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Episode 29 - Transcript (Part 1)
Joining us today here on the Superpodcast, we have a very special guest – a man who worked with Larry Nelson; A man who’s probably the most knowledgeable person on the planet about the AWA catalog; One of the great producers of the AWA; and that of course, is Joe Ciupik – better known as Polish Joe. Polish Joe, how are you today?
Polish Joe: I’m doing great and thank you for that wonderful introduction.
There’s so many things that Bix and I want to talk to you about with regards to the AWA and Classic Wrestling – your company with Todd Okerlund – but before we get going, I need to give you a little bit of background here.
Polish Joe: K.
Larry Nelson has become a sensation on our program.
Polish Joe: (laughing)
I don’t know if those words have ever been uttered before by anyone. (laughing)
Polish Joe: Well, I’ve always found Larry to be a sensational person, especially working with him and, uh, yeah. He deserves that accolade.
Well, a while back, we were – we cover classic wrestling as well as cult favorites: think moments and people that may not be super heralded, but we bring to the limelight. It came to our attention that there was this interview with Larry – an interview where he showed levels of excitement rarely seen in professional wrestling, and the situation was Col. DeBeers – the South African, the faux (laughing) South African – was upset with Derrick Dukes, and challenged him to a match and in that match, he wanted to paint Derrick Dukes white if he won.
Polish Joe: (laughing)
Larry was incredibly offended by this, and Derrick didn’t really seem to care either way, but Derrick said that HE had a stipulation…
*What’s the stipulation?! sound drop*
Larry asked “What’s the stipulation?” and Derrick said that If he won the match, he was gonna paint Col. DeBeers black, which resulted in Larry having THIS response on air:
*Orgasmic Larry long-form sound drop*
I’m gonna play that for you one more time – Bix?
*Orgasmic Larry long-form sound drop*
Now, that is why he is now known on this show as ‘Orgasmic Larry Nelson’.
Polish Joe: (laughing)
Now, you were a producer for the AWA – I’m gonna guess that you were involved in this very segment!
Polish Joe: Uh, yes, I actually directed that segment at the AWA studios and, well – first of all, the whole premise of the angle was rather controversial in itself, obviously dealing with race relations and so forth. When Larry finally did that interview – and we didn’t have any rep- we weren’t reprehensive about it, but because of the issue, we were – it was a head scratcher. “OK, well let’s just do it and see what happens.” Well, when Larry had his on-camera orgasm, I will have to say that there were several chuckles throughout the control room, including Verne and Greg Gagne and my boss Mike Shields at the time. Larry’s reaction has – as is now become a cult classic, I suppose! It became an instant hit with us, and if I recall when we replayed the interview at the end, we all broke down in laughter once again at Larry and he just said “So I guess you guys liked it, huh?” “Yup – that we did, Larry.”
It becomes so much funnier with the idea that Verne Gagne was in the room when it happened! (laughing) It becomes so much funnier. You know, I guess you guys must have had a great Larry Nelson reel for the Christmas party every year. Another famous Larry Nelson moment we played on the show, which was one that you used frequently when you did the AWA Pay-Per-Views a while back, and that is Larry Nelson interviewing Al DeRusha, when all of a sudden, a man bursts through the wall. The Master – the Master Blaster – resulting in Larry yelling “What in the blue eyed world?!” and then having a weird confrontation before the camera fades – who knows what happens when that camera fades, because it’s very vague – what are your memories of that scenario?
Polish Joe: Well, I remember getting- back to the very beginning of it. So the Blaster – it wasn’t the Master Blaster because there were copyright issues with the Mad Max movies at the time, so we just had to go with The Blaster and he did have the one armed leather gimmick on, and I remember getting the wall set up. Now, that wall was an actual wall – I mean, in terms of 2x4 behind it, it had regular sheet rock in front of it. So when (laughing) when Verne came to us with the idea – actually I think it was Greg that came to us with the idea – about doing this, we thought “Um, OK? He’s gonna have to break through this wall!” So we had to doctor it up a little bit – we cut it to make it easier to come through – and the Blaster – who, by the way, was a graduate of Brad Rheingans’ wrestling camp and Brad funneled a bunch of talent to the AWA; Verne helped fund the camp – but the Blaster breaks through the wall, does his gimmick. He gets done, and much like the Orgasmic Larry Nelson, we all started to chuckle once again, and then right after that, the Blaster – we look over at him and he’s holding his arm. Well, sure enough, as he broke through the wall, the sheet rock ended up cutting underneath his arm, and not a deep enough gash to have to go into the hospital, but he got gouged up pretty good. Now, I remember looking at him and saying “So – anybody ever tell you professional wrestling is fake, just show ‘em this interview and what just happened to you,” because he was black and blue for a while after that.
Oh man. Well, I wanna talk to you a little bit about your relationship with Larry. You know, you started with the AWA in late 1985, and we’re gonna get into that shortly, but Larry’s there right around that time, so when do you first meet him? What are your first impressions, and what kinda guy was he?
Polish Joe: I first met Larry – it would have really started working more with him early in ’86 because Ken Resnick was still involved. He was still doing the interviews with the AWA. Larry was a radio personality who was a part of the announce team, and after WrestleRock in April 20th of ’86 in the Metrodome, Ken Resnick left and Larry Nelson stepped into the shoes of being the interviewer – following in the heels of Mene Gene and Marty O’Neil and Ken Resnick – and Larry was as good as I’ve ever worked with when it came to a countdown. So I’m talking professional first and then I’ll get into him personally in a little bit, but Larry – he amazed me on so many different occasions. There would be 3 or 4 different things that he still needed to fill in and the countdown would begin – we’d start the countdown at 10 and the numbers are counting down – and sure enough, 99.99% of the time Larry would get every last bit of information that was needed by the time that last digit went down. So professionally and coming from a radio background, he could hit a ramp going in or coming out – he was just that good. Personally, Larry was as fun and as…gregarious as he was on camera. He lived life, um, what’s the proper way to put it – he liked to live life and have his fun. More times than naught, we would be traveling on the road and Larry’s eyes would be a little bloodshot the following morning after the matches and didn’t need to ask him what happened because I knew: on several occasions I was with him so I really did know what was going on! No, but Larry was fantastic – loved the guy. It was a sad day when he left the AWA rather abruptly, but, you know – AWA, well, survived for a short time after that. The one issue with Larry that the Gagne’s had was that Larry was a big guy: I’m 6’3’’ myself, and Larry was all of 6’2’’/6’3’’. When you’re interviewing guys, we had to have Larry stand in the back and you’d get the shorter wrestlers – the Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty’s of the world – you gotta make those guys look big, so more often than not, Larry would stand with his legs spread apart and we’re shooting him from the waist up to make himself look smaller and the talent look bigger.
Wow! (laughing) That’s really something.
Polish Joe: It’s television – it’s all an illusion, guys!
(WWE does that all the time now. I mean, there was – I wanna say last year, someone absentmindedly took a photo on Twitter and then posted it of one of the announcers doing that with his wide stance while he was shooting a promo.)
Polish Joe: Doesn’t surprise me in the least; it was done 30+ years ago, probably 60+ years ago, and obviously still being done today. Again – it’s just part of the illusion of television. Not to say that it’s not real, it just helps add to the entertainment factor.
You know, before we move past Larry, I wanna say – you brought up some of his “habits” that made him kind of a ‘good time’ Larry, and certainly, his book – his autobiography, which is still available on Amazon – is filled with him, just openly talking about his love of (laughing) all sorts of things and he’s very open about it and it sounds like he had a lot of fun – but I gotta ask you: Bix and I were actually talking earlier about AWA Superstars – the show - which AWA had several shows. There was All Star Wrestling, there was Major League Wrestling out of Winnipeg, there was Championship Wrestling on ESPN, and there was Superstars, which was really a short lived show. The opening’s ridiculous, because the opening – you have inter-spliced clips of wrestling and Larry doing crazy things, then the show was very different than other shows because Larry would almost do shtick: he would bring on members of the crew. I think both Kathy’s – Kathy Gagne and Mike Shields’ wife Kathy – were probably on there with him, and he regularly talked about Polish Joe, but you were never seen on camera, but you were talked about frequently. Did you ever get a moment in the sun where the audience – after hearing about Polish Joe – for all this time finally got to see you?
Polish Joe: On television – no. My face was never exposed through Superstars and through the gimmick that Larry Nelson himself had set up. But, if I may, let me just back up real briefly to the start of Superstars. So, you brought up Mike Shields’ name – Mike was given an opportunity by several of our networks out there. They wanted another wrestling show from the AWA and I think we maxed out at maybe about a dozen or so markets, but Mike came up with Superstars. We used basically the same matches and the same interviews and it was sort of like a re-cap show of the All Star Wrestling show. Well, in the markets that the show aired- oh; before I get into that. Verne gave Mike and gave our production his full blessings to do whatever we want to with the show. We told him we’re gonna have a little fun with it and still keep Kayfabe alive – which is long dead, that’s a whole ‘nother topic –but then so we started doing the show, and every market that we were in, the show actually had better ratings than the All Star Wrestling show. That really ticked Verne off – he didn’t really care for that, and so that ended up leading to the demise of Superstars of Wrestling, or AWA Superstars as we say it – called it at the time. Um, in terms of the whole Polish Joe character: so, at that time, Mike Shields was directing and I was running camera and there was another gentleman by the name of Will Bryan, who he and I were the production assistants at the time; we’re running camera. I was floor directing the first show and Will was running camera. At the end of the show, Larry says “Polish Joe, you know, come out here; come out here.” As I’m walking onto the camera, you see the back of my head and we go to black. The fan mail that we would get – obviously before the internet – was “We wanna see Polish Joe! What’s Polish Joe? Larry, be nice to Polish Joe!” It ended up being a, gosh, probably a good couple of years that we were on the air and ended up being an ongoing shtick on camera that I was too ugly to be seen on television, and so therefore, Larry Nelson would not allow it. Well, the one time that I was “exposed” was in Las Vegas – we were set up to do a charity softball game with, I think it was a local VWF Las Vegas, and I played a lot of softball when I was younger and had a good game on this one. Well, when the introductions were made, there must have been 3-4-500 people in the stands watching this charity softball game, and I got introduced and (sigh) I feel funny about saying this, but I got if not the largest, but one of the largest ovations from the people because they knew everybody else – they didn’t know Polish Joe! In Las Vegas, Superstars of Wrestling aired. I ended up having a great game, signed autographs afterwards – which was something completely different for me – and then the next night at The Showboat Hotel, right before the show I’m working in the production truck, came up and gave the last notes, and Larry goes “Joe – hold on; just a sec.” He announces to the crowd “Would you like to see Polish Joe?” and much like the first show of Superstars, I was caught off guard, and it’s like “Larry, really?” I never had any desire to seek any fame or be on camera. Well, lo and behold, he introduces me to the sold out Showboat Hotel and I got the biggest ovation that I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t get embarrassed easily but I can tell you that I was- I was a little embarrassed by it but I soaked up every minute of it and that was part of my 15 minutes of fame.
So let’s take a step back, Joe: I mentioned that you started with the AWA at the end of ’85 – I believe it was Verne Gagne’s daughter who got you in there. What’s the story with how you first got involved with the AWA, and had you been a professional wrestling fan beforehand?
Polish Joe: Oh yeah – I grew up an AWA fan being raised in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. My parents were huge fans and I remember the very first match I ever went to – I was about 5 years old and the main event was Crusher versus Mad Dog Vachon in a Steel Cage at the old St. Paul Auditorium, and every time I’ve told the story, I finish it off with “After seeing that as a 5 year old child, I was hooked,” and proceeded to watch professional wrestling until, well, right up after high school. I went to a local broadcasting school and during my time there, that’s when I met Cathy Gagne. I didn’t know that she was Verne’s daughter, but, you know, having the last name and being a wrestling fan, I had to ask and she goes “Yeah; Verne is my dad.” Well, that opened the floodgates and I’m asking her questions and we became friends after that. In fact, it was the day that I graduated I got the phone call asking if I would be interested to come in to the office to run camera for an interview, and the very first interview I did was the day after Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin and Mr. Electricity Steve Regal – with their manageress/valet, whatever she was called at the time, Precious – they had just defeated The Road Warriors for the AWA Tag Team Championship. Of course, they had help from the Fabulous Freebirds – so, I went in, Will Bryan and I – brought up Will’s name earlier – we went in, ran camera, did a few interviews with Garvin, Regal, and Precious, and Mike Shields called us into the office and asked us if we’d be interest in an internship. Will wasn’t a wrestling fan growing up, but it was a job fresh out of school working for an international company like the AWA, and I, on the other hand, think before the offer was completed, I agreed to it without even knowing what the dollar amount was. I think it was, quite frankly, a dream job at the time. There’s no way I couldn’t say no, and so I started my career with the AWA October 7th, 1986.
