Although professional wrestling existed long before television, the small screen revolutionized the industry, leading to a golden age where wrestling seemed to be on every TV station available. Given Hollywood, California’s production capabilities, it should come as no surprise that Hollywood was the first city to produce a wrestling program. The Hollywood wrestling promotion would lead the way for other promotions, leading to wrestling airing nationwide on every television network at the time. Hollywood Wrestling would set the model for all professional wrestling could be, and while the original Hollywood Wrestling is long gone, its contribution to both television and wrestling cannot be understated.
Promoter John James Doyle would use television to take California wrestling to record heights. Doyle learned about promoting wrestling as an assistant promoter in Wilmington and Jersey City (Hornbaker 175), and his mentors Toots Mondt and Floyd Musgrave; two of the biggest promoters in the wrestling industry. Eventually, Doyle and Musgrave bought control of the Los Angeles booking agency, and when Musgrave died, Doyle took control of the promotion. With wrestlers “Gorgeous” George Wagner, Baron Michele Leone, and Primo Carnera on his roster, Doyle was poised for greatness, thanks to his use of the burgeoning medium of television.
Long before television adorned people’s living rooms, people traveled to the cinema for moving pictures, which begs the question, why wasn’t wrestling promoted via film? Professional wrestling seems like a natural subject for film, but as scholar Luke Stadel notes, early cinema’s attempts to profit from wrestling failed because the wrestling industry was still in the midst of shifting from legitimate athletic contest to a worked one. Stadel notes, “…the cinema of attractions was primarily channeled into the avant-garde, the same kind of anarchic energy persists in wrestling through its activation of the performative tropes and systems of signification of cartoons and slapstick comedy” Originally, professional wrestling was promoted by radio and newspaper. The arrival of television changed everything, both for promoters and television stations. For promoters, they now had hour-long (or more) commercials for their products. Fans could see a promotion’s top stars, faces and heels, then be drawn into the storylines which were the heart of booking. For television stations, wrestling afforded low-cost programming with colorful characters and compelling drama (and even comedy). Wrestling may have been seen as low-brow by some, but it soon proved a ratings hit and a boon to promoters. Ted Shane would observe, ““Ten years ago wrestling was flat on its financial back. Today, … it provides a good living for some 3,000 glorified pretzel benders; and 24 million cash customers pay 36 million dollars a year to see them perform” (qtd. in Maguire). Wrestling was an instant hit on TV, arguably even saving the business.
While it’s difficult to pin down firsts in wrestling (whether it’s the first worked match, the first cage match, etc.), many historians point to Los Angeles’ Hollywood Wrestling as the first TV program to air professional wrestling. The show debuted in 1947 on Los Angeles station, KTLA, the first commercial broadcast station west of the Mississippi and the eighth commercial station in the United States. Wrestling soon spread throughout the United States, launching a golden age of wrestling. At the time, there weren’t many TV sets but that would soon change. “In 1947, there were just 180,000 TV sets made in the country, but the following year that number was close to a million, and then in 1949, production tripled-60,000 sets were sold every week. In roughly four years, TV went from nonexistent to a four-and-a-half-hours-a-day habit for those fortunate, plugged-in owners” (Capouya 122). Wrestling proved an ideal form of entertainment for television with its larger than life characters and compelling storylines. The wrestling industry would see a resurgence, but not without obstacles along the way.
Although Hollywood Wrestling seemed like a good idea, not everyone agreed. In 1950, a group of wrestlers decided to boycott appearing on television, arguing the free television was hurting live events and thus, their payouts. With promoters contractually obligated to produce shows for television, they faced the dilemma of bringing in independent workers or negotiating with their current talent. Fortunately, promoters were able to hammer out an agreement and wrestling continued airing on television.
The wrestlers’ fears proved short-lived as the business exploded. For example, California’s Ocean Park Arena sold out fourteen times in a row, hardly a sign of television eating into ticket sales. Soon, Wrestling from Hollywood aired, not only on KTLA, but on a number of networks broadcast in the United States. The show was filmed on kinescope, then distributed to other stations for airing. In 1952, the series aired on the Paramount Television Network, leading to further exposure. By 1950, promoter Doyle boasted wrestling had an audience of 750,000 viewers, supposedly ten times that of baseball (Hornbaker, “Los Angeles Wrestling Television History”). Whatever the figure, there was no denying wrestling’s popularity as it aired on all major networks.
In 1951, attorney Jules Covey argued there was a monopoly on professional wrestling, especially on television (as discussed in a previous article on the National Wrestling Alliance, the NWA would face complaints it was a monopoly). However, the promoters control was so tight that as Tim Hornbaker writes, “The syndicate was so tightly knit that even the threat of inquiries and lawsuits failed to change their practices (Hornbaker, National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling, 176). Those in power were too entrenched for anyone to break things up.
Wrestling on TV proved a boon to wrestlers who could capture the public’s imagination and no one epitomized this like “Gorgeous” George Wagner. George had struggled to find success until he adopted the persona of “Gorgeous George,” a colorful character who paraded to the ring in a beautiful sequined robe, lit up by a purple spotlight, the music “Pomp and Circumstance” playing, and George’s valet Jeffries spraying the ring with disinfectant (George called it Chanel #10, a parody of the popular perfume Chanel #5). George’s elaborate entrance and arrogant demeanor made him a perfect heel, although he had his share of fans. George would hand out golden bobby pins to his older female fans, reminding them to accept no ordinary bobby pins. George had success before television, but it paled to his success on television. Before long, George was a national phenomenon, earning a reported $100,000 a year, wrestling Hollywood star Burt Lancaster in a charity wrestling bout, and being parodied in a Bugs Bunny cartoon (Capouya).
Soon, other California promoters bought into Doyle’s outfit and wrestling continued to grow. This was shown by the unprecedented box office for the bout between Baron Michele Leone and NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz, held on May 21, 1952 at Gilmore Stadium in Hollywood, California. The bout drew 25, 256 paid fans and a record-setting gate of $103,277.75 (Hornbaker 176). There was no doubt television was a way to great business if wrestling was promoted properly, however could people get too much of a good thing?
Eventually, wrestling’s success on television consumed itself. As often happens in the entertainment industry, wrestling’s success led to a plethora of copycats. Over time, the market became oversaturated and wrestling lost its popularity, disappearing from the networks, but not television altogether (wrestling would go into syndication). Hollywood Wrestling would air from 1947-1955 but the promotion itself, NWA Hollywood, continued operating under various owners until it folded in 1982.
PHOTO: Gorgeous George, courtesy of Pro Wrestling Illustrated
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Hornbaker, Tim. “Los Angeles Wrestling Television History.” Legacy of Wrestling. http://www.legacyofwrestling.com/LosAngelesTV.html. Accessed 2 Aug. 2017.
Hornbaker, Tim. National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling. ECW Press, 2007.
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Stadel, Luke. “Wrestling and cinema, 1892–1911.” Early Popular Visual Culture, vol. 11, no. 4, 2013. http://proxy.buffalostate.edu:2082/doi/full/10.1080/17460654.2013.816976?scroll=top&needAccess=true. Accessed 2 Aug. 2017.
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