Legendary midget wrestlers.
Legendary midget wrestlers.

Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame

Field review by the editors.

Wichita Falls, Texas

This Field Review was written when the museum was in its previous location in Amsterdam, New York.

Mask worn by the Fishman, El Gran Veneno.
Mask worn by the Fishman, El Gran Veneno.

Professional wrestling, known for its outrageous acrobatics, theatrical displays, improbable finishing holds and preternatural tolerance for its rule-breaking bad guys, dates from at least the 1830s. The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame dates from 2002. It is off the beaten path in Amsterdam, New York. But official tourist signs mark the exit off I-90, and it is worth whatever detour you need to make, especially if you were ever a fan.

Downtown Amsterdam has seen better days: the Hall of Fame is the only living thing on East Main Street. And its storefront entrance at first makes you nervous that it will end up being a comic book store with a few wrestling trinkets scattered about. Once inside, though, you quickly see that this is the real thing. In fact, as your eyes adjust, you get that great museum excitement of "Man, where do I start?"

We started with the material closest to the front door: photo displays of the great midget wrestlers, then moved to the women wrestling displays, then the women midget wrestlers. As you think of wrestlers to look for, they miraculously appear in one display case or another. The Fabulous Moolah...Oh, look. Her famous dollar sign boots. Ric Flair? Yep. Mankind Mick Foley? Yep. Ernie "The Big Cat" Ladd? Yep.

Chyna action figure and promo pic.
Chyna action figure and promo pic.

All of the material is donated, by the wrestlers themselves in many cases, and all of the staff is volunteer, including Manager Jon Soto. Jon, who once wrestled locally as 2Xtreme, showed us around.

There are displays of old championship belts from the 1920s, and some material dates back to the Civil War era. ("Abe Lincoln was a wrestler," says Jon.). But the museum's focus, and better for it, is the TV-era of pro wrestling starting in the early 50s and going through to the present. That's the era visitors identify with, even the casual fan, and there is plenty here to see, no matter when you paid attention to the sport.

The place seems vibrant, with a decent amount of visitors. The downstairs portion contains the Hall itself, as well as memorabilia keyed toward material of a more recent vintage. But's it a little cramped.

Oil painting of Ray Stern and Buddy Rogers in mid-jump.
Oil painting of Ray Stern and Buddy Rogers in mid-jump.

Upstairs is where the photos, robes and costumes get more room. There are floor-to-ceiling framed 8 x 10s publicity stills of all the people you know and many of those you don't. Vintage programs and posters are nostalgic or ridiculous, depending on your age. A poster of masked wrestlers identifies them as if they were various beetles.

There's Sgt. Slaughter's drill sergeant's hat and "Stand Tall America" t-shirt. The jacket and makeup from The Missing Link, from parts unknown, and his mysterious valet, Dark Journey. A deerskin tribute to Native American wrestlers, "War Chiefs of the Mat," is heavy with meaning ("The tobacco pouches represent the 4 points on a compass." "The shell symbolizes the shield of the warriors.").

Of particular note is an oil painting ("in the style of Nicolas Poussin") featuring Ray Stern and Buddy Rogers both in mid-jump, with a grizzly bear in the ring and various famous fans peeking over the mat. In the background a thunderstorm recalls Stern's moniker, "Lightning," according to the legend next to the portrait. (The bear represents Victor, Tuffy Truesdale's wrestling bear that Stern supposedly beat. Victor was portrayed in Will Farrell's 2008 movie, Semi-Pro.)

Hall of Fame plaques.
Hall of Fame plaques.

With 70 years of history cheek by jowl, it is interesting to see how seamlessly the eras intertwine, even as the business progressed from a "grappling" style to the "sports entertainment" style now in vogue. How the basic struggle of good (usually represented by a "face") versus evil (a "heel") is a constant. Seeing all the capes and masks and cowboy and Indian outfits and muscle beach pose photographs, divorced from the action of a match, you do get a Village People vibe for a little bit. But it quickly dissipates.

More exhibits.

We asked Jon, "Why Amsterdam?" We thought it might be because Carroll "Pink" Gardner, a world champion in the 20s and 30s, is buried in the not-far away Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, where there is an impressive monument to him.