Now, so at this time – correct me where I’m wrong, Joe – Mike Shields was working there and he got a promotion when Al DeRusha left to go the World Wrestling Federation, and-
Polish Joe: Um, nope – that is wrong. Sorry to interrupt you.
That IS wrong – OK!
Polish Joe: Al DeRusha WAS the producer of the AWA going back to its very beginning back in 19 – I believe it was – 60 or 61; think it was ’61. So Al produced it and then when Vince started raiding everybody’s cupboards – I shouldn’t put it that way – when he ‘presented better offers’ for talent to come join him at the WWF, Al DeRusha was one of them. I think secretly Vince wanted to do that so he could tick off Verne and steal his TV guy. So, when Al got taken away, Jerry Jarrett actually contacted or talked to Verne and said “You know, hey – I got a guy here, Mike Shields, who I really think that you should hire.” Now, Verne was embarking on Pro Wrestling USA, the ESPN Championship Wrestling Contract, and so he needed somebody – not only with production capabilities but – with wrestling knowledge. Mike Shields went up there and became the producer and helped establish Verne’s own production studio at the time, and that would have been – they started that in early ’85 and then it opened in August of ’85. Then, Al DeRusha after a year, Al had hurt his back with the WWF, Vince let him go, and then Al came back. In fact, the first event Al worked on was WrestleRock – April 20th of ’86 in the Metrodome. So Al directed the live events – the live shows – and Mike took care of the post-production and the formatting and laying out of the shows and being my boss.
You mentioned WrestleRock and that’s right when Ken Resnick would quit and go to the World Wrestling Federation and, of course, shave his mustache, and that’s when Larry Nelson would get his opportunity on air – he’d been hosting a radio show at that time in the area and he regularly had wrestling guests on which got him the attention of Verne Gagne and Greg Gagne specifically, I believe.
Polish Joe: Correct.
I want to talk a little bit about WrestleRock – when Ken Resnick decides to up and leave, and this is after a period of time where first it was Hogan and Schultz and Mene Gene and it was almost Jerry Blackwell and it wasn’t and then Ventura and then Heenan and then someone like Al DeRusha – local promoters: everyone was getting raided. What were people saying there when Ken Resnick, of all people, leaves?
Polish Joe: If I remember correctly, it was a bit of a shock when Ken announced that he was going to the WWE – sorry, the WWF at the time. Verne was in a bit of a tailspin from everything that was happening and with all due respect to Verne, he couldn’t keep up with Vince and what he was trying to do, and so it was really just another very large road bump that Verne had to overcome, and eventually those road bumps became too much and the bottom of the car fell out and the AWA went under in – I think the official close is November of ’91. But, I mean, it was tough; it was tough. I wasn’t really privy to a bunch of the inside that was going on because I had just started there, but you could get a sense that Verne was rather ticked off about the situation. He did not hide his emotions and his disdain for what Vince McMahon was doing at the time.
(So, speaking of WrestleRock, of course – these days, especially with the internet and YouTube – the big thing everyone remembers is the WrestleRock Rumble music video that was used to hype the event. You got everything from all the wrestlers rapping and pushing the Elvis impersonator that’s gonna be there and Playboy Playmates and all that.)
Polish Joe: Yeah.
(2 Part question: Well, first of all, were you involved in the shooting of that video?)
Polish Joe: Yes, and in fact, for about one half of a second, I’m actually at the end of WrestleRock Rumble holding a video camera in front of the AWA Logo on our interview set, so yeah. I was very involved in at least shooting it – Mike Shields is the one that produced it and edited it.
(Now, what I’m curious about – especially though – is: did any of the wrestlers have any interesting reactions to doing a SuperBowl Shuffle rap video, and B) Were you surprised that Nick Bockwinkel ended up being by far the best rapper of any of the wrestlers?)
Polish Joe: Well, you know, Larry Zbyzsko wasn’t bad himself, but, uh – yeah, Mr. Spudhead himself – but Nick Bockwinkel, for his – at the time – advanced age, Nick – oh god. What was he – he had to have been late ‘40’s or 50. I don’t think he ever saw one minute of MTV, but when I remember when he was asked to do it, he specifically went to try to listen to that genre of music in order to try to get a little practice, and he pulled it off; it was great! A lot of the other talent – Jerry Blackwell was horrendous, Scott LeDoux was probably the worst, um-
(I wouldn’t say ‘probably’. (laughing))
Polish Joe: Yeah – I’ll give you that. He was, indeed, the worst. But, you know, they went along with it: it was part of the job, it’s what was requested, they tried to do their best as with anything at any company, some are all gung-ho and some are questioning the powers that be, and after all was said and done, we have the WrestleRock Rumble in all of its glory and its legacy still on YouTube to this day.
(Do you recall whose idea it was, originally?)
Polish Joe: I believe it was Greg’s, because, you know, MTV was really not that old at that time. You did have the Superbowl Shuffle – Greg was a huge Football fan, he’d played college football, still follows it to this day – and it was his idea to have it be a part of WrestleRock. (sigh) For better or for worse, we, well – we pulled it off. That sorta sounds like that would mean that it was a success, but here we are 30 years later and we’re still talking about it, so you know what? I guess it might still be to some degree.
Now, you mentioned some guys were really gung-ho for it, and obviously when you watch the video and you listen to the lyrics, you could tell who was really putting something into it and who was just reading lines – even Verne, I thought was OK (laughing) in the video. When you watch the video, the actual visuals, obviously Curt Hennig and Scott Hall are very happy to be next to the models that they’re with, but the thing that always strikes me is when you say ‘gung-ho,’ Larry Nelson – excuse me; not Larry Nelson – but Ken Resnick seems to really be dancing up a storm. I mean, it’s an enthusiasm that is rare!
Polish Joe: (laughing) Well, you know, Ken and I are friends – it was great to see him a little while ago – but I gotta say, his dance style did nothing to represent, um, (sigh) – what’s the best way to put this? He didn’t do the white man any favors in showing that we can dance, and please, anybody, there’s no racist tones to that at all; just a blanket statement. But yeah, Ken – you know, hey: Ken was a showman and still is. He let it fly. Well, hey, he hits the Triple 7’s on the slot machine – he was excited, of course!
(laughing) Of course! There was also a child with him in the Casino for some reason that I’m not exactly sure of. (laughing)
Polish Joe: I don’t – you know, I’d have to look at it again, but I don’t know if it was a child or if it was a short person.
Oh! Okay! (laughing)
Polish Joe: You know, I’d have to look at that again. I believe there was a short person with Curt and Scott and part of their gimmick as well, and I think we shot both of those in the same night – utilizing the talent over and over when we can.
(The only thing I can compare his dancing to – for anyone who’s never seen this and I’m sure we’ll have this in our video playlist and stuff – is that in the movie Knocked Up, when Seth Rogan is dancing at the bar and the only thing he keeps doing is pantomiming throwing dice. That’s what Ken Resnick looks like he’s doing.)
No, no, no! You are not doing it justice: he is moving with speed and ferocity that you never see! He’s just, like, it looks like he’s ON Speed. I mean, he’s bouncing around really fast and he’s spitting out the lyrics and his arms are going and it’s like, you know, Polish Joe is right: it’s like the ultimate White Man dance - on Speed. That’s the way I always see it! (laughing)
Polish Joe: I will give you that – it was; teased Ken for a while after that one and should have always asked him “Ken,, you wanna go to a Disco and dance a little bit?” but I never had the nerve or courage to be by him in a Disco as he was doing that.
You know, it was your teasing that may have led to him quitting! (laughing)
Polish Joe: (laughing) You know what? I will have to ask him that all these years later.
Well, you know, before you started – shortly before you started with the AWA – was when they got the deal to broadcast on ESPN, which was a big deal at the time because this was shortly after Vince McMahon and Ted Turner had their issue and Vince McMahon was about to be kicked off TBS when he sold his rights to Georgia Championship Wrestling and their time spot to Jim Crockett Jr. for 1 Million Dollars. He also, of course, had the USA Network, and now Verne was able to get the AWA on ESPN. There are rumors that we’ve talked about on this show about other companies – like Mid-South wrestling, Continental Wrestling in Alabama – being up for that spot but Verne got it. In the ESPN Oral History Book, it says that one of the executives was so excited that Sgt. Slaughter was there that that might have been part of the reason that they got it. Again, it was right before you started with them – what do you remember about the relationship with ESPN and what can you tell us? Is there any insight you could lend to how they got the deal and what it was like?
Polish Joe: Well, my understanding was that, indeed, getting Sgt. Slaughter was an integral part of it. The other part of it was Pro Wrestling USA, which was a combination of the AWA and the NWA, and that helped to (sigh) convince ESPN to use the AWA – using the biggest stars from 2 of the 3 ‘big dogs’ around the country. But, as you could guess – and still exists today – trying to get 2 promoters to work together cohesively: good luck. That failed shortly, but Verne was able to retain the contract and – gosh, I wanna say a good 3 or 4 years we were on ESPN doing Championship Wrestling. So, despite not having the NWA a part of it, ESPN saw some value in it and we had a nice little run but really the last straw for the AWA – jumping ahead a little bit – was when the ESPN contract was not renewed. That was really the beginning of the actual end of the AWA.
Now, obviously as you know – and we’ll talk about further shortly – Vince McMahon owns the rights to the AWA tape catalogue, yet ESPN still airs reruns – to this day – of AWA wrestling from time to time. Are you privy to what the contract enabled ESPN to do? Did they have rights in perpetuity to air the programs?
Polish Joe: Exactly. They were smart at the time: they were a large company with good lawyers and any contract that they have – any shows done with them – they retain the replay rights in perpetuity; no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. When we sold the library to Vince – let’s see, I think we closed in March of ’03 – it really was a point of contention. We showed him the agreement that we had with ESPN and there’s nothing you could do. It’s like “Vince, if this is a sticking point with you, well, then the deal can’t be done but we cannot do anything to change ESPN’s mind. If you wanna buy this and buy them out of it – go on ahead.” That’s why they’re still able to do it – they own the rights to the shows as they are. Not necessarily the footage, but the shows as they were produced, as they originally aired, they can replay them.
It’s interesting the way you just phrased that – “but not the footage.” They own the rights to the actual completed programs but not the footage. So, I mean, they couldn’t cut them up and make compilation shows or anything?
Polish Joe: Correct.
OK. So, you know, at this time, you guys have a really busy schedule: the ESPN show is one thing you guys are doing, taping out of the Showboat in Atlantic- excuse me, I was going to say Atlantic City, in Las Vegas, but there was still syndicated shows that were airing and there were still the tapings in Winnipeg, because I believe to have a show air regularly in Canada, you needed to produce it in Canada.
Polish Joe: Correct.
So what was the typical week or month like for the production team?
