Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rest in Peace Betty Wagner: The First Wife of Gorgeous George, the man that made Muhammad Ali

Betty and George's creation still influences Black athletes today
Last week I finished reading a fun book, Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture. That's why I found the news of Betty Wagner's (George Wagner aka Gorgeous George's first wife) recent passing especially sad.

She was just as important in creating the persona of Gorgeous George, a character that would go on to captivate the post-World War II, early television America, an individual whose antics have been copied by thousands of Black entertainers from Muhammad Ali, James Brown, and any Black athlete that celebrates a touchdown, slam dunk, first down or pass break-up excessively.

Betty Wagner (or Betty George) led a full-life and died at the age of 98. Funny to think that she is primarily responsible for unleashing and creating a character who ethos was swallowed by a whole generation of Black entertainers. In late 1940s when the character, Betty and George's creation became a senstion:
“George Wagner was a good wrestler who couldn’t get over the top until he developed this character that people loved to hate,” Pavone said. “He had this effeminate, aristocratic  persona that he and his wife Betty created from whole cloth, down to the robes and platinum blonde hairstyle his wife copied from Betty Grable. George realized that they don’t come to see the good guy win, they come to see the bad guy lose. He paraded as this effeminate man in the 40s and 50s in Texas and the South, with 12,000 people screaming and throwing things.” Wagner, who made his entrance to Pomp and Circumstance, rubbed elbows outside the ring with Hollywood stars, and made as much--$100,000 per year--as Joe DiMaggio.
Betty and George's creation would go on to influence perhaps the most important athlete of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali (as this 1967 article from Sports Illustrated relates):
The first real hard fight he had was with Duke Sabedong in Las Vegas on June 26, 1961. Sabedong was about 6-7, an Ernie Terrell type, unorthodox and awkward, and he made you look bad. It took Clay awhile to figure out what to do, but he won a decision and he learned a lot. I think the things he learned against Sabedong helped him a lot the night he fought Terrell.

He learned something else at the Sabedong fight. Up until then he had been an outgoing, cheerful and friendly sort of guy who liked to talk about fights and fighting, but he wasn't a particularly boastful man. But while we were in Vegas he was on a sports program on the radio with Gorgeous George, the wrestler. When the sportscaster talked to Clay, Cassius just said the usual things about how he expected a tough fight and Sabedong was good and so on. Then the announcer started talking to Gorgeous George and George told him how he was going to tear up his opponent and they shouldn't even allow the match because he was so much better. He told the guy just what he was going to do to the other wrestler the next night, and Clay got a big kick out of it. He wanted to go see Gorgeous George wrestle, and when we went the joint was loaded and that impressed Clay. After that was when he started talking big and predicting the round he would knock an opponent out. He figured if it would work for a Gorgeous George it would work even better for him, and I guess over the years it did.

The more he did it and the bigger show he put on, the more he grew to like it. It reached a point where he couldn't really turn it on unless he knew he had an appreciative audience. I remember one time, when he still wasn't the big attraction, a lot of writers were in the gym before a fight. They interviewed the main-eventers and then Clay got up and they put their pencils and notebooks away. He couldn't percolate at all. He had to know he was getting ink.

John Capouya, in a 2005 article from that same magazine, wrote:
Some fans--and NFL suits--are appalled. They long for the days before the hip-hop-ization of American sports, when you broke the plane and didn't get fancy. Even those who enjoy the end zone antics tend to see them as, Billy White Shoes Johnson's Funky Chicken aside, a new thing and a black thing. But not so: This all goes back some 60 years to one slightly pudgy white man, a wrestler, who's since been largely forgotten. It's a Gorgeous thing.

