East Carondelet, Illinois is a small town of less than 500 residents on the Eastern bank of the Mississippi River. It's a sleepy community of a few local businesses and modest homes populated by blue collar workers, and it's located a stone's throw, yet a world away from metropolitan St. Louis, Missouri. With the river to it's west side and undeveloped land to it's north and south, the only road into town crosses a giant railroad yard, so if you try to enter town, as I did, at a certain time, East Carondelet is literally on the wrong side of the tracks, and all there is to do is wait the train out before you can cross into the city limits.
The Community Center is a small, one story white structure that serves a number of purposes, one being to house the town's fire department, complete with two fire engines on one side, and a large room on the other that once every month or so becomes a wrestling arena. Due to the burdensome taxes and regulations imposed by Missouri's athletic commission, pretty much all independent wrestling in the area now takes place in southern Illinois, but only one wrestling promotion runs the East Carondelet Community Center--Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling. SICW exists because of two men--promoter Herb Simmons, a 40 year veteran of running wrestling events all over the state of Illinois, who also serves as Mayor of East Carondelet, head of the emergency 911 phone system and a few other civic duties as well, and Larry Matysik, the right hand man to St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick from 1960 until 1982, promoter in his own right after that, conservator of St. Louis' glorious wrestling history, and SICW booker.
SICW has been running monthly events in this particular location for a decade, but you'd be hard pressed to find two men with more experience in the grappling game in any promotion on earth. Their TV show, shot with one camera and hosted by Matysik, has run on the local cable system for over 170 consecutive episodes, and is available worldwide on You Tube. They have no website, but every wrestling fan in town and in the area knows the number to call for ticket reservations, as better than half the 300 seats that can fit in the rectangular room with the 16 foot square ring are always taken in advance. The rest, on the night I visited, were quickly snatched up at the door, along with about 50 people standing anywhere they could find 18 square inches to do so. The food concessions, PA system and TV equipment are run by both family members of Simmons and those bitten by the wrestling bug and who wish to serve apprenticeships under men who know how to do things the right way. There were no security issues--the police come by to watch the matches, and probably know every person in the room personally--and the fire marshall is not an issue since the event is, technically at least, taking place INSIDE the Fire Department and being presided over by the Mayor. Thus, nearly 70 percent of the residents of East Carondelet along with a few diehard, old-school wrestling fans from St. Louis coexisted peacefully on May 17, 2014 with almost three dozen wrestlers, referees and support personnel to celebrate the same reason I was appearing--the 55th anniversary of the debut of Wrestling at the Chase, one of the most famous pro wrestling TV shows in the sport's entire history.
Wrestling at the Chase was so named because it emanated from the opulent Khorassan ballroom at the St.Louis Chase-Park Plaza hotel, a city landmark, and aired on KPLR-TV channel 11, which signed on the air in April 1959 as one of the early "independent", or non-network affiliated, TV stations in the US. It's owner, real estate and hotel magnate Harold Koplar, had agreed to begin broadcasting a pro wrestling show after a chance meeting with the father of St. Louis wrestling, Sam Muchnick, on an airplane months earlier. The legend, apparently true, is that the contract had been sketched out on an airplane napkin. It would prove to be one of the most valuable contracts ever signed in the wrestling industry.
Pro wrestling was not new in the Gateway City in 1959--indeed, if the history of wrestling in St. Louis had ended in that year, it would still be a remarkable story. Going back to the early years of the 20th century, the city hosted, and gave birth to, some of the greats of the game. Lou Thesz, the son of a Hungarian shoemaker, was born Lajos Tiza there in 1916. Russian-born Pete Sauer changed his name to Ray Steele and defeated American football legend Bronko Nagurski for the World's Heavyweight Wrestling Championship in St. Louis in 1940, and became a mentor to young Thesz as well, along with another Hall of Famer and multi-time World Champ named Ed "Strangler" Lewis, who made the city his base of operations for years. During the period of World War 2, when pro wrestling was down and nearly out in some places due to the war effort and a series of newspaper "exposes" in the late 30's, St. Louis became the biggest-drawing wrestling city in the country underneath a name oft-forgotten in modern wrestling--Wild Bill Longson, the originator of the piledriver hold and one of the sport's first true "heels". In the war years 1941-45, Longson headlined 58 events in the city that drew a total of 573,671 fans--an average of nearly 10,000 per card in the venerable, 11,000 seat Kiel Auditorium. Tom Packs, a Greek transplant to Chicago who had witnessed the two Gotch-Hackenschmidt classics there, moved to St. Louis and began promoting wrestling in 1922, and presided over the grunt & groaners until the late 1940's, along the way hiring a young baseball writer named Sam Muchnick in 1932, and in doing so changing the face of the sport forever.
