by Tom McEwen
It'll never be declared a Tampa historic landmark but, heck, maybe it should be, with a plaque nailed to its lavender stucco exterior at 106 North Albany declaring:
"Home of modern television wrestling, as we know it."
That's surely what is was in the days of Tampa-based wrestling impresarios Clarence P. "Cowboy" Luttrall and his godson, Eddie Graham. That's what it was from 1961 for more than 20 years, unitl the face of wrestling production changed with the emergence of the two internationalgiants--the World Wrestling Federation out of Stamford Conn., and World Championship Wrestling from Atlanta. Wrestling went from neighborhood to international.
What they do now was first done right here,when every Saturday in the 1960s and '70s, professional wrestling best announcer ever would come on the air and resonate;
"And now, from the beautiful Sportatorium just outside downtown Tampa, welcome to Championship Wrestling from Florida," with WTVT-Channel 13 sending the taped shows all over the South and Northeast, with our Gordon Solie as the host.
The live shows included the giants of the ring then and now---Haystacks Calhoun, Andre the Giant, Lou Thesz, Dusty Rhodes, Dory Fund, Paul Orndorff, Hulk Hogan---all of them. With their televised bouts from Tampa, they were designed to whet appetites for live attendances at weekly shows--like those held for so long before full houses at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, three blocks from the Sportatorium.
For about 20 years, the Sportatorium simply was the headquarters of pro wrestling in the South. It was Cowboy Luttrall who made wrestling work, at Hesterly, starting in 1949.
The Sportatorium then was hardly "beautiful", but it housed wrestling offices upstairs and offered a ring downstairs with room for 600 fans. It was not air-conditioned. lighted to look good on television, and sounded even better with the help of the masterful deadpan, solie, and whatever wrestlers he had on each side who would beat on each other. Then there were bouts, and the crazed live fans.
Well, its not beautiful now either, the two-story building at 106 North Albany, a block north of Kennedy and three east of Howard Avenue, that once was the Sportatorium. Now it is home to Linnie's Fashions, a design, manufacturing and wholesale clothing operation.
"The first I knew of the building," Solie said, "Was when I was a broadcaster for WFLA radio in the '50's. Galloway's had a specialty store and operation there. Made bars and bar stools and things like that. Then in 1959 I went to work for Cowboy when he gegan taping the wrestling shows at Channel 13. He wanted a bigger building to do the shows before a live audience so he bought the building on Albany that he named the Sportatorium.
Luttrall bought the building in October 1961, records show, for $28,000 and moved his wrestling headquarters and operation from the armory and the old downtown Thomas Jefferson Hotel.
Luttrall was a former wrestler with little formal education, but with unparalleled vision for wrestling.
And ex-west Texas wrestler, he came here in 1949 and bought out the promoter of the time for $300. He promoted live shows all over Florida and into the Caribbean and developed Championship Wrestling from Florida ( Scott's note: spoken of recently in Ervin Griffin's historical perspective of Ric Flair). He died at 1964 in 1970 and bequeathed his operation to Eddie Graham, who died tragically young in 1985, and wrestling here was never the same.
"But from 1961, for about 20 years, we at the Sportatorium were the benchmark for what wrestling became. We were pioneers with those Saturday afternoon telecasts," said Solie, the forerunner of wrestling today, of which solie became a part for so long, in Atlanta, before retiring to New Port Richey.
To be honest, the building on Albany doesn't look much different than it did when it was the Sportatorium, except for the big guys coming and going, the crowds around it, the lines for tickets, the TV trucks, the cables on the ground and the antennae, the wrestlers' Cadillacs parked outside, and the buzz. Oh, the buzz.
On second thought, it is different. It's dull. Too quiet. No people. No buzz. Only the sign: Linnie's Fashions.
"A historical landmark? Sure, it should be. The old Sportatorium is TV wrestling's birthplace. Sure, it should be," Solie said. "I'll pay for the plaque."
That's a deal, Mr. Solie. Tom McEwen is the senior sports editor for the Tampa Tribune Sports Section
In this part, Les talks about his beginnings in the business and explains why the Knoxville, Tennessee wrestling territory held such a special place in the hearts of those who competed there.
Jeremy Hartley: This ia a very special edition of "Up Close and Personal", one that I am very proud to present to all you wrestling fans and wrestling historians. This will be part 1 of an interview that I conducted with wrestling Hall of Famer and Superstar extraordinaire, Les Thatcher. Thatcher has spent the better part of 38 years of his life involved in the sport of professional wrestling and he shares some of his memories with us. In Part 1, we bring you the Knoxville era, the Smoky Mountain era, all taking place in the beautiful Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Les will recount his beginnings and some of the Superstars that he, along with Jim Ross and a few others helped induct into the Pro-Wrestling Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee on the "Night of the Legends" card, held at the Knoxville Coliseum and put on by Jim Cornette and Smoky Mountain Wrestling.
