Int'l Wrestling - Montreal #15 Page #2

To make matters worse, the beloved Michel Normandin suffered a massive heart attack and passed away at Hotel Dieu Hospital on November 12th, 1963. He was only 50 years old. It was a tremendous loss to French broadcasting and the local community in general.  Less than two years later, Quinn's promotion folded and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the Hobb Nursing Home in Northampton, New Hampshire on December 14th, 1965. He was 59 years old. Just as losing television was a major factor in the downfall of Eddie Quinn's promotion, it was also a major factor in the conception of Johnny Rougeau's.

Much had changed in the decade since the inception of Canadian television. In 1961, two local, privately-owned, independent English (CFCF-12) and French-language (CFTM-10) television stations signed on the air. After Quinn closed up shop in 1965, Rougeau put two and two together and saw an opportunity to revive wrestling in Quebec. Having been out of the game for several years, Rougeau sold his successful Mocambo nightclub and decided to invest $50,000 in a new company called "Eastern Sports Enterprises". His first stop was at the office of CFTM president Roland Giguere where he secured a TV deal and immediately brought in popular veterans Antonino Rocca, Hans Schmidt, Larry Moquin and even himself in order to get the ball rolling. Under the "All-Star Wrestling" ("Les As De La Lutte" in French) banner, Rougeau's promotion did indeed revive the game locally, but his TV show "Sur Le Matelas" ("On The Mat") seemed to lack the major league professionalism of the old Quinn days. Whereas Quinn's program was a live broadcast from the Forum, Rougeau opted for the more cost-effective taping at a smaller venue in Chicoutimi, Quebec. Another debit was that none of Rougeau's broadcasters could match the great Michel Normandin. The most famous member of the early crew was Jean-Pierre Coallier, but that is only because he would go on to fame much later for doing other work in local French-language TV. The main men in the booth were Jean-Jacques Fortin and Jean Bisson, but neither are particularly well-remembered. 

Another problem was that Rougeau could never seem to nail down a permanent English-language broadcast deal. Of course, Eddie Quinn never had one either but one of his advantages was that he knew how to cater to all fan tastes, regardless of language or culture and the English community in Montreal was much larger back then. Rougeau's show actually did manage to pop up from time to time in the late 60's on CFCF-12, sometimes on Monday evenings at 11:45 pm, sometimes on Saturday afternoons, but it would then disappear for long stretches. Johnny never did quite get the pulse of the English-speaking wrestling fans. When he retired in 1971, Rougeau became the color commentator on TV while Bob Langevin was once again the figurehead promoter, much like the Vince McMahon/Jack Tunney relationship in the late-80's WWF.

Even though Rougeau's company was doing well and his French-language show had found a permanent home at 6:30 pm every Saturday, Maurice and Paul Vachon took the province by storm in the summer of 1971 by starting up the rival
"Grand Prix Wrestling" circuit. Unable to circumvent CFTM's TV deal with Rougeau, the brothers took the unique step of starting up on English CFCF-12 at 2:30 pm on Saturdays. In a mostly French-speaking province it was a risky move for a fledgling promotion but it helped that they were able to hit the ground running by featuring established stars like Edouard Carpentier and Don Leo Jonathan, All-Star-raided talent like the original Hollywood Blonds, and new faces like Jean Ferre (Andre The Giant).   The first and only English voice of Grand Prix was popular CFCF-12 crew member Jack Curran. A likable media veteran who also did TV weather, a Sunday evening travel show and regular radio assignments, Curran was a relative novice when it came to detailed wrestling knowledge but he never let that get in the way of having a good broadcast. Unlike many outsiders to whom the local wrestling show was just another way to make a few extra bucks, it was plain to see that Curran truly enjoyed what he was doing and never belittled the product or talked down to his audience. In fact, in later years, Curran often remarked how fondly he regarded those years and how much fun he had in doing the show. Color on the programs was provided by a revolving door of personalities including promoter Paul Vachon, Ottawa sports broadcaster Ray Boucher (as the show was also seen there), and veteran wrestlers Luigi Marcera and Jack Britton (father of Gino Brito).   Initially, the show featured taped matched from the Verdun Auditorium or the Montreal Forum. Wisely, Vachon and CFCF producer Jean DeVilliers decided that maintaining a "live" feel in the announcing was crucial so voice-overs were discarded in favor of having the announcers call the matches live from the arena. This all became simpler a while later when Grand Prix switched to the studio format, taping several shows at a time in their old facilities in the Park Extension district. At its peak, Grand Prix Wrestling was seen in English on stations throughout Quebec, Ontario, the Maritimes, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and even upstate New York.   By early 1972, Grand Prix also found its way onto French TV with the CHLT-7 station in Sherbrooke, Quebec, which could be seen via antenna or cable in Montreal. Taking over the unique time slot of 11:00 am on Sunday mornings, "La Lutte Grand-Prix" was a smash hit with fans just returning home from church. Fernand Ste.Marie, who also happened to be the son-in-law of the late Michel Normandin, handled the play-by-play while also doubling as the ring announcer for house shows and English TV. Although his style wasn't as animated as Normandin's, Ste.Marie was an excellent broadcaster with a smooth, serious demeanor. Jean Brisson handled the color commentating duties as Grand Prix and All-Star battled each other for the next two years on TV and at the box office. By the time it was over, everybody wound up the loser.   

