The other night I was channel surfing using the on-air channel guide. The local cable company provides seventy-plus channel choices with the TV Starter option. I usually have three or four first choice channels picked out at a time and I cycle between this bundle before I grow weary of their programs. And that’s what caused the channel surfing the other night. I chose a new channel as a first choice channel and now three nights a week a curious fascination draws me to replays of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Johnny’s guests can include Robert Mitchum, Don Rickles, Sylvester Stallone, Tony Randall, Joan Rivers, Billy Crystal, Charles Nelson Reilly, or Suzanne Pleshette. The replays are from the seventies and eighties; Johnny’s monologues include references to Ronald Reagan as Governor of California, or as President of the United States; the hairstyles and wardrobes of Johnny, Ed, and the guests also suggest the seventies and eighties. The other night Johnny introduced and interviewed Hulk Hogan. Hulk was a guest because he had just made his film debut in Rocky III; cast as the world wrestling champion Thunderlips, the Ultimate Male. It was early in his career and Hulk had yet to fully explore and embrace The Hulkster and Hulkamania. Johnny was disinterested in the beginnings of Hulkamania.
I sat on a cramped couch, glued to the small TV in the corner; the second floor of the bungalow style house was made up of a front room, bedroom, bathroom, and a small kitchen. Lincoln, Nebraska, was now my postcode. Immigrants will tell of how they learned to speak American by watching television. I already spoke English, so I watched television for the synthesis of American culture with the Australian lifestyle. I watched wrestling; the late seventies and early eighties had to be the second golden age of wrestling. Hulk had become The Hulkster and was a permanent guest on a The Tonight Show format wrestling talk show; Vince McMahon was Johnny. The Hulkster talked a lot about all the Hulkamaniacs around the world, and the importance of Hulkamaniacs saying their prayers, drinking their milk, and taking their vitamins. And I watched all the wrestling matches; I lost count of the number of times I saw the ripping of The Hulkster’s shirt. For over a year I watched professional wrestling; I was bewildered by the cast of stock characters, and the plots and twists that moved the fantasy along.
There was a series of low railway viaducts just passed the intersection of New Footscray Road and Dudley Street. They carried the western suburb trains, Spirit of Progress, Overland, and the myriad of railway lines that made up the Melbourne railway yards. Back then, the yards seemed to go on forever; they stretched from North Melbourne to Spencer Street. The jumble of lines was clogged with every type of goods wagons and passenger carriages; the yards included goods sheds and a hump yard. The shadows of the viaducts and yards fell across the stadium. The West Melbourne Stadium was a grungy, concrete bunker sandwiched between the railway lines and Dudley Street. I remember Dad taking us to the wrestling at the stadium. Back then it was the mecca of boxing and wrestling in Melbourne. We sat high up in the raked bleachers and squinted through the dark smoke-filled space, to watch the action figures in the ring; a vintage black and white film with a grainy look and light leaks. The ring was a small squared circle in the distance, floodlit by overhead lights; the wrestlers were small mannequins. You barracked hard when Big Chief Little Wolf applied his Indian Death Lock, and you booed Gorgeous George and referee Bonnie Muir.
I remember the ring attendants ambling around, back and forth outside the ring. There were at least six attendants; they ambled not in a random fashion, but in some predefined pattern around sections of the ring. The attendants wore long white coats; the same white coats Victorian Football League Goal Umpires wore. Over the years I often wondered what caused me to study chemistry at Footscray Technical College instead of art at Caulfield Institute of Technology. As I think back, I remember my fascination with the stadium’s white-coated attendants; within an outstretched arm’s length of uncertainty, walking within inches of a Flying Head Scissors and Atomic Drop, and at any moment a grappler could be thrown out of the ring and land at their feet. I must have chosen chemistry at Footscray Tech so I could wear a long white chemistry lab coat and always walk within an outstretched arm’s length of uncertainty.
Some boys chose wrestling as an activity at the Williamstown Youth Center. It was the type of wrestling you saw on the newsreels at the pictures; Greco Roman and freestyle wrestling. Wrestling that was always part of army training, or school sports; wrestling that boys did man to man. Submission Holds and Pin-Falls were unknown; we practised the science of wrestling and only used leverage and balance as our holds. Each match was a physical chess game, and we always finished our bouts as friends.