Polish Joe: Oh boy. Well, first of all, you were correct with Atlantic City on ESPN – that’s where the first shows were shot and then later we moved to The Showboat Hotel, but a regular production week: so on any given week – and this is any given week – we’re talking 52 weeks a year; wrestling does not have downtime and television does not have downtime. There were no reruns. But, we would have the AWA show – the Superstars of Wrestling – each of those were 1 hour; we had the show out of Canada, but the Canada show was done and edited at a television station in Canada so it was truly a Canadian product, but then we had the ESPN show and that was anywhere from 60 to typically 90 minutes, but sometimes it was 2 hours long. So, on any given week, we were producing 4 hours of programming, sending it out to- let’s see: we were syndicated in about 70-80 markets for All Star Wrestling, about a dozen or so for Superstars, and then the ESPN show. So Monday’s we’d get everything laid out, Tuesday’s we’d do interview day; Wednesday’s I would edit the show together; Thursday – incorporate the market and edit interviews, start dubs at the time of videotape and Will and I would switch off every week to spend overnight – literally, sleep in the control room overnight – so that we were able to put in another set of tapes to make copies so that we could get them all shipped on Friday. Then, some would ship Thursday depending on when we got ‘em done, and whatever didn’t get done until Friday, we’d ship them out at the end of the day Friday overnight or second day, and they’d get the shows by Tuesday and the show’s would air the following weekend. But, the Minneapolis market – which was our backyard – that always aired a week ahead of time. So, for all of that work – for 4 hours of programming – doing a full day of interviews and getting all of the shows cut together, there was only 3 of us doing the post-production on the shows. At the time, being – I started in the AWA when I was 20 years old – I looked at it as a learning experience and I did not mind the long hours; it was just part of the job. This was not 9 to 5 – I knew that going into it. This was an international television show, and I say that because we did ship to other markets as well – or other countries as well – but I learned the craft: I learned the production craft, and I learned the wrestling craft while I was with the AWA for 6 years in real time; work time, it was more about 9 or 10 years of experience I garnered from ’85-’91.
(Now, I know you said that the Winnipeg show was technically a TSN production and not a show produced by you, but Brian alluded to something was that Canada has its various rules about Canadian content and how much of a show has to be Canadian content. Do you recall if there was anything to do with how many Canadian wrestlers needed to be on a show? I think that was an issue for when WWF started taping some of their TV in Canada.)
Polish Joe: Yeah. You know, the Canadian contract – or the deal with TSN – I wanna say wrapped up sometime in ’86, so I really wasn’t involved in-depth with the production of that show. Again, they’d go up to Winnipeg and TSN would record it, they would have a different host for the show, I do believe, and have it shot in Canada – or in Winnipeg – edited in Canada, and distributed in Canada. As far as the specifics now – sorry; I was not privy to that information. I wasn’t involved deep enough in production yet.
(You also mentioned that the shows you did were shipped out to various international markets – do you remember which, and were there any interesting fan letters that every showed up? You hear about certain other promotions – especially with Stampede Wrestling about it airing in all sorts of far-flung places. What do you remember about that?)
Polish Joe: I remember when we had to ship something to the Middle East was that we could not include women’s wrestling. It was completely forbidden, as I’m sure it still is today, but we had to edit them out and so, we’d have to do a replay segment or edit something specifically for them. Often times, if we did – it was an ESPN Main Event that we had to a replay for because it was based on the All Star Wrestling show. But, when it came to women – nope; sorry. You couldn’t do it. We were in the Middle East; we were in the Far East; we were in Europe. I don’t think we were in Australia and I don’t think we were in Africa – I think we were in a couple of countries in South America, but off the top of my head, the Middle East is the one that sticks out the most. They were – (sigh) not the most troublesome, but we had to do the extra work for ‘em, and as I told you in the production schedule, anything extra wasn’t necessarily welcomed by the production staff.
(Now, it’s funny that you say that, because – about the edits for the Middle East – lately on social media, you’ll hear from Independent Promoters who talk about their YouTube views and almost every time, the women’s matches will get their most views from the Middle East.)
Polish Joe: Mmhm. Well, you know, they can’t really – well, I shouldn’t say they can’t control the internet; they do and they have – but people find ways around it. Like anything else – if it’s taboo, people are gonna wanna have access to it. You know, you could go into anything that is “taboo” today, and even in our own country in the U.S of A, if it’s taboo, it raises “Oooh! You’re not supposed to do that – let’s go find it! Let’s talk to the evil twin that’s sitting on your shoulder instead of the angel on the other one,” and let’s go ahead and do it. That’s why it’s more interesting. We’re exposed to that here and in the Middle East, they’re not – when they can’t get it, that’s when they want it.
You mentioned the hectic production schedule you have, and of course, it’s a short staff: 3 people for a production team for that kind of work is very short staff. I’m curious how often you actually had an opportunity to attend the tapings in either Las Vegas at The Showboat or in Winnipeg, and also with that: for when you did attend, do you have any – what we’ve heard, what we’ve heard from different people, different sources, and of course Larry Nelson’s book, which is just an incredible tell all – is that there’s wild, wild, times in both Vegas and in Winnipeg. What do you know? (laughing)
Polish Joe: Well, to answer your first question, I was involved in – once we got to The Showboat, I was involved in every taping at The Showboat and any taping that was done for All Star Wrestling. In fact, for any taping – that would have started, I wanna say, the fall of ’86. So it took about a year before they started having Will and I become a part of the travelling production crew. As far as the stories – oh man. You know, I always tell people the life of a wrestler is very similar to that of a rock and roll star: you’re travelling, you’re on the road constantly, you are on this big square stage in the middle of people, and depending on how big of a star you are or how good your looks were, you had your female fans – Groupies, if you will, or ring-rats as we used to call them – and (sigh) I’m not gonna name names, but there were several occasions where once the production day was done – which usually was about midnight – get the tapes back to the room; “Ok boys, where’s the party?” “It’s up in Curt Hennig’s room or Shawn and Marty are having it this time,” or whatever. You go into the room and, um, there would be some articles of clothing that were laying around, there were ‘fun activities’ to be had if you so chose to partake in certain things, and yes, I’m being cryptic because I’m not going to – but, I think you get the idea.
I do! You mentioned Curt’s room and The Midnight Rockers’ room – did anyone mention “Hey, let’s go to Larry’s room”?
Polish Joe: Larry was smart – Larry would always go to somebody else’s room! Shawn and Curt – or Shawn and Marty – he’s; god. If I remember correctly, he’s about a year younger than I am, and I just turned 51, and so when he started in some point in ’86, I think he was 20 years old – 19 or 20 when he started with the AWA – and for anybody who is middle age – whatever your definition is of that – when you’re 20 years old or so, your full of Piss and Vinegar and you’re ready to be a Midnight Rocker and party until the plane had to leave the next morning at 7 o’clock from the McCarron Airport in Las Vegas. (sigh) I would say I probably made the trip about 70 times over the course of the years with the AWA and I can safely say that there was only 1 time that I ever fell asleep. We were only there for 21 hours – 22 hours, excuse me – and I was young: why waste it sleeping? I could do that on the plane or when I came home, and so, well. (sigh) Put it this way: had my fun and partied with the boys on several occasions.
Well, you mention that. You mention Shawn Michaels and some of those guys there like Curt Hennig, Marty Jannetty, Scott Hall – although, maybe not Scott Hall so much – but they’re, in many ways, your contemporaries because they’re the same age group; they grew up in the same time as you. But – you were a fan of the AWA. You watched the AWA growing up; you went to see Mad Dog Vachon, you went to see The Crusher. What was it like when you encountered or worked with guys that you actually grew up watching, as opposed to wrestlers that were around your age group. I don’t know if – I can’t remember if The Crusher was ever back in there after you started – or Mad Dog Vachon – but Baron von Raschke was certainly there. Did you encounter these guys, and what was it like, that experience, with guys that you grew up watching?
Polish Joe: So I can wrap up the whole feeling, or the sense of it, in one story. So the very first full interview day that I was ever a part of – obviously got in early, we got the lighting set and the camera white balanced and had everything set to go; usually started at 9 am. Well, about 8:30, a gentleman that you might have heard of by the name of Nick Bockwinkel comes in to the control room. Now, here I am: a 20 year old kid, wide-eyed, bushy tailed, ready to rock the wrestling and production world, and Nick Bockwinkel – who I grew up HATING, despising – walks into the room. Now, I mean, I knew that wrestling was pre-determined. Well, Nick walks in, I stand up, I walk over to him – I extend my hand I go “Mr. Bockwinkel – Hi. I’m Joe Ciupik and I’m the new production assistant,” and as we continue to shake hands, I look at him and I go “I grew up hating you,” and he just got the Nick Bockwinkel smile on his face, continues to shake my hand, looks at me and goes “Well young man, then I must have done my job well.” Literally from that moment on, Nick Bockwinkel and I became friends; we became close friends. He was at my housewarming; he was at my wedding; he was my insurance guy; he would call me and we would talk for an hour or two at a time. Having that introduction to Nick humanized all of the stars and legends that I grew up watching and hating and loving and screaming at and cheering for. It doesn’t meant that I still wasn’t in awe when I ran in- or met a lot of the guys from Baron von Raschke to Sheik Adnan-el-Kassie; Larry “the Ax” Hennig; Curt Hennig, even. A lot of the younger guys when they came in didn’t have that same feel – they were more colleagues, and over the course of time, every one of the guys I worked with, they became colleagues. It was just like any other work place. There was no sense of ‘awe’ anymore – certainly I had the respect for them for what they did and what they have been able to accomplish being on camera and doing what they did in front of literally millions of people – but you had mentioned about Crusher and Mad Dog, and yeah: they were both gone by the time I had started, and so I wasn’t able to work with them on my 1st stint with the AWA, but fortunately years later when the AWA was revived through the series of Pay-Per-Views, I was able to work with Mad Dog and had a phone conversation with Reggie Lisowski – who we all best know as Da Crusher – when we were starting the whole AWA Classic Wrestling series. Growing up, being Polish Joe and being literally – there’s a reason I’m Polish Joe – the only one of my family born in this country: the rest of my family immigrated from Poland. With Crusher being a good old Polish person – a good Pole – I obviously loved him; it was a natural. When I called him to become a part of the Classic AWA wrestling, he – and I told him that I was working with Verne and Greg: that didn’t go over too well. There seemed to be a little bit of heat between Verne and Crusher at the time, and it was then that I realized “OK, now I know what Verne and Greg had me call Crusher.” Well, when I got that from him, I turned defensive but in a very nice way – defensive in that I went into the Mad Dog and Crusher 1st match I ever saw and I became a fan ever since, I’m a full blooded Pole, and saying stuff of him growing up when one time in the studio, Mad Dog is in the Ring, Crusher comes out and he’s got a bag of dog food and he’s throwing it up into the ring at Mad Dog Vachon; bringing up stuff like that. What went from I thought was going to be a 5 minute conversation turned into about an almost 2 hour conversation as he shared with me why there were issues between he and Verne and what Verne did wrong, and just talking wrestling in general. Unfortunately, I was not able to put a deal together with him because all the animosity between the Gagne’s and the Crusher, but I was able to have that 2 hour moment of talking with my childhood wrestling idol and I will never forget that conversation as long as I live; it was fantastic. Before that, I was friends with his son Larry Lisowski, who was a referee for the AWA for the longest time and was a promoter for the AWA. So, to sort of complete that circle and always telling Larry “I gotta meet your dad, I gotta talk to your dad.” “We’ll get it set up, we’ll get it set up.” It finally worked years later, but unfortunately, I was never able to shake his hand and tell him what pleasure he brought to me growing up, watching ‘Da one, ‘Da only, the man that made Milwaukee famous: ‘Da Crusher.
That’s really cool – the fact that you finally got to talk to him since he was in the first match you ever saw and you grew up a Polish kid – obviously you idolized the Crusher. One name we didn’t mention – I’m curious if you had a chance to spend much time with because I’m sure you’d have some good stories – would be Nick Bockwinkel’s old tag team partner Ray “The Crippler” Stevens.
