When it comes to giddy love and silly escapades, answered prayers and crazy dreams, I think I’ve had a pretty decent ride.
And while I wouldn’t exactly label a lot of the things I’ve done items to ever brag about, much less put on anyone’s life inventory, some of my adventures have absolutely fit the definition of a bucket list. That is, experiences or achievements that a person hopes to accomplish before dying, or “kicking the bucket.”
Indeed, I’ve been lucky enough to gaze at the slow motion movement of the Yangtze River in China, and to chant at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, which is as absolutely magnificent in person as I had thought it might be. I’ve wandered down a sunny, snow-capped mountain in the Swiss Alps alongside cattle wearing clanging cowbells around their necks, and meandered through ancient churches in Georgia, a few hours from the Black Sea. Still better, a lot of these overseas trips were for work, so they weren’t even on my dime.
On the domestic front, I graduated from college, which my first generation American parents could never have hoped for for themselves, and then moved to New York City where I lived in the East Village when it was cheap and definitely not trendy. Better yet—despite a few fumbles—I was able to made my living there writing for magazines. Back in Hollywood, I helped solve true crimes as a researcher and producer for a few network television shows. (Oh, and then there’s that movie I wrote. Shameless plug: if so inclined, check it out at www.botsomovie.com and then LIKE us on Facebook). I also married and brought a baby home, although not in that order. And of course, thanks to Ringling Brothers Clown College, I got to buffoon my way across the United States as a professional circus clown.
As of last month, I now have a completely unexpected life event to add to my list.
For the first time ever, I went to a wrestling match.
To be clear, this is not what one would see in a high school or college gym, where participants writhe and sweat on mats, and can get hurt, really hurt, sometimes permanently. What I’m talking about is more of a wrestling show, and come to think of it, not completely unlike the clown bits seen in a circus.
In fact, the first wrestlers of this genre were all about a wink and a smile.
That was in the 1940s and ‘50s, now referred to as The Golden Age of Wrestling. There was Dick the Bruiser, Bobo Brazil and Killer Kowalski, but by most accounts, the undisputed king was Gorgeous George, nee George Raymond Wagner, born in Nebraska in 1915. In the ring, George boasted a unique and much exaggerated ultra-effeminate persona, a character that he only began to create after an okay career as an amateur wrestler.
In fact, George’s “gorgeous” career didn’t really take off until he met a savvy Los Angeles promoter who understood the power of clowning.
He convinced George to grow his curly hair long and dye it platinum blond, with the piece de resistance of those locks the gold-plated bobby pins that George named “Georgie Pins.” Much like Elvis and his scarves decades later, George would enter the ring and then, slowly and with a flair all his own, remove several of the pins, which he lovingly tossed to his fans.
George was also the first wrestler to use entrance music, strolling into the show to the noble sounds of Pomp and Circumstance, all the while wearing elegant, custom designed robes and capes with sequins. All of this over-the-top tomfoolery also made George one of television’s first stars, right alongside Milton Berle, Lucille Ball and Bob Hope (who personally donated hundreds of robes to George’s collection). In fact, at his height, George was earning more than $100,000 per year, which back then also made him the highest paid athlete in the world. (You can see George in all of his flamboyant splendor with this clip, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYq_FVXdg84)
The far more modest event I attended—called Shamrock Slam—took place at night in a tired hotel banquet room near a small regional airport. The 200 or spectators were mostly made up of young working class males, many in duck billed caps, along with a surprising number of children, including a redhead with a pixie cut who wore a dominatrix ensemble. I can’t imagine that any of them have ever attended a film festival, dined at a four-star restaurant or made a pledge to National Public Radio, but what do I know?
The performers themselves were a dozen or so wrestlers who are all part of a league here in California called Vendetta Pro Wrestling (find out more, no surprise here, at www.vendettaprowrestling.com). Sanctioned by the National Wrestling Alliance, better known as the NWA, this group of men and women kept my daughter and I thoroughly entertained for nearly three hours with their slapping, stomping and yelling, which were pretty much all well-executed bogus moves (all the while knowing that everyone knew they were faking). The costumes—legions of rhinestones, faux fur and loud colors, so much like the circus costumes I used to wear—were pretty fun, too.
The festivities began with a match starring a tall long-haired man sporting a neatly trimmed beard, and wearing what appeared to be a gently used, church choir robe.
He was also a clutching a large black Bible and called himself The Apostle. Ever so carefully putting down the Holy Book and then removing the ethereal outer garment, his glittery gold wrestling shorts revealed two large appliqued crucifixes, one for each well-muscled calf. Other characters of the night included a preppie wrestler with a white cardigan draped around his shoulders who pretended to daintily sip tea, complete with extended pinkie finger; identical ponytailed twins each unfurling huge Canadian flags, and a plump but athletic woman with garish, heavy black and blue makeup and matching pigtails.
