The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium, built between 1922-1924, to honor area veterans of World War I, has over the years provided entertainment to the many westling or “rassling” fans in Hamilton County and Northwest Georgia.
Although the facility has hosted religious festivals, opera, the Cotton Ball for debutantes, musical concerts and political rallies for George Wallace and others during its 92-year existence, no activity has been more popular than the Saturday night “wrestling-rassling” cards put on by promoters, Nick Gulas, Ray Welch and Harry Thornton during the 1950’s – 1980’s.
Prior to the advent of the World Wrestling Federation and cable television, Memorial Auditorium held matches that included many of the national stars of the sport such as Gorgeous George, world champions Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne and Andre the Giant, as well as many lesser known younger combatants.
Nick Gulas and Roy Welch owned the exclusive wrestling contracts for the entire South and employed Harry Thornton to be their local announcer for the matches.
This also led to a Saturday afternoon television match at WRGP Channel 3 which at that time was located across from Warner Park on McCallie Avenue.
Harry’s studio show was later moved to WDEF TV Channel 12.
Although the Memorial Auditorium was supposedly limited by the fire marshals to not be allowed to hold more than 3,866 fans, this number was often exceeded by the rabid supporters who came to cheer the “good guys” and boo the “villains.”
The roles of the “wrestlers-rasslers” often switched over the weeks as the promoters strived to entertain the audiences.
A “good guy” would suddenly be transformed into a “villain” when they suddenly pulled some unethical or illegal tactic on a less-talented opponent, referee or some fan in the audience who had been planted there to take the physical abuse.
The ability of the participants to stimulate the cheering (and booing) of the fans often overflowed to those sitting on the front rows outside the ring.
The use of bobby pins propelled by rubber bands by excited female fans striking the bodies of the performers was not uncommon.
The ability of Gorgeous George to incite the audience by prancing around in his purple robe, dyed blonde hair with golden bobby pins, while his valet sprayed perfume on him and the audience, are part of the local wrestling-rassling history.
Legitimate wrestlers such as Lou Thesz, Ken Rossi and Verne Gagne tangled with villains such as Tojo Yamamoto, who actually was of Hawaiian descent, not Japanese. However, he possessed the ability to irritate the national sentiments of the local citizens with his purported allegiance to Japan.
He was frequently attacked by female fans who struck him with their purses as he entered or exited the arena.
Perennial women’s World Champion Mildred Berke and her successor, the flamboyant and often irritating, The Fabulous Moolah, usually prevailed in the matches between the not so gentle fairer sex. Hair pulling and unsuccessful efforts to expose the anatomy of the opponent also led to the excitement of the moment.
Other crowd pleasing events included tag team matches where one wrestler was in danger of being pinned when his partner came to his rescue by illegally breaking up the match ending touching of the shoulders on the mat for a three count.
Masked villains who agreed to take off their mask and leave town if they lost often stimulated attendance for several Saturdays as opponents unsuccessfully attempted to defeat the masked participants. Local banker Arch Howell, III, vividly recalls as a young boy the excitement of seeing the white clad, “Medics”, embarrassed when their masks had to come off after a defeat.
“Rassle Royals” where several individuals competed against each other to try and be the sole survivor also were special events that kept the crowds returning to Memorial Auditorium.
The incomparable Harry Thornton had the talent to promote the sport as both a ring announcer and early a.m. host of the sport on the “The Morning Show” on Channel 12. His show went on the air in 1969 and finally ended on July 2, 1982. Over the years he had several female co-hostesses that began with Ruth Boyer and ended with Judy Corn. On occasion, Harry’s wife, Helen, who acquired the nickname “Mrs. T”, would be the guest hostess and the on air exchanges between her and her husband further helped the show’s ratings. Said program maintained its number one rating for many years with its controversial discussion on local politics. The host and hostesses accepted calls from anonymous citizens which often heightened interest and unfounded rumors on the show.
The last reported wrestling matches and events held at the Memorial Auditorium took place on Oct. 10, 1983, when a relative unknown participant, Brett Wayne, won over an equally unknown Jake Roberts by disqualification.
Irrespective of whether it was real wrestling or fake rassling, it was strongly supported in this area prior to it being replaced by the national cable television extravaganzas. It continues today on a smaller scale at several area locales in Tennessee and Georgia.
“Wrestling-Rassling” provided a source of inexpensive entertainment for thousands of loyal local fans who relished the antics of the men and women who climbed into the ring at the Memorial Auditorium.
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Jerry Summers can be reached at email@example.com