While the Hall did start in Schenectady, it is here because an area resident, Tony Vellano, is the force behind the endeavor. Tony is still active as President of the Hall of Fame's board. Jon said that Schenectady is also rumored to be the birthplace of televised professional wrestling.

The Hall of Fame itself is a serious matter. The selection committee is made up of thirty experts, including famous matsmen Baron Von Raschke (HOF 2013), Terry Funk (HOF 2004), George "The Animal" Steele (HOF 2005), and Ivan Koloff (HOF 2011). The official induction event always takes place on the weekend before Memorial Day. There are matches on Friday night, a Saturday street festival, and the official ceremony and dinner takes place Saturday night. 6,500 people showed up last May.

Prerequisites for induction are basic: you have to be over 50 years old, and have had to have been in wrestling for at least 20 years. And you had to be great. Past that, the Hall is quite inclusive. Starting from the first class, it has admitted women (Mildred Burke), midgets (Sky Low Low) and giants (Andre the).

Native Americans are well-represented by the likes of Wahoo McDaniel and Chief Jay Strongbow, and Mexican lucha libre crossover star Mil Mascaras is also enshrined. Promoters Vince McMahon Sr. and Jr. are both members. Participants from all regions and various post-war eras are members.

The great Larry Zbyszko happened to be at the museum.
The great Larry Zbyszko happened to be at the museum.

The plaques are smaller than one might imagine, but this is also the case at the better-known National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, located an hour away in Cooperstown. Ten were inducted this year, among them Playboy Gary Hart, Bruiser Brody and the masked man, Mr. Wrestling II.

Which begged our question, "How come Mr. Wrestling I is not in the Hall?"

La Diablo Noir, 1951.
La Diablo Noir, 1951.

"That's what makes it interesting," said Jon. "It's up to the committee, and there's always going to be a debate."

We happened to visit when the great Larry Zbyszko was there signing autographs and talking with fans. Zbyszko started in Pittsburgh in the early '70s. He changed his last name from Whistler to get in good with the locals as the protege of Bruno Sammartino (HOF 2002).

Later he betrayed the beloved "face" Sammartino, striking him with a wooden chair in a match in 1980. Zbyszko went on to wrestle another 30 years as a reviled heel across the country in the various associations, including the WWF, NWA, AWA, and WCW.

Zbyszko is impressed with the museum's collection. He was surprised to find a copy of a 45 record he self-produced called "Boo On Me." "I only made 1,000 of them."

As we spoke, a married couple stopped to chat. "I saw you fight Ken Patera at the Commack Arena in Long Island in 1980," says the husband. "He cheated to beat you, and I bounced a hot dog wrapper off his head."

Upstairs, Zbyszko shows another surprise: A photo of his wife when she was seven years old. Zbyszko married the daughter of pro wrestling pioneer Verne Gagne (HOF, 2004), and in a display case of Gagne's material there is an old photo of heyday Verne with his young daughter, Donna (who later became a ring announcer). Verne is still alive, but suffering from Alzheimer's. Several years ago he made headlines by killing his nursing home roommate, after employing his trademark sleeper hold.

As you might expect with a sport that has ingrained itself in the popular imagination for generations, there are other pro wrestling museums around the country. Jerry Lawler, who once feuded with comedian Andy Kaufmann, had one at the Resorts Casino Tunica, MS, but it is currently looking for a new home. Jimmy "The Boogie-Woogie Man" Valiant has some displays at his Boogie's Wrestling Camp in Shawsville, VA and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, IA, has a Pro Wrestling wing. But clearly, while "Amsterdam" may never have the same iconic resonance as "Cooperstown," its Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame is the undisputed champion.

Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame

Address:
712 8th St., Wichita Falls, TX
Directions:
Downtown. In "Big Blue," the First Wichita skyscraper, on the corner of 8th St. and Scott Ave./US Hwy 287 BUS.
Hours:
T-Th 10-6, F-Su 10-7 (Call to verify)
Phone:
940-249-1193
Admission:
Adults $3.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
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