POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 13, 2011
With the passing of Curtis "Da Bull" Iaukea last year and "Handsome" Johnny Barend on Sept. 20, local wrestling fans lost a part of their childhood. Watching "50th State Wrestling" was an island staple during the 1960s and '70s. This month we look back at the history of local professional wrestling and how a fan keeps those memories alive.
When professional wrestling in Hawaii began in the '30s, some of the earliest publicists were Maurice Gomberg, a local automobile dealer; Ed Ratsch, a promoter at Honolulu Stadium; and Manuel Calhau, a promoter at the Civic Auditorium.
By the time Al Karasick, a former professional wrestler from Russia, began promoting local events in 1936, wrestling was on its way to being one of the most popular spectator sports in Honolulu. Karasick had previously participated in a local wrestling match against Gus Sonnenberg at one of Gomberg's events.
Karasick's bills featured Ed Don George, Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Gene Kiniski, Billy Varga, Lord Blears, Filipino star Rey Urbano, Japanese star Rikidozan and local stars "Prince" Neff Maivia, Tosh Togo and Sam Steamboat.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin and The Honolulu Advertiser covered the arrival of wrestlers to the islands and posted match results in their sports sections. Matches then were held at Honolulu Stadium and at the Civic Auditorium. Though the stadium had more seats, Civic regularly packed in 2,500 to 6,000 local wrestling fans.
It was during a 1945 event in Honolulu that George "Gorgeous George" Wagner first acquired his well-known curly perm at a local beauty salon and began wearing his flamboyant outfits.
In 1961, Karasick retired and sold his promotion business to Ed Francis, who originally wrestled in Karasick's events in the 1950s.
Francis said the advent of television helped spark the even greater interest in the sport. "Television really catapulted the popularity of wrestling in the islands. The locker room interviews made stars of all the wrestlers and brought them into everyone's living rooms, up close and personal," Francis said.
In 1962, KHVH began airing live events every Saturday. In 1967, wrestling moved to KGMB, where it became one of the station's highest-rated shows. Those broadcasts are how Bill Atkinson got hooked on the sport.
"I lived in Navy housing near Pearl Harbor, and they held wrestling every other Sunday at Pearl Harbor's Block Arena. The first card I remember was ‘Gentleman' Jim Hady and the Missing Link versus Johnny Barend and Curtis Iaukea. The place was packed; from then on I continued to go to Bloch Arena to watch wrestling," said Atkinson, a Kihei resident.
As the years went on, interest in wrestling faded, and World Wrestling Entertainment didn't bring any matches to Hawaii from 1994 to 2002, when a sold-out Blaisdell Arena hosted the Hawaii debut of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The event sold out in less than two hours.
In 2005, Atkinson created a website (50thstatebigtimewrestling.com) dedicated to wrestling in Hawaii. The website includes rare pictures of wrestlers, classic match results, newspaper clippings and historic event promotional material.
A.J. McWhorter, a collector of film and videotape cataloging Hawaii's TV history, has worked as a producer, writer and researcher for both local and national media. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.