But I had come for Ricky Ruffin.
Ricky, who was shirtless but wore a snazzy lavender suit with matching print vest, has been gently nagging me to come see a show for more than a year now. During intermission, he circled the perimeter of the banquet room, graciously posing for photos with several groups of children and adults. It was clear that the audience knew him and adored him. And when Ricky finally trotted into the ring, prancing and dancing and smiling to Motown music, and then effortlessly flipped his opponent on his back, over and over again onto the floor, the fans went wild. (For the record, a Vendetta wrestler trains to take these kind of poundings by letting the brunt of the fall spread over his entire back, as well as stretching out his arms overhead just as he hits the ground.) Of course, I know Ricky as 27-year-old Roy Bean.
Bean is a man whose daytime job seems to have nothing at all to do with his wrestling persona: he has worked for more than four years with autistic and other developmentally delayed kids and young adults. I’ve seen Bean in action in this arena as well, and here, too, children absolutely adore him. Roy loves both of his jobs, and works hard at both of them.
When Shamrock Slam ended, Ricky/Roy, as well as several other wrestling buddies, came out, still in costume, to greet us. They wanted to know, truly wanted to know, if we enjoyed the show. Politely, they asked us to come again, and they wished us a safe drive home.
Going to a wrestling show was not something I ever thought I would experience, or for that matter, even want to experience.
But I’m so glad I did, and besides, it’s one more check mark off that list.
Thank you for the invitation, Mr. Ruffin and Mr. Bean. Here’s to lives that, for all of us, need to have than a few out-of-the-box adventures; be well lived, and filled with laughter.
What sort of unexpected experiences have you had? Please tell me about them!
Wrestling Makes the Bucket List
4/18/2015 03:30:48 pm
Brought back memories. As a Cub Scout in the late '50s our troup regularly attended "Big Time Wrestling" at the Akron Armory cheering for our favorites and jeering at the "bad" guys. Great fun for a group of 10 year old boys and their dads.
4/19/2015 03:41:08 am
Much better than being out in the woods and having to learn how to build a fire from a mirror! :)
4/28/2015 11:39:31 am
Yow, unexpected experiences, eh? A half-dozen somewhat spectacular car wrecks come to mind, including one in a truck while I was covering a huge brush fire near Sacramento once. My photographer was driving, and he had bad eyesight in smoke -- yeah, go figure -- and he hit a flaming telephone pole in the middle of the road. We went airborne and crashed into the flames on the side of the road, where all four tires exploded and hurled us back into the air. Only casualty was the truck.
5/3/2015 03:37:04 pm
hat sounded fun! It reminds a bit of when I used go watch the demolition derby at Saugus Motor Speedway in the late '70s and early '80s, and roller derby (Go, L.A T-birds!!) around the same time. You never know sometimes what you'll like or not until you actually give it a chance.
4/19/2015 06:33:03 am
4/19/2015 06:56:57 am
5/4/2015 02:26:45 am
For Kevin and Susan -- Wow, Kev, what a surreal experience! And Susan, yes, your point is my point exactly. Sometimes, you never know if you'll like (or not like) something until you experience it!
4/19/2015 06:43:26 am
4/19/2015 06:58:46 am
Thank you, Toto. I absolutely love all of the similarities--plus the fact that, just like circus clowning, audiences can see this entertainment up front and in person. People actually get to TALK to EACH OTHER. No technology required! :)
4/19/2015 09:15:55 am
Hilary I really enjoyed going with you and Katie to the wrestling match. One of the characters I enjoyed watching there was the bouncer. He looked like he was out of the movie "The Godfather". He was wearing a tired old black suit and he never had an expression on his face. The people in the audience were almost as interesting as the wrestlers. I would go again.
4/19/2015 10:18:39 am
He *did* look pretty menacing... hard to know whether that was an act or not!
4/19/2015 09:25:17 am
At first I didn't think I would find this subject of interest. But I'm glad you asked me to read it. It was very interesting to discover the commonality of clowning and wrestling. Jerry and I both remember seeing Gorgeous George on TV when we were growing up. Jerry says his father once took him to a big wrestling match at the Cleveland Arena when he was a kid. He remembers one of the wrestlers getting really hurt and taken away to the hospital( he supposes).
4/19/2015 01:55:16 pm
If that wrestler did get really hurt, and who knows if the injury wasn't just part of the show, he wasn't properly trained. I'm not a fan of "traditional" wrestling but this event was really FUN. :)
4/19/2015 03:01:25 pm
Go BOTSO! Inspiring!
4/20/2015 01:59:30 am
4/20/2015 04:33:45 am
While strolling on the Atlantic City Boardwalk back in the early '80s I saw a sign stating that the professional wrestlers had a show that evening. I was up for a new adventure and took my 3 boys in for a show. We sat in the front row and were quite amused (at least I was)! From that day on, when ever I'm scanning the channels on TV, I will stop for a few minutes to reminisce how much fun it was! But for some reason, now I can't quite watch a whole show!
