This article was originally published in Wrestling Perspective, Volume XIII, Issue #103. Copyright © 2002 Wrestling Perspective.
Hey, Boy! Where'd You Get Them Ears?
55 Years of Pro-Wrestling
By Paul Boesch
Minuteman Press Southwest
9000 Southwest Freeway, Suite 100
Houston, Texas 77074
$29.95 (mail order only)
When we examine wrestling's not so gloried past, a few names always manage to stand out, if only because they are repeated again and again within our narrative. One of these names is Paul Boesch. Synonymous with the Golden Age of wrestling, Boesch stuck around until the end, when Vincent the McHun and his bleached-blonde horde swept across the plains, buying everything in their path, burning what they could not buy and destroying wrestling as we, and Boesch, knew it.
Given that the past of wrestling is littered with names like that of Vincent McMahon, Paul Boesch stands out even more. One of the truly "good guys" of wrestling, Boesch was dedicated to his performing craft as a worker. Later, as a promoter, he was renowned for his sense of fairness. Red Bastein said that no one ever said a bad word about Boesch in his presence, and considering the sport is wrestling and Boesch was a promoter, one can easily sense the gravity of the statement, though it may continue to defy common sense. Imagine a promoter of whom nothing bad was ever uttered. Sounds like an old episode of the Twilight Zone; you remember, the one where Billy Mumy played a kid who could destroy anyone who even thought a bad thing about him.
Yet, in all my years of writing about this game of games, I've never heard a bad word about Paul Boesch. Considering the group I hung around with, that is a true rarity.
Perhaps it was because Boesch was not merely a promoter looking for the quick buck. He tended to be more like a pillar of the community rather a businessman out to make a profit. He loved his chosen profession and sought to present it in the highest terms possible. If the sport was attacked in the local papers, one could always count on a well-reasoned rebuttal from Boesch, straight, to the point, and polite. If he was needed for a community drive, Boesch always did his part, whether staging a benefit card or sending his wrestlers out for personal appearances to raise whatever money was needed.
One of the perennial gripes of wrestlers is pay - it's always too low. But there was less griping about Boesch's financial generosity than the spending habits of other promoters. There was no going through the wrestlers' pay envelopes, as Toots Mondt was known to have done; Boesch was up front with the boys, and his efforts, if not always appreciated, were at least understood as fair. Since I've heard this from a large contingent of the boys over the years I have no reason whatsoever to doubt it. When it comes to such issues, there's usually a dissenting voice or two, but that's not the case here. Boesch's office itself was even said to resemble that of a museum, loaded with shelves of gifts his employees brought back from overseas travel.
It should come as no surprise, then, to discover that this Renaissance man has written a book of memoirs. Hey Boy! Where'd You Get Them Ears? stands out not only as a memoir of the life and times of Boesch, but also on its own as a look at the sport of professional wrestling. It should also be noted that this was an unpublished work during Boesch's lifetime. He did publish a book of wartime poetry before this, and provided Joe Jares with a slew of information for his 1974 effort Whatever Happened To Gorgeous George? At the time, it was the most important book on pro wrestling to hit the scene since Marcus Griffin's expose, Fall Guys, shook things up in 1937. But, Boesch never found the time, I guess, to publish this work. It is through the good work of historian J. Michael Kenyon and the efforts of Boesch's family that the book is finally seeing the light of day.
The next question that must be asked of this reviewer is whether or not the book is worth the price and time. To both questions my answer is an unequivocal "yes." As a memoir of the life and times of Boesch in relation to his chosen sport, it stands out as a historical document. Remember that this is a historical document on wrestling, a sport that needs all the history it can get, especially now that Vince McMahon has discovered the publishing industry. If anything, Boesch's book will serve as a counterweight to the McMahon version of the past, and for that alone should be on the shelf of every serious fan. But it is also a delightful book to read.
If you expect Boesch to reveal or expose anything in the panorama of professional wrestling, forget it, you're barking up the wrong Boesch. The book is written in kayfabe and Boesch does reiterate some wrestling folklore that's been proven incorrect. But what does come through in the book is Boesch's "Aw, Shucks" look at life and a feeling we are being told a great story rather than being lectured to, as is unfortunately the case with many other books of this type. More than one person who knew him has told me Boesch was one of the greatest storytellers who ever graced the world of wrestling, and judging from this book, that appraisal is not far off the mark.
There is one other thing the reader will note from the book: the fact it could use a good edit or two. It seems as if Boesch wrote a draft, then left the book to pursue other things. Being an autobiography of sorts, it really can't be edited at this point as the author is no longer with us and any playing with the text is to assume the role of playing God. However, it's clear that someone has taken a hand or scissors to the last chapters, which concern the decline of the promotion and the advent of McMahon. The chapters themselves are choppy and the writing seems rushed and discontinuous. Could this have been a result of Boesch's own editing or did someone else take a hand, or pen, to his work? It might be the reluctance of the editor to burn bridges, though this seems to be the leitmotif of the boys at large.
The way I see it anyone so attached to and devoted to his line of work as Boesch would naturally have to view McMahon with the same sort of disgust with which a farmer sees an approaching plague of locusts. Dave Meltzer says Boesch sent out a few dozen copies of the original draft to his friends, of which he was one. While Meltzer loaned out his copy, never to see it again, he says the current version is indeed different from the original draft in that Boesch's feelings about McMahon, Bill Watts and Jim Crockett are significantly tempered. He also says that Boesch's relatives played a role in that process. This in no way deters our enjoyment of the book as a whole, but wrestling just wouldn't be wrestling if there wasn't some sort of anomaly, some puzzle, to be solved.
