Saturday, May 25, 2013

CHANGING OF THE GUARD: THE RISE OF ROY SHIRE - By Rock Rims


 

     It wasn’t any one thing that led to the decline of Joe Malcewicz as a wrestling promoter in Northern California, nor was it any one thing that led to the rise of Roy Shire as the new kingpin of that same area.

     Malcewicz had seen lots of things change in the wrestling business during his 30 years as a promoter but not much seemed to change about him.  While he had once carried the nickname “The Utica Cat”, Malcewicz was now often referred to as “Waffle Ears” which was an accurate description of his heavily cauliflowered ears but may have also been symbolic of the fact that Joe was as old school as it got.   While business wasn’t exactly in the toilet, it wasn’t what it once was and in Roy Shire’s mind, not what it could potentially be.

     While Malcewicz had run a show at the Cow Palace on March 22, 1955 that drew a crowd of 12,253 with Lou Thesz defending his NWA World title against Leo Nomellini, that was the exception.  His shows were regularly run at smaller venues on a weekly basis in San Francisco with crowds now running anywhere from 1500 to 3,000 each show.  While he sometimes brought in outside talent, he typically ran with the same old group of guys, few of which were notable, and the product had become somewhat stale.  It seemed that only the diehard fans were sticking around.

     In spite of this, Roy Shire was still in need of a crew to run in opposition to Malcewicz.  Not long before he rode into town Roy Shire took part in what is now considered a classic group photo.  It was a team photo of sorts which included Roy and several of his fellow wrestlers with whom he had worked in Indianapolis.  Taken in 1960, this photo would include several of the workers that Roy would recruit to work in his new San Francisco promotion.  They would comprise the first ingredient for what would become Roy’s recipe for success.  It was the ingredient of fresh faces that Malcewicz was sorely lacking in his promotion.

     Among those pictured in that classic photo and who would later work for Shire’s promotion were Kinji Shibuya, Pepper Gomez, Wilbur Snyder, Guy Brunetti, Mitsu Arakawa, Joe Brunetti, Cowboy Bob Ellis, and Ray Stevens.

A Young Ray Stevens
     Also, this initial use of outside talent would foreshadow the exchange of talent he would eventually engage in with promoters from other regions.  This is something that would contribute to fresh faces for fans in his territory, keeping the product fresh and increasing ticket sales.  And if the wrestler was someone of note whom some of the fans may have read about in the wrestling magazines, Roy would often use the incoming talent to get over his regular talent in one fashion or another.

     While he may have not been overly ambitious or forward thinking in the running of his territory, Malcewicz still wasn’t going to go down without some kind of fight.  I suppose it was kind of like the guy who’s been with the same woman for a while and doesn’t give his relationship the same type of attention and energy he once did.  However when competition surfaces and a new guy shows interest in his lady, he’s prepared to put up some kind of fight.  For while his interest may no longer be what it once was, it’s still HIS woman.

     For assistance in dealing with this new invader, Joe turned to bringing in visiting wrestlers to boost attendance, some of whom had worked for him before.  And one of the individuals he turned to had wrestled some shows for him at the Dreamland Auditorium in 1937.  And while he was no longer wrestling, this person could offer more potential help to Joe now than when he was sporting the wrestling tights.

     While Jules Strongbow enjoyed a successful career in the ring, he made an even larger impact when he retired and turned to promoting.  He had been booking matches at the Hollywood Legion Stadium in Southern California and was one of the faces of “Wrestling from Hollywood Legion Stadium”, the television show that would broadcast some of the matches from that venue.  In 1958 he joined forces with the husband and wife team of Cal and Eileen Eaton who were promoting boxing and wrestling at the Olympic Auditorium.  Strongbow would begin booking the wrestling shows at the Olympic in addition to the shows he was running out of Hollywood Legion Stadium.

     Jules was considered to be a genius promoter, and some of his roster made up some of the visiting talents on Malcewicz’s wrestling cards in 1961.  Some of the names appearing on those cards included Lord James Blears, Art Neilson, Vic Christy, Shag Thomas, Dick Hutton, and household names like Lou Thesz, Mr. Moto, and Freddie Blassie.  What would the results be for Joe?  Would his attendance increase?  Would Shire’s promotion bomb miserably and quickly fade away?