As 1975 was ushered in, everything with regards to Quebec wrestling was in complete chaos. Celebrity Wrestling was a splinter group formed when Grand Prix began to unravel, but they didn't last very long because there was just not enough talent to divide between three local groups. Additionally, the best TV they could get was on the fledgling Global network out of Ontario (which couldn't be seen in Quebec) and a few shots on WVNY-22 out of Burlington, Vermont. After both companies died, Don Leo Jonathan attempted to step in by forming Grand Circuit Wrestling and did manage to produce at least a handful of TV shows, but next to nothing is known about this company other than it lasted no more than a few months. Ironically, by the time Rougeau was the only game left in town and finally had both English and French TV, his company was bankrupt and the wrestling landscape in Quebec was utterly scorched.   

Repeats of the dying days of Rougeau's group on CFCF-12 was the only wrestling left on local TV for about a full year until George Cannon's Ontario-based "Superstars Of Wrestling" show took over the contract with the station in 1977. Milt Avruskin handled the play-by-play and, although he was unknown to Quebec fans, proved to be quite adept and knowledgeable. But Cannon was the real star of the show. Already boasting years of experience both in broadcasting and in just about every facet of the wrestling business, the Montreal native was a dynamite on-air personality and really knew how to put over the feuds and storylines even though his company lacked big-name star power. Avruskin and Cannon formed an excellent team and even though the circuit never really managed to catch fire here in the house show business, they did keep professional wrestling alive in this city through some very lean times. Gravel-voiced Dave Singer, who had also worked for Grand Prix, rounded out the crew ring announcer and timekeeper.

1980 ushered in a new revival of pro wrestling in Quebec when Frank Valois, Andre The Giant and Gino Brito formed Varoussac Promotions (later re-named International Wrestling). Taking over the old Sunday morning Grand Prix time slot, "Les Etoiles De La Lutte" debuted that spring and steadily regained the fan following of past promotions. Edouard Carpentier, who also continued to wrestle occasionally, called the action and was remarkably good for a man with no previous broadcasting experience other than cutting the odd promo. He even managed to coin his own catchphrase, signing off each broadcast with the phrase "A la semaine prochaine, si Dieu le veut!" (translated: "Until next week, if God permits!"). This went over rather nicely with the church-goers. 
European martial-artist Guy Hauray provided the color and also served as co-producer of the show but was a pretty mediocre on-air talent up to and including his ill-fitting toupee of later years. Jacques Tremblay was the ring announcer, later replaced by Guy Cardinal. The format of the show was your typical TV studio wrestling program featuring five matches (usually squashes), the last being a TV time limit bout which sometimes didn't finish before the show signed off. In between the matches, Carpentier conducted interviews, mostly from ringside, and generally hyped the upcoming house show feuds. Like Dow did back in the '50's, Molson Breweries was the key sponsor.   

