Memphis/CWA #18 Page #2
The successful promotions though usually had one more component that helped this process greatly. Most successful promotions had at least one believable, credible announcer who guided fans through the weekly and, usually, live chaos.
Local TV wrestling in Memphis has a lineage dating back to 1949. WMC-TV was the original host station of the show. For a time the final match or so from Memphis’ Ellis Auditorium was shown on Monday nights live. Charlie Sullivan was the host. The show, with Sullivan hosting, would later move to Saturdays, and originate from the Godwin Institute, home of WMC-TV at the time.
WMC-TV moved to new facilities in February 1959. With the new studio on Union Avenue, then-Memphis promoter Buddy Fuller tapped WMC-TV sports personality, and eventual Memphis broadcasting legend, Big Jack Eaton, to serve as host. The program aired Saturday afternoons from 5 PM until 6 PM (Central Time). Two of Memphis’ early TV stars at this time were the flashy Sputnik Monroe and his rival Billy Wicks. Monroe, the cocky, flamboyant heel, and Wicks, the all-around good guy, began a bitter feud during the summer of 1959 as professional wrestling, under Fuller’s promotion, caught fire in the city.
WMC-TV’s studio show though only lasted about seven months. On Halloween 1959, WMC-TV began airing a wrestling show from Texas. The newspaper ad announcing the move indicated Memphis TV fans would be able to watch such stars as former NWA World Junior Heavyweight champion Dangerous Danny McShain, and Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, one of the business’ top attractions, among others.
The replacing of the WMC show with the Texas show was hardly the end of a TV wrestling show produced in Memphis though. On November 7, 1959, WHBQ-TV began airing a Memphis-based studio show Saturdays from 12:30 until 1:30 PM and taped earlier in the morning. The new host for the show was a man named Lance Russell.
Lance Russell had come to prominence in Memphis as a radio announcer of some fame for broadcasting powerhouse WHBQ, likely Memphis’ top radio station at the time. Prior to coming to Memphis Russell had worked for WDXI-TV in Jackson, Tennessee. In Jackson, Lance had also hosted a wrestling show.
For a time, Memphis received two TV wrestling shows. The Texas show though only ran for a few months before WMC-TV dropped it and televised wrestling totally. Beginning in 1959, WHBQ-TV began a near eighteen-year run of studio wrestling. During the first half of the 1960s, fans were treated to the antics of such stars as Jackie, Don & Sonny Fargo, Don & Al Greene, Len Rossi, Kurt & Karl Von Brauner, Gentleman Saul Weingeroff, Tojo Yamamoto, The Scufflin’ Hillbillies and Lester & Herb Welch, among many others.
In 1966, Lance was joined by Dave Brown on the show. Brown attended Memphis State University and later joined WHBQ radio before beginning his TV career in Memphis. By the time he joined Russell on the wrestling show, Brown was an up and coming weather forecaster for WHBQ-TV.
Together, Russell and Brown fit like a hand in a glove. Their camaraderie was genuine. They seemed to really enjoy working together despite the often devious deeds they had to witness from area heels. They also seemed to genuinely enjoy the wrestling program they were hired to announce. As announcers, Lance and Dave were the lead cheerleaders for the promotion’s top fan favorites, who naturally tried to hold up the scientific sport of wrestling against the nefarious deeds of their counterparts.
Although Brown was generally low-key, he was balanced by Russell’s exuberance as Russell often punctuated his announcing with a rousing "Yow-zah" whoop. The weekly wrestling show hosted by the pair was simple enough. A few matches sprinkled in with some interviews usually designed to highlight the week’s arena card and all stuffed into an hour guided by Lance and Dave.
The latter half of the 1960s and into the 1970s saw more talent become recognizable to fans via the TV show such as The Blue Infernos, The Masked Interns managed by Dr. Ken Ramey, Don Carson & The Red Shadow (Dick Dunn), Mario Galento, Pretty Boy Frank Martinez, Ken Lucas, Les Thatcher, Johnny Walker, Bearcat Brown, Eddie Marlin, Jim White, Terrance, Ron & Jimmy Garvin, Duke Myers, Big Bad John and others as well as most of those mentioned earlier. During this time two others came to prominence who would have a major influence on the business in Memphis and throughout the territory for decades. The first of the two was Jerry Lawler, initially portrayed as an all-around nice guy who couldn’t win a match no matter what he did. The second was Jerry Jarrett, who made a splash teaming with Jackie Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto, and whose influence behind the scenes in the promotion would grow over time.
