Heyyoooo Cageside Seats! It's me again, Mr. Hyde, with another installment of Wrestlehistory! I thank you so much for the great feedback on my first article, which you can check out here. Based off the comments, as well as my own selfish interests, this time I want to look back on one of the most legendary performers in, not just wrestling, but entertainment history.
As a wrestling fan, I am obsessed with "firsts" trivia. Who first used the superkick? Who invented the piledriver? That kind of thing. Gorgeous George was the king of firsts. But there's more to his legacy than that. It's one thing to be a say, Jake Roberts, and invent the DDT. It's another to completely change people's ideas of what professional wrestling could be and how it's presented. One man did that. (Spoiler: It was Gorgeous George.)
Okay, this isn't a Triple H promo, so enough rambling. As always, hop in your time machine of choice, and let's go back. Back to.....1915!
(Insert Timey Wimey CGI)
That's the year George Wagner was born in Butte, Nebraska. After moving several times, George and his family ended up in Houston, Texas by the time he was 7. Growing up, George would stage matches amongst his friends for fun. (Not exactly backyard wrestling, but the love and fun of it were the same.)
When he was 14, he dropped out of high school, working odd jobs to help his family. At the same time, he also began wrestling in carnivals, which is where matches were mostly held at the time. When he won, he was paid the astonishing sum of 35 cents. (Now that's a hotdog and a handshake!) As he grew older, he developed a reputation as solid in the ring. (A good hand, as we'd say today.) But, George was only 5'9; hardly the intimidating strongman type typical of the era. Without the physique or the charisma, it seemed George was destined to be a footnote in wrestling history.
That would change, however, and not due to anything wrestling related. In his early twenties, George met Betty Hanson, and later, they decided to hold their wedding in the ring. The addition of the wedding to the card drew great numbers, and it was here that George had his "lightbulb" moment.
Seeing the money the wedding had brought, George and Betty decided to reenact it across the country. This led him to another realization. That there was an audience for the entertainment aspect in the business that no one had really tapped into yet. (Also, I will never truly forgive him for inventing the "wrestling wedding.")
The next piece of the puzzle came when George read an article on Lord Patrick Lansdowne, a fellow wrestler who came to the ring wearing a velvet robe and accompanied by valets. He was intrigued by the swagger of Lansdowne, but much like Buddy Rogers begat Ric Flair, George knew he could take it further.
So it was in Oregon in 1941 that George debuted his so called "glamour boy" character. All the pieces weren't there yet, but this was the genesis. Now billed as "Gorgeous George", as soon as the ring announcer introduced him, he began to antagonize the crowd with over the top, effeminate behavior.
I can't stress enough how, at the time, this just wasn't done. Fans had always had their favorites in matches, but not in a forced, good vs evil type of way. They were presented more akin to boxers. Yeah, you might have your favorite wrestler but none of them were over the top arrogant. As it was, crowds began to come out to see George, but to make fun of him.
That part is important, because it speaks to not just how ahead of his time George was, but his mind as well. We're used to the idea of heels trying their best to get fans to see money to see them beat. Or the cool heel, or the tough one. George was none of those, people were paying money to ridicule him, and seeing dollar signs, he relished in the attention, when another man with a more fragile ego may have abandoned the character right then and there.
Instead, he went even further.
Soon after, a promoter named Johnny Doyle invited George to Los Angles. It was here that Gorgeous George was truly born. He grew his hair out long and dyed it blonde, wearing gold plated bobby pins. He casually strolled to the ring under a purple spotlight, wearing a sequenced robe with a personal red carpet beneath his feet. Accompanying him was "Jeffries", his ring valet who held up a mirror while spreading rose petals at George's feet. All of this while "Pomp and Circumstance" sounded through the venue. (Years later, Randy Savage would use the same theme."
Gorgeous George had created the ring entrance.