The strange thing about this time period was that Cannon's show, featuring his own promotion's completely different group of wrestlers, was still airing on channel 12. Since Cannon no longer promoted in Quebec, it's not as if he was directly competing with the French show, but the situation really didn't make much sense. It was only a couple of years later when Cannon was having his own promotional problems in Detroit that he and Varoussac finally cut a deal to basically make his show the English version of the CHLT studio tapings.

In 1984, at the height of its popularity, International Wrestling signed an agreement with the Cogeco Group, which owned French stations in Sherbrooke and Trois-Rivieres, to produce a second television show called "Lutte Internationale," airing around supper-time on Saturday afternoons like the old Rougeau program back from 1965-75. Unlike the Sunday morning studio show, this one featured taped house show matches from Montreal, Quebec City, Hull and Sherbrooke. Andre Belisle, a rather ordinary radio voice who didn't add much at all to the proceedings, handled the action while Gino Brito did some pretty good color commentary.   

As things turned out, the deal with Cogeco probably prolonged the life of International Wrestling by at least two years because Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation was already rapidly closing in on taking over markets all across North America. George Cannon had sold his Superstars show on CFCF to the WWF by the beginning of 1984 so the war was definitely on. One year later in January 1985, McMahon dropped his nuclear bomb: the WWF had cut a deal and wrestled "Les Etoiles De La Lutte" TV show and time slot away from International, complete with Carpentier and Hauray. They would now be doing voice-overs of taped English WWF matches and conduct separate interviews for the Quebec market. Had International not had the deal with Cogeco, they would have been without TV completely and most likely would have gone under in a matter of months.

For much of 1985, International and the WWF somehow managed to co-exist. They had a deal to jointly promote at the Montreal Forum while International ran the smaller venues throughout the rest of Quebec. CFCF-12 program director Bill Merrill also lent a hand by getting the local promotion back on the English station and Milt Avruskin returned to call the action with Brito
doing color. But the low production values of the TV product and the dwindling talent base soon began to make International Wrestling look minor league compared to the glitzy, star-driven WWF. Avruskin lost a step as well, seemingly lost without George Cannon by his side. To make matters worse, the co-promotional deal ended in 1986, leaving the WWF with sole control of the Forum. Then the talent raid began with Dino Bravo, Rick Martel, King Tonga and the Rougeau brothers all defecting to McMahon. Things got so bad towards the end that even Avruskin eventually left the scene. He was replaced in desperation by CFCF sports staffer Ron Francis. Otherwise a capable broadcaster, Francis barely knew one wrestling hold and was absolutely awful
in a job he obviously didn't care about. Even worse was his new sidekick Floyd Creatchman, who displayed none of his father's timing or charisma. In the end, however, none of this really mattered. By June 1987, the war was over and International Wrestling was dead.   

For the next few years the WWF maintained its presence on local French TV, employing various on-air personalities such as Raymond Rougeau, Pat Patterson, Frenchy Martin, Marc Blondin, Jean Brassard and several others.  Eventually, the WWF was so firmly entrenched in Quebec that they didn't even need French-language television anymore. Nowadays, Quebecers simply watch Raw and/or Smackdown on English cable TV and nobody even notices the difference.  Since they only run the Bell Centre in Montreal a handful of times a year, it hasn't hurt house show attendance one bit.   

I suppose evolution is unavoidable and, when you compare the product, there really wasn't any other way things could have turned out. Vince McMahon and his WWF had a solid plan and he used his television expertise as a most effective weapon in squeezing the local territories out of business. Still, those smaller companies of yesteryear did have a certain charm and appeal, primarily because they were built around local talent whom fans could identify more closely with both in and out of the ring. No one wants to turn the clock but anyone who grew up in the territory era can't help but look back rather wistfully on the guys from our neighborhoods who made it onto TV and became such a big part of our lives.


A look at the life and tragic death of Tarzan Tyler.

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