It was common then for many major cities to host their own TV shows, including many in the territory. TV stations then were often hungry for programming and were willing to provide time for the local promotion to put on a show. Chattanooga hosted their own TV show, as did Birmingham and Knoxville (the John Cazana-run promotion in Knoxville was not part of the Gulas-Welch territory although Gulas & Welch often supplied talent to Cazana, so many of the stars who worked Gulas-Welch cities also worked Knoxville). At various times other cities in the territory including Nashville, Huntsville, Jackson and Jonesboro also had their own TV shows. The Memphis show though seemed to gather a bigger life than the others.
As things clicked with the Memphis show it was common for other cities in the by-then Nick Gulas-Roy Welch-controlled territory to be sent the Memphis TV show to watch via tape instead of their own show from time-to-time. This was done usually to get over some angle that had occurred on the Memphis TV show. Out of all the cities in the territory, Memphis began to grow in importance as well. Although the Gulas promotion was based in Nashville, operating for a long time out of the Sam Davis Hotel, Memphis was the big money town in the circuit. By 1972, Memphis had the best chance of filling their home arena on a weekly basis as opposed to other cities in the circuit. Memphis’ Mid-South Coliseum could hold 11,000+ at full capacity. Other weekly cities that featured their own TV show such as Chattanooga and Birmingham drew well but their main arenas were not very large compared to the Memphis arena. Chattanooga’s Memorial Auditorium and Birmingham’s Boutwell Auditorium could only seat in the 6000 range. Usually, the more tickets sold meant the more money was to be made. Although the Mid-South Coliseum didn’t always sell out, the promotion consistently drew 6000-8000 weekly during the 1970s and often topped 10,000.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Memphis TV show was a major hit. The hosts were doing well on their own as well. Brown had ascended up the ranks at WHBQ-TV to become a valued and trusted weather forecaster. Russell had moved into a managerial position with the station in addition to his duties in wrestling.
In the early-to-mid-1970s some promotions began sending a camera to their arena shows. Generally, all the promoter wanted to capture was a few seconds of controversy or comeuppance to play back on the next week’s TV show in some tantalizing way to draw fans to the next arena show. Area promoter Nick Gulas began using this method around this time as well. Several tapes exist of mid-1970s Gulas arena action featuring such Gulas stalwarts as Jackie, Roughhouse & Don Fargo, Jerry Lawler, Sam Bass, Don Greene, Al Greene, Phil Hickerson, Big Bad John, Robert Fuller, Bill Dundee & George Barnes and others. The footage on these tapes comes from most major arenas in the Gulas territory such as Memphis, Chattanooga, Louisville, Nashville, Birmingham and Huntsville. The footage is a rare glimpse into the arena matches Gulas put on in the 1970s. The idea of taping match endings for use on the next week’s TV show would become a staple of the Memphis TV show for years to follow. The idea of shooting matches for playback later would expand in the business of wrestling to entire shows being shot at arenas eventually leading to the demise of the studio wrestling show.
Also, around this time, the promotion produced a music video (determining if it was the first in the wrestling business is a useless exercise since many involved in the business would claim it was their idea to begin with, even if they weren’t in it). The video highlighted Jerry Lawler and featured him driving a car, stopping and running toward a body of water. There are at least two versions of this video. One is set to Duane Eddy’s "Rebel Rouser" while the other is set to Lawler singing "Bad News". It isn’t 100% clear which version aired first (the writer’s sketchy memory of the video points toward it being "Rebel Rouser").
With the advent of these new tools to the wrestling business in the 1970s, it became clear someone with the Gulas office was well-aware of the potential of the medium of television. Someone seemed to understand that by the mid-1970s a generation had grown up watching television and further understood that television was that generation’s major mode of entertainment. This generation seemed to expect more from the medium than they had seen before. This medium spoke to them on some level. Over the next couple of years, it would become even more clear that the person who understood what television offered was Jerry Jarrett and not Nick Gulas.
By the mid 1970s trouble was brewing in the promotion. With Roy Welch involved in the business by name only due to declining health, Jerry Jarrett worked himself into a prominent role with the Gulas office. Jarrett, and his mother Christine, a longtime Gulas employee, first opened up Louisville, Lexington and Evansville for the promotion. These towns fell inside territory once promoted by the Indianapolis-based WWA promotion operated by Richard Afflis (Dick the Bruiser) and Wilbur Snyder although the group had all but abandoned this end of their territory. Jarrett had then gained some recognition inside the business by booking much of the more lucrative western end of the Gulas territory which included Memphis. Jarrett there had used a smart-mouth heel named Jerry Lawler to stir things up. Jarrett’s reputation within the business was also boosted when he had booked the Georgia office for a time in the midst of a promotional war. The promotional war in Georgia put Jarrett in close and constant contact with such promotional heavyweights as Jim Barnett, Bill Watts, Eddie Graham and Buddy Fuller, heady and powerful players in the wrestling business at the time.