Polish Joe: (laughing) Oh, Raymond. Ray – worked a lot with Ray. So Ray and Wahoo became the bookers of the AWA and those two lived life hard: they would make – who’s the guy from The Rolling Stones-
Polish Joe: Yeah – they lived Keith Richards’ life, or as close to it as you could possibly get and it showed: they both died when they were young. They loved to have their cocktails. In fact, one story that I think I can share: the two of them were roommates when they were booking with the AWA, and as I mentioned, they liked to have a cocktail or two, and there were nights where if whoever passed out first, well, the other guy – as part of their victory dance – they’d pee on him. They would pee on the one who passed out first, and so they’d come in the next day and go “That effin’ Ray – he got me!” I go “Well, Wahoo, just cut back on a drink and let Ray pass out.” Wahoo looks at me and goes “What are you, nuts? I can’t do that! I gotta keep up drink-for-drink!” Well, it’s not that Wahoo couldn’t keep up with Ray – just on any given night, one person was able to take in a little bit more than the other one! No, but Ray Stevens, I always tell people Ray and Curt Hennig were my two favorites in terms of working with. Nick and I, we became the closest, but working with Ray and Curt – they’re right there. Ray, in fact, I still play this game to this day: so Ray – if you ever heard Ray Stevens laugh, it was just a deep, guttural, infectious laugh. If you heard it, you couldn’t help but turn your head, and at the very least, smile. Ray liked to play a little game and if the game was whoever could flip the other one off in the morning would win the game. There was no prize – it was just bragging rights. Well, I mean, we would hide in places left and right: Ray would hide underneath the production console if he got in early enough, if he wasn’t too hungover from the night before, to get me, and we would go back and forth. The one time – middle of the winter in Minnesota. It wasn’t too cold – probably about 10 degrees above 0; we had a ton of snow outside – and the AWA offices and studios was a renovated single level or single story Church, so it had a rather flat, slightly sloped roof. Well, on an interview day, I knew Ray was going to be coming in – he and Wahoo had to get in early to help lay stuff out – and I decided to get in a little bit earlier, got everything set up in the studio, and I went on top of the roof – right on top of the front door – waited for Ray to show up, Ray comes out of his car, walks up to the door, and before he gets to the door, I jump down off of the roof. Ray jumps back about 3 feet, lands in a snow pile, his face was as white as the snow pile next to him, had this surprised look on his face – I crouch down, gave him the double bird, and I do my best Ray Stevens and I give him a guttural laugh and say “Haha! I got you, you prick!” and he just burst out laughing. He goes “You ‘effing Polack!” To this day, I have a group of friends that are old AWA wrestling fans and I told them this story. Still – wherever we’re at: a graduation party, seeing each other at the local watering hole, or just on the street – it’s a contest to see who can flip the other person off first, and I do that in honor of my good and dear friend Raymond Stevens.
Episode 30 - Transcript (Part 2)
You know, one name we haven’t mentioned and I was surprised when reading Larry Nelson’s book that apparently he was quite the Ladies man – at least in Winnipeg – and that’s Wally Karbo.
Polish Joe: (laughing)
(laughing) What was it like working with Wally? What kinda guy was he?
Polish Joe: OK, so, everything I’m going to tell you is heresay, but I am going to say that it is very reliable heresay, because I have heard the stories from very good sources – namingly one Al DeRusha. Al and I are very close dear friends and we have done business together for the last 15/16 years. He was inducted into the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame and bought me a ticket because he wanted me there, and so forth. So, the stories that Al tells me about Wally Karbo – let’s start off with (sigh) and for some of the listeners, they may not have heard about this, but, remember the stories about Milton Berle?
Of course! Uncle Milty!
Polish Joe: Uncle Milty, and I believe one of them was on Johnny Carson where Johnny addresses it and Milty – Uncle Milty – goes “OK, I’m just gonna pull out enough to win.” Well, apparently, Wally fell into that same category, and Wally was quite the Ladies man not only JUST in Winnipeg, but he – as I’ve been told – pretty much every town that the AWA wrestled in. Wally was a legend and was quite the Ladies man and was able to have his way with the dollies, if you will, and the stories of Wally Karbo: Al tells me he was the glue that held the AWA together for so many years. He, in a couple of the stories that I tell you, you will think “How could this man be so brilliant?” and every one I talk to says the same thing: Wally was phenomenal being a promoter and being in the wrestling business – a fantastic business man. Well, one story goes – and I heard this from both Nick and from Al – and I think they’re travelling to San Francisco. Well, Nick and Bobby Heenan are walking behind Wally at the airport and they notice that Wally’s only got one sock on. So, it was Bobby that goes up to Wally and says “Wally, you only have one sock on! What happened?” “Aw dere pal, I lost my sock.” Well, they get a chuckle out of it – “Ok – put on a different pair; you’re still home, you could still do it.” Well, nope – goes with one sock. So they get on the airplane, they make their trip, they get off the airplane and Bobby and Nick are walking behind Wally again. They look down and suddenly, Wally has got two socks on: matching socks. So Bobby goes up to him again and says “Wally, you said you lost a sock, and now you’ve got two socks on! What happened?” “Aw dere pal, I found it – I had put them both on the same foot.” Another story – they used to be at the old Chilard (sp.) Tower, and this was before: Calhoun Beach Club, sorry, and then they were moving to the Chilard (sp.) Tower. Al tells me this story they had a huge walk-in safe that was in the main office that they had moved, and one day, Al walks in to the new office at the Chilard (sp.) Tower and sees Wally standing in front of the safe looking a little befuddled, like he couldn’t remember the combination. So Al said “Well, Wally, did you forget the combination?” “Aw no dere pal. It’s just that at the old place, the safe was on the other wall, and so I don’t know if I need to start to the left or to the right.”
(laughing) I gotta admit, I’m a little distracted ‘cause I was afraid you were gonna said he had his other sock on his ‘Uncle Milty’!
Polish Joe: (laughing) No, but there was a couple of stories of THAT, even as well! Wally – well, put it that, Wally liked to – another story that Al tells me is that Wally used to sort of like to take the doorknobs out of the doors and put ‘Uncle Wally’ through there and ask the girls “Aw, could you just turn the knob just a little bit, please?” Wally was not shy about his manhood.
(laughing) Well, another name that was briefly mentioned earlier was Curt Hennig, and obviously you were there for Curt Hennig’s rise. You know, he was a young wrestler and by the time he left the AWA, he had been the Heavyweight Champion. What was he like behind the scenes, and we’ve heard so many stories about his time in the World Wrestling Federation that he was a notorious ribber. Do you remember any Curt Hennig stories or any Curt Hennig ribs?
Polish Joe: Curt Hennig, or should I say “Mr. Perfect” was Curt Hennig more than Curt Hennig was Mr. Perfect. What you saw on camera – that was Curt. He was forever, forever, pulling ribs just to see if he could get away with it, and often times, he did – I mean, the simple stuff: trying to get the announcer during interview day to bust up in interview. One of the big things –they would always try to get Larry to bust up and Larry was – Larry Nelson, I’m talking about – a consummate professional, and I don’t think maybe once, maybe twice, that they were ever able to do it. Curt would bend over and spread ‘em wide right next to the camera, he would just pull down his pants and start dancin’ around and they would never lose – Larry would never lose it. Now, the other talent that was on in the interview, couple of times, they’d lose it. In fact, the Nasty Boys, often, because they started - they were after me – but they started in being green on camera. Of course, they’re fair game, and EVERYBODY would try to get ‘em, and Curt was right there at the forefront of trying to get them to bust up, and he often succeeded. But, no: Curt was…that is the saddest one for me; the saddest passing of the talent. Obviously Curt had his demons and that eventually did him in, but he was SO fun to be around. You could NOT be in a bad mood when Curt Hennig was around – he just had this charisma about him in real life. I mean, as a big guy, a thick guy – never shy about anything. If we would walk, we would go out for lunch or we would be in Vegas walkin’ around going to a Casino, people flocked to him and he loved it; he loved it. More so when he was a Babyface, but he still loved it when he became a Heel, but he continued to play the Heel role and the fans would love it – they just thought it was part of his shtick and indeed it was. He was living up to Kayfabe, but no matter what he did, he was always the life of the party no matter where we went. God, I miss that man. He was – ah, he was so much fun.
Well, you mentioned trying to break people up during interviews and I know you don’t wanna name too many names: however, someone else did, and that’s Larry Nelson’s book. There is an anecdote in there I have to ask you about.
Polish Joe: Does this involve The Midnight Rockers?
This involves the Midnight Rockers!
(I knew that’s what you were talking about! (laughing))
I guess it was Marty Jannetty’s birthday and during interview day, Shawn Michaels decided to get him a ‘Lady of the evening’.
Polish Joe: Or a Lady of the Morning as it was, pertaining to the actual time of day!
I guess the story is that while Kathy Gagne and Kathy Shields were in the building, this ‘Lady of the Morning’ said hello to Marty’s ‘Wally Karbo’ in the middle of the interviews. Did this exactly happen like Larry said, and what do you remember about this?
Polish Joe: Yes. That is all I need to – yeah. What Larry wrote in the book was exactly as it happened. We recorded the “situation” on 1 inch tape at the time – which is what we recorded everything on – and as soon as it was done, Mike Shields made a VHS copy and went back and deleted the “situation” off of 1 inch tape and handed the VHS to Marty Jannetty. So, there is no proof of it, but I can tell you in no uncertain terms, as I was running the camera for the interview, that that did indeed happen, and one of the more interesting interviews that I’ve ever been a part of; I can say that.
Yeah, and you can add to your resume ‘Pornographic Producer’, technically.
Polish Joe: Well, yeah. I don’t know how far THAT’S gonna get me outside of a certain area in California, but here in Minnesota I’ll leave that one off of the resume list.
Well, I think a rather awkward transition is going from that story to the Gagne’s. We’ve talked about so many different people around the AWA and so many of the people that you grew up watching, but we really haven’t spent too much time on – not just Verne, but - the Gagne family, because as we know – and you can clarify this or correct me if I’m wrong – but Greg was involved in everything with the day-to-day operations of the AWA. Obviously Verne was the big boss and Kathy was the one who got you in the door and Kathy was around a bit as well, so what could you tell us about working for the Gagnes? Did the AWA just feel like a family business, and any stories or anecdotes that you have about Greg, Verne, or anyone else in the family?
Polish Joe: Uh, yeah, it did feel like a family business over the course of time. You know, obviously originally there were still star-struck instances and so forth, and so it felt like this major company, but you obviously knew that this was a family owned business. Verne was indeed the top dog; Greg was indeed a part of the day-to-day operations and involved in the booking meetings; Kathy was involved in doing some office work; his other daughter Donna was involved in the same way and ended up doing a segment on the show and some ring announcing, and then he had another daughter Beth who wanted NOTHING, absolutely nothing to do with the wrestling business, and we didn’t really see her too often. But, you know, I guess maybe like a lot of companies and maybe like you hear about Vince McMahon, it was Verne’s way or not. For a long time, that served him well. Unfortunately, Verne’s…Verne’s unwillingness to change the way that the AWA did business was his ultimate – or was the ultimate – demise of the AWA. Working for Verne, and I’ve told everybody that I worked with: Verne was hard-nosed. He could be a real prick to work for, but I think that was a part of his success of being demanding and having – being that prick when he needed to be. On a professional level, Verne could be very tough to work with. On a personal level, I can proudly say that I was very close with Verne. I’d mentioned earlier that Nick – became friends with Nick and he – was at my wedding; so was Verne. In fact, I’ve got a picture of the two of them: I’ve got ‘em both in a headlock – and I got my tux on - and this was at the reception of my wedding, and my wife had that blown up to poster size and had both of them sign the photo – or the poster – and she got it framed and it’s hanging in my office – I’m looking at it right now. Verne was so kind as to, well, right here: “I’ve always considered you like my second son.” We – that, and now all of this was before we revived the AWA; worked with Verne and as I say, the second time with the AWA when I worked with him at that point, it started to get sad because that’s when Verne’s Dementia began and a lot of the meetings we had to repeat a lot of stuff. We had to rely on Greg to talk to his dad outside of the meetings to explain stuff to him, and for the 4 years that we did the Classic AWA Wrestling, he slowly went downhill and it got to the point shortly after the sale of the AWA – about a month later – Verne had called me up and just said “You know, Joe, I know the AWA is done, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t talk, that you still can’t call me. I’d still like to stay in touch and have lunch with you every once in a while.” Hey, that was great. Then it was great the second time he said the same thing, and the third and fourth time, and probably even the fifth time in the same 10 minute conversation. It was after that that I had called Greg and just said, and I started experiencing the same thing with my dad at the same time, and Greg and I went through the same thing with our fathers and I just wanted to let Greg be aware of what Verne was doing, and that was calling me and having these memory issues. Just, out of really respect for Verne and Greg and their friends, to make sure that Verne maybe wasn’t doing that to a lot of other people – because, some people, you know, might get coarse with him or not accept or understand what he is going through. That was the last time I actually talked with the Verne Gagne that I knew. The one other conversation I had with him after that, he had no idea who I was. That was the day that Verne Gagne died for me, unfortunately – not when I went to his funeral, but that was the day: when they don’t know who you are and you’re a complete stranger. Same thing happened with my dad. It’s a sad disease and it was a sad thing that happened to Verne and everything afterwards when he bodyslammed a guy and unfortunately killed a man and was found innocent by reason of not knowing what he was doing. But, that’s my overall Verne Gagne story. One other thing about Verne: as much as I said he could be a prick to work for and we were friends, much like Curt Hennig, wherever we went – wherever we went – he was the life of the party and lit up a room, and he loved to sing and would always sing. His favorite song was “Your Cheating Heart.”