Welcome Les. I always ask this question first and see no reason to alter the practice. How did you break into the business?
Les Thatcher: Well, I became a fan when I was probably 8 or 9 years old. That would have been in the late forties which was when wrestling on TV was hitting it's stride and it was a fascinating thing, you know I had never seen pro-wrestling before but I just fell in love with it. As a child, I look back and realize that I picked the right guy to be my idol because he was one of the greatest talents ever in this business, and that was Buddy Rogers. Whatever it was about him that fascinated me, it did. You know, and he became the yardstick by which I measured professional wrestlers. Okay, well I started wrestling amateur at about 12 years old, and then in my later teens - about 17 - 18 - I really started to think seriously that I'd like to try this. So I went to one of the local area promotions, out of Columbus, Ohio, which was about 100 miles and some change to the Northeast of us, and was run by a guy named Al Haft who was one of the great promoters of the fifties, and the forties.
Jeremy Hartley: Oh yeah...
Les Thatcher: In fact, a lot of the old timers tell me that this territory was one of the largest and most productive of its time. These guys ran two-three towns a night and had like 70 wrestlers in their stable and promoted in about five States: West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. So wrestling was flourishing. I drove up and talked to a couple of the wrestlers here, talked to a local referee about getting started - nobody was really helpful. So the office was in a suburb of Columbus called Reynoldsville, so I drove up there one Saturday just "cold", walked in and introduced myself and as it turns out a guy named Frankie Toliver was the booker and that's who I ended up talking to and Al Haft was there. And their thing was, "Well, kid you're still a little small." And they were using Junior Heavyweights still at the time - I was like 175 - 180 lbs - so they said, "...well, you need some experience, blah, blah, blah..." I was kind of at wits end because I didn't know how to get any experience - it was like, "You can get credit if you have good credit..." So anyway, in looking through one of the old Wrestling Review magazines, I came across a story about a guy named Tony Santos up in Boston was training young wrestlers. I guess there could have been three or four other ones in the country but this was the only one that article had ever been done on so it was the only one I was ever aware of. So the address was in there and they had a picture of his gym and so forth and so on, so I just wrote him a letter. So they sent me back a letter and said, "You can be trained here, etc..." So the next day I got on a Greyhound and went to Boston and lived in a rooming house, got a job with a fuel and ice company delivering ice (because back then they were still using the old ice boxes down in the tenament section of Boston). Talk about some cardio-vascular exercise... I started hauling 25 lbs blocks of ice...
Jeremy Hartley: Les Thatcher, the original "Iceman of Wrestling"... (laughs)
Les Thatcher: Yeah...of course I was 19 years old - you can't kill a 19 year old (laughs). So anyway I started up there in Boston with Tony Santos and the good thing about that was that there was a good mix in a small territory of some old veterans that had come off the road and settled in that area, and some young guys still trying to find their niche, so I was able to work with some good guyd. I had guys like Luke Graham broke in up there, Pat Patterson, Terry Garvin, Ronny Garvin, guy named Ronny Dupree who was one of the Hell's Angels, Ronny's dead now, Alex Medina who was the Peurto Rican kid who was a tremendous high-flyer at the time. So a good opportunity to work with all these guys, it was a good little territory - so that's where I broke in up there. I had no idea that I would make it, had no idea where I would end up but I knew it was something I wanted to try and that was actually the only opportunity out there because nobody around this area was willing to give me a shot. So that's how I got started.
Jeremy Hartley: You know, I was listening to your induction speech into the Knoxville Hall of Fame, and one of the things you said which was repeated over and over again by guys like Ronny Garvin and even the Mongolian Stomper (who I never even knew could talk!) was the phrase, "I'm home now..." - and I was curious - what made Knoxville wrestling and wrestling in Tennessee such a special thing? You usually don't hear that, and to come back years later and have that same type of feeling...I mean it seemed pretty intense to me...so what made that so special?
