The Brawner Brawlers
Dear Vance: What happened to the Von Brauner brothers, a team of German wrestlers who battled just about everybody around here in the 1950s and 1960s?
— T.G., Memphis
Dear T.G.: It may seem strange to my half-dozen readers that I would feature a question about wrasslin’ in this, our annual culture issue. Elsewhere in this magazine you’ll read stories about art, architecture, dining, literature, and other high-class endeavors which some would consider worlds apart from the sordid world of the wrestling arena. But let me tell you, if you think wrestling hasn’t had an impact on the culture of Memphis, then you haven’t lived here very long. In their heyday, big-name wrestlers like Sputnik Monroe, Jackie Fargo, Handsome Jimmy Valiant, and Jerry Lawler were superstars, with fans jammed into Ellis Auditorium and the Mid-South Coliseum week after week to see bouts with Tojo Yamamoto, Spider Galento, the Mongolian Stomper, the Swedish Angel, Plowboy Frazier, and dozens of other unbelievable characters.
And all levels of society often attended these competitions. Why, I’ve seen old newspaper photographs of some of these matches, and even though we begged the editors to crop her out of the picture, all too often there was Mother Lauderdale on the front row, screaming, “Pin him, you miserable weasel!” Oh, the shame of it.
My pal Ron Hall recently compiled a fine book, Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling (Shangri-La Projects, 2009) that is just packed with wonderful vintage photos that really capture this crazy world. And he makes a good point that even the toughest of the bunch — well, some of them, anyway — were true gentlemen out of the ring. I can speak from experience. Those Saturday-evening Parcheesi matches I played with Sputnik Monroe were pleasant memories from my teen years in Memphis (well, as long as I let him win), and nothing pleased Tojo Yamamoto more than a spirited game of croquet on the Lauderdale lawn, as he clunked around the court in his wooden shoes.
The two brothers you remember, T.G., were billed as Kurt and Karl Von Brauner. In the 2011 documentary Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrassin’, which was based on Hall’s book, he says the Von Brauners were “just natural bad guys.” Not only were they mighty tough-looking rascals, as you can see in these old Memphis Press-Scimitar photos taken in 1962, they were especially intimidating because “they spoke broken English and never could understand the referee’s instructions.” How convenient for them, I thought, when that referee was trying to tell them to release the stranglehold they had on a lesser opponent.
A website devoted to the sport (onlineworldofwrestling.com) says that the Von Brauners were known as “the bad Germans” who were banned from wrestling in some parts of Europe and the United States because of “extreme viciousness.” In this sport of swinging chains, hurling chairs, and barely controlled mayhem, this was really saying something. And considering that the Von Brauners’ signature moves included “the stomp,” the “elbow to throat,” and something called the “nerve claw,” you can see that not many people wanted to tussle with them.
Add to this the vaguely menacing element of their Teutonic background — at a time when dark memories of World War II weren’t all that distant — and these fellows were classic villains.
Longtime Press-Scimitar columnist Bill Burk got the rare chance to interview Kurt Von Brauner back in the day, and recalled that early meeting in a 1981 article. “He was one of the all-time ‘bad guy’ ring teams in grunt-and-groan history,” he wrote. In fact, “the Von Brauner dudes were so bad that they made today’s wrestling circuit seem like the Sisters of Charity by comparison.”
Burk sat down to interview Von Brauner with the help of an interpreter. It wasn’t easy, because the burly wrestler just answered questions with a menacing stare or a simple, “Jah, jah.” But it soon came out that the German flew his own plane, and in fact, had just landed his Cessna at the airport here, after a match in Florida. That got Burk to thinking: How could someone who spoke no English possibly communicate with the air-traffic controllers? And even more perplexing, why did this German guy just look so darned familiar?
Well, in that Press-Scimitar story, Burk spilled the beans about the Von Brauners, and I might as well let you in on the secret, too: Wrestling isn’t always real.
I know. I’m as shocked as you are.
It turns out the menacing Kurt Von Brauner from the Black Forest of Germany was actually Jimmy Brawner from Memphis, who had attended Whitehaven High School. Burk happened to remember him when the young man was a beefed-up body builder who had won the title of “Mr. Memphis” back in 1949.
Brawner could have starred in any of those Charles Atlas magazine ads, where the 98-pound weakling turns into a strongman practically overnight. In Brawner’s case, he was such a puny fellow that he wasn’t allowed to join the Whitehaven football team. So he started lifting weights, exercising, and eating better, and in just two years he gained 200 pounds of solid muscle, with his arms alone measuring 17 inches around.
For a while, he worked on the railroad as a fireman, shoveling coal into locomotive boilers. After he won the “Mr. Memphis” contest, a reporter asked if that grueling job gave him all his muscles. “No, shoveling coal doesn’t build muscles,” he said. “It tears them down. I have to train hard to make up for my work as a fireman. I have never smoked or drunk, and I get plenty of sleep every night. I believe anyone can develop a fine physique if they want to work at it.”
It’s not clear just when Brawner decided to leave the railroad and become a professional wrestler. After picking up quite a few impressive titles on his own, beginning with the Southern Heavyweight title in April 1957, he met a shrewd fellow named Saul Weingeroff, considering one of the top promoters, and I bet that’s when Jimmy Brawner shaved his head, grew a menacing moustache, and became Kurt Von Brauner.
Oh, and about this time he acquired a brother, too — Karl Von Brauner (real name: Doug Donovan, born in Hamilton, Ohio). They made a formidable pair, and the Online World of Wrestling website lists almost four dozen state and world tag-team trophies they carried home from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s.
What’s really strange — I mean, on top of everything I’ve told you so far — is that sometime in the late 1960s, our Whitehaven grad retired from the ring, but that didn’t put a chokehold on the career of the Von Brauners. Kurt #1 was simply replaced by Kurt #2 — an entirely different person by the name of Willie Rutgowsky who (and this just gets too strange for words) really was from Germany. So it seems a genuine German who spoke perfect English was pretending to be a German who only grunted and scowled. But either nobody in the audiences noticed the switch, or nobody cared. The only thing that mattered was these were the “bad Germans” and the crowds loved it when the hometown heroes like Sputnik Monroe and Jackie Fargo sent them packing, all the way back to Bavaria (or, most likely, to their homes in Florida).
The Von Brauner tag team (or should I say teams?) finally retired when their bodies just wore out. Karl (Doug Donavan) passed away sometime in 2009. Kurt #2 (Rutkowski) had died years earlier, in 1993.
As the only “German” with Memphis connections, Jimmy Brawner moved to Tampa, Florida, and ran a supermarket for a few years before passing away in 2004. Nobody seems to remember his days as “Mr. Memphis,” but his time in the ring — helped along with a great agent and a colorful moniker — made him one of wrestling’s legends.
One more thing. In that Press-Scimitar story, Bill Burk brought up an interesting point, and I’ll repeat it here. If the Von Brauners weren’t really Germans, where did Tojo Yamamoto (above) come from? It boggles the mind.