In the same time frame, Nick Gulas’ son, George, debuted as a wrestler in the territory. Although he was given a major push George’s ability paled to the hype given him. Nick wanted Jarrett to use George on the money end of the territory. Jarrett though balked and caused a split in the promotion. Others would say the split was facilitated when some felt they could no longer work for Gulas because of his low pay structure feeling Gulas underpaid his workers.
It also seems likely that at some point Jarrett was perceptive enough to understand the changing climate of wrestling in the 1970s and further realized staying with Gulas was not much of an option for him either. By the time of the split, Jarrett had tasted success in the business inside and outside the territory but likely knew overcoming or changing the entrenched Nick Gulas would be a struggle. Nick’s insistence on using George coupled with Nick’s own poor pay scale became convenient outs for Jarrett to test his own wings. If Jarrett felt he could operate the territory better than the old pro Gulas he would have to do it on his own since Nick would not step aside and since Nick was unwilling to yield on the use of his son on the western end of the territory. Although Jarrett had become a partner in Gulas’ company by this time, he didn’t have the necessary resources to take the whole territory from Gulas. In the waning days of 1976 and into 1977 Jerry Jarrett wrestled with a dilemma difficult by any standards: continue to work with his partner Gulas and go against his own business instincts or begin his own company and in the process begin a promotional war with Gulas.
If Jarrett split he would have to begin his own company from scratch and against the established Gulas, who would want to hold onto all the territory, talent and resources available. Support for a new promotion headed by Jarrett would come from an unlikely source. Buddy Fuller, the son of longtime area promoter Roy Welch, would side with Jarrett. Fuller at the time also owned a piece of the profitable and powerful Florida promotion operated by Eddie Graham, who had ascended to the presidency of the NWA at this time. The stamp of approval offered by Fuller, and by extension, Graham, was enough for others in the business to take Jarrett’s efforts serious. Many in the business also didn’t like dealing with Nick Gulas and were glad to see an alternative pop up in his front yard. It also didn’t hurt that Jarrett had been the go-to person on the western end of the territory for a number of years. TV station personnel and arena managers, especially in Louisville, Lexington and Evansville, cities Jarrett had nurtured for years, were likely more familiar with him than with Gulas by the time of the split making Jarrett a much easier and well-known person to work with on business matters. Memphis was a slightly different matter as Guy and Bert Bates, Memphis-based promotion partners with local political pull, remained very loyal to Gulas.
No matter the reason(s) for the split, on February 14, 1977, Jerry Jarrett officially resigned from the Gulas-Welch company. Jarrett used the next month to begin putting his new company together. One of the first persons to sign on to Jarrett’s side was Jerry Lawler, who had become the area’s top star. Knowing that a TV show was vital to the success of his promotion, Jarrett talked with WHBQ-TV officials about the time slot on the station hoping to wrest it away from Gulas. WHBQ-TV officials though made a startling decision. Despite excellent ratings, WHBQ-TV canceled the wrestling show effective March 12. It is interesting to note that Lance Russell was program director of WHBQ at the time of the decision to cancel the show. Although this might lead some to believe Jarrett suggested Russell cancel the show to keep Gulas from gaining the slot, this appears to not be the case. It appears that WHBQ-TV officials were more leery of a possible lawsuit the two factions might engage the station in over who held the rights to the time slot and Russell’s announcing services, so WHBQ-TV felt it was in their best interests to cancel the show.
Jarrett began shopping around his new company and a potential new TV show to WMC-TV, the original home of Memphis studio wrestling, mindful that Gulas might use his longtime connections with his Memphis-based promoters Bert and Guy Bates to persuade WHBQ to reconsider the cancellation or to find a new deal at another station. WMC-TV, aware of the ratings and revenue the TV wrestling show had generated and could generate, especially with Jerry Lawler as the top star, jumped at the chance to host the show. WMC-TV debuted Jarrett’s show on March 19, 1977 airing 11:30 AM-1:00 PM (over time, the show would settle into an 11:00 AM-12:30 PM time slot, for a time at WHBQ the show had been taped in the morning and had been played back on tape in the early to mid afternoon). The WMC-TV show aired after Saturday morning cartoons which indoctrinated a new, young generation of fans into the Memphis style of wrestling.
