The Wrestlers

10:10 AM


Farmer Burns
I have mentioned the Burwood Theater before, but it was short-lived. It opened in 1906, had a local group of players that included Harold Lloyd, and then closed in 1908. Then it reopened as something else: The Gayety.

The Gayety’s producer's tastes tended toward lower-brow entertainment – the theater eventually became a burlesque house. But in their first years, they offered an entertainment that, while flamboyantly theatrical, is not something we tend to associate with the stage.

They offered wrestling.

Let me backtrack just a bit. I can’t provide the entire history of modern wrestling as entertainment, but I think I can give a sense of just how wild its early years were. It is important to note that there are two styles of wrestling in this country: Greco-Roman, which you’ll see in college athletics and in the Olympics, and a style suitably called Catch As Catch Can, which developed at fairs in Britain during the Victorian era.

The style was loose and florid, perfectly suited to performance, and quickly jumped the pond. Carnival wrestlers in the United States would challenge locals – a risky endeavor, as locals could sometimes be quite skilled in their own form of folk wrestling, especially recent immigrants. You didn’t want to spar with a fellow who just got off the boat from Ireland, as they had the Collar and Elbow style of grappling, which included a lot of kicking and tripping. You especially didn’t want to go face-to-face with a man versed in Lancashire wrestling, as they had no compunctions about dislocating your finger.

OMAHA WRESTLERS

Omaha has its own history of wrestling, which is probably worth its own blog, as we were the home of Farmer Burns Wrestling School, which was one of America’s first training grounds for Catch wrestlers, and were also the homes to such legendary professional wrestlers as Baron Von Raschke and Lance Cade. People have been wrestling in Omaha since at least February 13, 1879, when the Academy of Music set up a purse of $1,000 for a match between local boy Clarence Whistler and professional athlete Andre Christol. Whistler was a powerhouse  employee of the smelting works. Christol, in the meanwhile, had been a gymnast since he was 5 years old, was from France, and had a father who died in a wrestling match.

Whistler beat Christol, including completely flinging Christol over his head on two occasions. Christol was relying on the purse, and, finding himself broke, proposed a rematch, or that he box whoever was handy. He and Whistler grappled again that month, each winning a round and then becoming deadlocked for the third round, which lasted a whopping 58 minutes before the referee declared it a draw, with the whole match lasting one hour and forty-five minutes.

By the time the Gayety opened, wrestling had developed a bit of a circuit, with some recognizable names, and even public grudges. No longer were individual wrestlers pitted against burly locals; instead, wrestlers grappled with each other. The sport was still new enough that setting up these matches could be tricky, though, as the World-Herald reported on December 14, 1909. The new manager of the Gayety, E.L. Johnson, had wanted to start with a real splash: Stanislaus Zbyszko, the Polish strongman who was one of wrestling’s first superstars, a 5’8” and 260 pound mass of muscle who won the World Heavyweight championship two times.

Zbyszko was not available, though, so Johnson matched an enormous Dane from Iowa named Jess Westergaard against Charles August Fenby, a titanic German. In writing that echoes later wrestling rivalries, the World-Herald wrote that “Owing to the bickering that has been going on between Westergaard and the German behemoth, much professional jealousy has been engendered, and a hard-fought, vicious battle is bound to eventuate.”

How did it go? About as well as one would hope, as the World-Herald declared it “One of the hardest fought and most interesting mat battles ever pulled off in Omaha,” which is a pull quote I would love to see on a theater poster. I’ll let the newspaper tell of the fight:

“As was generally anticipated, the Iowan won in two straight falls, but at that it is doubtful if he ever had a tougher or busier session in his whole career. Fenby is a big, powerful fellow, and well versed in the science of the pad, and while he had Westergaard in a score of tight places, he was unable to pin his shoulder to the mat. One advantage enjoyed by the Dane was that he had the house with him, while the German had to content himself with the cheers of a limited bunch of followers. But his showing was remarkable and he never gave Westergaard a second’s rest – it was hammer and tongs from the moment they stepped on the pad until the referee slapped the victor on the back.”

This was just the first of many matches at the theater, as manager Johnson told the paper. “The next attraction … will be between two of the most refulgent stars in the grappling firmament,” Johnson said, and, again, what I would give to see these words as part of a theater’s self-promotion.

Zbyszko did make it to Omaha in early 1910, but he was too big a star for the Gayety, instead appearing  at a series of matches in Omaha’s auditorium, battling, in one instance, “The Monstrous Frenchman” De Rou’en, with an introductory match featuring Jensen and M’Cabe, “the heavy weight policemen.” Zbyszko made repeated trips to Omaha, and just following him back and forth to Omaha gives a sense of just how frequently wrestlers appeared in local theaters, as additional matches are often mentioned. A March 14, 1911 article mentions a wrestling match at Krug Theater between champion Frank Gotch and another fighter. Like the Gayety, the Krug was a frequent location for matches. In 1912, another story discusses a match at Boyd’s theater. For a short time, there didn’t seem to be a local theater that wouldn’t turn its stage over to occasional mortal combat.