(Now, sometimes – I’m trying to think when this would have started – you’ll see people speculate that how sometimes people would tell stories about Verne in the ‘80s and they think of it in this “Oh, look at this old out of touch fuddy-duddy” type of way, like with the stuff about the Midnight Rockers and thinking they were gonna be Rocking Chairs and those stories that Shawn Michaels tells, but sometimes I’ll see people wonder if THAT was maybe a very early sign of the Dementia. What do you think about that speculation?)
Polish Joe: Well, Verne didn’t really have anything to do even with the naming of the Midnight Rockers. It was really, the name came – Donna Gagne came up with the name. It was a combination between The Midnight Express and The Rock and Roll Express, and she just came up with The Midnight Rockers. Where Verne…where he fell a little behind during that time was that these guys were still green; they’re still young; they’ve got to pay their dues before they can main event. Well, there weren’t really many other options to be able to do that, and Verne DID finally recognize the talent that they had and fortunately paired them with Playboy Buddy Rose and Pretty Boy Doug Somers with Sensational – well, she was just – Sherri Martel at the time, and that was a…not a lucky, but Verne finally did admit and recognized that he needed to put these guys over: that they were going to make him some money. For a short brief time, it did revive the AWA. So, again – part luck, part skill or experience on Verne’s part, but overall: yeah, as I alluded to earlier, Verne was a bit out of touch with the way business was – and television – was done at that time. He was still going old school and was using television to promote the live event, and he always through that the live event was where he was going to make his money because that’s the way he always did it: they always sold their TV shows or even paid stations to air their TV shows at a specific time. So, he didn’t see any benefit in television other than it’s basically like a television commercial. All of that changed when cable television started and Vince McMahon took over syndication and made money off of television. Verne never wanted to put a main event – if we did something at the St. Paul Civic Centre, he HATED even putting a clip. Even if it was one minute, he HATED putting something from the St. Paul Civic Centre on to the All Star Wrestling show, because his words were “Well, if we show it to ‘em on TV, why would they wanna come see it?”
(Now, did the AWA get paid by ESPN, because I feel like I’ve heard different versions of that over the years about whether they got a rights fee for the show.)
Polish Joe: Yes – ESPN did pay the AWA for the show, and ESPN was the reason that the AWA stayed alive as long as it did BECAUSE of the money that it was getting from ESPN.
(I mean, there were times though where promotion would not really be running an active schedule between the TV tapings, right?)
Polish Joe: Um, very few between the – from ’85 to ’88, I would guess? You know, there might have been one instance where we had to do replays because the bookings didn’t happen, or the event didn’t happen, because something happened in the office – I was really never privy as to what the reason was so we’d have to throw together a show, but I only remember having to do that once or twice. Later on towards the end of the contract – yeah, we had to utilize more replay time and that ultimately led to ESPN not wanting to renew the contract because they didn’t, in my opinion, feel that they were really getting what they were paying for. The ratings were down, WWF ratings were up, and they just decided “Eh, this really isn’t working for us any longer.”
Did it bother anyone in the office when ESPN added World Class to the schedule?
Polish Joe: Eh…Greg got a little ruffled by it. Obviously they had no control over it, but suddenly there’s another player on your network. What if TNA or Ring of Honor went on to the USA Network right now? Not gonna happen, but you know, there would be a little animosity and people would be ticked off by it, but they did that when the whole Pro Wrestling USA deal sorta fell through, so ESPN wanted to hedge their bets a little bit and go with World Class Championship Wrestling as a secondary option. The AWA, I believe, was able to outlive them on ESPN, but yeah. You know, from a production standpoint, it became “Oh yeah; ok. We’ve really gotta pick things up a little bit here to make the ESPN show look a little bit better.” So, we threw together some different sets and tried to improve things as much as we could to try to prove that we were the better product for ESPN.
We’re gonna get into some of the ways the AWA changed in ’88 and ’89 in a minute, but I do wanna ask you: we mentioned Ken Resnick, we mentioned, of course, Orgasmic Larry Nelson, but what were Lee Marshall and Rod Trongard like to work with, and to close out the area – we’re just going ask you about different names – but was there anyone you found to be incredibly difficult to work with on the wrestling side?
Polish Joe: Um, so let’s start with Ron Trongard. Ron was a radio guy I believe down in the Rochester, MN area – it’s in southern Minnesota – and Rod would do a wrestling show on a weekly basis so that’s how he got into doing a play-by-play for the AWA. Rod was a great guy – had a habitual tan because he always loved to ski, and you wouldn’t think you would tan skiing but you would, and he would always lay out in the summertime. I never saw Rod without a tan. Professionally, one thing that was an issue that I had an issue with Rod was he came from radio and he’s working on television. As I believe you guys know, they’re two totally different mediums where television you have the advantage of having the visual there – you don’t need to be as precise and you can actually shut up at times and let the action speak for itself. Rod could never get to that point. He would just talk and talk so that there wouldn’t be dead air. In fact, there was one taping that we did – Lord James Blears was doing the color commentary and he finally, well, effectively just told Rod to shut up so he could talk. We started laughing in the truck. No matter what we told Rod, I mean, Rod was good at what he did but “Rod – let the other guy talk for a little while, will ya?!” Lee Marshall, who later before his death a few years ago, he became the latest voice of Tony the Tiger. Lee Marshall, you know; great guy. He was very similar to Rod in his approach to doing play-by-play; wouldn’t shut up. Just would talk too much and would not let the color commentator get a word in edgewise. But otherwise, both of them I didn’t have an issue – they were both very professional. They had their opinions and their input on how to do things, we worked together very well and I’m proud to say: never had an issue with either of them. In terms of somebody who I found it difficult to work with, quite honestly, there really wasn’t anybody who was difficult. They were professional: they came and they did their job. I can tell one story that surprised the living heck out of me, and this would have been at the end of the Christmas party in 1985. So the studio’s brand new, and at the end of the night- keep in mind, I’m 20 years old and I’d been a part of the AWA for about 2 months. At the end of the night, I’m sitting around one of our sets that doubled as our bar, and there’s Verne Gagne, Greg Gagne, Nick Bockwinkel, Larry “the Ax” Hennig, and myself. Havin’ cocktails, I’m listening to the stories these guys are saying and I’m in complete and utter awe. I grew up watching/hating/loving these guys. All of a sudden, I hear, like, water dripping, and I’m like “Ok, is there a leaky pipe? Did somebody spill a drink and it’s dripping off of the bar?” No. Now, I’m the only one who’s noticing – or so I thought. So they continue to talk, and I slowly look around the bar to see what the hell’s going on. Well, there’s Larry the Ax: apparently he didn’t want to walk the hundred feet to go to the bathroom, so he decided to relieve himself right there. Right there on the floor on the bar set. I look at Greg and I go “Um, Greg…aren’t you going to do something about that?” He looks down at Larry, he’s just shaking, and looks back at me and he goes “Well, he’s done. Besides – are you gonna stop him?” I just looked at him and shook my head and said “Who needs a drink?”
(laughing) That’s pretty good! I’m sure a wrestling company Christmas party must always be a blast.
Polish Joe: Well, unfortunately, that was the last one that we had because we didn’t have one in ’86 because that’s when things got lean and tight and Verne just said “Screw it – I’m not having a Christmas party again.” So that was sad – that was my one and only one – but I did enjoy it. That’s the one lasting memory that I certainly have from that night.
You mentioned earlier how Mike Shields came in from the recommendation of Jerry Jarrett. In 1988, all of a sudden, they’d always worked together – Verne and Jerry. You know, 1983, Ken Patera and Jesse Ventura had short runs in Memphis, Jerry Lawler had various dates for the AWA going back to around that time and their relationship seemed to get closer – I don’t know how close – but through Pro Wrestling USA, through some talent swaps, through the fact that Jerry Jarrett’s promotion recognized the AWA Champion as the Heavyweight Champion for years instead of the NWA Champion – there was a relationship there. In 1988, it led to the SuperClash III Pay-Per-View.
Polish Joe: Mmmhm…
Of course, Jerry Lawler wins the Unified Title of the World Class Title, which Jerry Jarrett was controlling at that time, and he was the AWA champion already, and then shortly thereafter, there is a dispute – Jerry Lawler’s gone; there’s a battle royale that Larry Zbyzsko wins it to win the AWA Championship and there’s been a lot been said about this time. There have been wrestlers throughout the years – Chavo Guerrero in the past has been very vocal about it; I believe Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler were vocal about it and it affected their relationship, saying that they maybe weren’t paid either what they were promised or at all by Verne. So, I guess, I would like to know what you think of this time period where all of a sudden there was a relationship, there was an attempt to work together between Verne and Jerry Jarrett and then it quickly dissolved and led to you guys losing your Heavyweight Champion.
Polish Joe: Yes. So, SuperClash III came about because, well, because of Vince McMahon and the WWF. They needed to try to do something to combat what Vince was doing, and that was coming in and signing away talent and putting everybody out of business, quite frankly. I was shocked that they were able to work together – not Jarrett and Gagne, but all of the other promoters: Joe Dusek from World Class and David McLane from Powerful Women of Wrestling, and so forth. Everything seemed to be going alright, but when we made a 3 city run, we did – let’s see – Nashville, Louisville, and Memphis, and we did all 13 weeks of television programming in those 3 towns over, I think it was over 5 nights. We took one night in-between tapings. That’s when you could sense that, ok, just what everybody thought – that promoters really can’t work together. “My guy should go over!” “No, my guy!” “No, this should happen this way.” They could never agree on who was going to be the ultimate voice, and they – it just seemed like they were smart enough to say majority rules, but that never even came up because why should a David McLane have a say with what’s going on with the male wrestling? It was a cluster and you could insert the adjective after that. The event itself was… (sigh) that was the final beginning of the end for the AWA. A lot of people say, and the final end was the Team Challenge Series, which was just the ultimate mess in professional wrestling, but the not getting paid from SuperClash – now, I wasn’t involved in the payoffs and wasn’t involved in the office part in that part of the office work. But, friends with a lot of the talent – in particular, Curt – and the stories that I was told by several of the boys was, well, as you laid out: that not only did the talent not get paid, but the promoters didn’t get paid. The attendance at that pay-per-view was absolutely abysmal. I have produced indie shows that doubled the attendance that was there, and this was supposed to be this HUGE pay-per-view – I think it was December 16th of ’88 – supposed to be this HUGE pay-per-view and generate a bunch of revenue. I think the Pay-per-view sales barely beat the live gate, and because of that and Verne collected the receipts and just said there’s nothing to distribute, you know? There is no profit – we didn’t make any money doing it. So, it wasn’t necessarily that Verne screwed people over as much as there just wasn’t anything to pay, and I don’t know what type of agreements he had with the other promoters or with Jerry Lawler at the time. I think Jerry has gone on record several times stating what happened there, and so I’ll go with what Jerry said, but that’s the story that I got from the inside of the AWA production office.
Well, you had mentioned the Team Challenge Series – and I know Bix has a couple of questions about that and we’re both fascinated by, if you don’t mind me saying, what a debacle that was. (laughing)
Polish Joe: So you like watching train wrecks too, right?
(Of course we do!)
Polish Joe: (laughing) Yes.
But before we get there, I do want to say: in ’89, Larry Nelson leaves the AWA and we’re introduced to a new television personality - someone who I think had been around the office at least for a little while – and that’s Eric Bischoff. What was he like to work with at that time in his life?