At any rate, the work itself is still a triumph of sorts. Unlike most memoirs, where time begins with the birth of the writer, Boesch attempts to fit his life into the currents of the game that came before him and into which he was initiated. So Boesch begins with a standard history of the game, elucidating on what happened before him, but with little comment, following the traditional narrative. (Remember: this is not an expose, but a loving tribute.)
Boesch himself comes in during the late Twenties, when Jack Pfeffer discovers him working as a bodyguard. Deciding he likes life on the mats, Boesch rises fast, and is crowned by Pfeffer as the "Jewish Champion," replete with phony belt. Pfeffer catered to the ethnic crowds that made up the pockets of the Technicolor coat known as New York City. While others such as Jack Curley pitched their services to the public at large, Pfeffer promoted in the neighborhoods, offering each their very own champion who would defend not only his, but also the honor of the neighborhood against those who would enter and plunder. In retrospect, Pfeffer's style seems to have its basis in his Russian childhood, where attacks by bands of Cossacks and the occasional full-blown pogrom disrupted any sense of safety and community. By substituting wrestlers for soldiers in his little morality plays, Pfeffer provided the catharsis his audience needed.
It mattered little to Pfeffer if his Jewish champion was really Jewish or his Russian champion was actually Russian. Image is everything. That's how Paul Boesch, Gentile, ended up being pressed into service as the Jewish champion. "Did he look Jewish?" one might ask, immediately leading into the question of what does it mean to look Jewish? Apparently he did look Jewish, for Boesch was embraced enthusiastically by his audience, who surely would have spotted an outrageous fake, at any rate.
All good things must come to an end, however, and Boesch's title run came to a rather embarrassing end. Tom Burke told me a delightful story in that regard. Interviewed by the Jewish Daily Forward after a title defense, Boesch told the reporter, among other things, how proud he was to carry the laurels for his people and what it meant to him to be the Jewish champion. The interview over, the reporter left to file his story while Boesch hit the showers. As fate would have it, the reporter was checking his notes as he left and realized he had missed a quote or two. He came back to the dressing room and inquired of Boesch's whereabouts. Told that the Jewish champion was in the shower, the reporter decided to wait. A few minutes later he was rewarded with the biggest scoop of his life when Boesch emerged buck-naked from the shower and showed the world he wasn't really Jewish.
After serving his apprenticeship for the quirky Pfeffer (about whom he has much more to say), Boesch hit his salad days with two events that permanently shaped the rest of his life. For one, he went to work for Houston promoter Morris Sigel and secondly he went to war. Boesch would never forget his military service and his experience overseas. He had been overseas before as a touring wrestler, but the war focused him, I think, in ways he doesn't mention in the book. Remember, there was that book of poetry.
It's always interesting to measure the effect of a war, no matter how justified, on a gentle soul, especially one who has made his living until then as an actor in a war play of sorts. Sort of like a gladiator pressed into service in ancient Rome. For one thing, being in the war taught Boesch discipline, not to be impatient, not to rush into things. For another thing, I think it taught him the value of human life and the means to distinguish what is really important from what seems important at the time. Boesch was known for being able to see the larger picture and for the radical philosophy of accepting responsibility instead of delegating blame. If a card was terrible, Boesch took his share of the blame for promoting it. After all, the customer was always right, and if you gave the people what they really wanted, they would come out in droves. Lou Thesz had told me that whenever Boesch hit a hurdle, he would muse on his experience in the war, and suddenly, the bad experience was put in context and Boesch was ready to move on.
Working for Sigel taught Boesch the ins and out of promoting. Boesch began as a worker and gradually worked his way into the promotion as an announcer and ended up buying the promotion on Sigel's death from the family. He would run it successfully until the era of McMahon, when everything slid down the old poop chute and the Golden Age of wrestling as we knew it was at an end.
Reading Boesch's memories of Houston wrestling in the Fifties and Sixties only makes me wish he had dedicated more space to the subject. It is here that the reader finally runs into someone Boesch doesn't like. Until now he seems to have loved everyone, but when it comes to Toots Mondt and Antonio Rocca, it's a different story. Rocca was the big draw for Sigel during the late Forties, helping get the promotion back on its feet (no pun intended) after the war. Toots came along and stole Rocca away with promises of the bright lights of New York City. Not that it took much to sway Rocca, for he always saw himself as a master manipulator, a perfect example of what Thesz meant when describing Jim Londos, "smarter than people thought, but not as smart as he thought." At any rate it was a low blow to the promotion for it was done in a completely underhanded way: here today, gone tomorrow.
Ironically, that is exactly what happened to the Houston promotion in retrospect. Here today, a pillar of strength, gone tomorrow, replaced by Vinnie McMahon's Flying Circus. As I read the final chapters, I still found myself dumfounded, even though I was keeping tabs when the events actually occurred. Perhaps it goes to illustrate an old adage about wrestling that I just made up: When it comes to professional wrestling, seeming is believing.
The Phantom of the Ring is a regular contributor to Wrestling Perspective.
The Phantom of the Ring, "The Cauliflower Kid," Wrestling Perspective, Volume XIII, Number 103, (2002).
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