“The society which has abolished every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” Paris, May 1968

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Gorgeous George - A wrestler like no other.

What on earth could George Galloway, Muhammad Ali and the late godfather of soul James Brown have in common? Well all three owe something to a man who was at one time the most famous professional wrestler in the world.  The Respect leader's nickname, the ring persona of "The Greatest" and James Brown's stage act all owe something to Gorgeous George Wagner, and both Brown and Ali have been the first to admit it.
In the early 1930's George Wagner was a fast moving young light-heavyweight wrestler working the Mid-West venues night after night. The long hours of travelling, the hard bumps and uncertain pay made for no easy ride and George was only too well aware that he was never more than a serious injury or a dishonest promoter away from the poverty of his youth. It was to take a full decade as a journeyman wrestler before George and his wife Betty came up with the idea that would change their fortunes and transform wrestling forever.
These days the arrogant, high-camp heel is a stock in trade of the wrestling business but when George started perming his bleached locks and entering the ring in flamboyant gowns it was ground breaking. In a few short years George and Betty had honed the act to perfection and had taken America by storm. Gorgeous George, AKA "The Human Orchid", would strut down the aisle accompanied by his valet who would be called upon to spray the ring with perfume (Chanel No 10,  "Why be half safe?" claimed George) before his master would deign to climb through the ropes. The crowd would be having fits as he carefully folded his robe and went through a long pre-match rigmarole of prancing and preening. When the action finaly started George, schooled in the tough and unforgiving world of the carnival wrestling booths,  would prove to be a fast and skillful grappler as well as the consummate showman.

Victor Hugo would probably have recognised in George's outrageous act  "an idea whose time has come'' because as luck would have it the Human Orchid blossomed just as television was becoming the home entertainment choice of the nation.The new industry was on the lookout for cheap mass appeal programs and wrestling fitted the bill a treat.  When someone remarked that George was made for TV he retorted that in fact TV had been made for him. Whatever. The fact remains that Gorgeous George would become an institution and a major part of American blue-collar post war culture who's name would live on in popular usage long after his ring career was forgotten.  By the late 1950's George's wrestling days were drawing to close. He had earned and spent a fortune, could no longer bounce around as he once had and his lifelong heavy drinking was beginning to take it's toll. By 1963 a flat broke Gorgeous George was dead of liver disease and heart failure. He was forty eight years old, had lived his life to the full and had broken the mould of popular culture in the process.

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