Monday, March 24, 2014


Enrique Torres by S. Montgomery
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, yet some seem to be worth much more than that, not only in terms of words, but in terms of emotions stirred and memories reawakened. They have the power to capture a moment, a place in time, whether those moments are a part of history at large, or in our own personal histories. They can bring back not just the sights, but the sounds, the scents, and the atmosphere of the event they capture. The have the power to remind us, and they have the power to move us.

     Great photography is an art, and the ability to take a great picture is a skill which not all possess, just as not all can skillfully wield an artist's brush. While I wish I could capture through a camera's lens what great photographers are able to, I don't have that gift, yet it is not jealousy I feel for their talents, but admiration. Their work need not be displayed in a museum to be appreciated, for it's not the venue or medium in which they appear that make them art. It's their ability to stir the imagination and inspire us that does.

     In the world of professional wrestling there have been photographers whose work has stood out, work which has proven to be timeless, work which in a mere moment brings flooding back to our minds all the reasons why we became fans of pro wrestling, and why for some of us, we have remained fans for many years.

     Their have been many great wrestling photographers over the years, with Tony Lanza, Theo Ehret, George Napolitano, Bill Apter, Gene Gordon, Dan Westbrook, Koichi Yoshizawa, Mike Lano, Viktor Berry and Jim Fitzpatrick being some of the individuals whose work graced the wrestling magazines and wrestling arena programs during professional wrestling’s territory days.  And the first time I laid eyes on the work of photographer Shirlie Montgomery, it was as if I had discovered the time machine I had always longed for since I was a child. For Montgomery, her camera was her paint brush and the world was her landscape. And in the beginning, her world was San Jose, California.


Girl Photographer


     “Can’t” was very likely a word that Shirlie Montgomery never learned the meaning of during her 94 years on planet earth.  Born in 1918 in San Jose, California, located 45 miles from San Francisco, she would eventually travel to various parts of the world, but for her, the center of her world would always be San Jose.

     She was an only child and although it might be accurate to call her a “Daddy’s Girl”, she was anything but sheltered as she gladly trudged along with him on hunting and fishing trips and to sporting events such as boxing and wrestling.  She would never fit within the confines of what a girl “was supposed to be like and enjoy” and nothing she took interest in or captured her imagination was considered to be off-limits.  Her longtime friend Kirk McCelland hit the nail on the head when he described her as “fiercely independent.”

     Growing up during the great depression and World War II, Shirlie would witness the transformation of San Jose from an agricultural town to being an integral part of the “Silicone Valley” and an urbanized metropolitan city which is the third largest in the state of California and the tenth largest in the United States.  And fortunately, Shirlie was able to capture much of the treasured history of the city through the lens of her camera.  And one part of the city’s history included the professional wrestling events that were staged at the San Jose Civic Auditorium.

     A few years after graduating from San Jose High School in 1934, a series of jobs led her to becoming the photographer at the De Anza Hotel in downtown San Jose where she would take pictures of visitors to the hotel or its bar, the Danzabar which would be offered for purchase.  The hotel was located next to the offices of the San Jose Mercury News, one of the newspapers she would begin to work for as a freelance photographer and one of the sportswriters suggested she combine her love of professional wrestling with her love of photography.  It was now with camera in hand that she’d be ringside at the wrestling events presented in the Civic Auditorium, which was built on land donated years before by her great uncle T.S. Montgomery.

The Sharpe Bros. Mob Szabo - Photo by S. Montgomery
     “The promoters thought that was better than sliced bread because sometimes the pictures would get into the paper,” Montgomery later recalled.  “They actually ran wrestling photos in those days.  It was wonderful for me.”

     It was also wonderful for the subjects which she shot as well as the many fans who would view those wonderful photos over the years, which were featured not only in newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Examiner, but in national wrestling magazines which eagerly and proudly displayed her photos.  Some of the wrestling luminaries she photographed in either posed shots, candid shots, or action shots included Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Gorgeous George, Lou Thesz, Enrique Torres, Lord James Blears, Ben and Mike Sharpe, Leo Nomellini, and Ray “The Crippler” Stevens.