Muchnick was a respected sportswriter for the Chicago Times who had befriended Thesz and Lewis at a local gym, and when the Times folded, took the job as Packs' assistant. After a decade, Sam's plans to run his own promotion were stalled by WW2, but on December 5, 1945, he ran the first of what was to be an uninterrupted string of regular cards for the next 36 years. Competing with the established Packs office for the first few years, then with Thesz when Lou's father Martin bought Packs out (on paper at least, Lou was the man running the show), Muchnick drew his first Kiel sellout on February 4, 1949 when Buddy Rogers battled Don Eagle. When hostilities were settled and the two clubs joined forces, a Muchnick-promoted card topped by Thesz vs. Rogers on March 16, 1951 drew 17,000 to the St. Louis Arena, which at the time of it's construction was behind only Madison Square Garden as the largest indoor facility in the country.
The merging of the Thesz and Muchnick factions occurred at about the same time as what was arguably Sam's greatest achievement--the formation of a cooperative of promoters that was called the National Wrestling Alliance. Coming from a "real sports" background, it was Sam's desire, even his quest, to see the game recognize one undisputed world champion, and to be presented as legitimately as possible for the greater good of business. This approach, as well as Muchnick's political connections and the respect he had as a clean man in a sometimes dirty game, served the sport well during a late 1950's investigation by the US Justice Department. The government was investigating charges that wrestling had become an illegal monopoly--by strict definition, it both was and wasn't--but while the consent decree signed by a number of promoters was sealed publicly, the facts bear out that Sam Muchnick, who negotiated said decree, literally saved pro wrestling in the US and allowed it to enter the modern era. Muchnick, as President of the NWA for it's first 20 years of existence, was the most powerful man in the game during the 1950's, and his only competition for that title in the 60's and 70's may have been Vince McMahon, Sr--although for sheer influence and respect, the spot was Sam's, hands down.
Sam's reputation amongst the fans was impeccable--no-shows on his advertised cards almost never occurred, and when they did, the stories of heaven and earth being moved to get suitable replacements into town in time are legendary. The lengths that some top grapplers went to in order to make shows in snow, ice, severe weather and times of tribulation were a tribute to the respect and power Sam held. Notably, when Superstar Billy Graham was one of the biggest stars in the sport, he no-showed a card with no prior notice or explanation after the fact, and his photo was promptly removed from the office walls, and he was not booked again--ever. Pro wrestling in St. Louis was presented as legitimate sport, with gimmicks, shady finishes and outlandish characters being held to a bare minimum or barred altogether, and as a result fans of the game in the city came from all walks of life--blue collar workers to bankers, bricklayers to lawyers and politicians. Sam, as NWA President, would gladly do business with Ed Farhat as the NWA affiliated promoter in Detroit, but Farhat's alter-ego, the Sheik, was booked into St. Louis only a few times, as even though he was the biggest box office heel in the sport, his bloody, uncontrollable, foreign object-laden style was the antithesis of the sport Sam presented.
Sam's reputation amongst the wrestlers worldwide was even more amazing, a tribute to his honesty and the tight business ship he ran. Indianapolis promoter Richard Afflis, known by his wrestling nom-de-guerre of Dick the Bruiser, one of Sam's closest friends and one of the biggest gate attractions in wrestling for twenty years, related a story in Matysik's book, "Wrestling at the Chase", that was indicative of Sam's integrity as a promoter. Whereas every other promoter gave their wrestlers a payoff they could either like or lump, and they could only guess as to the formula used to come up with that figure, Sam was different. Muchnick paid talent 32% of the after-tax gate, 16% to the main event, and 16% divided amongst the rest of the card. After one main event, Bruiser said, "My payoff was to be something like $825.16. In those days, the 60's, Sam always paid cash. In my envelope was the box office statement, the tax breakdown, a bunch of bills (paper money)--and sixteen cents in change." This practice continued into the early 80's, where, according to office records I possess, an NWA World Title match on a sellout in St. Louis was worth better than SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS to the champion and challenger--for one night's work on a house show! In 1953, a union strike caused the Kiel to be shut down after the wrestlers had already arrived in town, forcing a cancellation. Sam refunded the fans' ticket money at the door, then called the wrestlers to his office to pay them for coming, despite the card being called off. To a man, they refused the money.
St. Louis was also unique in American wrestling as it was not a "territory", a group of cities run by the same promoter with TV in each market and a talent roster of wrestlers used in every location, but a "stand-alone" city, where the neighboring Kansas City territory provided the preliminary talent, and the top matches were comprised of main event stars flown in from any and everywhere they may be working to headline the Muchnick cards. This led to unusual, even unique matchups--a great example of which was the legendary series for the NWA Title in the early 80's between Ric Flair, the first World Champ of the NWA's "modern era", and challenger Bruiser Brody, one of the top gate attractions in the city's history. Brody, the most notable example ever of a true "independent", made much of his money in Japan, never worked any one territory at a time, and was notoriously difficult for promoters to control--but he brought his best behavior and working boots for St. Louis. Years later, Flair would tell me repeatedly what a "magic" city St. Louis was, and what an honor it was to wrestle there--high praise for someone who had literally main evented everywhere that presented pro wrestling.