While viewers tuned in to WMC-TV to watch the weekly antics of the cunning heel Jerry Lawler, two important ingredients were missing from the TV show. There was no Lance Russell and there was no Dave Brown. The two still worked for WHBQ-TV. Clay Conrad replaced the pair as host. He was joined later by Bob Young.
Meantime, WHBQ-TV stuck by their guns and did not provide a time slot for a Gulas show. Other stations in the market did not come through for Gulas. Gulas, without a TV show, tried running arena cards in Memphis. His efforts would fail. Meantime, Jarrett’s promotion hit the ground running with a March 20 arena card and frankly never looked back to see where Gulas was in the race. Jarrett’s connection with Buddy Fuller and Eddie Graham came through a few times over the first few months of Jarrett’s launch as Florida stars such as Dusty Rhodes, Jack Brisco, Mike Graham and Kevin Sullivan made appearances on Memphis cards. In the spring, fresh face Paul Orndorff debuted in Memphis after training in Florida and briefly wrestling there. Jarrett would push Orndorff to the top of area cards during summer where he worked a feud over the Southern title with Jerry Lawler. Logistically though sharing a lot of the Florida talent wasn’t feasible. There was another connection Jarrett would use though that would prove beneficial. With Buddy Fuller’s son Ron operating the Knoxville territory, talent trading with that group did seem more practical. Bob Armstrong, Kurt & Karl Von Stieger, Ron & Robert Fuller and Bob Orton, Jr. were among the Knoxville regulars who made occasional visits to Memphis arena shows during the first few months of Jarrett’s debut as a solo promoter. In exchange, Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee and Tommy Rich worked some on Knoxville cards during the time frame. The Von Stiegers even worked a brief program over the Southeastern tag titles with Dundee & Rich in this time frame. The Memphis-Knoxville connection would be tapped from time to time over the next couple of years. Back in Memphis, with the only TV wrestling show in town and with a strong base of talent at Jarrett’s disposal, Memphis fans made their choice between the two promotions rather decisively.
Despite Jarrett’s success initially, Gulas held the lease on the Mid-South Coliseum, home of pro wrestling in Memphis since around 1972. Coliseum officials did not allow events of a similar nature to run in the Coliseum on back-to-back nights fearing such repetition would harm attendance at both events. Since Gulas held the lease for Monday nights, this prohibited Jarrett from running his shows there on Sunday or Tuesday nights. Jarrett turned to the Cook Convention Center to run his cards initially. By June though Gulas had given up on running Memphis and his lease on the Coliseum expired. Jarrett snatched up a lease on the Coliseum and began running his cards there. The war between the two promotions would continue in other parts of the territory for the better part of the next year and a half. (See the 1978 article in this series for more details.)
Jarrett had started his own wrestling company. In the process he had retained the services of many of the area’s top stars including Tommy Rich, Bill Dundee, Rocky Johnson, Phil Hickerson & Dennis Condrey, Tommy Gilbert and Jerry Lawler. The only major stars Jarrett didn’t seem to draw to his side were George Gulas (considered major because of his push) and area legends Jackie Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto. Jarrett had secured an important live Saturday morning slot on WMC-TV for his TV show. He had even defeated one-time partner Nick Gulas in a brief promotional war in Memphis and in the process had gained the rights to use the Mid-South Coliseum. Still, something was missing.
While Conrad and Young hosted the TV show, they were by no means Lance Russell and Dave Brown. While Russell and Brown brought enthusiasm and fun to the broadcast, Conrad and Young often seemed lost and somewhat baffled at the happenings. Finally, Jarrett engineered the movement of Russell first (replacing Young) then Brown (replacing Conrad) later to WMC-TV. Brown’s move is significant in the TV industry in Memphis beyond just his wrestling duties. While local news and sports personalities are important it is usually the weather personality that is most recognizable, and usually highest paid, in a market since the weather directly affects the greatest number of viewers. Having a trusted face deliver the weather is a must for a TV station. Within a few years after Brown’s move from WHBQ to WMC, WMC news would become the dominant force in the Memphis TV news business, thanks in great part to Dave Brown and the trust viewers placed in him.
With Russell and Brown’s move to WMC-TV the table was set. What many wrestling fans remember about the Memphis TV show came together (again) in the summer of 1977 in the wake of a nasty promotional split.
