Gorgeous George

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Gorgeous George
Gorgeous George headshot circa 1950s (cropped).jpg
Birth nameGeorge Raymond Wagner
BornMarch 24, 1915
Butte, Nebraska, United States[1]
DiedDecember 26, 1963(1963-12-26) (aged 48)
Los Angeles, California, United States
Professional wrestling career
Ring name(s)George Wagner
Gorgeous George
Billed height5 ft 9 in (175 cm)
Billed weight215 lb (98 kg)
Debut1932
Retired1962

George Raymond Wagner (March 23, 1915 – December 26, 1963) was an American professional wrestler 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 was one of the biggest stars of the sport, gaining media attention for his outrageous character, which was described as flamboyant and charismatic.[2] He was posthumously inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2002 and the WWE Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2010.

Early life[edit]

Wagner, of German heritage, was born March 24, 1915, in Butte, Nebraska. For a time, his family 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.[3] When he was 7 years old, Wagner's 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, he dropped out of Milby High School at 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.[4][5] 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.[6]

Career[edit]

At 5 ft 9 in and 215 pounds (1.75 m and 98 kg), Wagner was not especially physically imposing by professional wrestling standards, nor was he an exceptional athlete, although he was a gifted amateur wrestler. Nevertheless, he soon developed a reputation as a solid in-ring wrestler. In the late 1930s, he met Elizabeth "Betty" Hanson,[7] whom he would later marry in an in-ring ceremony.[1] When the wedding proved a good drawing card, the couple re-enacted it in arenas across the country enlightening Wagner to the potential entertainment value that was left untapped within the industry. Around this same time, Vanity Fair magazine published a feature article about a professional 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.[8]

Subsequently, Wagner 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 at the time; and consequently, arena crowds grew in size as fans turned out to ridicule Wagner (who relished the sudden attention).

Photo postcard of Gorgeous George, "the Human Orchid" and the "Toast of the Coast", circa 1940s.

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 called "Georgie Pins" and distributed to the audience).[9] Furthermore, he transformed his ring entrance into a bonafide spectacle that would often take up more time than his actual matches. He strolled nobly to the ring to the sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance",[10] followed by his valet and a purple spotlight.[11] 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 Wagner removed his robe, Jeffries would spray the ring with disinfectant, ostensibly Chanel No. 5 perfume, which Wagner referred to as "Chanel #10" ("Why be half-safe?" he was famous for saying)[A] 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!"[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

It was with the advent of television, however, that Wagner's in-ring character became the biggest drawing card the industry had ever known. With the networks looking for cheap, 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.[15] 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.[16] His first television appearance took place on November 11, 1947 (an event that was recently[when?] 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. No longer was pro-wrestling simply about the in-ring action, but Wagner 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.[17] It is said that George was probably responsible for selling as many television receivers as Milton Berle.[18]

In addition to his grandiose theatrics, Gorgeous George was an accomplished wrestler. 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.[19] The great Lou Thesz, who would take the 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."[20]

George attempting to pin another wrestler during a match, 1949

On March 26, 1947, Wagner defeated Enrique Torres to capture the Los Angeles Heavyweight Championship.[21] Then on February 22, 1949, he was booked as the feature attraction at New York City'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 star power was so large 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 one of the highest-paid athletes in the world. Moreover, on May 26, 1950, Gorgeous George defeated Don Eagle to claim the AWA World Heavyweight Championship (Boston version), which he held for several months.[22] During this reign he was beaten by the National Wrestling Alliance World Champion Lou Thesz in a highly publicized bout in Chicago.[23] However, perhaps Gorgeous George's most famous match was against his longtime rival Whipper Billy Watson on March 12, 1959,[24] in which a beaten George had his treasured golden locks shaved bald before 20,000 fans at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens and millions more who watched the match on CBC Television.[25]

In one of his final matches, Gorgeous George later faced off against (and lost to) an up-and-coming Bruno Sammartino,[26] 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.[8] This was his final match, as he was nearly 50 years old and suffering from the effects of alcoholism.[27] Gorgeous George appeared in one motion picture, Alias the Champ, made in 1949, which also featured wrestler Tor Johnson.[28]

Retirement and death[edit]

Gorgeous George and wife Betty, 1950

As his wrestling career wound down, Wagner invested US$250,000 in a 195-acre (0.79 km2) turkey ranch built in Beaumont, California, and he used his showman skills to promote his prized poultry at his wrestling matches and sport shows.[29] He raised turkeys and owned a cocktail lounge in Van Nuys, California, which he named "Gorgeous George's Ringside Restaurant".[30]

