Vince McMahon Sr. and the Dawn of Television
Vince McMahon Sr. followed in his father’s footsteps to propel professional wrestling beyond the local arena and into the house of every American in the 1950s.
This article was originally published on FIGHTLAND
Professional wrestling, as opposed to sport, is the fulfillment of bourgeois ideology. As Roland Barthes explained in Mythologies, "a boxing match always implies a science of the future...the wrestler's function is not to win but to perform exactly the gestures expected of him." The sport viewer may anticipate a certain outcome, but cannot guarantee that his expectation will be satisfied, whereas the professional wrestling fan knows the overall arc of the story. And like the pleasure experienced when the detective reveals the killer at the end of a whodunit, the outcome of professional wrestling is cathartic. It is wish fulfillment. It is a morality play.
It may be argued that professional wrestling, in its current iterations, does not always follow the format of good triumphing over evil. In the mid-1950s, when it barged into American households at the insistence of Vincent McMahon, Sr., professional wrestling performed a symbolic function in Middle America's cultural imagination. In the proliferation of cultural signs and symbolism boiling in the undercurrent of the seemingly placid 1950s, wrestling operated as a tautology of American righteousness. And it did so alongside what would become the greatest (or worst, depending on your prospective) American institution of the 20th century: the family television.
Jess McMahon, scion of the McMahon wrestling dynasty and famed fight promoter, brought the sport of boxing a new level of popularity by creating events with diverse fight cards that fans wanted to see. His son, Vincent McMahon, continued the family legacy of fight promotion, but went his own way, concentrating on wrestling, a sport that was, by its very nature, easier to sell to the wider American public. In the 1950s, boxing remained a sport of scandal in many Americans eyes. It was violent and dangerous, with crooked managers and mismatched fights. While the fights themselves may have been exciting, there was little to hook the American imagination in narrative terms. Boxers talked trash, as they always have done, and generated interest through their personal grudges, but even though the bourgeois love of violence abounded, not everyone could stomach the visceral bloodiness of a legitimate boxing match. Boxing was the realm of gladiators, but what the American public seemed to need was Greek drama where blood and gore coexisted with love, hate, strife, and tragedy. With a family legacy in place and access to venues, promoters, and press around the American Northeast, Vincent McMahon was the perfect man to bring professional wrestling into the limelight.
Vincent James McMahon was Jess and Rose's middle child, born July 6, 1914. Jess kept his children close, taking Vincent and Roderick, Jr., with him to fight venues, where they met professional boxers and wrestlers, including Jess's later business partner, wrestler Toots Mondt. Vincent worked alongside Jess and in 1935, he became his father's business partner. Vince looked every part the wrestling enthusiast at 6'3, 200 pounds. Vincent served in the Coast Guard during World War II and upon his honorable discharge in 1946, he moved into promoting as his full-time occupation. He helped his father with boxing matches and also put on concerts and orchestra events. But wrestling was his calling, his passion, and his legacy. By 1947, he moved to Washington D.C. and took that area, and the sport of wrestling, by storm.
Like his father, Vincent had a gift for fight promotion, and in the burgeoning television phenomenon of the 1950s, he saw a space for his father's events to thrive. In 1952, Vince purchased Turner's Arena, a wrestling venue ran by William "Joe" Turner, for $60,000 from Joe's widow, Florence, and her new husband, matchmaker Gabe Menendez. Vince had Menendez's stable of wrestlers and the fighters of his business partner, Toots Mondt. He eventually lured big-named talent to his venue, including Gorgeous George and Killer Kowalski.
The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) ruled the world of wrestling in the mid-20th century. The NWA functioned as a governing body of professional wrestling, and Vince McMahon, with his partner, operated Capitol Wrestling Corporation, Jess's creation, as part of the Alliance. CWC joined the NWA in 1953, but only a decade later, Vince and Toots left the NWA and formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) after a dispute over booking Buddy Rogers for the NWA World Championships.
The boxing community called on Vince as the owner of Turner's Arena to begin promoting boxing matches, like his father before him. But Vince just was not interested in boxing, at least, he was not interested in matchmaking or promoting the sweet science. He was more than willing to rent the space to other promoters where they could match, promote, and organize their own events. Over the next few years, the number of boxing matches promoted by McMahon would dwindle and eventually disappear entirely as he focused on the launch of his Capitol Wrestling television venture.
In the early 1950s, several other wrestling promoters experimented with televised wrestling matches. Most of these shows were small, locally produced fights, but Vince foresaw the potential explosion of promoting wrestling on the silver screen. In December of 1955, just as his father was building Capitol Wrestling with Toots Mondt, Vince revamped Turner's arena to the Capitol Arena, installing cameras at his own expense and paying DuMont, one of the first television networks, to show his events for the first few weeks. The first televised event took place on January 5, 1956, and two weeks later, DuMont and McMahon signed a contract for show his events regularly. In the early days, Capitol Wrestling was a two-hour live event shown weekly in 11 states.
Not all fight promotion stakeholders felt that television was a good thing for their sports. Vince believed that television increased his audiences at the events by generating interest for events beyond the localized area. "If this is the way television kills promoters," he infamously said in 1956, "I'm going to die a very rich man."