     “It was a wonderful way to make a name for yourself because it was such an unusual thing for a woman to do,” said Montgomery in a 2003 interview.  It wasn’t a bad way to make a living, combining her hobbies and passions, and besides, as she often said, “I always liked the ‘Big Boys.’”  She would add, “I’ve never seen so many good-looking, heavily muscled, bronzed bodies as I saw at a wrestling.” 

     Obviously the lady knew what she liked.  Getting the close-up action-type shots which she was partially renowned for weren’t without their hazards however, as she recounted in a 1953 article she wrote for the San Francisco Examiner.

     “Most of the pictures are taken at a distance of ten to fifteen feet. I usually sit in the corner of the steps, right up against the ring. The occasionally leads to complications, as in a tag match when the outside partner is standing about six inches in front of me. In leaning over to “tag”, one of those big feet usually whistles back right alongside my ear.

A wrestling photographer has to learn to dodge flying feet and bodies while still sitting down, because the ringside customers frown on any attempt to stand up and block their view.

Lord Blears joins Shirlie at Ringside
     “Once while I was shooting a picture of action taking place in the center of the ring, Sandor Szabo, who was in my corner, felt that the other team was taking an unfair advantage. He jumped in to help his partner without being tagged, but in going over the ropes, his foot ‘tagged’ ME, and I had a black eye for the rest of that week!

     “The next biggest problem is the spectators. They take sides and they threw things, so that you not only have to watch the inside of the ring, but the outside as well.”

     After the Wednesday night matches at the Civic Auditorium Shirlie could often be found at Gleen Neece’s Ringside Bar nearby on First Street along with friends and some of the wrestlers, where many of Shirlie’s photos would grace the walls, for the enjoyment and pleasure of the wrestlers, Glenn Neece and his workers, and any patrons who might have been fortunate enough to have viewed them.

     Shirlie’s amazing work would eventually lead to her being inducted into the Slammers Wrestling Hall of Fame and her original photographs are much sought after by collectors.  Of her work as professional wrestling’s “girl photographer”, Shirlie would say,” It gave me a great experience, and if I may say so, I was quite good.”  An understatement if there ever was one.


More Than a Thousand Words


     A couple of months before this writing, I had been spending about an hour or so on a somewhat leisurely Sunday afternoon leafing through some old wrestling magazines from the 70s.  What had been an hour could’ve easily become several hours as I fondly recalled the first time I had seen the common advertisements in these magazines.  How many times as a kid had I considered sending away for “Sea Monkeys” or the correspondence course which could make me a “Master of Kung-Fu”, or wondered if learning how to customize a van with shag carpet might be a useful skill to have, or wondered what were “the secrets for picking up 1000’s of Women?”

     While I would outgrow the desire to send away for such things or the wonder that a “Love Doll” could really look so life-like, I still got a kick out of looking at the ads and what I had clearly not outgrown was the child-like wonder I felt while looking at the pictures in the wrestling magazines.  They, along with the ads in the magazine and the fictitious stories which accompanied the wrestling pictures, took me back to an amazing, much simpler time.  A time when kayfabe along with the performance of the wrestlers and the promotion and production of the live wrestling events and television wrestling shows made possible the suspension of disbelief.  It was those things that made professional wrestling so amazingly great during the territory days and with so much of the videotape from such days being lost to us forever, the wrestling magazines from that time are for many people an important way to recapture those great times.