With Russell and Brown at the announce desk, Jarrett with the creative and business vision and Jerry Lawler as the star of the show, the Memphis TV show, simply called Championship Wrestling, took off. Live every Saturday morning, with rare exceptions, a tiny TV studio at 1960 Union Avenue in Memphis became hallowed ground for many wrestling fans. What followed for close to two decades would be one of professional wrestling’s most exciting weekly TV shows. Sometimes it was serious, other times it was surreal. Mostly, to casual and serious pro wrestling fans, it was very entertaining.
Weekly, Russell and Brown sat at a rather plain announce desk. Russell would welcome fans to the show like he would a long-lost family member who was returning after years away from home and usually with these words, "Yell-o again everybody, Lance Russell, Dave Brown, right along ringside with another big week of Championship Wrestling…". The crowd, sitting to Lance and Dave’s left and around two sides of the ring, roared their approval. Tickets to attend the weekly shows were free. All a person had to do to acquire tickets was send in a request, for no more than four tickets, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, so the tickets could be mailed back, to request tickets. The audience often featured Boy Scout and Brownie troops or other groups of more than four enjoying their time viewing the wild mayhem up close and personal. The demand for tickets to see the studio show was so strong that most fans had to wait about three months after their initial request to attend the TV show. The number of fans attending the studio show was also limited by how many fans could be safely placed in the studio as well, which made the TV show a truly unique event to attend live since that number was usually low compared to the request for tickets.
While every city that hosted their own TV show had their own way of presenting their product to relate to their audience, the Memphis show became a tradition in the area like few other local TV shows of any kind anywhere. The Saturday morning TV show in Memphis drew ratings that compared favorably, and often exceeded, the ratings of prime time network shows. While the ratings were great and important the show was more than numbers and demographics. The show truly became must-see TV in the Memphis area.
Why was the show such a success in Memphis, and to a lesser extent in other cities around the territory as it drew good ratings there as well? Possibly the best way to answer that question would be to define certain things the promotion did not do to draw in that weekly large audience.
The TV show never relied on major motion picture studio lighting. The lighting of the TV show was very simple and basic. The TV show never relied on expensive backdrops to rest behind the announce desk. For years, a simple stage curtain hung behind the announce desk hiding the bare back wall while another stage curtain adorned the back wall behind the audience. If a curtain didn’t hang behind the studio audience, studio personnel lit a backdrop in various colors. The TV show never relied on exploding opening graphics. Instead, a figurine of two men locked in combat rotated to the theme to Space Odyssey 2001. To Memphis fans, the show was also live which added a dimension of unpredictability. Sometimes cameras were in the wrong spot or other production errors occurred but it was accepted because it was the way things were, live and unpredictable.
What the Memphis TV show did do most weeks was focus on telling stories and providing action that hooked viewers enough to leave them surprised or angry or mesmerized. It was the art of telling the never-ending story of good and evil with varying parts of action, drama, melodrama, humor, suspense and sometimes, outright goofiness. If a viewer watched the show week-to-week that viewer usually saw the beginning of a feud, then watched it develop over the course of time only to see it eventually climax, just like a reader would do when reading a story or novel. If a viewer watched year-to-year, that viewer understood how certain wrestler’s pasts had crossed previously adding more depth to what was happening and what might happen. Somehow in a quiet, and often truly unrealized way, it all made sense.
Viewers turned into the show expecting to see something happen. The promotion seemed to understand that and tried to provide enough action to keep viewers coming back for more. The show was just unpredictable enough that a simple match with a top notch star against some unknown from some small west Tennessee town could turn into a sneak attack by a long-forgotten rival. Some interview about the past week’s main event could somehow turn two partners against each other. A match between two teams could get so out of hand that the four would brawl all over the studio, even over the announce desk. From time to time the unpredictable nature of the televised events would be punctuated with the use of blood which then added a more serious tone to the matters at hand. Without acknowledging it, many viewers turned in to the show weekly because they knew something would happen. They didn’t know for sure what would happen but they just knew something would happen and that possibility was enough to make them watch.
As the WWF raised the bar in the 1980s in the field of TV production, the Memphis show’s production remained mostly the same. It was a combination of things that kept it that way. First, the promotion rarely got away from telling the stories they wanted to tell. In other words, the visual production elements were secondary to the mission of the promotion. It wasn’t the sizzle that mattered, it was the steak. Secondly, the bar had been raised so high, production-wise, by the WWF that catching up was way too expensive, especially for the Memphis promotion, which had a bare-bones budget at best depleted by the national expansion. While many fans that had become fans in the 1980s, and some before, it wasn’t which promotion could tell the most compelling stories or provide the most satisfying ring action but who had the prettier package that they perceived as being the group to watch in wrestling. It was that perception that lead some fans to see the Memphis TV show, not understand it’s tradition in the city and among devoted wrestling fans, and to not look beyond the surface before declaring it second-rate because it was studio-produced, in an age of arena TV shows, and, therefore, looked less polished than the slickly produced WWF shows.