     The show that Joe ran on January 10, 1961 with the in-ring talent that Strongbow lent had an attendance of 4, 108.  While it was higher than average it was hardly spectacular and thereafter he would only top that mark on one occasion, with the other shows running an attendance between 1, 300 and 3, 200.  It would only be 10 days after this show that Shire would fire his first volley and would add the second ingredient to what would be his recipe for success.


The Idiot Box
 
       On November 11, 1947, in what Entertainment Weekly magazine would later name as one of the top 100 “Greatest Moments in Television”, many of the then 1,000,000 households that had television tuned in to watch Gorgeous George on the first televised wrestling broadcast.

     It seemed to be a marriage made in heaven as wrestling was cheap programming for television stations and in turn, television was a great way to promote wrestling events.  In particular, wrestling promotions in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago used the medium to make household names out of pro wrestlers like Gorgeous George, Lou Thesz, Argentina Rocca, Verne Gagne, Buddy Rogers, Freddie Blassie, Mr. Moto, and others.

     Jules Strongbow was certainly aware of this, as in the Los Angeles market, not only was he the host of his own televised wrestling show, but the Olympic Auditorium was broadcasting a weekly show too.  Also at one time other Southern California venues in Long Beach and Ocean Park had their own televised broadcasts as well.  Roy Shire was also well aware of the power of television.

      When Roy Shire was wrestling he was called “The Professor” and his character was presented as an individual of superior intelligence. And in real life Shire was both intelligent and astute enough to recognize the value of television in promoting a wrestling product and live events.  While I once knew an older gentleman whose wife referred to their television set as “that idiot box”, Shire knew different.

     Shire acquired television time and on January 20th, 1961, his “National All-Star Wrestling” television show debuted on the Bay area KTVU Television channel 2 on a Friday night.  Roy acquired tapes from the “Big Time Wrestling” promotion in Indianapolis and over the next 6 weeks Roy would expose fans to his wrestling product, familiarizing them with the wrestlers that he would be bringing in to his promotion.

     Finally, on March 4, 1961, the day of reckoning had arrived. Roy Shire’s “Big Time Wrestling” promotion would be running its first show at the San Francisco Cow Palace. Malcewicz, who had been promoting wrestling shows in the city without opposition for the last 30 years had just run a show a few days earlier in the city on February 28th, drawing a crowd of 2,892.  How would Shire fare with his new venture?  Would it end up being a “one shot” house show for his imported talent?

     Roy was taking no chances and stacked his first wrestling card at the Cow Palace, bringing in the up and coming Bruno Sammartino, booking a match between Argentina Rocca and Don Leo Jonathan, pitting Bill Melby against Mitsu Arakawa, and Verne Gagne vs. Angelo Savoldi.  And the main event featured Cowboy Bob Ellis against the man who would be his headlining heel for years to come, his former tag partner Ray Stevens.

     And the results? A wrestling event that has a special place in history and is still spoken of with reverence to this day; and an attendance of 16,553, with a standing room only count of 1,500 people.  3 days later Joe Malcewicz would run his next card in the city, drawing a crowd of 2,841 to see Dick Hutton take on Lou Thesz.

    Okay, it could’ve been a fluke right?  Maybe some saw Roy’s inaugural card as something of a novelty, especially since he brought in some famous names for a “one shot”.

     Perhaps that’s what Malcewicz was thinking too as Roy’s next show on March 30, 1961 “only” brought in 7,921 spectators, less than half of his inaugural show.   However Roy was still drawing about as many people to the Cow Palace show that he was running every three weeks as Joe was drawing to the 4 weekly shows combined that he was running at alternating venues.  And while the attendance numbers for Roy’s shows would begin to climb again, the same couldn’t be said for Joe’s.

