Gong Show

A new film takes you into the wild and crazy world of Memphis wrestling.

Sputnik Monroe in 1959

Photograph Courtesy Shangrilaprojects.com

“It’s hard to be humble when you’re 235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal, with a body women love and men fear.”

That’s Sputnik Monroe, just one of the larger-than-life characters featured in the documentary Memphis Heat, which looks back at the glory days of Memphis wrestling. Monroe — real name, Roscoe Brumbaugh — died in 2006, but his fans can pay him tribute on March 24th, which has been designated National Sputnik Monroe Day. That’s when the documentary premieres at the Malco Paradiso. It will show there for one week before moving to other theaters in the Malco chain.

Memphis Heat presents the colorful world of wrestling — or wrasslin’, if you prefer,” says executive producer Sherman Willmott. “It takes you from what I call the carnival days of the 1950s up to the 1980s, when WWE and cable TV sort of pulled it away from the local fans.”

The documentary presents then-and-now interviews with ten wrestling superstars — among them Jerry “The King” Lawler, Jackie Fargo, “Superstar” Bill Dundee, and “Handsome”Jimmy Valiant. Memphis Heat also talks with longtime referee Jerry Calhoun, who was often on the receiving end of the shenanigans inside and outside the ring, and includes rare television and 8mm film footage of matches that took place at Ellis Auditorium and the WHBQ and WMC television studios.

The film got its start two years ago.Music historian Ron Hall had compiled two books devoted to local bands: Playing for a Piece of the Door (2001), and the Garage Band Yearbook (2003), both published by Willmott’s Shangri-La Projects. While Hall was researching those books, he came up with so much material devoted to Memphis wrestling that he approached Willmott to publish Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets in 2009.

“We certainly couldn’t have done this without Ron. I thought we’d just publish a book, but then he turned up so many other wonderful materials that we decided to produce a documentary — just a low-budget thing — to promote it,” says Willmott. “So then we brought in Chad Schaffler to direct it, and he just ran with it.” In a tail-wagging-the-dog situation, the Memphis Heat project evolved into a 90-minute documentary, along with a companion DVD that will include almost five hours of interviews, footage from matches, television commercials, and other promotions.

“There were just so many crazy stories that it was impossible to fit them into the documentary,” says Willmott, “but you’ll be able to enjoy them on the DVD.”

Memphis Heat reminds viewers that long before the Grizzlies came to town, and back when only diehard Tiger fans showed much interest in the U of M football or basketball teams, wrestling was THE game in town. “It’s hard to imagine it today, but people would flip to the sports section of the Sunday newapaper to find who had won the matches on Saturday night,” says Willmott. “When you had big names like Jackie Fargo up against Tojo Yamamoto, it was a very big deal.”

Wilmott points out that Memphis was a “hot town” on the wrestling circuit. “A lot of national stars blew through here, and we have some of them in the film — people like Hulk Hogan before he even was Hulk Hogan.”

In the film, “Superstar” Bill Dundee says, “Don’t think I’m bragging, ’cause I’m not, but we sold it out every night. Every seat.” He’s talking about the jam-packed matches held at Ellis Auditorium in the 1960s, and even as late as the 1970s, fans would line the sidewalk outside Channel 5, waiting to get a seat for the Saturday-morning bouts that would air on ­Studio Wrestling.

So, even if fans knew it was fake (actually, wrestlers prefer the term “scripted”), what was the appeal? “Memphis had great wrestlers with great personalities,” says Wilmott. “The good guys were really good guys, and the bad guys were really bad.”

He tells the story of one wrestler who put his lovely wife’s hair on the line for a match. If he lost, she got her head shaved in the ring by the victor. Did she keep her locks? We won’t give it away. Watch Memphis Heat.

The other element that made wrestling such a hit was its link with Memphis music. Elvis Presley was known to hang out at matches at the auditorium, manager Jimmy Hart (“The Mouth of the South”) had made a national name for himself with the Gentrys, and some wrestlers — including Lawler — even produced albums. “Entertainers like to hang out with entertainers,” says Wilmott, “so it was all one big exciting world.”

Willmott believes that the Sputniks, Kings, Superstars, Tojos, and Fargos showed up at the right time, and “they just nailed it.” In Memphis Heat, Lawler talks about the glory days, when “so many pieces of the puzzle came together at once. It started a ball that started rolling, and it was impossible to stop it.”  M

For more information about Memphis Heat and to order a DVD, visit memphis-heat.com.

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