writers.

Al Abrams, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Ulysses and Ajax, heroes of the greatest wrestling story ever written by a gent named Homer, would whirl in their ancient Grecian sarcophagus if they were able to get a load of the goings-on at The Gardens Wednesday night.

Perhaps the most disappointing fact was that the bout has little to offer after that point. Hansen tossed George from the ring three times, only to be victimized by a chair shot. “Most of the time Mr. Hansen looked as though he wished he could think of some other way to make a living,” Cooper said.

In the end George won two out of three falls, but the box office was the big loser. George drew 2,793 for a gate of about $5,600. The most memorable moment of his Pittsburgh debut came impromptu. When Hansen hurled George from the ring to the floor, a drunk ran over and asked GG for his autograph.  

Still, underneath the condescension, there was a sense that George was on to something, however vulgar, and that he brought out women to the match. Sportswriters noted that at least half of the crowd consisted of women, who seemed to take the whole thing even more tongue-in-cheek than the men, and Gardens publicity director Dick Fortune said the event produced the nost female-heavy crowd in memory. Hairdos, perhaps?

Abrams: There was a large number of intelligent-looking, well-dressed people there and with few exceptions everyone was happy about the whole deal and enjoying the monkey shines. It would be safe to add that a high percentage of those present felt they received their money’s worth, which is more than can be said for the Lee Sala-Tony DiMicco boxing bout in the same arena two nights before.

The flop at The Gardens was the second in two nights for George, following his well-known bomb at Madison Square Garden on top of a Feb. 22 card. That was the first time wrestling was held at MSG since 1938, and George may have set it back another dozen years, according to the Newspaper Enterprise Association account of the match. He drew just 4,197 and never again appeared in Madison Square Garden. He just never was as big a draw in the East, where ethnic wrestlers from Argentina Rocca to Crusher Lisowski would fare better in the later 1950s and early 1960s.

George ventured through Pittsburgh from time to time. Later that year, he fought Don Eagle twice to crowds of more than 5,000, but the record shows that it was Eagle who had become the big draw on weekly cards.

Abrams: True, Uly and Ajax pummeled each other for proverbial peanuts or its equivalent in their day and didn’t collect something like $4,000 per week as the Gorgeous One does now. Neither did they have George’s histrionics and showmanship ability, nor could they afford a valet.

© Steven Johnson, January 2010