A GORGEOUS ERA IN WRESTLING

(Los Angeles Times, December 14, 1997)

By Cecilia Rasmussen, L.A. Then And Now

To his friends, this 250-pound package of golden-haired, pre-steroid muscle was always G.G.

Promoters billed him variously as the "Toast of the Coast," the "Sensation of the Nation" and the "Human Orchid."

But to the legion of fans who made him one of live television's first superstars in the late 1940s, he was Gorgeous George, the man who not only kept them glued to their newly purchased TV consoles, but also filled the seats each week in such historic Los Angeles venues as Hollywood Legion Stadium, the Olympic Auditorium and the Ocean Park and Long Beach arenas.

While others debated whether professional wrestling was a sport or a spectacle, Gorgeous George never had any doubts. With his manicured, brightly polished nails and trademark mane of bleached and styled hair, he single- handedly paved the way for coming generations of gender-bending entertainers, as he shocked the sensibilities of a macho era by entering the ring in outrageous, orchid-colored costumes.

Often, he tossed members of the audience "Georgie pins," gold-colored bobby pins just like the ones he used to hold his own curls in place. When he gave friends and special admirers 14-karat versions of his signature trinket "Georgie pins," he made them take an oath: "I solemnly swear and promise to never confuse this gold Georgie pin with a common, ordinary bobby pin, so help me Gorgeous George."

He also was fond of dispensing savvy pearls of wrestling wisdom, such as: "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat."

It was a sentiment tailor-made for an athletic entertainment that always had been a happy hunting ground for rogues, con men and fast-buck artists who liked to play both sides of the line between license and grand larceny. A decade before Gorgeous George's arrival on the scene, credulous fans encouraged by splashy stories and pictures displayed in local papers -- whose journalists were often on the promoters' payrolls -- bet wildly and illicitly on matches that, more often than not, were fixed by the mob.

Scandal followed and professional wrestling nearly faded from the national scene. Then along came celebrity-hungry television -- and Gorgeous George.

Nebraska-born George Raymond Wagner, the son of a house painter, began wrestling at age 13 and was twice amateur champion of Texas before turning pro. Early in his career, he learned to attract attention by wearing spats, a Homburg hat and carrying a cane. When dapper didn't quite do it, the ambitious young rising star decided to try bold and flashy.


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He hired Hollywood's famed hairstylists, Frank and Joseph, who curled and bleached his hair. Soon, he also began wearing lacy, frilly gowns and sequined, lavender robes that highlighted his blond locks coiffured in beautiful waves.

The crowd's response frequently was unruly -- fights sometimes broke out in the grandstands -- but attendance grew, and Gorgeous George was what they paid to see. As a red carpet rolled out and his theme song, "Pomp and Circumstances," played, his personal valet used a sterling silver spray gun to fill the ring with "Chanel No. 10," lest the scent of exertion from the previous match offend his boss' olfactory senses.

There was, of course, no such thing as a perfume called Chanel No. 10. But that didn't really bother fans who didn't care that the match that followed was fixed.

For his part, George became immune to whistles and wisecracks, but couldn't stand someone pulling or touching his curls. Although he had millions of fans -- 35% of whom reportedly were women, according to sponsors -- he infuriated men. During one bout, a male spectator extinguished his cigar on the back of George's calf and his expensive robes sometimes were stolen and torn to shreds by the crowd.

To distinguish himself from such contemporaries as Wild Red Berry, Baron Leone and Lou Thesz, George drove an orchid-colored Cadillac and had his name and "act" copyrighted.

"I really don't think I'm gorgeous," he always said. "But what's my opinion against millions?"

Professional wrestling became a national phenomenon when it first aired on television in 1948, appearing as part of the Tuesday night lineup that included "The Milton Berle Show" and "Kukla, Fran & Ollie." Its biggest stars, Gorgeous George and the Mighty Atlas, soon were household names. The next year, George topped the card at the Olympic Auditorium, selling out the house 27 times. On each occasion he wore a different one of his 100 purple robes, each of which cost as much as $2,000.

"I got the biggest ovation of my life there," he once recalled. "They couldn't announce the match. The announcer burst out laughing, but I didn't mind. I was a sensation."

In 1951, students at Woodbury College interviewed 5,000 owners of television sets about their viewing preferences. The study found that Angelenos most enjoyed watching 200- to 400-pound berserkers sit on the heads of their rivals and tie each other's limbs into square knots. Wrestling, with its bearhugs, power slams, eye-goung and crotch-kicking, was by far the most popular TV event, with cigarette-puffing little old ladies responding 5 to 1 in its favor.

George wrestled five to six nights a week, and during the day ruffled a few feathers at his 195-acre ranch in Beaumont, where he raised 35,000 "Gorgeous George" turkeys. Gobbling up profits, George handled his own marketing and had the birds delivered in limos with orchids emblazed on the doors.

George loved to taunt as much as he was taunted. Sometimes he had live turkeys delivered to an opponent's house.

But in George's case, trouble seemed to follow fame. His beloved ranch was tied up in litigation for years after a messy divorce. Eventually, part of it was sold to actor Danny Thomas.

Over the years, wrestling's appeal faded just as George did. Shortly before he retired in 1962, George opened a bar on Sepulveda Boulevard called Gorgeous George's Ringside Bar. A year later, he suffered a heart attack and died on Christmas Day 1963. He was 48 years old and broke.

Nevertheless, the Los Angeles City Council adjourned with a resolution in his memory. At his funeral, both of his ex-wives -- seated on opposite sides of the church -- cried uncontrollably. His last girlfriend, a stripper, sobbed and collapsed next to the orchid-colored casket covered with fresh orchids.

Today, professional wrestling fans nostalgic for a glimpse of the heroic era can find a large collection of Gorgeous George memorabilia at Slammers Wrestling Gym in the San Fernando Valley when its museum reopens.


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