February 26th, 2007
Some of the happiest hours of my childhood were spent watching "professional wrestling" with my maternal grandfather, Julius. After Lawrence Welk had entertained us, Grandpa would switch the TV to Channel 47, a station that seemed to broadcast entirely in Spanish -- with the exception of its nightly pro-wrestling show, which ran in English. Grandpa, a wiry, athletic man even then, in his seventies (he'd live to 103!), would station himself excitedly in his plastic-covered armchair -- while I, his chubby grandson, sat on the plastic-covered couch, unspeakably relieved that the blandly smiling Mr. Welk had been replaced on the small screen by such formidable gentlemen as Haystacks Calhoun, the Iron Sheik, Captain Lou Albano, Sgt. Slaughter (pictured), and, of course, the champ: Bruno Sammartino. As the good guy in each match would -- after drinking in much sham pain -- pummel the bad guy, Grandpa would bounce up and down in his chair, vocalizing -- "Oof!" "Ugh!" -- with each blow. An idealist, he was willing to believe that the bouts were legit -- until the sad day when shady wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Sr. fixed one of his fights too blatantly even for Grandpa to accept. After that, we watched wrestling on TV less frequently, and Grandpa gave up his regular visits to Madison Square Garden to see the matches live.
Since then, McMahon's son, Vince Jr., has pretty much taken over the gaudy mantle of pro-wrestling promotion -- with mixed, but mostly great, success. His lurid story is woven through Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal, the compulsively readable new book by Berkeley's own Irvin Muchnick, my delightful guest on tonight's show (at 7:30) -- which also features a "Wandering Josh" segment in which yours truly learns pro-wrestling basics from wrestler and mixed-martial-artist Daniel Puder. Irv's uncle, Sam Muchnick (pictured), was sort of the anti-McMahon: a wrestling impresario of the old school, whose courtly ways -- and aversion to the limelight -- were superseded by the younger man's brash, self-aggrandizing, ever-flashier promotions. In addition to Sam and the Vinces, there are colorful characters aplenty in Wrestling Babylon -- including the tragic, born-again Von Erich family, the volatile Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, and, of course, the hairline-challenged Hulk Hogan.
Throughout his book -- and our interview -- Irv Muchnick applies a philosopher's touch and a streetwise sense of humor to the often-sordid business of pro wrestling. The result is something that I think Grandpa -- once he'd gotten over the original hurt -- would have stood up from his armchair and applauded.
You can catch Mr. Muchnick live at Black Oak Books in Berkeley on Tuesday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m. -- a free, book-launching event that will include a visit from a certain neurotic TV-show host.
Entry Filed under: tv episodes