||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (February 2008)|
Gorgeous George and wife Betty, 1950
|Ring name(s)||Gorgeous George
|Born||March 24, 1915
|Died||December 26, 1963(aged 48)|
|Retired||November 7, 1962|
George Raymond Wagner (March 24, 1915 – December 26, 1963) was an American professional wrestler best known by his ring name Gorgeous George. In the United States, during the First Golden Age of Professional Wrestling in the 1940s–1950s, Gorgeous George gained mainstream popularity and became one of the biggest stars of this period, gaining media attention for his outrageous character, which was described as flamboyant and charismatic. He was inducted into Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2002 and the WWE Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2010.
George Raymond Wagner was born March 24, 1915 in Butte, Nebraska. For a time, he and his parents lived on a farm near the village of Phoenix in Holt County and probably in Seward County before they moved to Waterloo, Iowa and later Sioux City. When George was age seven, his family moved to Houston, Texas, where he associated with kids from a tough neighborhood. As a child, he trained at the local YMCA and often staged matches against his friends. In 1929, Wagner dropped out of Milby High School at age 14, and worked odd jobs to help support his family. At this time, he competed at carnivals, where he could earn 35 cents for a win. By age 17, he was getting booked by the region’s top promoter, Morris Siegel, and in 1938, he won his first title by defeating Buck Lipscomb for Northwest Middleweight crown. Moreover, on May 19, 1939, he captured the Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight Championship.
At 5’9” and 215 pounds, Wagner was not particularly physically imposing by professional wrestling standards, nor was he an exceptionally gifted athlete. Nevertheless, he soon developed a reputation as a solid in-ring worker. In the late 1930s, he met Elizabeth "Betty" Hanson, whom he would eventually marry in an in-ring ceremony. When the wedding proved a good drawing card, the couple re-enacted it in arenas across the country (which thus enlightened Wagner to the potential entertainment value that was left untapped within the industry). Around this same time, Vanity Magazine published a feature article about a pro wrestler named Lord Patrick Lansdowne, who entered the ring accompanied by two valets while wearing a velvet robe and doublet. Wagner was impressed with the bravado of such a character, but he believed that he could take it to a much greater extreme. What he needed was a new professional persona.
Later, In Portland, Oregon, Betty (George's wife) told Dean Higinbotham, the nephew of Betty's sister, Evangeline “Eva,” how George got the name Gorgeous George. In the early 1940s George had a wrestling match at the Portland Oregon Armory. As he walked down the aisle to the ring, there were two mature women on his right, two rows back from the ring. One of the women loudly exclaimed: “Oh, isn’t he gorgeous.” That word “gorgeous” struck George and he immediately felt he had found his new professional persona. He would be “Gorgeous George.” As Elsie Hanson, Betty’s mother, was a skilled seamstress, George asked her to make him some resplendent capes that would accentuate his new persona. George wore those capes in all his future matches.
Subsequently George debuted his new “glamour boy” image on a 1941 card in Eugene, Oregon; and he quickly antagonized the fans with his exaggerated effeminate behavior when the ring announcer introduced him as “Gorgeous George.” Such showmanship was unheard of for the time; and consequently, arena crowds grew in size as fans turned out to ridicule George (who relished the sudden attention).
Gorgeous George was soon recruited to Los Angeles by promoter Johnny Doyle. Known as the "Human Orchid," his persona was created in part by growing his hair long, dyeing it platinum blonde, and putting gold-plated bobby pins in it (which he deemed “Georgie Pins” while distributing them to the audience). Furthermore, he transformed his ring entrance into a bona-fide spectacle that would often take up more time than his actual matches. He was the first wrestler to really use entrance music, as he strolled nobly to the ring to the sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance," followed by his valet and a purple spotlight. Wearing an elegant robe sporting an array of sequins, Gorgeous George was always escorted down a personal red carpet by his ring valet “Jeffries,” who would carry a silver mirror while spreading rose petals at his feet. While George removed his robe, Jeffries would spray the ring with disinfectant (which reportedly consisted of Chanel No. 5 perfume), which George referred to as "Chanel #10" ("Why be half-safe?" he was famous for saying) before he would start wrestling. Moreover, George required that his valets spray the referee’s hands before the official was allowed to check him for any illegal objects, which thus prompted his now-famous outcry “Get your filthy hands off me!” Once the match finally began, he would cheat in every way he could. Gorgeous George was the industry’s first true cowardly villain, and he would cheat at every opportunity, which infuriated the crowd. His credo was "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!" This flamboyant image and his showman's ability to work a crowd were so successful in the early days of television that he became the most famous wrestler of his time, drawing furious heel heat wherever he appeared.