Gorgeous George was the great showman of the 1940s and '50s, one of the first superstars of TV. His long hair was dyed platinum and marcelled into myriad curls, his squat body encased in garish robes. The Gorgeous One--a.k.a. The Human Orchid and The Sensation of the Nation--invented the loudmouthed, attention-seeking persona that permeates today's sports. Not one of the top-tier NFL celebrators SI polled recently had heard of him. But if George, who died in 1963, is looking down, he must be one proud papa.
Before George, born in Nebraska in 1915, sports stars were heroes--never villains or "heels," in wrestling parlance. They were tough, modest and short-winded, like Lou Gehrig or Joe Louis. Gorgeous was a diva in every gesture and syllable. Other grapplers wore plain, dark trunks, black shoes and ratty old robes; George wore pink satin, silver lam�, lace and ermine. He pulled up to arenas in purple Packards and big Cadillacs. Pomp and Circumstance blared over P.A. systems as he strode to the ring, and before he deigned to place his dainty white-shod feet on the mat, his "valet" Jefferies, a Jeeves-ish character in tails, would use a spray gun to mist the floor with perfume. Jefferies would then remove the gold-plated pins holding the Gorgeous curls in place, and the wrestler would toss them to women in the audience. (Scuffles were common.)
During the match George would kidney-punch and eye-gouge, then hide behind the ref. Incensed, the audience, playing the same role as outraged NFL fans do today, rained jeers down on him. "You're ignorant peasants," George informed them. "Beneath contempt."

It was a pivotal moment in pop culture. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, says in his 2005 memoir, I Feel Good, that he used parts of the Orchid act to "create the James Brown you see on stage." In his recent book, Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan also says he was inspired "for years to come" by a G.G. encounter in Hibbing, Minn. But George made his greatest disciple in 1961, passing the torch to a young boxer named Cassius Clay.

Clay was already the Louisville Lip. But when he and George met at a Las Vegas radio station, the wrestler's gale-force trash talking blew the boxer's ears back. If he lost to Classy Freddie Blassie, George ranted, "I'll crawl across the ring and cut my hair off! But that's not gonna happen because I'm the greatest wrestler in the world!" At the match, Ali remembered later, "I saw 15,000 people comin' to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, 'This is a gooood idea!'" In the locker room afterward the 46-year-old wrestler told the 19-year-old, "A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous." Ali did. And so have generations of athletes since.

Before George was Gorgeous he was just George Wagner. He went about 5'9", 190 pounds, with formidable strength and wrestling skills, but plain old (dark-haired) George wasn't making much impact or much money, wrestling on undercards near his home in Oregon. In 1939 he married his sweetheart, Betty Hanson, in a Eugene ring, showing his budding showbiz instincts and gaining an impish coconspirator. (The 4'11" Betty told him, "You're too clean." She made him a royal-blue satin robe festooned with sequins, which drew shouts of "Sissy!" and "Mama's boy!") Most important, George had a postmodern vision: He sensed that the sizzle was as important as the steak. And the market did not contradict this notion. In 1951 Joe DiMaggio retired, walking away from a salary of $100,000; George earned a reported $160,000.
So an idea for her husband to become a bigger draw in professional wrestling and earn more money was the catalyst for the eventual creation of Muhammad Ali, the stage persona of James Brown and countless other Black athletes.

"You can't see me": Yes, Black athletes got that from a white dude
What's funny is the elaborate sport with a predetermined outcome has always been on the cutting-edge of influencing the Black community. Take "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair for example:
Hip Hop itself has always been about showing your lyrical prowess on the mic and talking about how good you are at the art. Hip Hop started in the late 70s and around the same time another person ascended to the top of the wrestling world at the same time that paralleled hip hop. Who is this man? None other than one of the greatest white men ever to live “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Yeah, I said he is one of the greatest white men to ever live….hahaha!