     For they bring back not only memories of what wrestling was like, but what life was like.  They help bring back a flood of memories of the wrestlers we watched, the angles we enjoyed, and the people we enjoyed such spectacles with.  They brought back memories of the music we enjoyed, the clothes we wore, the other television shows we watched, who our best friends were, what our preoccupations were, what we dreamed, who and what we loved, who we were, and who we aspired to be.  And it’s not so much a longing to live in the past as it is to relive the things that made us smile, that perhaps provided a bit of escapism for us at one time.  And I challenge anyone to relive in their minds something that once made us smile and see if we don’t find ourselves smiling in the present moment.  And who could ever get enough of that?

     And some of the photos which entranced me the most as I was leafing through those magazines a couple of months back, were the ones taken by Larry Barnhizer of Modesto.  The Uptown Arena in Modesto was an iconic venue for many years in Northern California, with the city itself hosting wrestling since at least the early 1900s.  And with the California wrestling territory, particularly the Northern section, never getting the type of coverage in the East Coast based wrestling magazines; it was most definitely a treat to view and get lost in Larry’s distinct photos along with the accompanying correspondence report.

     And I began to notice that in the early-mid 70s, whenever there was coverage provided of Northern California in the wrestling mags, it was usually provided by Larry.  I thought I just had to get a hold of Mr. Barnhizer to tell him how much I appreciated his work and if it was possible to use some of his amazing photos in my book on Professional Wrestling in Northern California.  I found Larry to be a very enjoyable person in addition to being an amazing photographer.

     Spending most of his life growing up in Riverbank, California and Modesto, ironically enough, Larry’s first live pro wrestling event in the Northern part of the state may have been one being photographed by Shirlie Montgomery.

     “The first live match I saw in Northern California was in San Jose, at a card that featured the Sharpe Brothers, Leo Nomellini, and Bobo Brazil.  I’ve always had an innate love of the sport I guess.”

     His family had moved around a bit while growing up (“We were almost like gypsies,” Larry said with a laugh) and it was in the late 60s when he met Modesto wrestling promoter and policeman Johnny Miller when Miller was visiting some friends who lived in the same apartment complex in Modesto where Larry was staying.

     We got to talking and he invited me to see the matches he was promoting at the Uptown Arena in Modesto,” remembers Larry.

     “I went and I really enjoyed myself but I didn’t go too often for the first couple of years, but Johnny and I became friends and he told me I should come to the matches more often. And it was in around 1970 that I started going more often and I also began sending in match results and articles from the local events to some of the wrestling magazines back east.”

     After a while Larry would buy his first camera and took it with him to the Uptown Arena on particular Friday night.  The move didn’t escape the notice of promoter Miller. 

     “I would get my first camera in 1973 and I took it with me to the Uptown Arena with me and when Johnny saw it, he asked, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ ‘Well’, I said, ‘I thought I’d take some pictures and send them in to the wrestling magazines and see if maybe they’ll publish them.’

     “Johnny looked at me and said, ‘Why not? It couldn’t hurt. Do it and we’ll see what happens.’”

     At first, not much happened as the editors of the wrestling magazines wanted something different than what Larry was turning in, and they asked him for more action shots rather than wrestlers standing near the corner.

     “It was very, very hard,” remembers Larry. “It took me about six months of shooting before they liked my pictures. Editors wanted different types of moves, the choke hold, body slams, and flying-ariel attacks. I would look at the various pictures and say, ‘how can I improve them next time?”

     But improve on them he did, and the Northern California wrestling fans that saw his work in popular magazines like Wrestling Revue, Inside Wrestling, The Wrestler, the Big Book of Wrestling, and Wrestling Monthly were soon coming up to Larry and telling him how much they enjoyed his wrestling articles.  The 1974 issue of Wrestling Round Up had a feature presentation of about a dozen of Larry’s pictures in what they dubbed Larry Barnhizer’s Scrapbook.  Larry’s name was placed on the cover of the issue which is a virtually unheard of experience for a pro wrestling photographer. 

     “One year, Bill Apter ran my photo of Kurt Von Brauner choking Moon Dog Mayne in a 1975 issue of The Wrestler and picked it as one of the 8 best photos of the year.”

