An early issue over "wrestling films" occurred in 1942 when two wrestlers and a referee
sued the Columbia Pictures Corporation over footage that had been taped a few years
earlier and misrepresented to them. Wrestlers Ali Baba and Hard Boiled Haggerty, plus
referee Pat McKee, filed a $100,000 suit against Columbia Pictures in Superior Court on
Wednesday, October 14, 1942. They were told when they filed the short on October 27,
1939 in San Bernardino that the film would only be shown locally in an advertising
campaign. But they now claimed that it had been shown nationally and in an "untruthful
and comical" fashion. They claimed that the film damaged their reputations and hurt their
moneymaking abilities at the box office. The title of the film was "Ali, the Giant Killer."
The television boom created a monster for promoters throughout the country when it came
to the distribution and airing of wrestling films and kinescopes. Although the
promoter/booker selling the footage was making out and often paying the wrestlers very
little, the cities in which they were broadcast were being steadily burned out. That
launched heated feuds within the National Wrestling Alliance.
Fred Kohler of Chicago and Ed McLemore of Dallas were the leading provider of wrestling
films to stations across the nation.
On May 20, 1952, Leonard Schwartz, NWA member from Chicago, wrote a letter to Sam
Muchnick notifying him that the ABC-TV Network was "now selling kinescope delayed
telecasts for our show at Rainbo Arena to many other cities." The network, he explained,
had to clear each individual deal through him, and it was important that he make sure that
the shows did "not conflict with an Alliance promoter on the night of his [local] show." He
wanted Muchnick to provide "a list of the nights that the Alliance members operate."
Recently, Schwartz wrote, he tried to get into contact with Joe Gunther, the NWA member in
Birmingham "as the American Broadcast Company has sold the show for 10:00 to 10:30 on
Friday nights and are waiting for my okay. If Gunther does not run on Friday nights, I will
okay the night for them."
McLemore, in 1953, claimed to have made around $65,000 from his wrestling films and
television deals. His films were made by Texas Wrestling, Inc., and he was the president.
He owned 50% of the company, while Morris Sigel and Frank Burke owned the other half.
McLemore later told Stanley Disney of the Department of Justice (in July 1955) that he kept
his wrestling films in a special fireproof vault "as required by law," and none were damaged
when the Sportatorium was destroyed in 1953.
Another perilous aspect to the television films being circulated across the country was that
old tapes could be shown of a wrestler losing a match when, in fact, at the same time he
was being used as a headliner. This was described by Wally Karbo in Minneapolis as they
were building Bob McCune up, claiming he'd only lost one bout in the year prior and that
was NWA champion Lou Thesz. However, McCune was featured on an old TV show, losing
a bout "in ten minutes" around September 1953. Karbo noted that "people are asking us
about this. Film was from California about 3 years old."
In September-October 1953, The broadcasting of kinescopes from Chicago on the DuMont
Network at the same time wrestling shows in Fresno, California were being held, were doing
serious damage to the local promotion. Booker Joe Malcewicz complained to Fred Kohler,
promoter of the shows, and Kohler explained that he had it in his contract that his
"Saturday night wrestling matches be not shown during the same hours that a local
promoter was producing a professional show." Kohler mentioned the problem to his local
station manager, and the issue was sent up the corporate ladder to DuMont in New York
City. Kohler was fairly confident at the time that the situation would be resolved in a way
that would be satisfactory to Malcewicz.
Kohler also wrote that he only produces 10 Wrestling Films a year under the guise of
"International Wrestling Films," made in Chicago by Russ Davis. This number was much
less than the number of films being created in New York and Hollywood, "where they film
the show every week."
Ironically, Kohler was also being affected by a terrible scheduling of wrestling films in
Chicago, that was in opposition to his "regular Saturday night wrestling show from Marigold
Arena." On October 13, 1953, he wrote a letter to Hugh Nichols in Hollywood, telling him
that a Tafon wrestling film was being presented against him, and if Nichols could get it
switched to another day, he'd be appreciative.