Vince Sr.'s foray into televised wrestling events was a long-shot, one at which many of his contemporaries sneered and even resented. If T.V. did indeed embrace wrestling, then why would anyone pay to attend an event in person. And ticket sales were the bread-and-butter for wrestling promoters across the country. Yet as Vince Sr.'s television shows launched in early 1956, his local events continued to sell out, despite predictions that television would destroy ticket sales. Part of the concern stemmed from boxing, where television had garroted local boxing shows by promising better guarantees to boxers. McMahon, concentrating on wrestling, where he had more of the market share of the talent, had managed to increase wrestling ticket sales because T.V. fans wanted to see their favorite fighters in person. Local promoters were also invested in working with McMahon because he gave them 40% of the take, after taxes, resulting in a nice income for the promoter. Each wrestler negotiated his pay with the promoter, and Vince Sr. walked away with 60% of the overall income. It was a very sweet deal for Vince.
The theater of Capitol Wrestling operated in an excess of violence, where the arc of the story may have been scripted, but the wrestling itself was much more ad lib. McMahon explained,
"They know what to do. We couldn't rehearse things and have them come out this good. The pro wrestler needs first to be a good tumbler, a gymnast. Then he must know the basics of wrestling. After that, he's on his own."
And the wrestlers knew exactly what they needed to do to put on a good show and earn their living. Fighters in the preliminary bouts averaged $15,000 per year and headliners made over $100,000 per year, with top billing Antonio Rocca earning over $150,000 in 1957. At a time when major league baseball players started at $7,000 a year, a professional wrestling was a good living. While Vince, his promoters, and his wrestlers raked in the money, critics lined up to take shots at his television program and its impact on American culture.
Public outcry against McMahon's shows reached a critical mass in 1956 when one of his wrestlers, Karl Von Hess, was accused of being a "killer" and a Nazi. Von Hess took on the role of the villain, the 'heel' in wrestling vernacular, and portrayed his character of a psychotic Nazi. His defeat delighted audiences, and functioned as a metaphorical destruction of evil at every match.
A 1956 letter from Mrs. M.E. Broadus in The Washington Post and Times Herald called for "the most disgraceful performances ever witnessed in any arena," promoted by Vince McMahon, to be "taken from TV." Mrs. Broadus was horrified that the referees did nothing to stop Karl Von Hess from nearly killing his opponents. Vince responded with a simple, "Gee wiz," as if baffled by Mrs. Broadus's understanding of how professional wrestling actually worked. Mrs. Broadus was not alone in her complaints against McMahon, Von Hess, or professional wrestling. That same year, the District of Columbia Boxing Commission received numerous letters from horrified television viewers, who saw Von Hess smashing an opponent with a chair and cried for the Boxing Commission to take control of wrestling. For many viewers, seeing was believing, and they did not recognize theater in the violence that pervaded their homes.
Vince McMahon responded to these complaints in what might be described as McMahon family fashion:
"There is a simple solution for this. There is a knob on each TV set for changing the channels. If the show doesn't appear to you, all you have to do is flip knob and watch something else."
But many viewers did not want to change the channel. In fact, wrestling had become so popular that the live shows saw new audiences who traveled far and wide to see their favorite wrestlers perform in person. The Washington Post and Times Herald published a charming interview, of sorts, with Vince McMahon in 1959 in which the promoter introduced various wrestling fans to the reader and explained why that particular person enjoyed wrestling. According to Vince, all of the fans, from an overweight government worker active in his church, to a slim blonde real estate specular who finished third in the Miss America contest and smoked cigars, fans of wrestling came to the events to let off steam and live vicariously through the success of the 'good guys' over 'evil.' Miss America (third runner up) and her girlfriends drove to Washington D.C. from Baltimore every Thursday for the taping of Capitol Wrestling. Another group from Connecticut chartered a plane for one of the shows. Senators and businessmen and women populated the stands alongside regular Joes looking for the cathartic outpouring of violence and justice. It was Greek tragedy for television, an anecdote to the watered-down, easily-consumed, happy-go-lucky mass culture that pervaded American culture.
Television did not kill wrestling—it heightened it, made it more accessible, more theatrical, and more appealing to individuals of all ages, all across America, who wanted nothing more than to see evil vanquished and good triumph. Vincent McMahon, Sr. was playwright and producer, providing Americans with the gratification that comes from the narrative denouement. His own ending occurred quietly in 1984, at the age of sixty-nine, when he passed in Miami, Florida, after a lengthy illness. His legacy, by that point, was well established as the smooth businessman who created one of the most successful television institutions in history. As his son, Vince McMahon, Jr., took the reins from his father (a somewhat sordid tale in itself, saved for the next installment), the WWF entered one of its most difficult phases as corruption and charges of steroid use pervaded the already colored world of professional wrestling. The McMahon family, always stomping into the next phrase of the business of pugilism, was not yet at apex of their might. To do that, the family would need not just a promoter or businessman, they would need megalomaniac bent on world domination. Luckily, Vince Senior had off-spring ready for his chance at ascendancy.