     And Johnny Miller, who was sometimes featured in some of the articles was enjoying the increased recognition as well, beaming when fans came up to him and recognized him from the pictures and articles Larry got published in the wrestling magazines. Larry remembers with a laugh that one particular profile he did on Miller got the promoter so excited, “that he had someone drive him around all over Modesto so he pick up all the copies he could find!”

     In addition to shooting photos at Modesto, he’d also capture the fast and furious action taking place at other venues, such as Sacramento and Stockton. But it was the Uptown Arena, the converted 2nd floor warehouse with it’s distinctive exposed overhead rafters and wooden beams that would be his main stomping grounds and it was the photos that he took and the articles he wrote covering the wrestling action there that gained him the most recognition. At times, his coverage of the wrestling cards he shot photos at and did write-ups on might be the only ones representing the Northern California wrestling circuit in a given month. And without the TV publicity that larger cities like San Francisco and Sacramento would get, the added publicity that Johnny Miller’s cards received due to Larry’s work was a blessing.

     Eventually Johnny Miller would discontinue promoting wrestling in Modesto in 1979, and although it was the end of an era, Larry’s career as a wrestling photographer would continue, as he would later photograph events for promoters Red Bastien, Antone Leone, Leo Nomellini, and Roland Alexander.

     One of his most cherished photos is one he took of Hulk Hogan and Nick Bockwinkel at the Oakland Coliseum in 1982 at an AWA event promoted by Leo Nomellini.  The shot would be featured in an article in the September 1982 edition of the Wrestler entitled “Bedlam in the Bay”.  The picture was blown up to a two page spread, and one would be hard pressed to remember many occasions where that occurred in a wrestling magazine.

Larry Barnhizer presents Smirnoff with an Award
     “I had to run around the ring to catch that photo and snapped the shot as soon as I came to a stop,” says Larry. “I wasn’t sure if it’d come out right, but it did. Later when the magazine came out, I was standing with Leo Nomellini when Hulk Hogan walked by and Leo shouted out, ‘Hey, Hulk, this is the guy that took that picture of you!’ Hogan gave me a smile and a ‘thumbs up’ and said, ‘Thanks man.’”  Sometimes like Shirlie Montgomery he got a little too close to the action, such as when his camera got kicked into his face while shooting a six-man tag match involving the Von Steigers.

     “A foot caught my camera and smashed it against my face.  It hurt and cut me up pretty good.  I was so mad.”

     But in all, Larry had no regrets about the time and effort his put in as a professional wrestling photographer for over 30 years. 

     “I came along and wrestling started to really grow in Modesto and Stockton, and I owe a lot to Johnnie Miller, who really encouraged me.  Before, Modesto was just a forgotten town.       

     “It’s been an exciting and terrific saga and I admit to still being thrilled when people like editor Reg Noble say, “Larry Barnhizer’s photos are worth more than a thousand words!”  But mostly I want to be remembered for giving Professional wrestling in Northern California an extra boost by the thousands of pictures I’ve taken.” – RR


In addition to my personal conversations with Larry Barnhizer, the following sources were used for this article:


“San Jose native, Shirlie Montgomery dies at 94”, by Mary Gottschalk, San Jose Mercury News, November 11, 2012 

“Photography: Subjects Land Atop the Camera, by Shirley Montgomery, August 2, 1953, “Shirlie Montgomery: Girl Photographer”, by Bob Bortfeld, August 11, 2013

Shirley Montgomery Obituary by Joe Holt

 “Mantecan boosts pro wrestling with photos, articles”, The Manteca Bulletin, by Matt Miller, January 21, 1990

Manteca resident focuses on wrestling”, by Paul Burgarino, Staff Writer, The Oakland Tribune, November 25, 2007

“Molding His Image With a Camera”, by Ucilia Wang, August 3, 1996, Photographer captures wrestling at its toughest, by John Branch, Editor, The Riverbank News, August 15, 2001