Who is Ric Flair you may ask? Ric Flair is one of the biggest icons in professional wrestling history. Flair was often popular with the crowd due to his in-ring antics, including rule breaking (earning him the distinction of being “the dirtiest player in the game”), strutting and his shouting of Woooooo!” (Flair got the inspiration from Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”) Flair’s mobility has become limited in the last ten years of his career due mainly to his age and years of competition taking a toll on his body, but remained a visible character. The Woooooo!” yell has since become a tribute to Flair, and is often shouted by the crowd whenever a wrestler performs a knife-edge chop, one of Flair’s signature moves. From the late 1970s, Flair wore ornate fur-lined robes of many colors with sequins during in-ring appearances, and since the early 1980s, his approach to the ring was usually heralded by the playing of the “Dawn” section of Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra”(source)

You are probably wondering what the hell Ric Flair has to do with Hip Hop. Hip Hop was created upon four elements: The MC, The DJ, The B-Boy, and The Graffiti Artist. Hip Hop has many parallels to wrestling with the mic/promo skills, elaborate outfits, and extravagant story lines. Ric Flair epitomized the showmanship, style, microphone skills and bravado that many hip hop artists portray. Hip Hop from its infancy has been about showing and proving you were the best on the microphone. Hip Hop is and always will be about being better than the competition to many extents. Sure hip hop has also had elements of education, misogyny, black consciousness, and gangsterism as well but the true core of it is the idea of me proving my art is better than yours.

If you look at the early career of Ric Flair and parallel it to many elements of hip hop you will see that many elements of both intertwine. I am not stating that Hip hop totally stole its style from the great Ric Flair but, I know many MCs grew up watching Ric Flair in the early 80s and implemented many things from him in their rhymes. Ric was all about the show, the clothes, the cars, and being the champion. Ric Flair wears the extravagant robe, big gold chains, fly sunglasses, the biggest Cadillac, and the finest women. Sounds real familiar to hip hop doesn’t it? Ric Flair’s elements can be seen in everyone from LL COOL J, Run DMC, Big Daddy Kane,  Slick Rick and Ice Cube to today’s artists such as Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Gucci Mane, Souljah Boy, and Young Jeezy.

Back in the late 90s, Black athletes incorporated the DX (Degeneration X) crotch-chop into their showboating repertoire and now Black athletes (after big hits on the football field or slam dunks in basketball) utilize the John Cena created "You can't seem me" hand-wave in front of the face move as means to demoralize and antagonize their vanquished (for the time being) opponent. 

Prominent rapper Jay-Z even stole the "Diamond-Cutter" sign from Diamond Dallas Page, a popular pro wrestler from World Championship Wrestling in the 1990s, and some rapper named himself The Game after World Wrestling Entertainment grappler Triple H had trademarked the term.

We already Black people consume far more television than other racial groups, and pro wrestling has always been a staple of television networks. In Bill Simmons touching tribute to Macho Man Randy Savage (Savage borrowed heavily from Gorgeous George, even using his ring entrance music Pomp and Circumstance) wrote this:
We look back at the '80s ironically now -- everything is much funnier now than it was then, whether it's outfits, haircuts, movie plots, political incorrectness or even a sweeping lack of self-awareness. Savage tapped into those faults better than anyone. He was the '80s, for better and worse.

Every era has its wrestling superstar that transcends entertainment and creates a trickle-down effect on pop culture that is felt in some ways that few wish to acknowledge. Like a rock thrown into a still pond, the ripples that George and Betty Wagner created in American pop culture are difficult to imagine, unless you realize that every new era of professional wrestlers creates new characters that Black entertainers and athletes eventual borrow from to enhance their characters.

Steve Sailer wrote these words in 2000 after he attended a WWF (now WWE) show at The Staples Center:

[Vince] McMahon has pointed out, "There's no other place you can go where you can see a soap opera, action-adventure, rock show, talk show, comedy, all that stuff rolled into one. Every format that is successful in television, we dabble in that." In a particularly post-modern note, on his TV broadcasts, McMahon (number 260 on the "Forbes 400" list with $1.1 billion) himself plays a scheming billionaire character named "Vince McMahon."

