March 16, 2004
Fan Slam honors first 'ManiaFifteen stars recall being present at the creation
By STEVEN JOHNSON -- SLAM! Wrestling
TOTOWA, NJ -- After toiling for years in the raucous, but notoriously low-paying Memphis market, legendary wrestling manager Jimmy Hart had just one admonition to himself when he learned he would be part of WrestleMania I.
"Feet, don't fail me now!" cracked the one-time musician known as "The Mouth of the South."
Twenty years after the maiden WrestleMania, Hart and an array of performers from that groundbreaking extravaganza reunited at a fan festival in suburban New Jersey to joke about the good old days and reflect on the milestone that redefined wrestling as "sports entertainment."
"I had just come from Memphis, where our office was in Jerry Lawler's bedroom or bathroom or kitchen," said Hart, who managed Greg Valentine and King Kong Bundy at WrestleMania I. "It was like going from the outhouse to the penthouse."
Hart was one of the featured attractions at the WrestleMania I tribute, organized by New Jersey promoter Tommy Fierro. Fierro pronounced himself delighted by the reception and said it represented "my highlight in the business."
He is planning another convention in New Jersey in July, then anticipates taking his FAN SLAM! shows on the road to Boston, Philadelphia, and other East Coast cities.
Last weekend's official roster included Bobby Heenan, Ricky Steamboat, S.D. Jones, The Fabulous Moolah, Leilani Kai, Cowboy Bob Orton, David Sammartino, "Playboy" Buddy Rose, Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff, Iron Sheik, Brutus Beefcake, Captain Lou Albano, Valentine, Bundy, and Hart.
But most of the focus was on WrestleMania I, the first big closed closed-circuit television venture of WWE owner Vince McMahon. That topic dominated a pair of question-and-answer sessions that have become the most-anticipated segments of Fierro's semi-monthly conventions.
Heenan said he first scoffed at WrestleMania as "vaudeville," reasoning that there was no room in a pro wrestling event for the dancing Rockettes, plumed pianist Liberace as timekeeper, and New York Yankee bad boy Billy Martin as ring announcer.
But when Heenan stepped from behind the curtains of Madison Square Garden in New York that March 1985 night, he found a sellout crowd and an electric atmosphere. "I became a believer real fast," said Heenan, who, with Valentine, was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame Saturday.
"You were no longer a half-step behind roller derby. Now, you were a major clown. Your nose really lit up now," Heenan joked.
Even participants who suffered at the time looked back fondly on WrestleMania I.
"It was a gamble for [McMahon]," said Rose, who lost the first Wrestlemania match as the masked Executioner to Tito Santana. "I was just happy to be a part of it. I have nothing but positive things to say about it."
S.D. Jones, whom Bundy squashed in just nine seconds, was concerned that such a beating in front of a national audience would damage his career.
"I didn't want to do it," Jones said. But McMahon persuaded him that a humiliating loss to Bundy would achieve the company's goal of developing a monstrous rival to the likes of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant.
After some contemplation, Jones took his medicine -- "Bundy was the man then," he said. On the plus side, Jones was not in the ring long enough to risk injury and, for good measure, "made a big, big, big, big payday."
Heenan and Valentine said they were delighted to be joining illustrious company in the WWE Hall of Fame. The normally witty Heenan choked up when he said he wished that the late Gorilla Monsoon, his close friend and broadcasting partner, could be at the ceremony.
"You know the guys in the NFL don't give a damn about the guys in Cooperstown. The guys in Cooperstown don't care about the guys in Canton [site of the NFL Hall of Fame]. But the wrestling fans and the wrestlers care about this," Heenan said.
And he didn't mind that the class of 2004 included notorious baseball player Pete Rose, a bit player in some WrestleManias.
"This is an honor," Heenan said. "To be honored and recognized for something like that by your peers is something. And I appreciate it."
Added Valentine: "I've been in the business 34 long years, and it went by just like that. It's my whole life."
In fact, it might have gone by too fast for Hart, who regaled the audience with the tale of how he shepherded Valentine against Santana at WrestleMania I.
Valentine quickly corrected his manager, reminding him that he lost by disqualification to Junkyard Dog after Santana's intervention.
Without skipping a beat, Hart was ready with a retort. "I stand corrected -- after 20 years, I'm glad to remember anything."
Also attracting were questions by Sammartino, son of legendary WWE champion Bruno Sammartino. The younger Sammartino went to a double disqualification brawl with Beefcake at WrestleMania I.
Sammartino has not wrestled in about four years, though he is scheduled to square off with Zbyszko at an independent show in New Jersey in April. Though he did not go into detail, he acknowledged he remains estranged from his father and has not spoken to him since 1990.
"My dad was my hero. I didn't want to become a wrestler if it wasn't for my dad," he said. "I haven't seen or spoken to my dad in 14 years. But that's okay because life is full of hurt and you have to move on."
Albano, some 120 pounds trimmer after open heart surgery, was as verbally domineering as ever, with a non-stop barrage of one-liners and rejoinders -- and pointed out that his show biz-wrestling connection predated WrestleMania.
"Years ago, a little guy would show up at the Newark Armory. He'd say, 'Captain Lou, get me in, I've got no money.'" After the card, they had drinks together. The man confided he was an aspiring actor, but was stuck in a rut as a hairdresser.
Quipped Albano: "Hey, how do you cut hair [when you're] that short?"
As it turned out, Albano had been sitting with Danny Devito. Years later, Devito phoned Albano, addressing him as "moron." The slur long forgotten, he helped Albano break into movies in Wise Guys.
"You never know who you're going to meet in wrestling," Albano concluded.
Steven Johnson is a writer in Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.