Les Thatcher: Well, you know what, I of course can't speak for Archie, the Stomper or Ronny, but for me - part of it was that so many of the highlights of my career happened there. To give you a capsule history of my love affair, if you will, with Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1968 I left the Carolina territory after having been in there about two years, and went to the Nashville territory - which was (Nick) Gulas & (Robert) Welch at the time. And at that time a young guy was starting out as a referee, his mother was treasurer for that company, and he later turned into Jerry Jarrett, father of Jeff Jarrett. John Cazana was the promoter in Knoxville and had been for a number of years at that time and this is 1968, and he was picking up part of his talent from the Nashvile office and part of it was coming from regional, from Eastern Tennessee, guys who lived up there. The first time I went to Knoxville was in the late summer, the fair was going on and so we wrestled in the ball park, Bill Meyers Stadium - I do remember that - and the other thing that was amazing to me, I had been in the business 8 years, is that they had no TV in Knoxville. Cazana was promoting the old style, just what he could do in the newspaper - John himself had been a newspaper man - with the Knoxville Sentinal, he was able to go down to the sports department after the matches on Friday night and type up his own stories...
Jeremy Hartley: (laughs)
Les Thatcher: ...and of course they would insert them, no big problem. So the town was drawing but it was like pulling teeth with no TV. The other areas we worked in out of the Nashville office, Chatanooga had TV, Birmingham and Memphis, Nashville itself - Knoxville didn't at that time... So anyway, John liked my work, I seemed to get over there with the fans, so he started asking Nick to use me more often. So he first got TV in the winter, around January of 1969 and there was a local babyface by the name of Whitey Caldwell, a hell of a wrestler, and there were two other local guys called the Wright Brothers, not the guys who flew the plane, Ron and Don. As as it were, Whitey and I were the first two babyfaces featured on John's TV program in 1969 and Ron and Don were the first two heels. So we got red hot and the territory just blew wide open and had a heck of a run in there, and in fact that summer we set an outdoor attendance record at the local ampitheater. In fact we had one big house in a rain storm where he was on the verge of cancelling the show, but outside they had four box office lines and there were people lined up clear around the wall of the ampitheater, standing in the rain waiting to buy tickets, that's how hot the angle was - so we went ahead and worked in the rain and the fans sat there and watched it. So I got over real strong because I was one of the first babyfaces on the TV there in the new era. I was there in '69 and '70 then I went up to Eastern Canada for a while and when I came back I went down to the Tampa territory and then back into the Carolinas which was also one of the great territories for me during my run in the business. Even when I was in the Carolinas John would bring me into Knoxville occassionally, like when something would be going on with the Wrights or they would have Sam Bass as there manager for a while and they would shaft him in some way and then the angle would be, "...well I'm going to call Les..." we were a great team together, so they kept my name in there. So anyway, while I had been in Florida in 1971 I met a young wrestler there by the name of Ron Fuller, and we got to be good buddies, in fact I'm the godfather of his youngest son.
Jeremy Hartley: Oh yeah...
Les Thatcher: So in 1974 he purchased the Knoxville territory - John never really ran the Knoxville territory, I mean he would run Knoxville on Friday night, then he would run Morristown, Tennessee (which was about 40 miles away) on Saturday, maybe the next week he'd run Newport, which was about 45 miles way, but he really never did try to open it up as a six-day-a-week territory. It was just like a weekend thing for John. So he wasn't using outside talent enough, the business was falling off, the TV was badly run and he was ready to sell it. So Ron called me, I was in the Carolinas at the time, and said, "I'm going to buy the Knoxville territory, and I want you to do my TV and also wrestle for me." So that was in '74, I started there November of 1974 and...
Jeremy Hartley: This is Southeasten Championship Wrestling..?
Les Thatcher: Exactly. I had gotten my indoctrination into doing play-by-play in Canada in 1970, so then when I came back to the States, Crockett found out...I had never mentioned it at all but Crockett found out that I had done it up there and was pretty good at it so he had me wrestling and doing TV as well. So Ron said, "I want you to come in a produce my TV and host it." You know, he and I had gone up and down the road and I had always said, "If I was doing the TV show I'd like to try this..." so he said, "Okay man, here it is...I'll give you carte blanche because TV's not my bag, its not something that I know..."
Jeremy Hartley: Right...
Les Thatcher: So the first weekend I went up there, I was still working the Carolinas, but I went in there like on Friday and we sat down in his livingroom, and the TV had been running for a while but there was no format. They would just run a show, insert the commercial wherever, and so I organized the TV. We put in some new things. I'll tell you what we did first, that hadn't been done before anyplace in the country, and people believed it was bad for wrestling TV. The type of interview that Jim Ross did with Mankind when they exposed the Dude Love character - we were doing something like that in 1974 and on through the run of Southeastern Wrestling which I called "Personality Profile". We were feeding the people with some of the background stuff on the wrestlers. It was a low-key interview, we had a set just like Cactus and Jim were sitting on, you know, that type of thing with a little coffee table, and we would pre-tape that and roll just aout a 5 minute segment into the middle of our show. So we became innovators in a few things and I'm proud to say that some of that stuff that's going on now we did first there. Back then wrestling promoters weren't adventuresome - it was like, "Well this worked really good in 1945, so why would we want to change it..."