It was with the advent of television, however, that George’s character exploded into the biggest drawing card the industry had ever known. With the networks looking for cheap but effective programming to fill its time slots, pro wrestling’s glorified action became a genuine “hit” with the viewing public, as it was the first program of any kind to draw a real profit. Consequently, it was Gorgeous George who brought the sport into the nation’s living rooms, as his histrionics and melodramatic behavior made him a larger-than-life figure in American pop-culture. His first television appearance took place on November 11, 1947 (an event that was recently named among the top 100 televised acts of the 20th century by Entertainment Weekly) and he immediately became a national celebrity at the same level of Lucille Ball and Bob Hope (who personally donated hundreds of chic robes for George’s collection) while changing the course of the industry forever. No longer was pro wrestling simply about the in-ring action, but George had created a new sense of theatrics and character performance that had not previously existed. Moreover, in a very real sense, it was Gorgeous George who single-handedly established television as a viable entertainment medium that could potentially reach millions of homes across the country (in fact, it is said that George was probably responsible for selling as many TV sets as Milton Berle).
In addition to his grandiose theatrics, Gorgeous George was an accomplished wrestler as well. While many may have considered him a mere gimmick wrestler, he was actually a very competent freestyle wrestler, having started learning the sport in amateur wrestling as a teenager, and he could handle himself quite well if it came to a legitimate contest. The great Lou Thesz, who would take this AWA title away from Wagner, and who was one of the best "legit" wrestlers ever in professional wrestling, displayed some disdain for the gimmick wrestlers. Nevertheless, he admitted that Wagner "could wrestle pretty well," but added that, "he [Wagner] could never draw a fan until he became Gorgeous George."
On March 26, 1947, he defeated Enrique Torres to capture the Los Angeles Heavyweight Championship. Then on February 22, 1949, George was booked as the feature attraction at New York’s Madison Square Garden in what would be pro wrestling’s first return to the building in 12 years. By the 1950s, Gorgeous George’s starpower was so huge that he was able to command 50% of the gate for his performances, which allowed him to earn over $100,000 a year, thus making him the highest paid athlete in the world. Moreover, on May 26, 1950, Gorgeous George defeated Don Eagle to claim the AWA (Boston) World Heavyweight Championship, which he held for several months. During this reign he was beaten by the National Wrestling Alliance World Champion Lou Thesz in a highly publicized bout in Chicago. However, perhaps Gorgeous George’s most famous match was against his longtime rival Whipper Billy Watson on March 12, 1959, in which a beaten George had his treasured golden locks shaved bald before 20,000 delighted fans at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens and millions more on national television.
In one of his final matches, Gorgeous George later faced off against (and lost to) an up-and-coming Bruno Sammartino, though he would lose his precious hair again when he was defeated by the Destroyer in a hair vs. mask match at the Olympic Auditorium on November 7, 1962. This would ultimately be his last match, as advanced age and extended alcohol abuse had taken their toll on his body; and his doctors ordered him to quit wrestling. In 2002, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame (PWHF.org) by a committee of his peers. On March 27 he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame class of 2010. His 97 year-old former wife, Betty Wagner accepted the honor on his behalf, answering questions and telling the story of how he became Gorgeous George.
