by Bill McCormack
In the years when Newark, New Jersey was a city of operational major department stores, first run movie palaces, and the Novelty Bar was a must see for business lunch, there was Laurel Garden. It was already sprouting the buds of decay that would end its being. The city merely took a few more decades to become a sick joke with its yearly top four ranking as national leader of venereal disease, and join the defunct boxing barn in the memory bin of no return.
It was, in fact, wrestling that pumped monetary transfusions into the small, stale smelling confines, with the advent of televised toe twisting. Every Friday, Willie Gilzenberg, the Runyoneesque ringmaster, graced the black and white reception tubes with a five-match promotion on WATV, number 13 on the dial. To be fair, Newark's answer to "Joey Perhaps" did have a long time partner, Babe Cullen, who was overseer of the boxing component for their business interest. Once the stronger half of the operation during the glory days of club fights, the jab and jaw breakers now only put on quarterly gatherings of no names. Four rounds were the length of combat, and five bouts made up the card.
In the grapple game, the object of the weekly shows was to set up the marks for the "big ones" in the Paterson, Newark, Teaneck, or Jersey City Armories from October through May. If things went really well, a Roosevelt Stadium or a Rupert Stadium extravaganza might light up the summer skies.
Willie, of the very worn white shirts, minus collar stays, so that their tips curled skyward, never touching the permanently creased amoeba patterned neckpiece, with the smallest dot of French's mustard on its one wrap knot, knew his trade. Give the TV product just enough talent to hook the potential paying customers. Let them get to know the lead actors and their specialties. Never try to tell via interview what his boys should be able to act out inside the limply strung ring ropes. And, above all, play to the dollar droppers being brighter than they facts might be, so that they never turned off the set in anger for being treated like panelists on It Pays To Be Ignorant. Mr. "G" was a bright bulb in the circuit of body slam barns.
Drawn like millers and moths to a 100 watt porch-door Westinghouse, two to three hundred "dumb fans," as was everyone else, came to witness the familiar television warmers in the only living color available. It was up close and sometimes more personal than anyone anticipated.
On two occasions I saved enough odd job and pinboy silver to become a $1.25 general admission at the half-nelson crotch cathedral. Laurel Garden had no frills. There were wooden folding chairs throughout, with the first three $2.00 rows having a stained cloth cotton stuffed pad as a bun cushion. A large rotating lens camera on a black painted dusty ribbed platform took up the small quadrangle behind the three electric-taped card tables which served as commentator Fred Sayles' base of operations. Four desk chairs, two on either side of the Sayles' Salon, housed two Athletic Commission "judges," a time keeper with bell, and the attending physicians, Dr. Julius Roberts, a balding non-descript with gray fringe and sideburns. His introduction always produced catcalls of "half-head" from the weekly regulars.
For those hearty souls who opted to dine at "Chateau Gilzenberg," there was a limited menu which, due to patron popularity, or more likely, supplier breaks for the promoter, never changed. Cold, sweaty, once fire-warmed large pretzels with enough burnt residue on the underside to cure any accidental poisonings were a house specialty. If you selected a hotdog, you might well need the "pharmacological three-ringer." The wieners floated in armed forces mess sized tubs warmed by butane flamed grills. They appeared like bobbing elongates in a bacterial coated pond, and were served on day old Silver Cup buns from the baker's plant a few blocks away. Beverage allowed for wax cups, the crack-in-your-mouth variety, with either Hoffman root beer, or Ballantine beer as fillers. The rubes lined up to get the liquid and solid waste. You can't beat a wrestling fan's courage.
As for the in-ring activites, there was either a tag team match, midgets, or women, along with four head to head confrontations.
My initial card opened with Frederick Von Schact and Jack Dillon against Tony Casenza and Roland Meeker. The crowd favorites signed scraps of paper, and snap shots, and magazine clips for their supporters in their corner while the rule breakers glared defiance at the inmates who called for their heads. A referee rub down and shoe bottom check, a refused handshake by the heels, and "clang," the work was underway. The faces Meeker and Cosenza took two straight falls, one via the "DQ" route, and vanquished the "baddies."
Next came a very young and raw Illio DiPaolo locking horns with the hairy veteran Kola Kwariani. The old pro made the youngster look good and fused his shoulders to the canvas after about ten minutes. Midgets and comedy relief with the referee's shirttails unfurled, bow tie stolen, and hair pulled, provided the backdrops for Little Beaver's win over Irish Jackie.
The co-feature found aerial artist Marvin Mercer on top in a hard fought best of three falls over "Russian Strongman" Ivan Kamaroff. Well scripted and executed, the crowd was vocal throughout and cheered Mercer's disposal of Stalin's henchman.
Antonina Rocca, with time running down, picked up two quick falls over Steve Stanlee. Everyone wished it had been Gene "Mr. America" Stanlee, rather than his pseudo brother being pummeled, but that level match was never a TV gift to the patrons of Robert Hall Clothiers, where "plain pipe racks" saved the customer tons of money. Stout Steve's lumps would have to make do until the next Armory spectacular.
Gilzenberg, Sayles, WATV, Laurel Garden, are all now memories along with Bonomo Turkish Taffy and Mack chain drive garbage trucks. Yet, when a body needs a smile, they are there to conjure up, along with Ace Freeman, Tony Martinelli, Kenny Ackles, and the Great Scott. Wrestling minus theme music, testicle salutes, and McMahon's sickness. Full nelson toyland: "once you pass its borders you can never return again." How true, Mr. Herbert, how true!