By Gene Lyons, August 06, 2015
Back in 1957, when Donald Trump and I were both in middle school, I used to have this running argument with my grandfather, Bill Connors. A retired railroad worker and a drinking man, Pop lived in Elizabethport, N.J., a couple of blocks from where the tracks running down Broadway ended at the harbor.
When visiting grandchildren proved too much for the old man, he’d retreat to his linoleum-floored front room and watch pro wrestling on his little black-and-white TV. As long as I’d keep still and fetch his beer, he’d let me stay. Sitting there with a spittoon at his feet and a cold one in his hand, Pop sometimes got agitated at the choreographed antics on the screen.
See, like millions of Republicans seemingly enchanted by Donald Trump’s updated impersonation of Dr. Jerry Graham, the swaggering blonde super-villain of the old World Wide Wrestling Federation, the old man believed the contests were for real.
If I wanted to keep watching — and I was already what Trump would call a HUGE fan of the Graham Brothers, Johnny Valentine, Ludwig von Krupp, and the other posturing bleached blonde villains of the era — I had to be careful how I acted.
In his day, the old man had been a legendary brawler.
“Grandpa,” I’d say, “you’ve been in fights. A guy gets slammed over the head with a chair, it’s over.”
The old man would growl something about the cheating SOBs and the damn referees as if my smart-aleck attitude would spoil all the fun. Back home, my pals and I had constructed our own wrestling ring, and actually dyed our hair to impersonate our bombastic heroes. We worked on our Atomic Elbow Smashes, Flying Drop Kicks, and personalized submission holds.
To us, WWWF wrestling was the most vivid thing on TV — totally unreal as an athletic event, but entirely dramatic in what it symbolized.
See, quite like Trump’s presidential campaign, ’50s-style pro ‘rassling was all about ethnicity and race. I’d bet anything that young Donald Trump was also a fan of the broadcasts from Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, quite close to his childhood home. He appears to have adopted the entire Dr. Jerry Graham playbook as his signature style: the boasting, the strutting, the insults and the elaborate pompadour, too!
Graham was the WWWF showman of the era, masterful at inciting crowds. He’d enter the ring for a tag-team match in a sequined cape accompanied by a mouthy manager and his “brother” Eddie, another bleached-blonde poser.
“I have the body that men fear and women adore,” Graham would say, posing with flexed biceps and his head thrown back haughtily. Never mind that he also had a watermelon belly and comparatively skinny legs to carry it on. The attitude was the thing. He exuded sheer superiority.
Why losers like “Golden Boy” Arnie Skaaland even showed up was beyond Graham’s power to imagine. Billed on TV as “the Jewish Champ,” who the Golden Boy beat to earn that title was unclear. (Skaaland’s online biography indicates he was actually of Norwegian descent. So what? “Bobo Brazil” came from Little Rock; Hans Schmidt, “The Teuton Terror,” was really Guy Larose of Quebec.)
Dr. Jerry Graham’s gimmick was that he supposedly had a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, which back then might as well have been on Saturn. See, also like Donald Trump, he was smarter than you.
What kind of doctorate, an announcer once asked?
“He’s a tree surgeon,” Graham’s manager said.
Often on those Sunnyside Garden TV cards some more formidable opponent such as Antonino Rocca, the barefoot “Bull of the Pampas,” would be in the audience. Indignant at the Graham Brothers’ dirty tricks, Rocca would leap into the ring to defend their hapless opponents, whereupon the previously supine referee would spring into action, restraining the hero while the bad guys went to work with beer pitchers, blades concealed in their trunks, whatever.
Theatrical blood flowed freely.
However, if you wanted to see Antonino Rocca get his revenge, you had to buy a ticket to Madison Square Garden. One of the great grudge matches of the era took place there in November 1957 when Dr. Graham and Dick the Bruiser took on Rocca and Edouard “The Flying Frenchman” Carpentier. A riot erupted. Hundreds of fans got arrested. Several cops got hurt by flying chairs. Order was restored only after Rocca stood on the ring ropes saluting the “Star Spangled Banner.” It made the front page of the New York Times.
So you bet I’m looking forward to this week’s Fox News debate, featuring Trump versus a bunch of Koch brothers’ marionettes, as he recently dubbed them. Would anybody be astonished to see The Donald enter wearing a sequined robe?
If he voted at all, my grandfather Connors certainly never voted Republican. But he’d never have missed the show.
It’s sure to be HUGE!
Photograph of the Graham brothers (Dr. Jerry Graham & Eddie Graham). http://gulfcoast.prorasslin.net/gcwa-wrestlers/tag-teams/the-graham-brothers/
Second photograph of Dr. Jerry Graham: http://www.gccwhistory.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/graham-dr.-jerry-10.jpg