And what manner of men were and are these present day promoters of wrestling matches? Who are they, where did they come from, and how much have they made, and how do they stay in business?
Ah, my friends, questions indeed.
Most of them came from the back alleyways of large cities. They maintain their positions as dominant factors through political connections. They remain unique in the annals of American promotional sportsdom, not because of their great talents and contributions toward the advancement of American progress, but due to their utter disregard of the citizenry and their abilities to play upon the credulity of the public and their co-partners.
Jack Pfeffer entered the wrestling picture with big footed Ivan Poddubny. Pfeffer, known to the New York’s sports fraternity as the “halitosis kid,” is a medium-sized Russian Jew, who first came to America as a combination stage hand and porter with Pavlowa’s Ballet.
Possessed of a twisted mind and an entirely unscrupulous attitude toward grapplers, newspapermen, co-partners and promoters, Pfeffer has managed by chiseling and penny pinching to accumulate a small fortune. His attitude toward bonecrushing is expressed in his often reiterated statement:
“H’its hall ha Carniwaul wit ha bunch of fekers an de publeck hist nots to take hit serious, so what’s hall about hit?”
His chiseling proclivities are best illustrated by an experience of Herbie Freeman, New York Heavyweight meat tosser, who met and was defeated by Jim Londos in Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. The day after the Londos bout Freeman went to Pfeffer, who was Mondt’s payoff man at the time, for his money. Pfeffer turned the check face downward on his desk when Freeman asked for his wages and in the most persuasive oily voice suggested.
“Hoiby, I haft yer check here for de money for de las night’s bout. Now, Hoiby, you hendorse hit hon de beck of de chack and hi’ll send hit to do benk for to cesh hit.”
The then innocent Freeman, just three months out of City College and unfamiliar with the ways of wrestling promoters, endorsed the check, without looking at the front to ascertain the amount (Pfeffer kept his hand on the piece of paper so Freeman couldn’t have turned it over without a struggle), and Pfeffer sent the check to the bank by messenger and had it cashed.
He then turned fifteen hundred dollars over to Freeman.
Mondt, who had heard about the transaction, went to Pfeffer.
“Say, Jack,” he said, “I gave you a check for Freeman for twenty-five hundred dollars, and I understand you got him to endorse it and pocketed a thousand dollars of the check. Freeman told one of the boys in the dressing room last night at Jim Downing’s Club in New Haven. Is that right?” “Sure, dot’s right,” responded Pfeffer. “An’ why should a bum wrestler make twenty-five hundred dollars for faking when he is overpaid arredy by giving him fifteen hundred dollars? He never made dot much before in his life, so now he is richer and so am I, for being his meneger.” Sammy Stein, Ivan Poddubny, Serge Kalmikoff, Ferenc Holuban, Freeman and countless other neckbenders all paid their tribute to Pfeffer. And, besides cutting in on promotional profits, Pfeffer made nearly a quarter of a million dollars chiseling from the matmen under his direction. He was tolerated by the other partners because of his aptitude for abusing recalcitrant bonecrushers who might get out of line, and he also dared to make small payoffs when the houses weren’t up to expectations. In fewer words, Pfeffer did the dirty work for Jack Curley and other eastern promoters and thus kept the books balanced. So his little side thieving was tolrated. There was so much frosting on the wrestling cake during the Londos era of big houses, that a matter of a quarter of a million dollars taken from unsuspecting matmen didn’t bother the partners too much.
In this chronicle of the wrestling business and its machinations, the writer will only cover those promoters who are still actively engaged in presenting the neckbending extravaganzas.
Several who were once prominent in the business have fallen by the wayside, and recounting their characteristics would add nothing to the present cavalcade of bonecrushing history.
Charlie and Willie Johnston, better known as members of “The Royal Family” of pugilism, younger and less wily brothers of the redoubtable Jimmy Johnston, “Boy Bandit of Broadway,” and many times boxing promoter and general manager of Madison Square Garden, came into wrestling with Paul Bowser of Boston, who brought them into the picture when he was attempting to buck the Londos popularity in New York City and Mondt’s new combination.
Bowser and successors labored under the impression that the Johnstons wielded considerable political influence and could manipulate the New York State Athletic Commission.
Willie Johnston had been a sewing machine salesman when Bowser entered the Gotham mat picture, but the pickings from the Bowser offal were so much greater than those commissions derived from peddling sewing machines from door to door, that he soon forswore allegiance to the back door guardians and joined hands with his younger brother, Charlie.
Through the years elder frere Jimmy had been engaged in the business of piloting and promoting the leather pushers. Charlie had fronted for his elder sponsor. When he entered the grappling business under Bowser, Charlie was just again handling Jimmy’s business, the latter’s connection with boxing making it impossible for him to juggle both industries successfully.