Nineteen percent of California's population admitted to the Census Bureau in 2000 that they speak English "less than very well." Luckily, the WWF foments an urge to learn English. After all, one needs to know the language of America to understand such verbal gems of The Rock as his enormously popular catchphrase, "Do ya smell what The Rock is cooking?" Lacking all the rigidity and pretensions of classical art forms, McMahon's wrestling shows can try practically anything in their search for the lowest common denominator entertainment.

Yet, while we might well be pleased that Smackdown! encourages immigrants to learn English, something seems amiss. Developing a taste for Smackdown! isn't exactly what most Americans mean when they say they want immigrants to assimilate. Further, the growth of the WWF vulgarizes American culture as a whole.

Sorry Steve, but wrestling has always vulgarized American culture. Gorgeous George started it in the late 40s and the subsequent invention of television helped broadcast this flamboyant creation of Betty and George Wagner into the homes of millions who thought the action they saw on television was real.

Black athletes like Muhammad Ali incorporated the lessons learned from the 'vulgarizer of American culture' to only do further damage to whatever culture was left in the United States and in turn, create what is known as Black-Run America (BRA).

We've argued that sports is all that keeps alive the concept of Black-Run America (BRA), because sports offer the only continued positive images and examples of Black people in this country. To think that the images of Black people celebrating touchdowns and slam dunks excessively on ESPN have their origins and roots in the antics of Betty and George Wagner's creation is absolutely hilarious to me.

In 1999, The Weekly Standard published an important article called "Pro Wrestling and the End of History" by Paul Cantor. He would write:
The erosion of national identity in wrestling reflects broader trends in American society. If one wants to see moral relativism and even nihilism at work in American culture, one need only tune in to the broadcasts of either of the two main wrestling organizations, Vince McMahon's Worldwide Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling. (It is no accident that one of the pillars of professional wrestling is Turner's cable TV empire, which also brings us CNN, the anti-nation-state, global news channel.) Both the WWF and the WCW offer the spectacle of an America that has lost its sense of national purpose and turned inward, becoming wrapped up in manufactured psychological crises and toying with the possibility of substituting class warfare for international conflict. And yet we should remain open to the possibility that contemporary wrestling may have some positive aspects; for one thing, the decline of the old nationalism may be linked to a new kind of creative freedom...

But can we confidently say that wrestling simply mirrors broader movements in our culture and politics? It is difficult to look at developments in politics and culture today and not see them as in turn mirroring developments in wrestling. Was Hulk Hogan, who dominated the 1980s, perhaps our first taste of Bill Clinton? The Hulkster -- who could never talk about anything but himself, his own career, and his standing with his Hulkamaniac fans -- was the model of a roguish, narcissistic, utterly unprincipled performer. While changing his stance from moment to moment, he was never held accountable by his adoring public, to the point where he seems to have gotten away with anything. If postmodern wrestling was not a forerunner of postmodern politics, why is Jesse "The Body" Ventura now the governor of Minnesota?...

Perhaps what appears to be the end of history is only the end of the nation-state, and humanity is now groping confusedly toward new modes of political organization, which may be at once more global and more local in their scope. Today's professional wrestling points in these two directions simultaneously. At any moment of deep historical change, it is easy to become fixated on what is being lost and fail to see what is being gained. The way wrestling has been struggling to find some kind of postnational identity reflects a deeper confusion in our culture as a whole, but one that may portend a profound and even beneficial reorganization of our lives in the coming century. Perhaps, then, when we watch -- and enjoy -- the WWF and the WCW, we really are wrestling with the end of history
I don't believe Cantor even mentions Gorgeous George in his article, which is strange since he influence Hogan, Ventura and particularly every other wrestler after him. It was George and Betty Wagner who created the persona of Gorgeous George, a highly stylized and individualistic wrestler who came to embody the the traits and characteristics that Black athletes would use to enhance their characters on and off the football fields and basketball courts of America.

Since the concept of BRA has replaced the old nation-state in America, it only makes sense to point out that it was the creation of Betty and George Wagner that influenced (and silently influence today) the Black athletes who keep alive BRA.