4/20/2015 07:07:19 am
So cool that you, too, have experienced a show in person, and like us, in ringside seats. Regarding watching an entire show, I totally get that. Shamrock Slam was more than three hours long; I would have been happy, and I think the audience would have been just as satisfied, if an hour had been cut. :)
4/21/2015 12:51:38 am
Colorful characters and exciting family entertainment, sounds like.
4/21/2015 02:39:03 am
Yes, indeed! If you haven't had a chance to read the comment by my fellow clown Toto, please do... this kind of wrestling, and clowning, have MUCH in common. :)
4/23/2015 05:18:47 pm
Well, slam me down would ya! I've never been to a wrestling match but I've watched bits and pieces on TV. Those times I did watch for a few moments (I'm really not a fan) I found myself longing for the unexpected. I could see that the moves were carefully orchestrated and I'm like "man you gotta be kidding me?" I spent some of my youth on the east side of New York at a time when fighting on the streets were a regular occurrences. These fights began with the "putting-up-of-dukes" but would amazingly end in wrestling. Something very powerful about slamming another being to the earth and then stomping on them. Oh! the dominant beast would arise in one of the two and become the victor. Like the Roman citizens of centuries past, we chanted, oohed and ahhhed, and demanded to see some blood! Our expectations were unrealized as our corner coliseums were always disbanded by some beat cop. Unexpectedly, I became the subject of an impromptu wrestling match. It's no fun being in the center I found out. "How to get out of this?; I thought." I never prayed so hard in my life. I was only going to the little girls room- literally. It was lunch time and I was a student in one of the toughest middle schools in East Harlem. One that boasted the presence of a Puerto Rican gang and a Black gang; each having turf and fighting for bragging rights. Anyway, I had for a moment forgotten to be vigilant. I had entered the bathroom and given my would be opponents the opportunity to corner me. While I tinkled, they silently entered and took their seats on top of the stalls and window sills. They wanted a match and I was going to be part of it. Hearsay was the charge. I repeated over and over again my innocence but it wasn't enough. They wanted a match. There must be blood! Suddenly, my friend ( I thought) step up and out. "I said it, now what?, she said. "Oh my God," I thought to myself. This was a new girl on the block, we were friendly and she was my first lesson in betrayal. Funny how that works, you don't know betrayal until you feel it. Tiny are the cares of adolescence in retrospect but very significant are the lessons. This was so terribly unexpected and equally painful. But, I had an even greater problem. "How do I get out of a bathroom filled with blood thirsty teenage gang girls?" With the deadbolt door locked from the inside and the knowledge that some had razors, I was seriously concerned about my face. "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!" I was praying for salvation from this situation. I can't account for what happened but I know I grabbed my betrayer and held her up against the wall. She stared straight at me; her huge eyes bulging with fear. I could hear the "oohs" and "ahhs" as I came to myself; "What had I done?, how did I pick up this plus size betrayer? She was bigger than me. I don't know. But, I am a lover not a fighter so I straightened out her ruffled clothes and dared to turn around to walk out. The gang parted like the Red Sea. I felt powerful, I had respect but I was still somehow expected to pulverize my betrayer to establish my street credibility. It wasn't in me. The will to destroy or bruise a creation of God. This was an unexpected experience as unpleasant as it was, I am still in awe of my deliverance from that moment. I am not comfortable with unexpected delights. I have learned to expect that I will experience delightful experiences daily. You, Hilary have been one of those delightful expectations that lay around the corner at every turn. I wished that I could have had more of a love of wrestling. I've been told that it was my Great-mother-in-law's favorite pastime. If she were here I'm sure she could tell me a thing or two.
4/24/2015 09:15:46 am
OH MY GOSH -- what a story.
4/30/2015 10:24:55 am
You always transfix me with your great writing. I have an unexpected experience to share!! I was once in S.F. on a business trip and decided to leave my hotel room to take a walk. Next thing you know, I was smack dab in the middle of a full fledged protest (one of the very first Occupy Wall Street rallies... complete with signs, costumes, etc.). I had half a mind to run back to my hotel room to try to fashion a sign of my own, but enjoyed being in the fray nonetheless.
4/30/2015 02:52:01 pm
THAT is a great story--getting swept up in a protest! Reminds me when the BOTSO crew went to the Tbilisi Film Festival in December 2013, and one night, we were going to be taken by bus to some event. We were informed that we were all going to a protest first. Huh? Yup, it was to protest the very first movie theatre building still standing in Tbilisi--and the current owners were going to tear it down. Tom, the BOTSO director, actually got on Georgian television that night talking about the need to keep it! :)
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Hilary Roberts Grant
Journalist, editor, filmmaker, foodie--and a clown!