Since it was the story that drove the show in Memphis, the messengers of the stories were vital to the success of the promotion. The Memphis TV show was tied together by a common thread. That thread was Lance Russell and Dave Brown.
Russell conducted the majority of interviews. The interview segment was often the means to get across a new feud or to further an on-going feud. While veterans such as Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee rarely needed any assistance on an interview, the Memphis TV show often allowed newcomers their first chance to cut a televised promo. Usually, the ever-smooth Russell was on-hand to guide newcomers through the interview. Russell seemed to have a sense when it came to those who struggled on the mic, as, on a few occasions, he practically cut the promo for the struggling wrestler.
By no means was Lance’s partner a lightweight. Brown was a broadcast pro and, arguably, is the most recognizable news personality ever in Memphis. Being seen nightly forecasting the weather meant Brown’s presence on the wrestling show added some weight and prestige to the show to the general public. It added an awareness public relations firms spend tons of money trying to cultivate. Brown’s weather-casting job kept him in the eyes of the viewers in the area when wrestling was hot and when it wasn’t, providing the promotion with a constant presence few promotions anywhere could match.
While Brown did conduct some interviews (and did more and more as the years progressed) he usually added commentary during the TV matches. Often Russell would slip away from the desk or just sit silently, confident and secure in Brown’s ability to call the match action. Brown was the show’s ring announcer. In the early days, he would climb into the ring or sometimes on the ring apron to make the announcement. He also served as the match timekeeper while Russell would ring the bell. In this sense, Dave was the bookkeeper, the fact-keeper and the historian of the show. Thousands of times over the years a match would end, Lance would look at "Davey" and Dave would spout the official time of the match for those who may have been keeping score at home.
The bulk of the announcing duties though fell to Russell. With the interviews so vital since they often plugged house shows where the money was made to support the company, not only did Russell guide the veterans and newcomers through the process, he became a master at other techniques that made what happened make sense to the fans. Russell’s subtle moves often were the icing on the cake to certain interviews or angles. A simple sigh or raised eyebrow would clue fans in on what the promotion wanted them to think about a certain wrestler. Russell though always served as the voice of the fan. Few in the wrestling business were able to convey complete disgust at something that had just occurred than Lance Russell. Few could champion the cause of a fan favorite like Lance Russell. When he was truly amazed at what was happening, Russell would blurt out an incredulous "What in the samhill…?" likely just like someone at home was doing at the exact same time. With his credibility of Memphis wrestling announcer dating back to before when most viewers could remember, if Lance Russell said things were just so, then things were just so. Beyond that if Lance Russell merely hinted that things were just so, through voice inflection or a hacked-off look, then fans understood that things were just so.
Russell earned his stripes in the TV announcing business long before Jerry Lawler stepped up beside him to do an interview. It was the years though of Russell playing a foil to Jerry Lawler that is the real foundation to what the TV show and promotion became in the 1980s. Lawler’s loud-mouth degraded fans calling them "trash" and "rednecks". The fans though were not his only target. Lawler constantly hounded Lance Russell. Lawler made fun of Russell’s nose, his clothes and Russell’s choice of wrestling favorites. While few were able to match Lawler word for word, Russell held his own, and, in a sense, fans understood this and revered Russell for it because they understood that in a sense Lance was speaking for them.
As Lawler, the top area heel, began his climb to knock off top contenders
it was Russell, Lawler’s verbal foe, who put over the fact that despite
Lawler’s actions, Lawler was world championship material. Lawler’s
attempts to become world champion in the 1970s by facing imported top talent
such as Dick the Bruiser, The Sheik, Mr. Wrestling II, Andre the Giant and
others including world champions Jack Brisco and Terry Funk, along with his
feud against area legend Jackie Fargo, set him up as the area’s top draw of
the late 70s and into the 80s. After this was established, the general idea
that the promotion used time after time in the late 1970s for years to follow
was one which saw a contender enter the area to go after Lawler, the area’s
top star. It was a reversal of what the promotion had done in the 1970s to get
Lawler over as it’s star and world title contender. In the 1980s, with
Lawler’s reputation made, in-ring by Russell’s call of his matches and by
Lawler’s own abilities, it became Lawler’s opponents who had to be put
over by Russell as a threat to the area legend. While sometimes the threats
were easy to understand, thus easier for Russell to get over, as in the case
of proven stars such as Austin Idol, Ken Patera, Bill Dundee and Tommy Rich,
it was often Russell who set the tone of how well an untested or unrealistic
challenger might fare as in the case of Kamala, Sabu the Wildman, The Masked
Super Destroyer, Bota, the Witch Doctor or any other number of Lawler foes
over the years.