Jeremy Hartley: Right (laughs)
Les Thatcher: So anyway, the Knoxville territory took off and flourished. Nelson Royal, who later became the World Jumior Heavyweight Champion, and I were the Southeastern Tag Team Champions we were feuding with....uh...whoever, one big feud we had was with a guy named John Foley and a young kid named Dutch Mantell. We set records in the Knoxville Civic Coliseum for attendance. The TV show was red hot and I was a regional celebrity there. From '74 to '77 I was serving two masters. I was still living in Charlotte, doing the TV for the Mid-Atlantic territory, wrestling there and then going to Knoxville on weekends introducing the TV there, hosting it and wrestling there. So, thank God I was younger! But it was like that little mouse on the wheel, running with no end... So in '77, Ron asked me to move up to Knoxville and help with the administrative end as well as continue to do the TV. So I moved up there in 1977 and he was expanding into the Gulf Coast at the time - he bought the Mobile territory - Pensicola/Mobile, and so the TV we were first doing down there was in Knoxville, and I was doing shows for down the other end too. So then he sold the territory, got ready to move south to Atlanta. Jim Barnett, I stayed on with him for a while, then went down to Pensicola - it was more a creative disagreement then anything else - then Ron said, "...come on down here." So I went down to Pensicola, spent almost a year down there...
Jeremy Hartley: Did you work with Gordon at that time? Gordon Solie?
Les Thatcher: No, Gordon and I became friends in '67, when I first wrestled in the Tampa territory, but he and I shared the microphone in Atlanta in part of '73 and '74 on the old Georgia Championship program.
Jeremy Hartley: Oh yeah, right...
Les Thatcher: So then I was down in Pensicola and a group of guys bought Knoxville from Barnett, from the Atlanta office, and that group consisted of Jim Crockett, Jr., Ric Flair, and Blackjack Mulligan. Blackjack was moving up there to head the company, so Flair called me and said that they had talked to Channel 10 in Knoxville (which was a CBS affiliate at the time) and he said, "They have asked us one thing, they would like you to handle the TV, they liked working with you..." - and I was kind of the go-between for the wrestling promotion and the Television people. You know, like the station manager would call me and say, "Les, I saw something I wasn't real happy with on the show...", you know, and I would go back and say, "Hey guys, we need to kind of tone this down..." so I was kind of the mediator. But they liked the ratinga that we put up for them, so they said, "Look, we'll make you an offer - we'd like you to come back to Knoxville."
Jeremy Hartley: Uh huh...
Les Thatcher: So I did, I went back up there. Well, to make a long story short, we were supposed to get talent help out of Charlotte, we didn't for whatever reason, so the thing ended up going down the tubes. I lived there for a while, I ran a small business outside of the wrestling thing and it was just freelancing, doing some work for Ann Gunkel who was promoting at the time. I was doing a thing for Carlos (Colon) over in Puerto Rico, and then I handled the WCW (Editor's Note: not the same as the Turner promotion now, but it's pre-cursor) tours when they first started touring in the early 80's. In fact I was Vice President in Charge of Promotions for Ohio, West Virgina and Michigan. So I'd come here and handle the tours but I was still living in Knoxville, I always loved the town, its a great place. So anyway, when I left WCW they were having internal power struggles over ownership - you know, a lot of us got caught up in the middle of the thing, and you can't serve two masters and what-not - so you end up sitting outside watching everybody do the infighting.
Jeremy Hartley: Right...
Jeremy Hartley is a longtime friend of Solie's and a regular contributer to the newsletter. His "EYE on Wrestling" columns can be found in the "Articles" section of the web site. His previous interviews with Bob Blackburn, Lou Thesz, Bob Ryder and Buddy Landel are currently to be found in the "Interviews" section.
At least that's the way I see it...
Editor, Solie's Wrestling Newsletter
Hosted by Jeremy Hartley
(Editor's Note: If you have found anything thats been said here to be particularly offensive please read this disclaimer).
Join the livliest discussion of wrestling topics on the web. Please watch your language, we have children surfing in here. Visit Solie's Readers' Forum. This page is a personal tribute and is in no way connected to any of the wrestling promotions mentioned on it. It is dedicated to the Dean of Wrestling announcers, Gordon Solie. Copyright 1998 - Jump City Productions