 
The Genius

    
     Once while watching a classic episode of “The Three Stooges”, I laughed when after finding a “magic” lamp, “Larry” requested a wish from the “genius” of the lamp.  With the characters never being known for their intelligence (I mean they’re “Stooges,” right?) I figured that Larry in his ignorance thought he was correctly referring to the “genie” as “genius”.  But for some reason, I was curious about what he said, wondering if what I initially perceived to be an error of ignorance on his part wasn’t in fact an error at all.  I knew that “genie” was probably an English corruption of the word “jiin” which in Arabic meant “spirit”, a spirit who granted wishes, created.  And I soon found that two of the definitions of “genius”, were “creator”, and “someone or something that has influence over people”.  And when it came to creativity in a wrestling performance and exerting influence over the emotional involvement of the fans, Ray “The Crippler” Stevens epitomized the word “genius”.

     Historically, I think it’s safe to say that almost every wresting promotion has only been as good as its top heel.  Roy understood this well as he had previously formed a successful tag team partnership in the Midwest with his “brother” Ray Shire, who was in actuality Ray Stevens, who had begun wrestling professionally at the young age of 15.  And it would be Stevens who was to become the headlining heel of Roy’s “Big Time Wrestling” promotion and was introduced to Northern Californian wrestling fans as the “United States Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.”

     Beginning with that first Cow Palace Show that he main evented  defending his title against Cowboy Bob Ellis, Stevens would continue to be “Gold” for Roy Shire, having 11 titles reigns as the U.S. Champion. In addition he would also be a multiple time holder of the San Francisco version of the World tag team titles.

     Years later in an interview, wrestling’s “Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino said, “Ray Stevens was a great, great talent…I truly thought that Ray Stevens was just super, super great.  He was tremendous in the ring.  I will tell you this…everybody has their opinions about who is great and what have you.  I don’t see anybody around that I have seen that was better than Ray Stevens.” (1) Great praise indeed, especially when you consider that Sammartino isn’t known to throw praise in just anybody’s direction.

     And the praise and respect that Stevens earned from those in the industry and fans alike was well justified.  Employing great psychology in and out of the ring and drawing tremendous “heat” on the mic, Stevens drove the fans to clamor for live event tickets in hopes that a wrestling fan favorite would finally defeat him.  And with the way that Steven took bumps in the ring and really put over his opponent (while still managing to hold onto his title) the fans felt that at any given live event his opponent could wrest the title from him.

     And they all wanted to be there to see that.  And Stevens and Shire would continue to dangle that carrot as well as give the fans a great night of entertainment resulting in Stevens selling out the Cow Palace 10 times that he headlined and drawing 10,000 plus on more than 50 other occasions.  And that was in addition to selling out shows at the other towns in Shire’s territory which included such places as Oakland, Richmond, San Jose, Fresno, Watsonville, Sacramento, Stockton, Pleasanton, Santa Rosa, and Modesto.

     Knowing that when it came to wrestling angles, that delayed gratification for the fans equaled greater ticket sales, Roy Shire took his time in letting the storylines develop and play out.  “The problem is figuring out what can I do that the fans will buy…that will get another rematch.  Say your heel is the champion, wrestling a babyface.  Last fall.  Your champion goes into his finishing hold and slams the baby face into the ring post.  He blades himself, gets some heat.  Take the 20-count then comes back to beat the heel, your champion.  Thing is, in my territory, the ref is allowed to stop a fight on cuts.  He had stopped the fight.  Everybody thinks the baby face has won, but here comes the ref to announce he stopped the bout because the baby face was cut too badly to continue.  Almost have a riot.  The thing to do in this case is to bring them back for a rematch, bill it: ‘No stopping for blood.’” (2)

     Roy was meticulous in his plans and in the details, having a reputation for being controlling, hard to work for and often very abrasive.  However Shire also had a well deserved reputation for being a master at ring psychology and knowing how to book compelling angles. 


Roy Returns The Favor

 
     And it was those talents along with Ray Stevens, the perfect ring performer to help execute his plans that played a big part in Roy continuing to outdraw Joe Malcewicz.  And this occurred even with Southern Californian promoter Jules Strongbow helping out Joe.  Roy may have had this in mind when Johnny Doyle came knocking.