In the early-1980s, Russell’s new foe became the talented Jimmy Hart, who constantly tested Russell’s patience in a similar manner that Lawler had done when he was a heel. Often Hart would appear five or six times per show on camera in interviews. Hart’s unchecked energy contrasted well against Russell’s usual mostly easy-going manner. With Hart as Lawler’s main rival, Russell’s call of their history together led to the promotion being able to run the two against each other in various forms for nearly five years. The history the three shared was enough to be the catalyst for Hart’s departure from the area in 1985 as Lawler returned to get even with Hart via Eddie Gilbert after Hart had dumped a bag of flour on Russell, now Lawler’s friend, on the TV show.
Together, Russell and Brown formed a great team. Their history together meant not only were they comfortable with their own roles but also with the role the other played. Their years together also meant if it happened in Memphis and on TV, they had seen it at some point. This came into play quite often as the duo would often reference the history a wrestler or feud had in the area, adding another layer to the storytelling and promotional process.
Others played parts in the success of the TV show from an on-camera role. Sometimes the action was so wild and woolly, it required an authority figure to be on hand to calm things. At various times over the years, Jerry Jarrett, Eddie Marlin, Guy Coffey, Tom Renesto and Randy Hales served in that capacity, a role Nick Gulas had played on various area TV shows prior to the promotional split.
As the 1980s progressed, few elements about the show changed. One thing that added a new dimension to the show was the use of videos set to popular music highlighting a certain wrestler, tag team or feud. Beginning with the Handsome Jimmy Valiant video "Son of a Gypsy" the promotion began successfully, and often, merging the video music field into wrestling. Jerry Lawler would dabble in music during the late 1970s and hook up with Jimmy Hart to record "Bad News". Over time, dozens of videos were made about Jerry Lawler. Others highlighted Jimmy Hart, Bill Dundee and The Fabulous Ones: Steve Keirn & Stan Lane. Various videos highlighting Keirn & Lane helped get them over with a vocal female fan base and helped open other promoters eyes to the lucrative young female fan base. Even those who didn’t quite reach the top of area cards such as Tommy Wright, Big John Harris and others were recipients of music videos in an attempt to get them over with fans.
The ninety minute Memphis TV show also featured a few plugs for the upcoming Memphis card. Usually, Russell or Brown would read the card over as on-screen graphics displayed the card match by match. When the show was sent to other cities in the territory for airing a week later, it had been edited to fit a sixty minute format. The references to the Memphis house show had been removed and replaced with a house show plug for the specific market where the episode was airing. Those cut-ins began to be taped backstage on Monday nights before, and sometimes during, the weekly Memphis card at the Coliseum. With the promotion using footage from the weekly Memphis house show to supplement it’s angles it only made sense to tape the cut-ins while the cameras, usually operated by Randy West or Ken Parnell, were handy and while the talent to be interviewed was on-hand. Dave would also host a brief segment weekly which saw the promotion track cards coming to towns within the Memphis viewing area. Often, Eddie Marlin assisted Dave with this chore.
Most of the title changes in the area occurred in Memphis at the Coliseum in front of the TV cameras. Over time though fans in other cities would catch on to the fact that the title changes only occurred in Memphis which could lead them to believe the matches in their hometown were not as important resulting in a depleted gate for the night. The promotion often would not show the Memphis title change in certain markets on the TV show and instead the title would change hands in that city on the next arena card. Of course, it would happen in every city that week. If Bill Dundee defeated Jerry Lawler for the Southern title in Memphis on Monday the 1st, it usually changed hands Lawler to Dundee again in Louisville on the Tuesday the 9th, in Evansville on Wednesday the 10th and in Lexington on Thursday the 11th (the later dates being because the TV show aired one week later in the other cities).
The constant title changes and turnover of talent was indicative of the usual fast pace the promotion kept with most of it’s feuds. All the changes kept Lance and Dave on their toes. Despite the many changes the promotion rarely lost sense of the issue of continuity as it presented various angles and feuds. In turn, this meant Lance and Dave from week to week kept fans positioned in the right place in the stories they were helping present.