(As an aside, I just want to mention the amazing name of a wrestler who appeared at Krug in 1913. The World-Herald describes him as a “mat terror” from Chicago, and he seems to have been an early example of a masked wrestler. His name? Mysterious Waffles.)

ONSTAGE AT THE GAYETY

Back to the Gayety in1909, the year of its opening, -- well, onward it went, wrestling on a Saturday, a Christmas show the following Friday (the William Grew company from St. Joseph, MO, presenting “The New Magdalene.”) On December 27 the theater brought to town Rice & Barton, two blackface comedians who eventually founded a burlesque troupe, and the following day they announced Iowa wrestler James Corbin had accepted the theater’s challenge to grapple with Iowa wrestler Bill Hokuff. On New Year's Day, the theater turned over the space to a local reverend, C. W. Savidge, for a public meeting. Savidge invited Omaha’s perpetual mayor, “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman, sending him a note reading “We want the sinners there, you know,” to which the mayor responded he would be there as long as Savidge was as well, writing “We want all the sinners there.”

In January, the Gayety began running ads in the World-Herald trumpeting their schedule, claiming “If it’s at the Gayety, it’s good!” “Devoted to Strictly High-Grade Extravaganza and Vaudeville,” the ad continued, which, even now, is the sort of claim that would make someone read the ad to see what qualifies. There was:

CLARK’S
RUNWAY GIRLS
Headed by
JACK REID
IN THE MAN FROM MAYO
With An All-Star Cast, Including
MISS ESTELLE ROSE
Just from Europe
FRANK L. WAKEFIELD
(Famous Dope Comedian)

And that’s a lot to unpack. “The Man from Mayo” was a burlesque of the style I have mentioned earlier in this blog, consisting of a comic play filled with comely women. Jack Reid, the lead, was an Irish dialect comic, while Estelle Rose was a multitalented vaudeville performer from England who did impressions and sang. Wakefield, in the meanwhile, made a career out of playing a dope fiend, and the show had already attracted my interest, but, with the addition of a drug comic, it now has my attention.

But that wasn’t all! The ad continued:

And for good measure here is
SOME vaudeville:

Baxter and La Conda Acrobatic Dancers
Pinard and Manny Musical Comedians
National Quartette Singers Par Excellence
Perry and Elliot Seaside Chappies
And as an added starter
ELLA REID GILBERT

Seaside chappies? Buddy, you have just sold a ticket.

So this was the Gayety, alternating between these sorts of traveling variety shows and wrestling, and the wrestling continued apace. The first ever black Heavyweight world champion, Jack Johnson, who the World-Herald called “the most unique figure fistiana has even produced,” appeared at the Gayety in April of 1910 and the theater made sure to have a few wrestling matches to accompany him.

Champion wrestler Frank Gotch wrote a letter to the World-Herald in February of 1911 that sounds like every single pre- and post-match wrestling interview I heard on television in the 1970s: “As you are aware, I wrestle Baba Managoff, one of the innumerable Terrible Turks, at the Gayety theater next Saturday night, February 11, in you city, and while I know he is big and strong and clever, I am going to throw him so fast that it will make his head swim.”

“A rough game requires rough work,” he added.

Later that February, Omaha’s Farmer Burns, who was turning 50, retired from the sport on the stage of the Gayety by offering a demonstration of his wrestling skills, along with Professor Simmer, “the world’s strongest human,” who both demonstrated feats of physical strength and gave a lecture on physical training. It was an auspicious event for the Gayety – Farmer Burns was then a grand old man of wrestling, and had done much to popularize the sport, and the event signified the end of an era. Burns had trained Gotch, and he had and would go on to train 1,600 wrestlers total, including two world champions.

He was also a man with a  very thick neck. Twenty inches. He used to have men hang him by his massive neck, and he would affect look of indifference, whistling “Yankee Doodle.” This is from Wikipedia, and the entry cites a WWE article, and so it sounds like a tall tale, even if there are photos of Burns with a noose around his neck. But Burns itself claimed it was true in 1931 in a World-Herald article. He said it had happened in Rockford, Ill, although the hangman would only drop him eight and a half inches. “I wanted to go the whole six feet but they were so scared they wouldn’t let me try it,” he complained.

I mention this because it just makes it so fitting that Farmer Burns retired at that Gayety. After all, the man understood what makes great theater.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.