By Tim Hornbaker
Influential, innovative and cunning describe the one-and-only Joseph “Toots” Mondt.
He was a pivotal individual in the history of professional wrestling, from his early days
traveling the Rocky Mountain circuit to standing aside Vincent J. McMahon at the head of
the Capitol Wrestling Corporation. Playing so many different roles during his career,
Mondt’s unique history cannot be compared to anyone else. However, while remaining
awe-struck by his achievements, it is difficult to ignore the fact that perhaps no big-time
promoter carried as much baggage as “Toots.”
A shooter and legitimate tough guy with a large physical presence, Mondt was
extremely intimidating. He was also manipulative, sneaky, and absolutely horrible with
money. There are a host of other ways to describe him, and most of them aren’t
flattering. If there ever is a ballot for most controversial wrestling promoter, “Toots” is
guaranteed to be in the running.
This article isn’t to condemn “Toots” Mondt because, again, I’m one of the people
who thinks he deserves all the recognition he’s owed. But it is impossible to research
professional wrestling during the early 1950s and not see how Mondt nearly destroyed
the business single-handedly in the northeast. He took one of the most profitable
territories in the United States and brought it to its knees, leaving his promoters stranded
and losing money hand over fist. The collective attitudes of promoters in that area
shifted during those years and Mondt went from being looked to for answers to Public
Enemy No. 1.
We can trace this story back to January 1952 when Mondt and his business partners
Rudy Miller and Milo Steinborn sold the Manhattan Booking Agency to Ignacio “Pedro”
Martinez, a former wrestler and promoter from Upstate New York. Martinez, incidentally,
kept Mondt on as his general manager and booking agent, and hindsight being 20-20, it
was a horrible decision to do so. Regardless, the New York City area was a
moneymaker, particularly with Madison Square Garden at the center of his promotion.
There was no way Pedro’s heavy investment could go wrong.
Or so he thought. Within six months, business was on the brink of disaster. Ticket
sales were way down, and Martinez was immensely concerned. He figured out a way to
get some of his money back in a deal that sold interest in the company to Antonino
Rocca and Kola Kwariani. Then in January 1953, he sold his last 25 shares to “Toots”
Mondt, and expected $25,000 to be paid off over a 100-week period. Martinez escaped
New York as quick as he could, leaving Mondt as the sole power. And Mondt no longer
had the stabilizing force of Miller and Steinborn to keep him even. Things were spiraling
out-of-control, and Mondt couldn’t upright the sinking ship on his own.
Fred Kohler’s Chicago wrestling series on Saturday nights on the DuMont Network
was very popular, and it provided an excellent outlet for showcasing talent across the
nation. Basically, what it did was make many previously unheard of wrestlers household
names in territories they usually wouldn’t have worked. For instance, Sonny Myers – a
Central States guy from St. Joseph – was now in demand throughout the northeast, and
could command an audience based on his DuMont appearances. Booking a show
around “TV Stars” previously featured on DuMont was a way to draw audiences, and it
was important to promote the wrestlers in that fashion when advertising. It was a gimmick
that worked well, and “Toots” Mondt was at the mercy of Kohler and manager Jim Barnett,
who were in control of the DuMont wrestling television stars.
For Mondt, the influx of Chicago TV wrestlers seemed like the best way to help
revitalize his weak territory, which included Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia,
and throughout New Jersey and the New York City metropolitan areas. On October 27,
1953, featuring Verne Gagne and Mighty Atlas in the main event, Madison Square
Garden drew more than 15,000 fans and a gate of $51,265.50. The next month, on
November 26, more Chicago stars like Gagne, Kowalski, Darnell, Melby, and O’Connor
drew only 7,500 people, and a $26,000 gate. Gagne matched up with Rocca on
December 14 and went over before a crowd of 11,651, which paid $35,469.70. Although
they weren’t selling out the Garden regularly, the numbers were satisfactory featuring the
Chicago talent, and it seemed that Mondt’s scheme was working out.
Had Jim Barnett not been there to supply the workers and help with the matchmaking
at the Garden, Mondt may have sunk even further into the doldrums of wrestling hell. But
things were still far from great. Outside of New York, Mondt’s reputation was being
dragged through the mud because of his inability to provide top tier wrestlers to the
towns he was responsible for booking. Ed Contos in Baltimore complained to the
Maryland Athletic Commission, which then appealed to the National Wrestling Alliance, all
in effort to see an improvement of talent at Contos’ shows. It was remarked that when
Martinez was booking Baltimore from New York, they never had these types of problems.
The Maryland situation was dire. J. Marshall Boone, chairman of the Athletic
Commission, wrote a letter to NWA President Sam Muchnick on September 25, 1953
wanting the latter to rectify this situation by allowing Contos to obtain wrestlers from
another agency. Muchnick, upon receiving the letter, immediately wired Mondt in New
York City, asking him to advise him on the situation. He also noted that “this seems to be
very serious,” and he was correct – it was.
In April 1954, the Manhattan Booking Agency declared bankruptcy. It was an
inconceivable fact because of how wrestling rich the territory was, and shined a light on
just how badly mismanaged the region was being run by “Toots” Mondt. That also meant
that the thousands of dollars (as much as $19,750) Pedro Martinez was still owed was not
going to be paid. On February 15, 1954, Martinez punched Mondt out in the dressing
room of the Garden because of this very fact. The altercation marked one of the few
public times that “Toots” was given a dose of his own medicine in a physical encounter.