Polish Joe: Uh, so, I’ll try to do the Readers Digest version. Eric Bischoff came in to the AWA offices trying to sell a game that he had developed called Ninja Star Wars, which were Velcro ninja stars and you wore a face shield and you wore a Velcro vest, and the whole idea was that you threw it at the other one and whoever you get to stick on the most, wins. He came in to run that as a PI spot – a per inquiry spot – so for every one sold, the AWA would get a percentage. So they didn’t buy the time, but if there weren’t enough sponsors and Verne did retain some commercial time, that commercial would run in. Well, they worked out a deal where Mike Shields liked – and the Gagnes – liked Eric’s salesmanship. So they brought him in strictly – losing what the word should be – but where you sell, you get paid, OK? He wasn’t on salary-
Polish Joe: Commission; thank you. He did have an office at the AWA and helped out with production – he wanted to learn. He had a wife and two small kids and was probably about 30 at the time. Eric and I – we became close friends. Again, he was helping out with production, he had some car issues, didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so I would give him a ride home from production, and In fact, one time borrowed him money in fact to pay his rent. So we got to be good friends. When Larry Nelson abruptly – and I say abruptly – quit the AWA, it was an interview morning and we got the phone call from him saying “I’m not coming in.” It’s like “Ok…” and this is at, like, 9 o’clock in the morning when we’re supposed to roll tape. Its like “What the hell do we do now?” Eric Bischoff says “Well, I can do it.” Gagne’s look at him and say “Well, no – you’ve got the gray hair, you look too old,” and Eric says “No, I can do it. I’ll run to the store, I’ll get some hair dye.” He goes in, goes into the bathroom, dyes his hair jet black, because Eric started graying literally right out of high school, and so, Eric goes on there and I have to say, he did a very admirable job on his first day. As he told me afterwards, he was shittin’ his pants – he was scared going on there for the first time – but he said he could do it and he was able to do it. That very first day on that interview day, I said “Eric, let’s stay after late,” and I worked with him on certain things; on his delivery; on his time cues; practiced with him for a few hours on the proper way to be an interviewer for professional wrestling, and then gave him a ride home. So, that’s how Eric Bischoff got his start in on-camera professional wrestling, and previously, getting into the wrestling business by selling a ninja star wars game.
(So as for the Team Challenge Series: there are all sorts of urban legends about it, but I was intrigued when last year, I started collecting some old newsletters and I found from the wrestling newsletter Mat Watch that Steve Beverly – who also worked in TV – wrote, that he had this big story from, at the time – and I guess it was ’89 – about the proposal that was sent out to different TV stations about the Team Challenge Series, that the idea apparently was – and you can confirm, deny, whatever; give more details – that was to re-brand the AWA and make it that these Team Challenge Series shows that instead of being seen as pro-wrestling would be seen more like an American Gladiators or Roller Games or something like that. What can you tell us about all that and the ideas that went into that and the pitches and everything?)
Polish Joe: That was exactly it. Again, you know, with SuperClash III being such an abysmal failure, Greg Gagne wanted – came up with the idea to try something completely different. At this point, the AWA had nothing to lose. Verne had brought in an outside Producer to try to give it a completely different look and feel; somebody who had never done professional wrestling before. They had moved it – he had moved it – into a local television station’s studio, where the walls were chroma-key, and there was no audience, and the whole idea was that we were going to shoot an audience reacting to the matches and edit the crowd to the matches. Well, uh – no. I knew that was a bad idea to start with, knowing post-production, and we couldn’t do it so we ended up just having to put the walls as a faint color. So, instead of doing the chroma-key, we decided to tape people live in a bar reacting to the matches. But it became the same thing – how do you tell the fans to react to something that they don’t even know what they’re reacting to? We just said “Ok – boo. Ok – cheer; clap” and just do all of these different things. Well, that can happen several time during a wrestling match, and now I don’t believe any of this actually made it on air, but this was the very beginning of the Team Challenge Series from a production standpoint. But when you’d see the same crowd reaction 6 or 7 times in a match, showed it to Verne and Greg; it’s like “We can’t do this.” You know, it’s just – didn’t say anything too mad at the time; “Just watch this,” and they watched it and they said “Well, why is the same guy on there several times?” “Well, because the producer that you hired didn’t get enough B-Roll crowd shots.” So, we had to switch gears, do the Team Challenge Series as you’d stated as it was done. It was being pushed to the different networks – in fact, the big one that it was pushed to was WGN, and that was the last vestige – the last attempt – really, at the AWA trying to go big-time. That did involve, or would have involved if WGN would have signed off on it, having Hulk Hogan return to the AWA. Unfortunately, WGN didn’t go for it, Hulk wasn’t going to come back to a sinking ship, and the Team Challenge Series proceeded and I laughed internally with every match that we recorded and every match that I edited. It…it went from being a sporting event to what should have been an episode or a skit on Saturday Night Live. It became embarrassing by the end of it, especially the Turkey-On-A-Pole Match between Larry Zbyzsko and Jake “The Milkman” MIlliman – in front of an empty studio, mind you! So, yeah.
(There’re many things to digest in what you just said, at the least.)
Polish Joe: Well, get some Antacid, because it can’t sit too well – doesn’t sit well with me to this day!
(The Hogan/WGN thing: now, Greg has said things about this in interviews in the last several years. Usually people take it with a grain of salt – so what exactly was going on? Had Greg and Verne talked to Hogan? Was it that WGN said something about that if they were to pick it up, they would need someone like a Hogan? I mean, what exactly happened with that?)
Polish Joe: So I was privy to seeing the faxes going back and forth between WGN and the AWA studios. The – Mike Shields was putting together the plans and the formats with the Gagne’s and sending everything through, and (sigh) I may be wrong, but I do believe seeing a fax from Hulk Hogan’s camp that he would agree to do it if WGN would sign on to do this. When WGN decided not to do it, and I think it was a combination of the whole Team Challenge Series concept and what really was, by that point, a very weak stable of wrestlers – horrible; not horrible. I don’t want to belittle the guys, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the WWF’s roster. So, they decided not to do it, and, well, if they’re not gonna do it, again, Hulk Hogan wasn’t going to come back to a sinking ship and, quite honestly, I don’t think Hogan would have done it even if WGN would have signed off on it. It sort of felt from the vibes I was getting in the office that he was using that to get back into the WWF; using it as leverage against what Vince was trying to get him, or in other words, get a better buck for Hulk Hogan.
(That’s not the first time I’ve heard a story exactly like that. I’m trying to remember – Brian, have you read Howard Brody’s book?)
I did; I did.
(Howard Brody is a former independent promoter from Florida who – he eventually was doing a thing where he worked with Hiro Matsuda to syndicate Japanese tapes in Europe and he was gonna try to do a thing out of it where they start a promotion, and in his book, he wrote that Hogan was signed on – well, not signed on – but had committed to Matsuda because Matsuda had trained him originally to be part of it, and ended up not really happening and was probably just leverage with WWF and WCW. So, to hear it the way you told it does not surprise me one bit. Now, as far as the pink studio, I’ve – what I’ve heard was that there was only one pink studio taping; the empty pink studio. It was because the tape of a show at the Mayo Civic Centre went bad – what exactly happened? Was there only one? Was there more than one? Why did it happen? Etc.)
Polish Joe: Well, you know, as I had alluded to earlier, the initial one was done on the green screen, and when that was not going to work, it was decided – we were shooting out of the Rochester-Mayo Civic Arena in Rochester, MN and we were doing the events there. If I remember correctly, the reason for the last one…(sigh) on one hand, from what I remember, was that the Mayo Civic Arena had gotten another booking and rather than scramble to try to find another venue, we decided to go back into the studio to record it. That’s when you got the whole pink wall/turkey-on-a-pole Jake Milliman match. The other part then, what I believe, is that – and the other contributing factor was - the financial part of it. Verne was getting a good deal down at the Rochester-Mayo Civic Arena, which it was a great venue to tape wrestling out of. To go and find some place, Verne was gonna have to pay a lot of money; he was involved with a lawsuit personally to try to save his home on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota, which eventually he lost and ended up having to file bankruptcy because of it; but a lot of different mitigating circumstances sort of forced our hand to go into the channel 11 studios to do the end of the Team Challenge Series.
I gotta ask you: Who bought the Turkey?
Polish Joe: (laughing) I – I do not know, but I would have to assume it would be the Gagne’s.
Polish Joe: Now keep in mind, it was right around Thanksgiving, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was given away as a gift to somebody for Thanksgiving!
Polish Joe: In fact, maybe that’s the one that I ate that year. I did get a little sick after it! (laughing)
Episode 31 - Transcript (Part 3)
You know, I wanted to mention something and see what you remember about this, but Bix correctly pointed out before: we’ve heard stories throughout the years of Hulk Hogan using whatever he can to get leverage during one of his negotiations - or re-negotiations - with Vince McMahon or, quite frankly, anywhere he ever worked – and, you know, who could blame the guy? You always want to get the upper hand if you can on the person who’s paying you.
Polish Joe: Exactly.
But I had actually heard a very similar story in regards to a wrestler playing the AWA against the WWF, and it was in Larry Nelson’s book: he mentions that, all of a sudden – I gotta guess maybe ’86 or ’87 – Jesse Ventura showed up for a day and was hangin’ out and playing along with the idea he may come back and telling Verne and Greg that he was thinking about it, and of course, he’d end up going back to the WWF and having a good deal – do you have any memories of that or do you remember any other times that wrestlers potentially used negotiating with the AWA to get a better deal?
Polish Joe: Yeah. First of all, that Jesse Ventura did, indeed, happen. I was editing a show and Verne and Greg walked into the control room with Jesse and it was the one and only time that I ever shook “The Body’s” hand – didn’t have a conversation with him because they were busy talking and I just respected the business part of it and didn’t want to say to him that I grew up hating him as much as I hated Nick Bockwinkel, so I never had THAT pleasure. But, yup – that did indeed happen and I do not blame him. The other person that did it but it was sort of in a reverse mode was Curt Hennig. So – before Curt went to the WWF and became Mr. Perfect, for a year – and this would have started, would have been May of ’87 – he defeated Nick Bockwinkel at the Cow Palace in San Francisco as a part of SuperClash II with the help of a roll of Dimes from Larry Zbyzsko. So – Curt signed a contract with the Gagne’s, and as Curt told me at the time, It was for $120,000 a year - $10,000 a month. Curt and I were out one night having a little fun, and so I asked him: I go “So has Vince contacted you yet?” and he goes “Yeah – they contacted me a few months ago,” and I go “So what the hell are you still doing here?” He goes “Well, I thought about it and I’m still young – I’m gonna have another shot at the WWF. But, Verne’s paying me $10,000 a month to be able to stay at home, to see my wife and kids, and travel-“ I wanna say at the time “working 7 or 8 times a month.” He goes “Signed a one year deal, it’s a guarantee – if he doesn’t pay me, then I can call Vince back up.” Well, the year goes by and Verne didn’t have the money or – in actuality, a very smart business move at the time – to re-sign Curt; he couldn’t afford it. Again, with the personal lawsuit, the money he had already put back into the AWA: he just couldn’t commit to continuing to do that. So – Curt ended up becoming Mr. Perfect. Did Curt get more money at that time? That I don’t know, but, Curt used the WWF as leverage against the AWA to get HIS deal in 1987.
(Now, going back to the Team Challenge Series a bit – what do you recall about the profit sharing arrangement that had been proposed for the TV stations, and did that actually happen, or was that something that kind of didn’t really happen and kind of fell apart after the format shifting kind of fell apart?)
Polish Joe: Didn’t happen. That was the concept to do it with the WGN and to really transform it, but when that didn’t happen, it just became a part of All Star Wrestling. They put it on All Star Wrestling to try to show it as an example to try to get other stations interested in it to then come back and say “Hey, we love this – let’s do the deal.” Well, that never happened, and rightfully so.
(And, you know – I realized there’s also one more announcer we didn’t talk about yet: ringside Ralph – is it Strang-us? Strangis?)
Polish Joe: Strangis! Yes – who went on to become the play-by-play guy for the Dallas Stars. He did the Minnesota North Stars up here for a while, and then when they got STOLEN from us – yes, there’s still that animosity in Minnesota – he ended up going down to the Dallas Stars and worked and did their color commentary for years. You know – when I first saw Ralph, in all honesty, I thought “Who the hell is this sort of goofy looking guy trying to get on camera to be a part of the AWA?” Well, when the first camera rolled: well, Ralph was good, you know? Ralph enjoyed his time, was very receptive to input, and loved doing wrestling. But, the thing with Ralph is that he loved doing hockey more, and so when he got the opportunity to do hockey full time, he jumped at it and of course, the time he was there, again – the AWA was going nowhere. So, anybody that had an opportunity to get something secure jumped at it, and, well, many did.