When the WWF expanded in 1984, it hastened the death of the territorial system of wrestling. Others will say the death of the territories actually began in the mid-1970s when Sam Muchnick, the controlling force of the NWA, took a lesser role in the workings of the NWA. Either way, as the WWF reached great success, TV executives clamored for wrestling as programming for their stations. Even though territories fell by the wayside, those who held on benefited from that boon. Their TV shows wound up in a number of extra markets. The Memphis TV show was no different. The show, which had been a mainstay in the actual weekly territory, branched out to other cities as well. The show was featured on the FNN/Score network beginning in 1988. It had already been featured on the syndicated This Week in Pro Wrestling show based out of Atlanta. The process had changed some though from the early days of television. In the early days, stations had plenty of time to fill but by the 1980s, stations were flooded with programming possibilities so instead of stations offering a time slot for free or at a low rate wrestling promotions had to vie for the time slot with the highest bidder, of sorts, usually winning. By the 1980s this meant if you owned a successful promotion you not only had to have a TV show but also a lot of money to get it out to the masses.
Some markets would receive a show of mostly highlights from the Mid-South Coliseum. This show was originally produced to air in the Jackson, Tennessee market (and possibly also in Tupelo) because Jackson fans lived close enough to the Memphis market to view the Saturday morning WMC-TV show. The show was often hosted by Russell although at times, Randy Hales and Michael St. John, who got his start announcing for Nick Gulas in Nashville in the late 1970s, did call the action, among others.
The show though that is most remembered is the studio TV show with Russell and Brown as hosts. As time pressed on, the promotion did make some changes to the show. The opening of the show was changed in the mid-1980s although it continued to feature the rotating figurine and a variation of the long-used theme. A second interview area was used more often in the 1980s as well. A backdrop, behind the announce desk, was also added in the mid-1980s.
While the show had it’s moments of excellent matches it mainly served to get the stars in the area over with the fans saving the matches the fans wanted for a paying audience. This meant many of the TV matches were one-sided. The idea behind this was not to drive the ratings but to put over wrestlers as unbeatable or dastardly in order to sell tickets to the upcoming house show. The TV show though did have a payoff for some who initially worked the role as enhancement talent as Koko Ware, Wayne Farris, Davey Haskins (worked later as Davey Rich), Danny Davis, Ken Wayne, Ricky Morton and others worked their way into more lasting positions in the territory or in the business. Another way the show paid off the viewers of the lopsided matches was that the show usually featured a match that was designed to fill whatever TV time was remaining. Usually these matches were best of three falls (or which wrestler or team won the most falls). The best of three falls match though would eventually go the way of the TV studio show as well. The best of three falls match also usually featured some of the area’s top stars at the time.
By 1988, the Memphis studio show, Championship Wrestling, had become an area tradition. It had also become a mostly well-loved TV show by longtime wrestling fans. While the talent pool in the mid-to-late 1980s dipped, most of the Memphis TV shows during that time frame are very good in terms of excitement and telling stories through action, interviews and psychology. Weekly, fans tuned in to watch plenty of mayhem and madness and they usually left satisfied.
But almost as soon as the show started, the show would end. If there was enough time, fact-keeper Dave would recap the matches on the show, complete with match times. Lance and Dave would joke around some before Lance would look into the camera and say, "…for Dave Brown, Lance Russell, bye-bye everybody."
The theme music would swell and a disclaimer would be read indicating that Lance and Dave’s services were paid for by the wrestling company and not the TV station. The pandemonium that had filled the time and space before would then settle as the show faded to black.
For many fans though it was not enough. They wanted to hear the reassuring voices of Lance and Dave, regarded as longtime friends. They wanted to be swept away in the thought that their ring favorite was someone worth their cheers. They wanted their favorite’s arch-rival to get his just-deserts. They wanted to hear the theme music again and hear the buzzing of the studio audience. They wanted to be surprised, amazed or shocked. They wanted more.
More would follow…next week…same time…same channel.
(Special thanks to Bruce Miller and Mike Norris for their assistance with this section.)
1989 sees wrestling’s future all over the territory, a world title mess, a total house of horrors, a surprise from Jerry Lawler as well as more than one era come to an end.
Edsel Harrison, Bruce Miller, Mike Norris, Mike Rodgers, Scott Teal, Charles Warburton and David Williamson.
Very Special Thanks
Lance Russell and Dave Brown…thanks for the memories! Yow-zah!!!!!
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