Retirement and death
As his wrestling career wound down, Wagner invested $250,000 in a 195-acre (0.789 km2) turkey ranch built in Beaumont, California, and the wrestler used his showman skills to promote his prized poultry at his wrestling matches and sport shows, popular during his heyday. He raised turkeys and owned a cocktail lounge in Van Nuys, California, which he named "Gorgeous George's Ringside Restaurant".
In 1962, Wagner was diagnosed with a serious liver condition. On advice of his doctors, he retired. This, combined with failed finances (due to bad investments) worsened his health. He suffered a heart attack on December 24, 1963, and died two days later, at age 48.
A plaque at his gravesite reads "Love to our Daddy Gorgeous George".
Muhammad Ali and James Brown acknowledged that their own approach to flamboyant self-promotion was influenced by George. A 19-year old Ali met a 46-year old George at a Las Vegas radio station. During George's radio interview, the wrestler's promo caught the attention of the future heavyweight champion. If George lost to Classy Freddie Blassie, George exclaimed, "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!" Ali, who later echoed that very promo when taunting opponent Sonny Liston, recalled, "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 seasoned wrestler gave the future legend some invaluable advice: "A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous."
In September 2008, the first full length biography of Gorgeous George was published by HarperEntertainment Press. The title of the 304 page book is Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad Boy Wrestler who Created American Pop Culture by John Capouya. In the 2005 book, I Feel Good: A Memoir in a Life of Soul, James Brown said he used many of Gorgeous George's antics to "create the James Brown you see on stage".
Bob Dylan said meeting George changed his life. In Dylan's book The Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan recounts a story of meeting Gorgeous George in person. He wrote, "He winked and seemed to mouth the phrase, `You're making it come alive.' I never forgot it. It was all the recognition and encouragement I would need for years."
The 1951 Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies cartoon Bunny Hugged featured the one-shot character "Ravishing Ronald", modeled after Gorgeous George. The Bowery Boys also lampooned Gorgeous George (with Huntz Hall as a much-heralded wrestler) in the 1952 feature No Holds Barred. Musical performers such as Liberace, Little Richard, Elton John and Morris Day show signs of the George meme. Some consider George to have been an early example of camp.[weasel words]
The Simpsons episode "Gorgeous Grampa" was partially based on Gorgeous George's career.
He appeared in one motion picture, Alias the Champ, made in 1949.
He was married twice, first to Betty Hanson in 1939 in Eugene, Oregon inside a wrestling ring. They had two adopted children. In 1951, after divorcing Betty, he married Cherie Dupré. They had one son, Gary. George also had a son whom he named Gorgeous George in 1946 with a longtime mistress named Victoria. George's great-nephew Robert Kellum later wrestled as "Gorgeous George III" in the United States Wrestling Association. George is also related to Randy Cantley, who owns the biggest collection of his personal items including his New York State Wrestling License, Warner Brothers Trademark Contract, and all of his personal headshots. His first wife Betty died on June 3, 2011 at the age of 98. Gary George has one daughter and three granddaughters.
Championships and accomplishments
- American Wrestling Association
- AWA World Heavyweight Championship (Boston version) (1 time)
- Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling
- Mid-South Sports
- Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Charter member inducted in 2002
- World Wrestling Entertainment
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards
- Other titles
- Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight Championship (2 times)
- Pacific Northwest Middleweight Championship (1 time)
- John Capouya (December 12, 2005). "King Strut". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 2008-05-04.
- Thesz, Lou, with Kit Bauman, Hooker, An Authentic Wrestler's Adventures Inside the Bizarre World of Professional Wrestling, Mike Chapman, Editor (TWC-Press, 2000), p. 100.
- "Bob Dylan Tells All (Almost)". Associated Press. CBS.com. 2004-10-05. Retrieved 2008-05-04.
- "Gorgeous George enters Hall of Fame". World Wrestling Entertainment. 2010-03-15. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
- House of Deception many photos of Gorgeous George
- Wrestling Museum Hall of Fame
- Nebraska State Education
- Wrestling legends – discusses origin of gimmick