(Do you think the perception of the whole Team Challenge Series thing would not be as overwhelmingly negative as it is if not for the one pink studio taping?)
Polish Joe: (sigh) No. I-
Polish Joe: I’m sorry – I just don’t see professional wrestling-: now, this is pre-exposure days. Pre-kayfabe being let out of the bag. It was right at the end of it – I wanna say, was it early ’90 or ’91 – and the lawsuit with Hogan and Vince coined it “Sports Entertainment” and my time might be off, but you know: to try to make professional wrestling seem like a legitimate sporting event? Now, I gotta put in an asterisk that these guys – and women – who are out there: they are athletes, and they do a tremendous amount of punishment and they deserve and get my 100% for the rigors that they go through. But, to try to put that into a traditional sporting format with teams and scores and wins and losses – um, no. No – I never- maybe for a brief moment I thought that it was a good idea but I think that was the young naïve person in me, as well as the desperate person in me who wanted the AWA to succeed and continue on, and thereby, continue to employ and pay me. But, it was very early on – in fact, I think even before the very first taping, or the first airing I should say after the first taping – where I’m looking at this thinking “This is not going to work. I had better start looking for another job.”
Now, what- Oh. I’m sorry Bix. What was that last year like, and what- you start looking for another job or at least have the thought to, but when do you actually get the call that the AWA is shutting down, and who talks to you about it?
Polish Joe: Well, once the Team Challenge Series was done – mercifully – that would have been late ’89. A few – I wanna say, maybe – 3, 4 more times I believe, we ended up going down to Rochester to do tapings, and I think the last one would have been in May of ’90. When another date wasn’t announced, that’s when it became real – that it’s like, “Ok, this – the ass end of the Titanic is now sticking out of the water.” When Mike came to me and said “We’re going to just run replays of old AWA stuff going into the archives,” that we had, that was about 1000 hours and probably half of that was usable because the other half would have been squash matches and stuff that really not gonna give you a lot of entertainment. Well, we had Nick and Greg for a while; Eric and Nick; Eric and Greg standing in front of a Chroma-key wall just talking about what we were going to air. So, it was my job to put together a best-of-the-best compilation and try to make a show entertaining, and once that started, I got my pay cut in half from what I was making, and that was like “OK – I gotta start looking.” I actually started bartending part-time and was making more money with the tips bartending than I was just doing the AWA! But, for all of the hours that I was putting in before doing the up to 4 hours per week of original programming for years, I went from averaging 70 hours a week to being able to get the show done in probably a max of about 10 hours. So I was getting really – I was getting paid very well by the hour at the time, but we all knew that it was coming to an end, and it was in November of 1991 – in fact, in August of ’91, I actually got a full-time job working for a multimedia company doing CD-Roms and video editing for them and so-forth, and I was still working for the AWA. But – I was able to go in and, again, in 10 hours per week max – some weeks were half that – I was able to put the show together, and we all knew – everybody knew – that it’s just a matter of time. I think it was May of ’90 was really the last time that any live wrestling of what everybody knows as the AWA – there’s another league that call themselves the AWA that Vince came down on hard years later – but that was the end of the AWA; May of ’90 was our last on-air taping and it was just on life support after that. Not making any money; Verne just kept the offices open as long as he could hoping something just might hit. Including – an American sumo show.
Polish Joe: He was going to get the best Sumo wrestlers from Japan paired up against former NFL – and actually, was trying to get current NFL – linemen to learn how to Sumo wrestle and put together a TV show based on that. I remember Verne flying me out to L.A. to do the press conference for it – I flew out in the morning, my hotel room was in the hotel at the airport, we did the press conference, I stayed over night and flew out the next morning. Thankfully, that show never happened either.
So after the AWA closes, do you stay in touch with the Gagne’s?
Polish Joe: Oh yeah! That was in ’91 – I would talk to them here and there. Mike Shields had created another wrestling organization that he was trying to get going – he had some investors from England – still officed at the AWA office. They let him do that because they owed Mike money and Mike just said “Don’t worry about it – just let me keep an office here for a while.” So I would stop by every now and then. As I mentioned earlier, I had invited both Verne and Greg to my wedding – Greg couldn’t attend; he had some function with one of his kids but Verne did attend. So, you know: couple two/three times a year we would talk, exchange Christmas cards and birthday wishes when that happened, and it would have been in late 1998 when they contacted me up about the idea of reviving the AWA in a series of different programs, including television and Pay-Per-View.
So they revive the AWA as a brand – you’re doing these branded PPV’s with clips from the archive. I guess what I’d really like to talk to you about – and I know Bix is fascinated with this too – is the actual AWA catalog. It’s now owned by Vince McMahon, but I would say that there’s no-one on earth who knows that catalog better than you, because beyond all the years working on it, you also ended up going through all the stuff you DIDN’T work on – am I correct?
Polish Joe: Correct. I – you know, there’s very few things that I am 100% certain about, and I say that all the time. I do the old – on Maury Povich, you are the father 99.9%; always gotta leave that room for doubt – but 100% sure to this day: I guarantee you there’s not a single person on this planet that knows that library better. To this day – if you showed me a 1 inch reel, I could probably tell you at least half of what’s on that particular show. I just – I lived and breathed it. You know, again, it was only 6 years of time that I actually worked there, but if you translate that into 40 hour work weeks, I had 10 years there and then another 4 years afterwards doing the Classic AWA series to learn the library. When we went back and started the Classic AWA, I will say: there was stuff that I never had seen before in the archive, just because of the vastness of it at the time, I just didn’t have the time. There was so much good stuff on it that I didn’t need to look further or deeper. I looked on an as-need basis – look at the label on the tape, if it had matches, I’d take a glimpse at it: “hey, that’s good! Let’s put that on!” or “Nahh…that’s not gonna work; we can’t do that.” So, yeah – that library film 2, 1 inch, ¾ inch – it was just- it was massive. Not as massive as what Vince has now, but it was about 1000 hours. I think the final agreement, I think it said ‘960 hours of known estimated time’, plus all of the film reels that nobody had seen for a while. A lot of it I had put on a film projector. I believe it was Donna Gagne who had put it up on projector when the AWA was still viable back in the ‘80s and labeled each of the film cans. So, yeah – it was fun seeing all of that stuff, and it went- I mean, there was footage going back to the 1960’s that, somehow or another, survived Verne not taping over it to save a buck.
I really wanna ask you about this. I mean – for years, there were rumors that Verne and Greg had kept their catalog in great shape: that they had kept it in an air-controlled room and it was in great condition. Most of the stuff we’ve seen released by the WWE kinda bears that out – that it was all kept in great condition. So you going through it, I’d like to know – you say 1000 hours? How much footage was there from the ‘60's? How much was there from the early '70's? What percentage of it is television versus arena footage?
Polish Joe: Um, well, let’s start off with the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. I would say: 1% from the 60’s, maybe 10-12% from the 70’s, and the rest was from the 1980’s. In terms of arena versus television: really, the only arena stuff – or the vast majority of the arena stuff – was a 1 camera shoot. Every time we were at the St. Paul Civic Centre – which, again, was the AWA’s backyard – we recorded every single one of them. That recording started in August of 1980 – that’s when Al DeRusha finally just told Verne “We gotta record this,” so he bought a portable 1 inch deck that was slow as hell to rewind and fast forward, so we recorded everything. But anything from the 70’s – it was the early 70’s: Bob Luce – the promoter from down in Chicago – had recorded events that he was promoting – or co-promoting – and he recorded them on film in the early 70s: from about 71 to 74. That’s the great news, and the other great news is that he had all of that film transferred over to ¾ inch, and they were in pretty damn good shape. The downside is that it was recorded on film and there was no audio. So any time you see any – even on the PPV’s, there were instances where I used a match from there. In fact, the very last PPV that we did: the 24th PPV, I think it was Turkey Day Turmoil, or maybe it was- anyway. On one of the last ones that we did, the main event was Verne Gagne versus Billy Robinson from Comiskey Park with a ton of people, and there was no sound. But – so what I ended up doing was I recreated every sound effect, every ring bump, every cheer, every boo, and – ehhhh. Admirable job; passable. Could you know that it was going to happen – or that I did it? Ehh…if you listen close enough, yes. But that’s the best that we had to work with. So then I either did a - I’d have Mene Gene do the color as if he was there and insert that, edit it appropriately, or had Verne and Greg talk about it discussing it in a retro fashion like “Hey, do you remember when this happened?” and so forth. So that was the way I was able to salvage and use the footage that otherwise we couldn’t use, because there was no – there was no audio to it.
When it comes to that early footage – or at least the stuff from the '70’s – couple questions: One - we’ve all seen the clip of the Crusher attacking Mad Dog Vachon and bloodying him up – one of the most famous incidents in the history of wrestling – and we’ve also seen, you know: there’s a complete episode with Rhodes and Murdoch as a tag team, so there’s various things. Was there – for the best of your knowledge – any rhyme or reason as to what tapes or films were kept from that time, and my second question is: to the best of your knowledge, were local promos kept?
Polish Joe: Um – the unfortunate part, and this actually- this extends to Hollywood as well in shows like Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies, so you’re asking “what the hell’s that have to do with wrestling?” Well, during that time period, there was no replays. A show would air once and it would be done, and I don’t know exactly when – if it was mid '60's or wherever – where they decided to – and, you know what? We might be able to replay this footage. In fact, another show – the early Tonight Show’s with Jack Parr and Johnny Carson: similar situation where they don’t have every episode. Well, nobody thought about replays and home video and certainly, in this day and age, the internet. So, what Verne ended up doing – and as Al tells the story – Verne, as much money as he was making, still maintained the old school way of “Ehhh. Screw TV – that’s not gonna make me any money,” just reused the tapes. So they’d keep a tape for a week or two and then record over it, you know. Because, keep in mind, Verne had to ship these tapes to – I don’t know what the number was at the top point of how many markets he was in. I wanna say it was about 100 markets, but he had to send – whether it’s a 1 inch or ¾ inch – to each and every one of these markets, and those tapes were not cheap at the time – nor were they light. It was 7 pounds for a 1 hour, 1 inch reel. So, Verne just said “Ah – screw it. We don’t need that anymore. Just record over it.” Well, like anything, most of them did, but some survived - from the late '60's and early '70's and thankfully they survived because otherwise, you know, we wouldn’t know. They survived by sheer happenstance, just sheer luck that “Oh, this is an extra tape,” and it was put into storage. It was late '70's when Al started saving more of the shows and by ’81, once he convinced Verne to buy the portable 1 inch as I alluded to earlier, that’s when Al started keeping most of the shows. Then, when Mike Shields came on board, everything was saved and we no longer- I mean, we’ve repurposed shows, but we’ve always kept a copy of one. The unfortunate part is that the market edit promos were not kept. At least – there were a handful of interviews that were – interview reels – that were kept, like the Blaster interview and so forth. They were kept and a lot of them were kept intact on the Superstars show, because we – we started creating those and so we kept a copy of everything that we did for them, but unfortunately, by-in-large, a lot of the old promos are lost. Not saying that there aren’t any, but I would say 95% of ‘em were recorded over.
(Yeah – my recollection is from when WWE aired some of the full shows on their on-demand – their old on-demand service; the cable one - that occasionally you might get one where it – well, I’ll ask you this first: was it usually on the same reel as the full show, or would it be sent on a separate reel?)
Polish Joe: Uh, well, it would be on the same reel. Depending on what we may have had – so there may have been- So we had a general show. If there was not a card that was going to be run in that territory, they would get a “general show,” and then territories that we were running events, we would do an interview for that market, which, I mean, that could be 20-25 different markets listening to the same interview by the same person and the only difference would be, you know, who’d they be working against but instead of talking about Clyde’s Bar in Green Bay, we’d be talking about George’s Bar in Milwaukee. Verne always had to get the local plugs in to try to get people – “Oh yeah! I can relate to that!” which is smart on Verne’s part. So - the general shows would have the general interview and that’s what Vince would have, and sometimes, the general show would not have that interview in there. It may have been a copy of a show where an interview WAS going to go in there but it wasn’t – the show was saved and it would be a duplicate of ASW 174, for example. So, that’s – you know; that’s why sometimes there were interviews and sometimes there might not be.