Rest in Peace Betty.


Anonymous said...

Howard Cosell was a big part of promoting the image of Ali, and making him the phenom he was- geeky politically correct sportswriters are a big force in promoting this.

Anonymous said...

Haven't you kind of tripped yourself up here? You speak of Gorgeous George approvingly, of his influence on strutting and preening black athletes approvingly, but do you approve of black athletes preening behavior? When a white man does it, it's funny and transgressive but when a black man does it, it's strutting and preening?

What do you stand for? Hating black people or hating bad behavior?

Puff Mommy

JB said...

Kersey, really great article. I knew who Gorgeous George was, but you added a lot of good detail.

You run a good site. I've been reading it for some time now, and have jumped into other related sites. The information blitz is indeed enlightening, and provides a much more faithful map of what "is" than anything the MSM will touch.

Nice to make your acquaintance. Perhaps I'll post again.


Anonymous said...

Gorgeous George was a character. One trick he did was having his butler hold a mirror in front of him so he could fix his hair during a fight.

Anonymous said...

The guy died young - at 48.

Even before steroids it seems professional wrestlers died young.

Anonymous said...

"When a white man does it, it's funny and transgressive but when a black man does it, it's strutting and preening?"

Gorgeous George was an actor. When an actor is "preening"...such as Cuba Gooding in "Jerry McGuire" can be entertaining.

When an adult behaves like an immature jackass, it's not particularly funny.

People loved Tom Cruise in "Collateral", even though he played a murderer.

In real life, people don't love murderers.

BTW Diarrhea, aren't you banned?

Anonymous said...

Interesting how much Professional Wrestling has influenced the landscape of the US pschye. As a former MMA competitor and coach I would tell the guys they owe MMA's success to WWE and Vinny Mac with out him there would be no UFC.

One thing I would never allow my guys to do was behave like baffoons have respect for what you do and the people you do it for. As silly as Pro Wrasslin is the Wrestlers are very serious people and respect for the show is a must. This is the difference between the performers in Pro Wrestling and the fools who mimic them. Every Pro Wrestler I have met respected what he/she did and they respected and appreciated the fans. Now contrast that to the overgrown children in the NBA and NFL.

Anonymous said...

"As silly as Pro Wrasslin is the Wrestlers are very serious people and respect for the show is a must."

Definitely. Just watch any episode of the reality show "Tough Enough" hosted by Stone Cold Steve Austin, the pro wrestlers take their craft very, very seriously.

Stuff Black People Don't Like said...

"One thing I would never allow my guys to do was behave like baffoons have respect for what you do and the people you do it for. As silly as Pro Wrasslin is the Wrestlers are very serious people and respect for the show is a must. This is the difference between the performers in Pro Wrestling and the fools who mimic them. Every Pro Wrestler I have met respected what he/she did and they respected and appreciated the fans. Now contrast that to the overgrown children in the NBA and NFL."

That is an amazingly true comment. Consider the movie "Big Fan" and how it depicts pro football players with "The Wrestler"...

Pro athletes (and college) don't realize that the devotion fans feel to the team isn't because of them, but because of years of living vicariously through either the Yankees, Braves, Bulls, Alabama Crimson Tide, USC Trojans, Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

You wear my teams colors, I'll love you. Fans become so vested in their professional sports they forget that these athletes come to look at fans as nothing but economic units improving their bottom line.

Pro wrestlers have to connect with an audience, their character must resonate with people and get them to part with their money. Guys like Hogan, Austin, Rock, Hart, Flair, Warrior, Savage, Sting, Cena, etc. have the ability to draw fans and they realize it is because of that connection to the fans and the devotion of those fans to watch them perform that they have a job.

Great comment second to last anon.

Anonymous said...

Gorgeous George must have been Liberace's evil twin! (or his _other_ evil twin, since he did have a brother named George)

Anonymous said...

The boxer Jack Johnson and probably other sportspeople have done similar things prior to the people mentioned above.