     Johnny Doyle was once the NWA representative in Southern California, and until 1954, he was also the premier booking agent in the area and represented many of the top wrestlers in the territory.  He was also part of a pro wrestling syndicate which included among others, Cal and Eileen Eaton, who promoted boxing and pro wrestling out of the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium.

     After a falling out with the Eatons in 1954, he left the area with the intentions of heading east, only to return in 1955 in a failed attempt to compete against the Eatons with his own Southern Californian wrestling promotion.  In 1957 he renewed his war with the Eatons, launching allegations that led to the Eatons being investigated for being part of a monopoly of the Southern California Wrestling scene.

     Years later the bad blood would remain and in late 1961, along with a couple of partners, he would launch another competing promotion in Southern California.  One of those partners was Bill Welsh, who had formerly been the commentator for Jules Strongbow’s television program broadcasting from Hollywood Legion Stadium.  Welsh also happened to be the original commentator for Roy Shire’s “National All-Star Wrestling” television program in the Bay area.

     What does all this have to do with Roy Shire?  Just as Shire did when first launching his “Big Time Wrestling” promotion, Doyle needed a crew to work his shows.  Perhaps he wanted to return the favor for Strongbow aiding Malcewicz with booking, or maybe he was looking to expand his interests into Southern California; whatever his reasons, Roy certainly lent Doyle a helping hand.

     Doyle was able to acquire television time on KTLA in order to promote his upcoming Oct. 7th show at the new Los Angeles Sports Arena, which had a larger audience capacity than the Olympic Auditorium where the Eaton/Strongbow combo ran their shows.  He ran 4 weekly television shows featuring Shire’s talent, and on the big day, his Sports Arena card was headlined by Ray Stevens vs. Ray Stern and Dick the Bruiser vs. Cowboy Bob Ellis.  Doyle and Shire weren’t taking any chances however and determined to blow the competition out of the water, they stacked the card deep.  As if those headliners weren’t enough, how about Killer Kowalski, Red Bastien, Wilbur Snyder, and Don Leo Jonathan?  How about Roy Shire himself donning the tights once again to take on Pepper Gomez?  However, Strongbow booked the Olympic Auditorium the night before with Freddie Blassie vs. Ricki Starr being on top.  What were the results of this head to head competition?

     In a card that would’ve easily sold out the Cow Palace, the Doyle/Shire booked card only attracted 4,000 fans.  Earlier in the year when Freddie Blassie and Ricki Starr had been involved in main events for Joe Malcewicz, those cards only drew around 3,000 fans each.  On October 6, 1961 at the Olympic Auditorium, that main even helped to attract a standing room only crowd of 12,138 when a sell out for the Olympic was 10,400.  Later in the month Doyle and Shire would try again, drawing 3,500 fans to the Sports Arena on October 28th, with a main event of Ray Stevens vs. Bobo Brazil.  The night before, Freddie Blassie beat Antonino Rocca by disqualification in front of an Olympic Auditorium crowd of 10,660.  The War was over and Roy headed back home, where his War up North would soon come to an end.

 
So Long Joe
 
    There’s something that I have to point out that’s very important.   In between those 2 L.A. Sports Arena shows, Roy had managed to run a show at the Cow Palace with his crew on October 21, 1961.  That show had an attendance of 12,000.  When the brief L.A. war was over, the first card that Roy held at the Cow Palace on November 11th also drew 12,000.  So why was Roy’s crew only able to draw a total of 7,500 between two shows at the Los Angeles Sports Arena?  For the same reason that Malcewicz was never able to draw more than those same numbers utilizing Strongbow’s crew.  Television.

     Or to be more precise, the lack of television exposure.  It wasn’t nearly so much about the talent on the cards as it was about the familiarity with and exposure to them that was necessary on the part of the fans.  Malcewicz didn’t utilize television while Roy did.   Even if Malcewicz had been the master booker that Shire was, it wouldn’t have mattered because hardly anyone would’ve been aware of it.  And while both Shire and Strongbow were unbelievably talented at what they did, Jules had the hands down edge in Los Angeles due to television.  Los Angeles had at least 2 television programs running at that time, while the 4 weeks of television that the Doyle/Shire group had was hardly enough to gain an emotional investment from the fans for their product.  And while the Bay area fans might have been tired of Joe's product and welcoming to "the New Kid in town", The L.A. fans hadn't come close to tiring of what they'd been witnessing at the Olympic Auditorium.