The Johnston Brothers proved and have proven to be mere babes in the woods when it came to handling the affairs of the scheming matmen and their promoters, but in serving as stooges for their connivings, the Johnston Brothers and various members of their families managed to earn considerable monies, far in excess of the services they returned to their benefactors. We’ll hear more about these boys later.
Perhaps the most cultured and, therefore, the strangest promoter who ever entered the wrestling promotion game is Aurelio “Ray” Fabiani of Philadelphia. Fabiani was playing the violin in the Chicago Civic Opera Orchestra when he made the acquaintance of matman Renato Gardini, who functioned as a lieutenant in the “Big Four” combine of the pre-war era.
Gardini painted glowing pictures of the profits to be made from wrestling, and persuaded Fabiani to forsake opera for the bonecrushing business. With some fifteen thousand dollars in personal savings, and backed by a small fortune possessed by his father, Doctor Aurelio Fabiani, noted Quaker City physician, Fabiani and Gardini selected Philadelphia as the scene for their financial wrestling triumphs.
In a few short months, under Gardini’s guidance, Fabiani was broke, but Gardini and the wrestlers who worked for him were strangely prosperous. It was the old army game of taking a sucker into camp. Gardini paid heavily (so he said) for political protection in Philadelphia. Various city officials had to be paid off and expensive leases for auditoriums were negotiated, which took all of Fabiani’s ready cash.
“In fact,” Fabiani says, “the big moment of my wrestling promotion career came one night when I eagerly phoned my wife with the information that the show that evening had been successful, and instead of going into the hole for several hundred dollars, we had just broken even on a twenty thousand dollar house.”
Fabiani was on the financial ropes of wrestling promotion in 1928 when Mondt came to him with an offer to take him into the Londos partnership. Mondt knew of Fabiani’s family background, and was well aware of Ray’s ability to make invaluable friends in all walks of Pennsylvania life.
When he won over Fabiani, “Toots” secured a strong link for his chain wrestling combination. Shortly thereafter, with “Toots” doing the manipulating and Fabiani handling the promotion, his city became and has remained, one of the most important towns in America to wrestling combinations.
Fabiani recouped his wrestling losses sustained while “learning the ropes” from Gardini, and since has managed to pile up a huge fortune in well invested securities. Though various promoters have tried from time to time to compete with him in the City of Brotherly Love, his penchant for keeping in politically and socially with the right people has enabled him to withstand all mat assaults.
Up Boston Way, Paul Bowser, former topflight middleweight wrestler, holds sway as boss and promoter. Bowser started in the Bean City promotional game early in 1920, handicapped with the most heartbreaking conditions. Under a working agreement with the Sandow, Mondt and Lewis combine, he took some five thousand dollars in life’s savings, quit wrestling, and with the help of his wife, Cora Livingstone, former woman wrestler, he tried his hand at staging wrestling contests in the old Boston Opera House.
His efforts seemed doomed to failure from the start. His first show drew a gross gate of ninety dollars, and so badly had the mat game fallen into disrepute, the Boston sports editors refused to give him a line of publicity on his shows.
After three unsuccessful financial efforts to stage profitable bouts at the Opera House, Bowser figured out his remaining bankroll and reasoned that if he proceeded carefully he could, at the current rate he was losing money, run about ten more shows, and if conditions didn’t improve during the time the bouts were being presented, he would have to close up shop. He decided on a desperate chance.
Borrowing a few thousand dollars, Bowser had one million passes printed, which entitled a fan to a seat at his next wrestling show. These passes were distributed throughout Boston and its environs. The night of his mat extravaganza at least a hundred thousand people tried to jam their way into the little Boston Opera House with the passes.
Riots ensued, the emergency squads were called out, people were injured, and the stories made the front page headlines in every New England newspaper. Then did the editors jump upon their sports editors. One said:
“There was a show last night at the Boston Opera House which drew one hundred thousand people. All wanted to see the bouts, and we didn’t have a single line in our paper on the day of the show. Other athletic events get the space, but you ignore wrestling. We didn’t even have a man there to cover the results of the bouts, and as a consequence, our sheet and every other newspaper in New England had to depend upon police reporters to tell us what went on there when the riots broke out.”
These sentiments were expressed by nearly every newspaper editor and publisher throughout New England and, thereafter, Bowser had little trouble in securing serious attention from the Fourth Estate scribes.
His promotional star rose steadily, and Boston holds the all-time record for big wrestling houses, the matmen outdrawing every other sport in the Bean City. Up Boston way, they take their Bowser and wrestling mighty seriously, and Sonnenberg, George, Yvon Robert, Henri De Glane, “Strangler” Lewis, the Dusek Brothers, Danno O’Mahoney, and other star matmen are given the same attentions Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth or Al Capone would rate.
One stunt put Bowser over.
“Monaco,” as Bowser is known in the code of the wrestling promoters, has built a nationwide reputation for himself among American sport scribes, wrestlers, and promoters. His word is sufficient for anyone who does business with him, and strangely enough, he has never in all his long associations in the mat business been known to yell “copper” when a competitor took an unfair advantage of him. Bowser prefers to work out his own destiny.
