Sunday, November 15, 2015

Wrestling: The Gospel To Its Fans

by Dick Bourne
Mid-Atlantic Gateway

“Gimme four reserved tickets,” he said, laying a $20 bill down on the counter.  As he and his family walked into the gym, his wife complained that the reserved tickets might cut into the food budget. “Would you rather eat or see Ric Flair?” the man responded.

Ric Flair recently had Tony Schiavone as his guest on the "WOOOO! Nation" podcast (link to the show found here) and it was one of Ric's best shows. I love hearing Tony talk about his days as a fan of Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, as David and I grew up following wrestling at about the the same time.

Tony Schiavone
Tony told a funny story about a show he went to in Harrisonburg, VA in 1977. I  went to the Mark Eastridge clippings archives and found the newspaper ad from what I believe had to be the show he was talking about.

There was a nice article about that show that was published in the local paper, too it featured an interview with the local promoter for Crockett Promotions, Pete Apostalou. I hadn't thought about Pete in awhile, so I thought I'd publish the article here. There are some funny moments here, too, and a great look at a wonderful time when people really believed.

Harrisonburg had a great line-up: Johnny Weaver, Wahoo McDaniel, Greg Valentine, Brute Bernard, George "Two Ton" Harris, Ric Flair - - - great memories!

Thanks to Peggy Lathan for transcribing this article from an old newspaper clipping provided by Mark Eastridge.

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April 14, 1977, Harrisonburg, VA

Four years ago, a Roanoke policeman was moonlighting as a security guard at a professional wrestling exhibition at the Roanoke Civil Center.

The officer noticed that one fan, a woman in her mid-40s, was totally absorbed by the action in the ring. She got to excited that she fell off her chair. As the officer helped her back to her seat, he commented, “Don’t get so excited. Don’t you know it’s all fake?”

Two days later, the woman petitioned the Roanoke mayor to have the officer removed from the force. Her reasoning:  if that man couldn’t tell that it was real sport in the ring, he had no business being a policeman.

That incident reflects the devotion of the pro wrestling fan. What goes on in the ring and what comes over the television screen on Saturday afternoon is as good as gospel.

The Roanoke story is also a favorite of Pete Apostolou, the man responsible for the bouts. He is the promoter.

Apostolou brought pro wrestling to Harrisonburg Thursday night. Over 2,500 fans paid to see the likes of Two Ton Harris, Ric Flair, Wahoo McDaniel, Brute Bernard and Johnny Weaver.

It was the biggest paid crowd ever in Claude Warren Field House. From the start, Apostolou was smiling. “We’re bringing culture to Harrisonburg,” he cracked.

“How do you spell culture?” someone asked.

“Why, you spell it M-O-N-E-Y,” Apostolou said.

Money. That’s what the pro fight game is all about for the wrestlers.

“It’s a job, a business, a profession for them,” said Apostolou in a surprisingly candid mood. “Like you and me and anyone else, the name of the game is money.”

Money was the reason that pro wrestling was held at Harrisonburg.

“It’s a project to raise money for the athletic department,” Harrisonburg Athletic Director Brownie Cummins said. Cummins was elated with the turnout. The school’s share of the gate receipts, although only a fourth of the entire take, was more than any of the Streak’s home basketball games have ever made – much, much more.

“I guess they should make close to the tune of $1,500 or $1,600,” Apostolou said.

For five years now, Apostolou has been contacting people in the Harrisonburg area, especially in the local high schools, about possible sites for bouts.

“No one wanted to do it,” he said, “that was, until the money shortage. Now the schools are a little short on funds – especially athletic departments – and people who wouldn’t go for promoting the fights years ago are now willing.”

Cummins is among that group.

Why does Apostolou like to use high school facilities? “They have bleachers,” he said. “You can’t have the fans all sitting on the floor. If you are more than six, seven rows back, you can’t see well. That makes the fans unhappy and that hurts.”

Unhappy fans mean two things, a smaller gate later and trouble now.  “You want the fans involved, but not too involved and you don’t want them mad.”

Apostolou likened a wrestling crowd to a pet gorilla.  “Keep him happy and well fed and you’ve got it made,” he said.  “If you trick him, well, you just don’t do that.”

Apostolou knows the crowd is his lifeblood. He acts accordingly.

“If someone asks me if the bouts are fake and the wrestlers aren’t really going all out, I say, ‘Everyone has an opinion and if they look like they are to you, fine.’  I really haven’t looked close enough to express my opinion yet,” he said, laughing.  “Let’s just call it controlled.”

As far as the fans are concerned, nothing is controlled. The bouts are as real as any sporting event. Questioning the authenticity of the fight game can be hazardous.

“Of course it’s real,” one indignant fan said Thursday night. “It’s on television isn’t it?”

When the fan was reminded that cartoons and Star Trek are also on television, he almost became livid.

“You don’t question the fans. It’s their own opinion and questioning it is taboo,” Apostolou said. “I don’t and I’m not about to start. We provide the show and they provide the dough…”

“There’s a market for almost any product,” Apostolou said. “If you paint a pretty enough picture about it, you could sell garbage. All it takes is television and a good promoter.”

Wrestling has both. Apostolou knows that the Mid-Atlantic wrestling show telecast throughout Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina is his No. 1 promoter.

“People see it on TV and want to see it live,” he said.  “Fans don’t mind spending the money. Even if the ticket prices, $4 and $5, were moved to $5 and $6 at the door without advance notice, no one would turn away.”

He was willing to try that trick halfway through the card at Harrisonburg Thursday to prove his point. He didn’t have to. People were willing to pay the full admission price just to see the final bout. Several did.

“Am I in time to see Ric  Flair?” asked one fan who came in with his family after the first bout had started.

“Yes,” he was told.

“Are there any $5 seats left?” he asked.

“No,” was the answer.

“I guess I’ll have to settle for the bleachers. Give me four tickets,” he said.

Earlier, about an hour before the first bout was scheduled to begin, another family had come in. The man also wanted the higher priced tickets.

“Gimme four reserved tickets,” he said, laying a $20 bill down on the counter.  As he and his family walked into the gym, his wife complained that the reserved tickets might cut into the food budget. “Would you rather eat or see Ric Flair?” the man responded.

For that man, his wife and just about everyone else in the gym, there wasn’t really any question of priorities. The smiles on their faces as they took their seats at ringside registered their satisfaction.

- April 14, 1977, Harrisonburg, VA