     Up North, 1961 drew to a close and “Big Time Wrestling” was continuing to thrive.  Ray Stevens was still drawing both the rage and the interest of the fans (not to mention their money), Roy Shire was increasing his dexterity as a puppeteer, manipulating all the right strings, and World tag team champions Mitsu Arakawa and Kinji Shibuya were wreaking havoc in the tag team division.  1962 opened with a bang for “Big Time Wrestling” as their 1st Cow Palace Show on January 13th drew an incredible crowd of 17,061.  Apparently the fire Marshalls had good seats for the show.

     17 days later, only 2,500 fans showed up to witness Ricki Starr defeat Mr. Moto, in what would be the last show that Joe Malcewicz would every promote.  On April 20, 1962, in his early 60’s, Joe Malcewicz would pass away.

     Contrary to speculation, Roy Shire did not run Joe Malcewicz out of business.  Bucking the system, Shire had ignored Malcewicz’ status as an NWA member and invaded Northern California with the backing of the AWA (from the Midwest, but not the one Verne Gagne ran), bucket loads of ideas and ambition, and a wrestling crew that would include one of the greatest workers of all time.

     You can’t stop progress, and perhaps realizing this, it may be the reason why the other promoters of the NWA did not send help to Malcewicz to fight off Renegade Roy.  Perhaps they knew that Joe’s old way of doing things had to move over and perhaps Joe may have known this too.  If he did, he may have been simply too old to change.  And perhaps, he was too tired too. 

     No, Roy didn’t run Joe out of business.  Joe ran out of ideas, out of ambition, and perhaps out of energy.  And in the end, Joe simply ran out of time.  – RR

 

Next time:  Every great villain deserves a great hero and things heat up as one is produced; and the “genius” gets a partner!

 

(1) Bruno Sammartino interview with Bob Ryder – June 1997

(2) Confessions of a Pro Wrestling Booker by Richard Hoffer, Times Staff Writer 1984

Doug McLeer provided some great pics of his Roy Shire memorabilia and I extend my thanks and appreciation for that;


Thanks to Tim Hornbaker of Legacyofwrestling.com for his in-depth research and match results which were of great help in piecing this puzzle together; As well as the folks at WrestlingClassics.com and Kayfabe memories, including “The Claw master” and Steve Yohe, for the hard work they put into coming up with match results; and the folks at prowrestling-titles.com for their comprehensive list of title changes.

4 comments:

  1. Hello,

    My name is Gavin Shropshire, the grandson of Roy Shire. My grandmother, Dorothy, passed away last January. I am doing my 7th grade history project on my grandpa and need to interview people that knew him. Would you be able to do a short interview over the phone or through email? Your help would be greatly appreciated. My mother's name is Shayne Cox and can be reached at (707) 889-7697 to set up the specifics.


    Thank you,

    Gavin Shropshire

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Gavin I apologize for not having seen your message before now. I am also sorry to hear that your grandmother Dorothy passed away. I would've loved to have helped you in any way with your project. If you are still ever in need of assistance with any info regarding your grand father, please let me know. You can also email me directly at Rockrims@aol.com

      Delete
  2. Hello,

    My name is Gavin Shropshire, the grandson of Roy Shire. My grandmother, Dorothy, passed away last January. I am doing my 7th grade history project on my grandpa and need to interview people that knew him. Would you be able to do a short interview over the phone or through email? Your help would be greatly appreciated. My mother's name is Shayne Cox and can be reached at (707) 889-7697 to set up the specifics.


    Thank you,

    Gavin Shropshire

    ReplyDelete
  3. Gavin, do you know if any of your grandfather's television wrestling matches still exist?Ray Stevens run in San Francisco is next to impossible to find.All I can find is his tag matches with Nick Bockwinkle,way passed when Ray's star shined brightest.It would be priceless to see some of the KTVU studio matches with Walt Harris hosting Friday night Big Time Wrestling.Thanks for any information.Doug Denslowe

    ReplyDelete