Portland Wrestling: A league of its own

Illahee Wrestlers poorly mimic Portland Wrestling. (I’m not sure how they got me to smile for this photo!)

As a kid I was called a tomboy, not a girly girl. I’m hopeful that our kids of today aren’t dropped into either of those buckets, and instead invited to be wherever on a continuum they want to be in each moment. My memoir pretty well demonstrates where I have been comfortable most of my life, playing Little League with the boys, pushing back against fourth grade male kickball players and arguing about the LaGrande Junior High requirement for girls to take home ec. Yet, with all that, for some reason I never understood the attraction to Portland Wrestling: it was silly, disgusting and way too loud for me.

Yesterday I told my neighbor that I imagine I’m extra sensitive to loud noise because I grew up with four noisy brothers. My perceptive eight-year-old friend gave me a questioning look, and then commented that he thought that would make me better tolerate noise. Good point, I replied! Maybe, because I was the only girl sandwiched between four of them I just had to find an “out.” Books allowed me to escape boisterous moments, until the noises penetrated into my imaginary world. Maybe, my sensitivity developed early in my life: at four Dad took me to a Portland Buckaroo hockey game. I want to imagine it to have been a wonderful experience with only the two of us, although who am I kidding? I’m sure my two older brothers had to have been along. What I do know is the experience lit off a week of auditory nightmares: weird sounds that would echo in my ear drums at night. I would beg mom to make them stop. It is one of my earliest memories, the nighttime trauma, not the game. Of course you think I would’ve learned my lesson but later in high school I dated a hockey player. I quickly learned that hockey games were good excuses for high school boys to openly fight. I rarely went to the games – they must’ve reminded me too much of my brothers’ loudness and roughhousing.

What I do know: Saturday night Portland Wrestling on TV and our household’s followup re-enactments exacerbated my complaints about noise and commotion. To make it worse, Portland Wrestling somehow transformed my four brothers, who generally were fun and kind to me, into monsters. Really, noise aside – what a crazy thing to be consumed with, don’t you think? Grown men, with ridiculous names and even more ridiculous costumes. And all of it fake? That’s the part I really couldn’t understand. How could you get excited about it when you knew it was all fake?

Portland Wrestling, produced by Don Owen, had an almost cult-like following as it aired on Portland’s KPTV 12 beginning in 1948. Mr. Owen and his family, along with Sandy Barr (show wrestler, referee and promoter) and Dutch Savage, provided 60 years of entertainment. Or – sorry dear brothers – terror, for some of us. These wrestlers supposedly all abided by an unwritten code of honor that they would not break character during the show, or discuss openly what happened when the cameras went off. What I didn’t realize until now, was that the venue for the show’s early years was today’s Gerding Theater in the Portland Armory, one of my favorite venues to enjoy theater. Radio and television personalities hung out in what was referred to as the “crow’s nest.” Perhaps I should have actually watched with my brothers once in awhile so I could remember how they must have spoken down to the mayhem below. The Blitz-Weinhard Company bought the Armory in 1968 to use as a warehouse, and Portland Wrestling moved to a former north Portland bowling alley, to be dubbed the Portland Sports Arena. (See more on Oregon Encyclopedia.)

The Bushwhackers when they were wrestling in Portland as the Sheepherders. They lost those long manes in a hair-versus-hair match against Rowdy Roddy Piper and Rick Martel. It is considered one of the greatest feuds in the history of Portland wrestling.”
Courtesy: wrestlingclassics.com

I recently queried my brothers by text – I did want to know: what was it that kept them so captivated by this pretend sport? These brothers of mine, grown men (middle aged, actually, but don’t tell them that) responded, three of the four, very quickly.

“As dangerous as this might be to type, I feigned interest so as not to be excluded from home wrestling matches that I loved,” admitted my youngest brother. (He had been my last hope for a sister and I had indoctrinated him playing house and school.)

“The Playboy, Buddy Rose,” quickly responded the eldest brother. A name I do have to admit I remember, if only vaguely. Patrick added the phrase our Grandma Daum was known for: “funny, funny, funny.”

“It was the seemingly real – unreality of it all,” added brother Andrew. “It was our new Santa Clause and Easter Bunny and like previously guarded beliefs – we were able to defy common sense reality through our adolescence, thanks to Frank Bonanza, Lonnie Mayne, Tony Bourne and others.” My next youngest brother Michael hadn’t yet chimed in, so our brother known for oversharing, continued texting. “It was clear cut – good versus evil, no middle ground. The injustice and disbelief was so real and so cutest” (he uses dictation so I can’t even tell you what he meant here) “and so hurting we screamed, we yelled, we cried and we even tried to call Sandy Barr (a ref) at home to complain and scream about his reffing and everything that was happening behind him that he missed. The injustice and pain scarred us for life!”

(Wow, I’m thinking. Maybe, just maybe, not watching Portland Wrestling saved me!)

Finally, Michael weighed in with a simple, “Jimmy Snuka.” Michael was known to perfect turns and sequences demonstrated by our stuffed animals, and in later years – very safely and lovingly – small children of his own, and the nieces and nephew.

And then Patrick jumped in: “The best part was when we realized it was fake but still pretended it was real. In the early days when we believed it was real Dad would tell us it was fake and it really pissed us off.”

And just as they usually do, my four brothers took off on my text thread into their own world: who wore cowboy boots and had bigger muscles and who was the comeback king, and things I really don’t want to know or repeat. I am thankful today, as much as I miss not seeing them as often in person, that tuning out their text messages is significantly easier than trying to ignore yells and thumps when deep in a novel. I finally butted in with a simple, “I knew it was too much to ask for only a sentence or two.” Before I put my phone away, Andrew texted – teasingly, I know, “I’m sorry but you always want to be in control.” (Just wait till someday I write a blog about why I need to be in control.)

Those wrestler names all roll into a nonsense sentence for me. I’d be hard pressed to identify one from another. I had mixed emotions when I came across the website: Portland Wrestling Online. If you hoped to get clear reenactment visuals from me, slug by slug and flip by flip, it isn’t happening in this blog, as you have probably begun to figure out: I remember few actual details! I simply whine about remembering how much I didn’t like it going on in our house! And yet, this website did bring these names back to me: Jimmy Snuka (my brother Michael’s favorite), Dutch Savage, Apache Bull Ramos (yes, most of this is inappropriate by today’s standards), Stan, the Man Stasiak (I think brother Patrick teased me about this one), Jesse Ventura, “Tough” Tony Borne, the Dynamite Kid, and of course, Playboy Buddy Rose.

There you have it! And I have to be honest. Seeing those names again leaves me with a strange sentimental sweetness. But don’t get me wrong – I’m still glad I kept my nose in my books.

Never saw Portland Wrestling? Here’s your chance! (See what I mean?)

4 thoughts on “Portland Wrestling: A league of its own

  1. Great blog Dede. I remember it and these wrestlers well. Former husband watched so I became familiar with it. Thankfully did not suffer as you did! Interesting trip down memory lane. Thank you. Lois Mitchell


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