I remember Kowalski from my childhood in Pittsburgh, especially because of his rivalry with Bruno Sammartino, our big-time local wrestling champ. Sammartino was born in Italy (1936), but his professional life was centered in Pittsburgh’s “Studio Wrestling” show on Channel 11. Here’s a great site tracing the 60s history of this program.
My parents forced me to watch a lot of sports. In my mother’s house “our” identity as Pirates and Steelers fans was as important as our identity as Jews. Other than my adoration for Roberto Clemente, whose photo I still display in my home, and my fondness for sitting in the bleachers at Forbes Field with my dad, eating hotdogs, I wasn’t all that interested.
However, I didn’t mind when we ate dinner Saturday nights around the card table in the living room in order to watch “Studio Wrestling.” I seem to remember – but perhaps I made it up – that my dad was tight with Izzy Moidel, the main referee. Izzy added to the theatre of the events by looking the other way during illegal moves, like one wrestler breaking a chair over another’s head.
Each wrestler had his “schtick.” Usually this was based on a professional, ethnic or racial stereotype. Sammartino was an Italian hero. The Sheik, from Syria, always entered the ring with an interpreter and harem. There was Chief White Owl, Cowboy Bill Watts and the popular Haystack Calhoun (see photo). At 640 pounds, he played up his image as the gentle hillbilly by wearing overalls and a horseshoe around his neck while pretending to be from Arkansas (instead of Texas). Most of the wrestlers were loud-mouths and no one cared that it wasn’t “real” the way boxing was real – all of Pittsburgh took vociferous sides and 10,000 to 15,000 of us turned up in the Civic Center to cheer our favorites.
My grandmother, an immigrant who never learned to read or write any language until she was widowed and studied English, was a sweet, hardworking nearly-deaf woman. Put her in front of “Studio Wrestling” and she was transformed into a wild woman. I’m not sure if all of this was a lesson in sports or a lesson in theatre, but I’m sorry to hear of Killer Kowalski’s passing.
Here’s a one-minute tribute to Kowalski.