Wrestling at the Chase, as a TV program, was presented in the same fashion as the Kiel events. Although it was telecast from the chandelier-laden Khorassan, with ringsiders in gowns and evening wear, for only the first decade of it's existence before moving to the KPLR studios in the same complex due to scheduling reasons, the TV show kept the name as it had become iconic in the area. Ratings often topped 100,000 viewers per week, with only pro baseball and the local news drawing more viewers in St. Louis among locally produced programming. The waiting list for one of the 350 or so available tickets was three to four months long. The first host was former pro baseball player and local sportscaster Joe Garagiola, later to become one of the most famous TV personalities in the United States as sportscaster for network baseball and host of NBC's "Today" show for decades. Other hosts included Joe's brother Mickey and finally, in the early 70's, Larry Matysik, who had served as Muchnick's second in command since a teenager nabbing his first job as a PR man for the wrestling office. Larry was also responsible for writing decades of the "Wrestling" news programs for the Kiel cards that have become highly prized collector's items. The 4 page pamphlets read like the sports section of a newspaper, literate and legitimate, and at one time had a subscriber base of over 4,000 copies per issue, along with sales at the arenas.
The glory years of wrestling in St. Louis came to an end on January 1, 1982, with a card at the Checkerdome (formerly the St. Louis Arena) that Thesz and Rogers had headlined in 1951. It was billed as Sam Muchnick's retirement show, and nearly half of the sellout 19,819 fans in attendence had bought their tickets before even one match was announced. Sam's retirement after 50 years in wrestling had been hastened by the death of his wife Helen the year before. On that fateful New Year's night, Ric Flair defeated Dusty Rhodes in two out of three falls for the NWA World Title with former champion and St. Louis legend Gene Kiniski as referee. Also on the card were St. Louis icons Dick The Bruiser, Pat O'Connor, and Harley Race. But the star of the show was Muchnick, and it was not only the fans that came out in force to see him off. Special guests at the presentation to Sam at intermission included the sports editors of the daily newspapers, the sports directors of the local TV stations, representatives of the mayor's office, the Missouri Senate and House of Representatives, and local team owners from the baseball and hockey worlds. Also on hand were wrestling promoters Verne Gagne, Wally Karbo, Frank Tunney and others, as well as Joe Garagiola himself. None of the special guests were paid--all were there to bid farewell to the biggest legend of them all.
The St. Louis Wrestling Club continued on with Muchnick's partners Pat O'Connor, Harley Race and Bob Geigel at the helm, but business dropped drastically by the following year as more "traditional" wrestling practices--Disqualifications in main events, no-shows and more "gimmicky" finishes came into play. Matysik left to start his own promotion, often using good friend Bruiser Brody, but when 1984 came and St. Louis TV was the first Vince McMahon bought out from under the local promotion when starting his expansion, the writing was on the wall. Matysik even worked with McMahon as a local promoter in the area on and off for another decade, but there couldn't be two men from more differing schools of thought with disparate views of what pro wrestling should be, and that relationship ended. Jim Crockett Promotions ran highly successful shows in St. Louis in the mid-80's, but we all know what became of the NWA name and reputation once Turner Broadcasting bought Crockett out. Over the last 25 years wrestling has changed drastically, affecting no place more so than St. Louis, once the bastion of the sport's credibility.
It was with all this in mind that we found ourselves in East Carondelet in 2014, celebrating an anniversary that, if not for Simmons and Matysik, would have gone largely unnoticed in an area that once would have filled a major arena to see it. The card was a mix of local, unsung talent, rookies and "greenhorns" with dreams of future stardom mixed with guys who came just-that-close to breaking into the national spotlight, like big Ron Powers, a 25 year veteran who was a protege of Brody's right before his death, and Flash Flanagan, a former Ohio Valley Wrestling champion and standout who almost made it as one of the stars of the early WWE developmental program. Jake Dirden was there, a youngster who emulates Brody in look and work, even though he was probably 5 years old when Brody was killed in Puerto Rico, but for fifteen minutes he channeled the big Texan in his match with people standing and barking for his comeback the same way thousands did three decades ago for Brody. I had a verbal showdown with local manager Travis Cook, who in the 1980's would have been sought after by any number of promoters for his promo and heat-getting abilities. The fans packing the Community Center loved all of the action, and so did I--as it was presented the way Sam Muchnick would have approved of, classic, old-fashioned wrestling with guys that knew how to work, free of crazy gimmicks, over-the-top sexuality or profane promos, and kept in the ring where winners and losers really matter. It's a tribute to the respect that everyone on the card have for Herb Simmons and Larry Matysik that they came with their working boots on, ready to perform, just as the biggest stars in the game did for Sam Muchnick across the river for five decades. Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling keeps that tradition alive, and for a disgruntled old veteran like me, there wasn't anywhere I'd rather be on that night than the quiet little village on the banks of the Mississippi where the ghosts of greatness still live.