To elaborate, he created the idea of the entrance as spectacle and just as important as the match. Often, a Gorgeous George entrance would last longer than the match itself. (Looking at you, Undertaker.) But it wasn't over once he was in the ring. Jeffries would spray the ring with perfume, as well as the referee's hands, before George would let him check him for illegal objects. Once the ref began the pat down, George would scream "Get your filthy hands off me!"
Then, the match could begin.
Now here is where George made another innovation. As I said above, wrestlers at the time were more or less presented as legit athletes trying to win a wrestling match. Two athletes fighting to determine who was the better man. Imagine amateur wrestling, just in short wool trunks.
George, however, would attempt to cheat the second the bell rang. and would do so throughout the entire match. Yes, we all expect the heels to cheat, but seriously, he would do it at every opportunity. Rarely, if ever attempting to combat his opponent in legit fashion. The same fans, who had previously made fun of him, now absolutely, unequivocally, loathed him, and events sold out just to see Gorgeous George get his pretty face knocked in. Indeed, one of his famous catchphrases became "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!"
Now, remember earlier when I said he was one of the most legendary performers in entertainment history? (You don't? Jeez, go look. Where is your attention span?)
It's here that we have to take an odd detour and explain what else was happening at around the same time George was walking on rose petals. In the late 40's, heading into the 50's, something else was taking the nation by storm.
A little thing called the television set.
Television networks needed cheap shows to fill their timeslots. and they found it in professional wrestling. It's action oriented nature was a hit with the American viewing audience. Even better for the brand new networks, they were the first show to ever draw a profit for them.
So in 1947, Gorgeous George appeared on television for the first time, and his charisma and over the top character instantly made him a national celebrity. He was The Rock of his time, except without the obnoxiously positive Instagram posts. No one had ever seen anything like him. His popularity changed wrestling forever, as the business now saw character and theatricality just as important as the in ring action, if not more so.
But, here's where his influence on history goes deeper than you might think. Not to get into a history lesson, but during that period, television was thought by many to be a fad. Something that would soon die out as people grew bored with the novelty and headed back to the matinees and movie theaters.
It was Gorgeous George who proved to executives that television was reliable medium and worth investing in. Without his star power, TV may have went the way of 3D movies. Television set sales soared as people bought them in droves just to see what vile deeds that Gorgeous George was up to. In fact, George became the biggest wrestling draw in history up to that point. (Seriously, soak that in. You're only watching House of the Dragon and She-Hulk right now because of Gorgeous Friggin' George. Didn't see that twist coming when you clicked this link, did you? Twist!)
Sadly, Gorgeous George's story ended too early, as too many wrestlers have. His body ravaged by the effects of alcoholism, in one of his final matches, he put over a hungry new talent named Bruno Sammartino. In 1962, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and instructed to retire. On December 24th, 1963, he suffered a heart attack, and died two days later at 48 years old.
But on a more positive note, his legacy lives on today. Every heel that has ever stepped through those ropes can draw a straight line back to Gorgeous George. Even more remarkably, his character could still work today in my opinion, which speaks volumes about his mind for the business.
Whew, we've covered a lot. But I'll leave you with one final note, that to me, beautifully and simplistically sums up George's contribution. If you've taken nothing away from this article, take this.
When he was 19, Muhammad Ali met Gorgeous George at a radio station during an interview. Ali was mesmerized by George's fiery, obnoxious promo. He would soon adopt a similar, charismatic personality during his interviews. Now, among die hard wrestling fans, that's a fairly well known story. But, I want to highlight a quote from Ali himself regarding the meeting.
"I saw 15,000 people comin' to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, 'This is a gooood idea!"
Take a second and soak that in. Gorgeous George created the heel. The notion that people would pay their good, hard earned money not to see their favorite win, but specifically to see someone they hated lose. There is a huge difference, and George was the first to not only see it, but run with it as hard as he could.
Alright, that does it for this edition. If you have any topic suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments, and let me know what you think!