Just before Johnny Doyle broke free from the Los Angeles combine in early 1954, he
planned to invest some time in the wrestling film business. On January 19, NWA President
Sam Muchnick wrote Doyle in regards to the film idea. He expressed his concerns, as
members had previously considered abolishing films entirely, and wanted to "know what
this film deal is all about" so he could pass the information along to the rest of the NWA. "I
feel obligated to protect the rights of the 37 Alliance members," Muchnick wrote, and
refused to give his sanctioning to the idea. He also said that he didn't believe Ed
"Strangler" Lewis should participate as a referee in a wrestling film since Lewis was
currently acting as the manager of Lou Thesz.
Doyle responding by saying that he was going to "film thirteen half hour wrestling matches,"
that were to be shown on TV," in his January 26, 1954 letter to Muchnick. "These films are
of actual matches and will include interviews with the wrestlers," he continued. "They will in
no way make fun of wrestling or otherwise impair the public's acceptance of same." Doyle
said that the films would not be in competition with any live matches, and that he wanted to
only use "top men in the country so that the public will have the opportunity of seeing
wrestling at its best."
Doyle said that he wasn't going to hurt wrestling, but that if the National Wrestling Alliance
withheld wrestlers from him, it would be in violation of Federal antitrust laws, and that he'd
already discussed the matter with his attorneys.
NWA booking agent Dave Reynolds of Utah, who usually remained out of the large scale
quarrels that plagued the organization, complained in a February 20, 1954 letter to
Muchnick about wrestling film being shown in his territory. He described a situation recently
in which Lou Thesz came into Salt Lake City against a well built up opponent, only to have
an old film shown prior to his live arena program showing Thesz's opponent getting beat.
This killed the attendance for his live show completely. He added that film from Chicago
was also running in Pocatello, Idaho the same night as his arena show in Idaho Falls. "I
have written Russ Davis twice and asked him to kindly get the night changed up there but
as yet he has done nothing about it." He was going to issue a formal complaint to the TV
Committee "in the next day or so."
During Sam Muchnick's interview with Stanley Disney in June 1955, the topics of wrestling
on TV and wrestling films were not discussed, according to Disney's memo to James M.
McGrath dated June 29, 1955. Disney wrote: "It will be noted that the problems of
television and films were not discussed with Mr. Muchnick. The NWA appears to have
attempted to agree on several occasions with reference to TV controls. However, it does
not appear that any agreement was ever actually made.
"The NWA has also attempted to discourage its members from making films of matches.
There are, however, three groups to my knowledege filming matches and there may be
more. The NWA has definitely agreed that its members will attempt to prevent the showing
of a film on TV on the same night that a local promoter has a live show. While I belive that
such an agreement is technically illegal, I have obtained no evidence that it has injured
anyone. Further, there is no doubt but that the showing of a wrestling film over TV the
same night that a promoter has a live show will seriously injure the promoter's show.
Whether this fact would make the agreement sufficiently reasonable to justify it, I am not
prepared to say at this time."
When Joe Malcewicz spoke to the Department of Justice in 1955, he explained that "they
should have the date of the match on them when they were run on TV," according to the
interview summary. The reasoning behind this was that the films were often recorded from
a year to several years before, and feature wrestlers who were currently getting pushes,
getting squashed in their matches. For example, there were guys who were being groomed
for a title match against NWA heavyweight champion Lou Thesz. In that same territory, an
old film was broadcast shortly before the big title match, and showed the challenger beaten
in a few minutes. It totally discredited that particular wrestler as a potential champion, and
damaged the arena gate.
This happened many times with varying circumstances. The people watching at home had
no idea the match they were watching was from years before, and basically thought that it
was a recent happening.
Research by Tim Hornbaker
|Wrestling Films & Kinescopes