Open Mic

Whoooa Nellie! When Brands Go Horribly Wrong: Psst--Vince McMahon and the WWE Are No Longer In the Wrestling Business. Publicist Alerts the Media.

Chuck Ross Posted March 18, 2011 at 7:57 AM

If you are a boy baby boomer of a certain age, and grew up in the Los Angeles area, like I did, one of your fondest memories of TV as a kid was watching Dick Lane and wrestling on KTLA live from the Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A.

Lane’s signature call was “Whooooa Nellie” as he watched some wrestler like Freddie Blassie climb up on the ropes and post of the ring and leap down, stomping another wrestler, or at least seeming to. I remember that tag team matches were my favorites. Reading a blog by Ed Fuentes remembering Lane, it reminded me that he was also endlessly promoting pro wrestling and urging us viewers to attend the matches live.

As a kid getting into almost daily fights and getting stomped by my older brother, wrestling on TV as narrated by Lane was mesmerizing.

If you grew up in New York I guess the equivalent experience was watching Dennis James announce wrestling on TV.

In the book about TV called “The Box” by Jeff Kisseloff, James talked about his days announcing wrestling: “When I went to my first wrestling match, I said, ‘I can’t play this straight.’ Yet, I had to find some happy medium so that the wrestlers wouldn’t hate my guts, so I added sound effects. If a guy was twisting another guy’s leg, I had a crackle bone that I would twist. If he pulled on his trunks, I would tear a window shade. I got hold of a slide whistle when they went up and down. I did one whole wrestling match in rhyme: ‘They’re out of the ring, but now they’re back, and when they do, two heads will crack.’ ”

Most of the wrestlers knew they needed to develop outlandish personalities to distinguish themselves for the TV audience.

Noted one observer in “The Box,” talking about a wrestler from those early days of TV named George Wagner, “When he wrestled as George Wagner he wasn’t a drawing card. Then he came up with Gorgeous George, and television made him a star.”

Another wrestler from those early days, Lou Thesz, remembers in “The Box” that Gorgeous George “got a lot of what we call in the business ‘heat,’ a big response from women. After that, a lot of guys took it upon themselves to come up with some kind of gimmick, like Farmer Jones, who would enter the ring with his pig. I wouldn’t wrestle on the same card with girl wrestlers or midgets or when some idiot brought in a bear, because then you are guilty by association--although I did train a kid who wrestled a bear in Tennessee and kicked the hell out of that bear. He was booked with that bear about a week later. The bear [was in the ring] and saw the kid coming, and it left. The bear remembered him.”

While wrestling never really disappeared from the nation’s airwaves, it didn’t hit a second golden age until Vince McMahon and his World Wrestling Federation (later called World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE) made it bigger than it had ever been, primarily by taking what had been a local phenomenon and making it national. Many say the event that marked professional wrestling’s great comeback was WrestleMania in 1985 and the appearance of a WWF wrestler named Hulk Hogan. That, in turn, led to the boom of WWF (and later, WWE) shows on national TV, from ‘’Smackdown” to “Raw.”

I hadn’t given the WWE much thought lately when we here at TVWeek received a press release the other day that we wrote up and published as follows:

Drew Carey Inducted Into Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. Huh? Drew Carey??!!

Comedic actor and game show host Drew Carey is the newest member of the WWE Hall of Fame.

According to the WWE, "Carey established his place in WWE history as a surprise entrant in the 2001 Royal Rumble. However, Carey’s fortunes quickly turned, when the massive WWE Superstar Kane entered the ring, prompting Carey to eliminate himself from the match."

The announcement adds, "The WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony...will take place at the Philips Arena [in Atlanta] on Saturday, April 2, and the one-hour TV special will air Monday, April 4, at 8/7c on USA Network."

Next thing I know, I’ve received an email from one Kellie Baldyga, a publicist for WWE, DEMANDING that we correct the story. She also copied our owner, Rance Crain, on the email.

What had drawn her ire was the headline. Baldyga wrote in her email, “We are no longer a wrestling company but rather a global entertainment company with a movie studio, international licensing deals, publisher of three magazines, consumer good distributor and more.”

No doubt WWE is into more things than just wrestling, which is its bread and butter, I thought, but this can’t really be a big deal. I was busy and emailed her I’d call her the next day, which was yesterday, March 17.

First thing yesterday morning I received this email from her: “Chuck, did you mean call me today (Thursday)? I apologize but I really need the correction made sooner than later if possible…”

As regular readers to this blog may recall, for most of my career as a journalist I haven’t gotten along with most publicists. Most of them don’t like me, and I don’t have patience for many publicists.

Baldyga was beginning to bother me. First, our headline was perfectly fine and accurate. Second, what was this “demand” about changing OUR headline?

I called her and introduced myself. The conversation then basically went as follows:

Me: Your release says that Carey is being recognized as being an entrant in the 2001 Royal Rumble. I believe that was a wrestling event.

Kellie: No, we don't do wrestling events. They're entertainments. And we don’t call them wrestlers. They’re superstars and divas.

I’m thinking to myself, is she kidding me? Is this woman mad? The company’s official name is World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. Its crown jewel is an event called WrestleMania. In the best tradition of wrestling on TV since its earliest days, they put on terrific shows (and events), with athletes who are performers and they’ve got storylines that are far more elaborate than any Gorgeous George and Freddie Blassie would have ever imagined. Why would they want to run away from who they are, from what’s made them wildly successful beyond most people’s dreams?

Me: Kellie, I really don't have time for this. WWE presents wrestling events. I'm not going to change the headline or anything in the item. If you'd like, I'll just remove it.

Kellie: Huh? What?

Me: Kellie, I don't have time for this. What do you want me to do?

Kellie: Remove it.

So I did.

Kellie sent me a follow-up email saying “I hope nothing was contentious in our conversation…” She added, “I know the perception is that we are a wrestling company but we are actually much more than that--we are a global media company which is how our Chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon, positions us.”

Whatever. Take away wrestling from WWE and what do you basically have? I don't think WWE is quite as diverse as global media companies such as News Corp. or Time Warner or Viacom, but what do I know.

As I went to sleep last night I kept thinking about what I had read in Ed Fuentes' remembrance about wrestling in L.A., and hearing Dick Lane’s voice in my head from decades ago: “Call Richmond 95171. That's Richmond 95171 to reserve your tickets now!! Whoooa Nellie!"