But Martinez was compelled to do it because he was being completely swindled out of his
Yet another problem was that many wrestlers being booked by Mondt’s office were
not being paid for their appearances, and “Official Wrestling” magazine, which was being
operated from the New York office, was missing publication dates. “Official Wrestling”
had served as the central publication for the National Wrestling Alliance.
Back in Maryland, Robert B. Cochrane, the program director for WMAR-TV sent a
letter to Contos on April 9, 1954, telling him that a major advertiser on their local wrestling
show (National Brewing Company) was prepared to drop the show because they were
“alarmed at the deterioration of the quality of the wrestling talent in recent months.”
Cochrane wanted to warn Contos “that they, and I, are much disturbed.”
Following the bankruptcy of the Manhattan Booking Agency, the Maryland Athletic
Commission declared its state “open,” meaning that promoters were free to use any
booking agency they wanted to obtain talent. This, of course, was going to adversely
affect Mondt and Rudy Dusek, the other NWA booking agent in New York City, and both
men protested the controversial ruling to the Alliance. But the NWA had no say in this
matter. It was out of Sam Muchnick’s hands and the NWA Grievance Committee was
powerless. Proving that, the Grievance Committee unanimously determined that
Baltimore was an open city “because [the] Alliance does not supersede functions of
But how could all this happen? How did the company which booked wrestlers to
Madison Square Garden and throughout the New York City area, plus to a number of
other significant towns, go bankrupt? Where did all the money go? No one can say for
sure, but Mondt, being the executive in charge of the agency, was seemingly
responsible. It was well known, even mentioned in Dan Parker’s New York Daily Mirror
column every now and then, that “Toots” fancied horseracing. Had his gambling vices
crossed the line between pleasure and business, interfering with his livelihood to the
point of near destruction? That question will never be answered. It isn’t irresponsible to
contemplate these factors in this discussion because his habits were so well documented.
However, in J. Marshall Boone’s letter to Muchnick on April 31, 1954, he wrote again
about the deterioration of the local franchise. He explained that: “While all this is going
on, ‘Toots,’ according to [Jack] Pfefer is ‘relaxing at the race track.’” Boone also indicated
that he could never get in touch with Mondt and that when he “attempted to take to
Pfefer, he wanders on aimlessly and I can’t get heads or tails out of him. He, apparently,
is still carrying a twenty-five year grudge against the entire world and its inhabitants.”
Interestingly, Boone brought up the fact that Contos had not brought the World
Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz to the territory. He wrote: “Contos tells me he can’t
get Thesz because Manhattan won’t or can’t book him and he is only permitted to get
wrestlers from Manhattan under NWA rules. Frankly, during the past five months, he has
only had three decent shows. The rest were garbage.”
Instigated by the same terrible conditions in Philadelphia and elsewhere in its state,
the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission declared its territory “open” on April 30, 1954.
Less than a week later, Ray Fabiani, the longtime Philly promoter, mailed a note to
Muchnick, explaining that because of Mondt’s neglect in his city, he’d lost a “substantial”
amount of money – upwards of $15,000 that winter. Additionally, he was dropped from
leases of buildings in Allentown and Reading, and was forced to leave the Arena in
Philadelphia for a smaller venue because he couldn’t guarantee the lease payment any
Fabiani, in his May 23, 1954 letter to Muchnick, wrote: “Governor Fine of
Pennsylvania is so incensed in the matter that wrestling is being conducted that he has
threatened to suspend wrestling in the state for 6 months, if something is not done to
correct the situation.” Three days later, he wrote yet another missive to Muchnick, telling
him that “other little clubs in Western Pennsylvania, which are being booked by Jim
Barnett and Rudy Dusek are drawing $4,000 and $5,000 and yet in Philadelphia [we]
have been unable to get a show.”
Next to jump on the bandwagon was the Virginia State Athletic Commission, which
was investigating the same issues Maryland and Pennsylvania had previously during the
latter part of 1954. In terms of individual promoters, besides Contos and Fabiani, C.
“Turc” Duncan was another veteran to complain verbally about the workers being sent
from Mondt. Duncan was the established promoter in Wildwood, Paterson, and North
Bergen, New Jersey, and pleaded with Muchnick to step in and offer him some relief.
Duncan even offered to venture to St. Louis for the 1954 NWA convention to further
express his difficulties with the Manhattan agency.
It’s time for another rhetorical question. How much of this did “Toots” bring on
himself? It seems assured that Mondt was to blame. Reading between the lines of letters
obtained at the National Archive in the Department of Justice case file of the National
Wrestling Alliance, there was other criticism directed at Pfefer, who worked for Mondt
briefly in 1954, and even Bobby Stewart. Stewart, who as the Golden Terror – and in the
civilian world under a slew of pseudonyms – creating plenty of havoc, also worked for
“Toots” during this tumultuous period.
But this was Mondt’s problem and he was to blame for nearly destroying professional
wrestling completely in the northeast. Wrestling fans in that region can thank their lucky
stars that the wisdom of Vincent J. McMahon prevailed and revitalized the entire territory.
Because without him, and with “Toots” at the helm, who knows where things would’ve
|The Dark Years of “Toots” Mondt