Wagner was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis in 1962 and his doctors instructed him to retire from wrestling.[31] This, combined with financial troubles that stemmed from a recent divorce, worsened his health. He suffered a heart attack on December 24, 1963, and died two days later, at age 48.[31] A plaque at his gravesite reads "Love to our Daddy Gorgeous George".[32]

Legacy[edit]

George pictured in 1954

Muhammad Ali and James Brown acknowledged that their own approach to flamboyant self-promotion was influenced by George. This was referenced in the 2021 movie One Night in Miami.... 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!"[33] 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!'"[34] 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."[1]

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.[35]

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".[1][36]

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."[1][37]

He is also mentioned in the 1949 film noir Strange Bargain as being on television wrestling with the Yellow Monster.

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, Prince and Morris Day show signs of the George meme.

His theme tune "Pomp and Circumstance" was later also used as a theme tune by Randy Savage in the WWF 1985–1994 (a classical arrangement) and WCW 1994–1997 (a rock guitar arrangement).[38]

Others in professional wrestling who have used the name "Gorgeous George" include Stephanie Bellars,[39] Gorgeous George III[40] and George Gillette, manager of Kendo Nagasaki.[41]

The 1978 motion picture The One and Only starring Henry Winkler was loosely based on his career.

In the 2000 movie Snatch Adam Fogerty plays a bare fist fighter named Gorgeous George.

Personal life[edit]

Wagner was married twice, first to Betty Hanson (1913–2011),[42] whom he married in 1939 in Eugene, Oregon inside a wrestling ring.[1] They adopted two children. In 1951, after divorcing Betty, he married Cherie Dupré (1927–2000). By this marriage, he had one biological son, Gary George. Cheri filed for divorce from George in April 1962.[43]

Wagner's grandnephew Robert Kellum, best known as "The Maestro" in World Championship Wrestling, also wrestled as "Gorgeous George III" in the United States Wrestling Association.[44]

Championships and accomplishments[edit]

A Jacksonville, Florida poster advertises George

Luchas de Apuestas record[edit]