Most nights of the week, after tea, I challenged Dad to a wrestling match. When he accepted, we squared off on the kitchen floor. The passageway spilled out into one end of the kitchen, and the back door to the fernery was opposite the passageway. Mum’s sewing machine was tucked into the corner by the door to the fernery, and the phone was on a small table by the door to the passage; the end of the kitchen between the two doorways was a natural squared circle. Dad and I did a freestyle type of wrestling. We started our matches in a modified Referee’s Position; the one where you choose either the top position or the bottom position. Dad always took the bottom position, squatting with his knees and hands on the floor. And that was the only Youth Center move we used. I tried to put dad in an Indian Death Lock, a Hammer Hold, Head Scissors, or a Submission Head Lock but he squirmed and slithered, and used his weight and strength to release himself from my wrestling holds. And when I couldn’t subdue him I would move into him with a series of Japanese Chops.
In the early sixties, Melbourne’s Channel 9 began broadcasting, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, its own World Championship Wrestling. The matches were scripted promotions for Killer Karl Cox’s, Mario Milano’s, Spiros Arion’s, Brute Bernard’s, Bulldog Brower’s, and other wrestler’s weekend matches at Festival Hall. I occasionally watched Gentleman Jack Little and the boys; I was losing interest in wrestling. I had transitioned from a young boy through early childhood, and into a fledgling adolescent. I had things to do on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; besides, I was now wearing a white chemistry lab coat two afternoons a week for Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Labs at Footscray Tech, and the West Melbourne Stadium, the House of Stoush, was no longer the grimy mecca for boxing and wrestling. It had been renamed Festival Hall in the early sixties and it was now Melbourne’s largest live entertainment venue. The Beatles, played the hall when they invaded Australia as part of their 1964 world tour.
Back then there was a lot of decision that you had to make; hippie, bodgie and widgie, mod, skinhead, surfer, or Beatles or Stones. I decided I was Stones so I didn’t see the Beatles at Festival Hall, but I did see an early sixties Chubby Checker concert, and the 1973 Frank Zappa and Mothers of Invention concert. I remember Zappa using his guitar as a cigarette holder. He pushed the filter of his cigarette down onto a string sticking out from the tuning peg, and he tucked lit cigarettes under the strings on the pegboard. His cigarette on the end of the string defined its own path as Zappa threw out his own unique solos; its embers and smoke joining the other embers and smoke in a darkened, grungy, Festival Hall.
Sometimes we look back and question the decision we made. During my search for inspiration and idealism in the ordinary in the early seventies, I used London as my homeland. I worked as a lifeguard at an outdoor swimming pool with four other band of brothers; Peter the university student, John the part-time criminal from Herne Hill, Mick the Irishman sympathetic to the troubles and a supporter of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and The Young Londoner. John the part-time criminal from Herne Hill worked a collection of part-time jobs to supplement his income from other activities; when the long hot summer was drawing to a close he asked me what I was going to do for a job. He knew a friend who was trying to get a bunch of lads together to tour small Italian and Eastern European towns and perform one-night wrestling matches; did I want to do it. I confessed I had only wrestled on the kitchen floor with my dad. John the part-time criminal from Herne Hill didn’t see that as a problem; the troupe was going to spend the next month learning holds and routines and developing their characters. The next morning I told John the part-time criminal from Herne Hill, thanks for thinking of me. You always regret some decisions you make.
With the success that Chubby Checker had with Lets Twist Again, Twistin USA, Slow Twistin, and Twist It Up as follow-ups to The Twist, I wonder if he regrets the decision not to follow up The Hucklebuck with a version called The Camelclutch
Ah here’s the dance you should know
Ah, baby when the lights are down low
I say, grab your baby then go
Do the Camelclutch (yeah)
Do the Camelclutch (yeah)
If you don’t know how to do it
Man you’re out of luck
Push ya baby out (yeah)
Then you hunch her back (yeah)
Start a little movement in your sacroiliac
Wiggle like a snake, wobble like a duck
That’s what you do when you do the Camelclutch
I didn’t decide to stop watching wrestling; I just drifted away from it. And the other day I found an old small box labelled John’s Toys; I sold my Titan Sports 8-inch 1984 vinyl Hulk Hogan wrestling action figure, that included a championship belt, and a box of 25 assorted wrestling action Band-Aids.