Jack McGrath of Worcester, Mass., promoter and onetime manager of Danno O’Mahoney, exists by virtue of Bowser’s friendship and tolerance. McGrath is a former wrestler who serves as front man and protector of Bowser’s champions during the latter’s cross-country hegiras.
The master of all clippers, who clips the wise guys, is Baltimore promoter Ed Contos. An aesthetic appearing Greek, Contos manages to make more money by poor shows than other promoters would with paying attractions. Though his town has never been one of the better and more profitable cities, his club is necessary to break the jumps between New York, Washington, or the southern tour wrestlers take.
Fifty and one hundred dollar touches here and there, give Contos a satisfactory living, though more important as a source of revenue is his great card playing talent. Ed manages to take almost as much away from the wrestlers who appear under his promotion, as the trust manipulators pay them for their bouts.
Nick Londos, Detroit’s oleaginous Greek promoter, exists, and has been tolerated among the bonecrushing master minds because of his friendship and relationship to Jim Londos and St. Louis promoter Tom Packs, both of whom were taken from restaurant dish washing jobs by Jim Londos, and started in the wrestling promotional racket.
In the Columbus, Ohio, area reigns Al Haft, who has at various times been aligned with several wrestling factions. Haft possesses a unique talent for jumping hither and thither among the warring bonecrushers, pledging his allegiance wherever he can secure the best deals at the moment.
Haft, a former wrestler, shirtmaker, and small restaurant owner of the coffee pot variety, first came into wrestling prominence as the manager of John Pesek, a Nebraskan grappler, who, for a time baited the Sandow, Mondt, and Lewis faction during its palmiest days.
More importantly, Haft controls the lighter wrestling titles, such as the light heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight crowns, and though his towns through the rural sections of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky draw small houses, in the hundreds where the heavyweights draw thousands, still the pygmy profits give Haft and his partners incomes which would be considered anything but small potatoes to a person who has had to work for a livelihood.
Though Greek wrestlers and mat promoters have pretty generally fallen into disrepute through their connivance and penchants for trimming the suckers, one man, Tom Packs of St. Louis, has remained through the years as not only one of the outstanding personages in what has sometimes been a deep dyed and odorous business, but a man ready at all times to shoot square with partners and competitors alike.
Packs built up a solidarity of friendship for himself in the Mound City, and all the scheming and double dealing of partners and competitors hasn’t been able to shake him from his rock-like foundation.
Unlike most wrestling promoters, Packs has never believed that a contract was an agreement meant to be broken whenever it suited the convenience of either party. By the same token, Packs has constantly refrained from the courts of law whenever any members of the mat combinations have broken faith with him.
Though he has befriended countless out of work news scribes, lent a helping hand to charities, and financed St. Louis political campaigns, Packs’ record as a square guy who won’t holler has earned for him the respect few former dishwashers have been able to win for themselves in other cities of America.
He numbers more native-born Americans among his close friends and associates than Creeks, but his own countrymen respect him with the same degree as do other nationalities.
Loyalty has been the rock rib of Packs’ long association with American business men, and while this attribute has cost him considerable sums of money at times, still it has served as warning to the schemers and parasites that Packs deals in only one fashion, straight from the shoulder.
Probably the most detached of all the mat big time promoters in America today is Los Angeles’ Lou Daro. Totally uninterested in the various political machinations and inner schemes of the bonecrushing business, Daro long ago served notice on all factions that the men who could draw the money into his box offices were the grapplers who could work in his clubs.
Through strong Golden State political connections, Daro has been able to keep the bonecrushers in line by cracking the whip. In the years he has been promoting on the coast, Lou has staged many wrestling shows in which various charities cut in for huge slices of the gross gates.
These friends and contacts who have benefited through Daro’s generosity, stand ready at all times to come to his political aid. This strength has served to maintain Daro’s West Coast hold on the wrestling racket, despite the many changes in the business since Sandow, Mondt and Lewis first formed their “Big Trust.”
Daro was a vaudeville strongman when he started in the mat game via the heretofore mentioned Renato Gardim. It didn’t take the shrewd Daro long, however, to decide that if anyone was going to lose his money promoting mat bouts, he preferred to do it by himself. Thereafter he became outstanding as a successful stager of mat bouts and today, possessed of a fortune, he tells friends and supporters alike:
“I only promoted one fake wrestling match in my life. That was the bout between Pat McGill and Jack Taylor, and just as soon as I saw the boys up there faking and heard the crowd was stamping and booing for action, I climbed right into the ring and threw them both out.”
Only one fake Daro says, and cites the McGill-Taylor bout as proof.
It was probably the only on-the-level mat contest Daro ever did, or ever will promote.
For on the evening when McGill and Taylor were tossed out of a Los Angeles ring by the irate promoter, and charged with faking - they were out for blood - and shooting.