Winner (wager) Loser (wager) Location Event Date Notes
The Destroyer (mask) Gorgeous George (hair) Los Angeles, California Live Event November 7, 1962 Gorgeous George's final match.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^
    Originally a slogan of Arrid deodorant in the 1940s and 1950s: "Why be half-safe? Use Arrid to be sure."[49]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f John Capouya (December 12, 2005). "King Strut". Sports Illustrated. Archived from the original on June 3, 2011. Retrieved 2008-05-04.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ "Gorgeous George". WWE. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  4. ^ Cusson, Jerome (October 3, 2010). "A Closer Look At…Gorgeous George". PWPonderings. Retrieved July 2, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. ^ "Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George? by Joe Jares". www.crowbarpress.com. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  6. ^ "Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight Title (California)". www.wrestling-titles.com. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  7. ^ "Betty Wagner, first wife of WWE Hall of Famer Gorgeous George, dead at 98". prowrestling.net. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  8. ^ a b Greer, Jamie (2020-02-12). "The Last Bell: The Final Match of Gorgeous George". Last Word on Pro Wrestling. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  9. ^ Jares, Joe. "George Was Villainous, Gutsy and Gorgeous". Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  10. ^ Williams, Kevin. "Walk That Aisle: The Importance Of Music In Wrestling". Bleacher Report. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  11. ^ Dickinson, Joy Wallace. "'Gorgeous George' drew fans from Granny to Dylan". orlandosentinel.com. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  12. ^ Sneddon, Rob (2015-10-04). The Phantom Punch: The Story Behind Boxing's most Controversial Bout. Down East Books. ISBN 978-1-60893-366-2.
  13. ^ Greenberg, Keith Elliot (2000-01-01). Pro Wrestling: From Carnivals to Cable TV. Lerner Publications. ISBN 978-0-8225-3332-0.
  14. ^ "Outrageous, Gorgeous George". Legacy.com. 2012-03-24. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  15. ^ Molinaro, John F. (2002). Top 100 Pro Wrestlers of All Time. Winding Stair Press. ISBN 978-1-55366-305-8.
  16. ^ Capouya, John (2008-09-02). Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture. ISBN 978-0061173035.
  17. ^ Slagle, Stephen Von (2019-11-17). "Gorgeous George". History of Wrestling. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  18. ^ Compton, Eric (2008-08-24). "Gorgeous George". New York Post. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  19. ^ "The legend of Gorgeous George began in the northwest". Slam Wrestling. 2017-10-30. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  20. ^ "House of Deception - Wrestler Gorgeous George". houseofdeception.com. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  21. ^ "Bond to wrestling's past is lost with Torres' passing". Slam Wrestling. 2007-09-12. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  22. ^ "AWA World Heavyweight Title (Boston)". www.wrestling-titles.com. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  23. ^ "Lou Thesz vs. Gorgeous George". Eat Sleep Wrestle. 2017-09-28. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  24. ^ "Whipper Billy Watson Career Record". Slam Wrestling. 1900-12-04. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  25. ^ Von Slagle, Stephen (2020-02-08). "Whipper Watson". History of Wrestling. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  26. ^ "Timeline: History of the WWF 1963-1969 with Bruno Sammartino The Wrestling Revolution". The Wrestling Revolution. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  27. ^ Long, Mark. "Gorgeous George Has Head Shaved By Destroyer". History of Wrestling. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  28. ^ "Alias the Champ (1949)". IMDb. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  29. ^ "Back in the Day: Wrestler 'Gorgeous George' had Inland turkey ranch". Press Enterprise. 2016-09-04. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  30. ^ "A Gorgeous Era in Wrestling". Los Angeles Times. 1997-12-14. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  31. ^ a b Langford, Mike (2019-10-31). "Pomp And Circumstance: The Brilliance Of Gorgeous George". Illegal Foreign Object. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  32. ^ "George Raymond "Gorgeous George" Wagner..." www.findagrave.com. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  33. ^ "Muhammad Ali's Life in Poetry, Activism, and Trash Talk". Intelligencer. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  34. ^ McLeod, Kembrew (2014-04-01). Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World. NYU Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-9630-6.
  35. ^ "411MANIA". 411 Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2012: Gorgeous George. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  36. ^ Garner, Dwight (18 September 2008). "Perfumed, Coiffed and Grappling With Demons (book review)". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 May 2019.
  37. ^ "Bob Dylan Tells All (Almost)". CBS.com. Associated Press. 2004-10-05. Retrieved 2008-05-04.
  38. ^ Grimes, A. C. (2019-03-22). "The Untold Truth Of 'Macho Man' Randy Savage". Grunge.com. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  39. ^ "Gorgeous George profile". Online World of Wrestling. Retrieved 2009-11-07.
  40. ^ "Robert Kellum". Online World of Wrestling. Retrieved 2009-09-01.
  41. ^ "Who is that masked man? - Sport - The Observer". www.theguardian.com. Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  42. ^ "Betty George, first wife of WWE Hall of Famer Gorgeous George, passes away". WWE. Retrieved 2021-07-02.
  43. ^ Oliver, Greg; Johnson, Steven (2007). The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels. Toronto: ECW Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-1550227598 – via Google Books.
  44. ^ Nicholson, Devon. "Former WCW Superstar The Maestro LIVE Career Interview". Hannibal TV Podcast. Archived from the original on 2021-12-12. Retrieved 7 January 2021.
  45. ^ "On this day in pro wrestling history (May 26): Dick the Bruiser & Crusher beat Larry Hennig & Harley Race in a nine fall death match, Tiger Mask wins WWF Jr. Heavyweight gold". Wrestling Observer Figure Four Online. May 26, 2015. Retrieved February 11, 2017.
  46. ^ Whalen, Ed (host) (December 15, 1995). "Stampede Wrestling Hall of Fame: 1948-1990". Showdown at the Corral: A Tribute to Stu Hart. Event occurs at 15:38. Shaw Cable. Calgary 7.
  47. ^ "Stampede Wrestling Hall of Fame (1948-1990)". Puroresu Dojo. 2003.
  48. ^ "Gorgeous George enters Hall of Fame". World Wrestling Entertainment. 2010-03-15. Retrieved 2010-03-15.
  49. ^ Studwell, William Emmett; Cooper, B. Lee; Hoffmann, Frank (1996). The National and Religious Song Reader: Patriotic, Traditional, and Sacred Songs from Around the World. Haworth Popular Culture. Routledge. p. 78. ISBN 978-0789000996. Retrieved December 9, 2020.

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