(Well, I was gonna say – before my brain interrupted me – was that I remember there was, like, once or twice where it seemed like the shows they had – if they had local promos – it would be like, the end of it being bicycled. It would be, like, a random town in South Dakota, or something; something like that.)
Polish Joe: Well, yeah. We did have the Chyrons – as we used to call them – that’s the graphic generator; the name of the graphic generator that was used to do them. But yeah, the Chyrons would be in their 30 second promo which is nothing other than graphics over wrestling background and we’d put some music behind it. But, yeah – it especially in the later years, a lot of them were the – with all due respect to South Dakota – the smaller towns – the smaller territories – because there we no big territories any more. There was no going to a 20,000 seat St. Paul Civic Center, it was going to, you know, Red White and Blue High School where you might get 150 people – more ‘indy’ shows, if you will, were being run more than AWA shows at that time.
(Now – do you remember anything specific where you found it in the library and you just had this moment of “Oh my god – I had no idea this has existed!” or “This is something that I’d been looking for and I can’t believe that I’d found it!” or anything like that? Anything stand out?)
Polish Joe: Without question – there’s a Crusher interview, it’s about 7 minutes and 24 seconds long, that he had a sit down interview with Roger Kent, and it is in one of the Classic AWA Pay-per-views, but Roger introduces Crusher and Crusher starts off singing “Roll Out The Barrels” and apologizes and says “Sorry people – might mistake me for Johnny Cash, but I’m not: I’m the Crusher.” I’d never seen that interview. It was on a ¾ inch tape – I put that up when we were doing the AWA – the Classic AWA – shows, and that’s when I came across that and I watched it 3 or 4 times before I ever got it digitized into my system so that I could edit it – laughing my ass off, loving The Crusher, just trying to figure out “OK – I could probably get 4 or 5 different segments of The Crusher done from this bit.” The whole interview was an angle against Super Destroyer and Lord Alfred Hayes, or as The Crusher called them: Super Dummy and El Finko Hayes. So that –yeah. That, to me, was the golden nugget of anything that I had found, and that was early on. I was – it was before the first pay-per-view that we had done when I found that. In fact, the way – if I just may digress for a bit – the way that the whole Classic AWA thing started was the Gagne’s had called me up in December of ’98. They had found a local sponsor that was willing to put up the money for the production cost and make the Gagne’s a couple of bucks. We were doing a half hour show that just aired locally here in the Twin Cities – 13 half hour episodes, and each one of them featured a particular AWA legend. When we got done, or near the end of it, Todd Okerlund – who is my partner in Classic Wrestling – and Todd Okerlund, along with Bob Graisinger and Verne and Greg Gagne, we were all partners in the whole Classic AWA venture. Well, um – Bob Graisinger and Todd were very good friends with Stan Hubbard Jr. Now, the Hubbard’s – very wealthy family. They own local station here and media outlets, they own Reelz TV now – they’re worth a ton of money. Well, they still owned USSB Satellite Company and Stan said “Well, you guys got some stuff – why don’t you do a Pay-Per-View? We’ll put it on. We’re selling to Direct TV at the end of May, but put together a 2 hour show and, you know, we’ll air it on USSB!” Well, that show did SO well that – and I think with a little help from Stan Hubbard – that Direct TV, Dish Network, TVN, and then later In-Demand, all wanted our Classic AWA pay-per-views, and it ended up doing 24 Classic AWA pay-per-views and then 14 additional pay-per-views using other libraries. So, that – when I- to get back to The Crusher thing, when I was doing Crusher’s half-hour legendary look back, that’s when I stumbled across that, but by that point, I knew we were doing the pay-per-view, so I said “I’m putting this in the holster when we do the pay-per-view.”
(Now, do you happen to remember which would have been the most successful of the pay-per-views that you did, and also, about how many buys it would have done?)
Polish Joe: The very first one, and I want to say if I remember correctly, I think it did about 25,000 buys.
Polish Joe: Yeah. It was – by, I mean a landslide, it was our most successful pay-per-view. I think the local tie-in with USSB, the promotion that they gave us, and nobody’d seen the AWA for – by that point – it had been really a good 10 years, so – feeling a little bit nostalgic and so forth, they – Monday Night Wars was going on at the same time, so wrestling really was at a high point and it did tremendously well. I mean, the other ones did well too, but they started to wane over the course of time, and after doing 38 of ‘em, they decided not to do anymore. I think we were starting to run out of footage – especially when we were still doing the pay-per-views when we sold the library to the WWF, so that takes out a large chunk of assets that we had – that I had – to work with to produce and edit a show.
(And, as far as what you said about the buys and the first show – what’s really interesting about that is that USSB, if I remember correctly, was – it was- if you had USSB, you had Direct TV but not necessarily vice-versa. That USSB was like, where you’d get your HBO’s and stuff like that and maybe some of the pay-per-views but it was an add-on to Direct TV, and if you didn’t have any of the premium channels, you might not have gotten that. If you didn’t have Direct TV in any form, you didn’t get it – so that’s pretty interesting. So I guess you’re right, too, that it had to be the local hook.)
Polish Joe: Oh yeah, and you’re exactly right – USSB: they’d got gobbled up by Direct TV as I mentioned at the end of May, but Direct TV saw the numbers that we did and ordered all of the other shows. But, the whole USSB thing, I can’t thank Stan Hubbard enough – that relaunched the AWA and put it back on the radar for the WWF, and, well, 3 years after that, AWA library was in Vince’s hands.
Do you know how the communication began between the Gagne camp and the McMahon and the WWE for the sale of the catalog?
Polish Joe: Uh, yeah – gentleman by the name of Carl DeMarco had contacted us. He was heading up the Canadian division in Toronto – they said “We have an interest in the library.” They came down, took a look at it, where it was stored – the negotiations commenced, and it was about a little over a year after the initial contact when the sale closed and they came, and I remember the very sad day of when this big old truck was filled with the AWA tapes, I closed it up for the last time and thought “Wow – there goes my baby.” I had, by that point, I had 3 children and the AWA library was my 4th – it really felt like it. Fortunately, I mean, I maintain a copy of every pay-per-view that I did. I mean, I don’t sell ‘em or anything like that, Vince – so don’t send corporate on me – but yeah. I kept a copy for my own- I did this work, I grew up with this, I lived and breathed this, and every once in a while, I’ll still have some buddies of mine that I went to High School with over and pop it in and just laugh our asses off at how good it was back in the day.
So – after this happens, you’re still- you’re working with Todd Okerlund and you continue that relationship – that partnership – and you start Classic Wrestling: Just tell us our listeners a little bit about Classic Wrestling, tell us about what catalogs and what libraries you guys own, and what you’re currently doing with it.
Polish Joe: So after the AWA sale, Todd acquired the Ron Martinez library, and that has about 200 – about 220 hours, I think, of old footage mainly from Bruiser’s territory in Indianapolis, but a smattering of other locations, including Detroit and…I think some from Southwest Championship Wrestling as well.
Polish Joe: We used some of that – we did some pay-per-views with it. We’ve got some clips on YouTube and so forth, and I can announce right now that we just signed an agreement with the Fite TV App, so our pay-per-views that we did non-AWA will be available on the Fite App very soon. But, we also have the Mark Nulty – it was Wrestling Classics at the time – we had partnered with him to use footage, and a lot of that footage is included with the pay-per-views that we had done; a lot of stuff from Florida Championship Wrestling. In fact, there were 3 shows that we did – Mike Graham and Dusty Rhodes were hosts of the show. We didn’t have – we just shared- I edited the shows, Mike and Dusty sent me their ins-and-outs after we got the show formatted, I edited the shows together, and then we split the revenue and that was the end of it. We never retained the rights and that was part of the agreement in working with Mike. Um – what else we have: we do have an episode of – a pay-per-view – from G.L.O.W: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which is now going to be a fictional mini-series on Netflix!
(laughing) That’s right! By the creator of ‘Orange Is The New Black’.
Polish Joe: Exactly. John Cafarella – who is a very good friend of mine: he contacted me – he wasn’t a friend at the time – contacted me out of the blue and if we’d have any interest in doing a G.L.O.W pay-per-view. I’d worked with Johnny directly in putting the show together, getting it edited. We hit it off very well and are friends to this day. We tried doing C.R.U.S.H., which was a remake of G.L.O.W which never went anywhere, and then I was also involved working with him doing Wrestlelicious!
Oh! (laughing) I didn’t realize you were a part of that. You know, I got distracted – you said G.L.O.W and I think Dave McLane, who I know was a graduate of the Ken Resnick School of White Boy Dancing, as everyone has seen at the opening of every episode of G.L.O.W in center ring!
Polish Joe: Yeah! Dave – John Cafarella came in after David McLane and was a part of it along with Steve Blanz (sp.) and I’m not at liberty to say, but I can say – Wrestlelicious is not dead. How’s that for a teaser, if that’s your type of product? But – look for some news about Wrestlelicious. I will leave it at that.
Other than the deal that you guys just struck with Fite TV, how could our listeners keep up with what you and Todd are doing with Wrestling Classics, and what could they do to support your product?
Polish Joe: Well, they could go to ClassicWrestling.com – we have our information. Some of our – there’s clips on there, and we’re also on pay-per-view on DailyMotion.com where you can watch one of these episodes full stream. Go ahead and enjoy Classic Wrestling! We’re also on Facebook, and it’s out there – you can watch all 14 episodes!
That’s great stuff and, of course, this is a Classic Wrestling podcast that all of our listeners should support all Polish Joe and Todd Okerlund are doing. You know, I actually understand that Larry Nelson had something that he was very excited by – the idea of what you were doing. Bix – do you know what Larry Nelson had to say about these pay-per-views?
*Orgasmic Larry long-form*
You see? The excitement is palpable! (laughing)
Polish Joe: Yes, yes. Larry would have appreciated it immensely. In fact, I know he did when he called me to tell me he included me in his book – had not heard from Larry for years, I hear from him out of the blue. He had a couple of cocktails in him, and, you know, next thing I know, unfortunately he had passed away but I am sure Larry would have thoroughly enjoyed the AWA pay-per-views.
If he hadn’t had cocktails in him, I would have said it was an impostor, so I’m glad you clarified that! Joe – I know you guys also have a YouTube channel. What’s the story with that?
Polish Joe: Yeah – we’ve just got some of the clips; broke ‘em apart. It is ‘Classic Wrestling’ as well. Instead of the full pay-per-views, I’ve cut a lot of the events into individual matches, as well as some matches that were not the pay-per-views. I wanna say there’s probably a good 70 or 80 different wrestling matches and clips that you can go on and see, so by all means, look at Classic Wrestling and see wrestling of yesteryear where an arm lock and a head lock really still existed.
We will definitely include some of that footage in our video playlist for this episode, and Joe – this is really great. You’ve given us a lot of time and this has been a really fun conversation – an illuminating conversation – in many areas, and is there any closing comments you have for the AWA fans out there?
Polish Joe: You know, keep it alive. I have stated before that today’s product isn’t better or worse – it’s just different. Good is good, and it’s time the AWA was as good as it got, and yeah: they didn’t have the flash and bang of the WWE at the time, but it has its place in history, and for 30 years – 25 of which were phenomenal – it deserves its place in wrestling history. A lot of the guys who wrestled for it, while I don’t give full credence to the WWE Hall of Fame for various reasons – they have done some right things and inducted Verne and inducted Nick Bockwinkel but there are so many others that should be in there as well: the Ray Stevens, the Mad Dog Vachon’s of the world: they deserve to be in there. Crusher, Bruiser Brody, Stan- well, Stan Hansen got inducted this year. That’s it – the AWA, it was probably the most memorable 6 years of my professional career: travelling with these guys that I grew up watching, working with ‘em, working with a lot of the young guys from The Nasty Boys to the Midnight Rockers to Scott Hall – working with all of them. It’s – yeah. I enjoyed my time and I love talking and I thank you for allowing me to talk about my time with the AWA.