July 15, 2004
A Penny for Banner's thoughts
By GREG OLIVER -- SLAM! Wrestling
You'd think that a book about a poor girl from St. Louis who stumbles onto a career in pro wrestling, dates Elvis Presley, survives an abusive marriage and eventually becomes a Senior Olympian would be a cinch to capture a publisher's attention. Or a movie producer's. But no.
After two years of writing her autobiography with Charlotte Observer writer Gerry Hostetler, Penny Banner worked fruitlessly to find a publisher, and eventually they decided to self-publish the book, Banner Days.
It was an eye-opening experience for Banner in many ways, a self-exploration and self-evaluation.
"When I got into this thing, I realized the dangers I had gone through and how lucky I was," Banner told SLAM! Wrestling. "Then the hardest part was when I went through my husband, the years of marriage. That was really, really hard. I think that took me six months to get through those 35 years. Believe me, those 35 years are kind of skipped as they were. But I didn't want to say it in a mean way or a bad way. I just wanted to look at it as an onlooker. But yet, it really led me down a lot of paths that made my life interesting and happy. It kind of tells a story that, no matter what happens to you, you can always find something good."
Banner had heard again and again from people that she should write her life story. According to Banner, Kaye Flair (Ric Flair's mother) was interested in helping her out, but the timing wasn't right. It was Charleston Post & Courier wrestling writer Mike Mooneyham that finally convinced Banner that it should be done.
But it was a chance re-connection with Hosteler that brought it all together.
Banner and her husband, wrestler Johnny Weaver, moved to Charlotte in 1962, and went out for dinner with Billy Two Rivers and met Gerry there too. They went out nighclubbing afterwards.
A couple of years ago, they reconnected again after an obituary that Hostetler was working on at the Charlotte newspaper.
Banner recalled the conversation. "'Do we know each other?' Then she recalled the incident when we went out to the lounge. Then we met. Her life's changed ... Of course, I'm divorced now."
"At lunch one day, I said, 'You ought to write a book,'" said Hostetler. "She said she didn't know anyone who could help her. I just looked at her and raised my hand."
It was a different relationship than many writers and subjects, said Hostetler. "After a bump at the start, when I thought I would do the interviewing and writing, I was extremely surprised that Penny was so well organized. She did the actual writing; my part was suggesting form and rewriting and recasting a great many sentences. And there was a lot of explaining about why my sentences were better and why certain techniques were needed. I told her, 'You're the 'rassler, I'm the editor. I won't rassle if you won't edit.'"
Hostetler was amazed at the stories Banner told and could not imagine anyone doing those things for a living -- especially a woman.
"I wanted to write a book about girl wrestling, and how it was for girl wrestling. When I started, there were maybe 49 girls," Banner said. Almost right from the start, she was matched up against June Byers for the women's title. "With me being a fresh 19-year-old, fresh and strong, powerful. Of course, June Byers had 10 years experience on me and I didn't know that. But the promoter, Billy Wolfe, June Byers had already been around the country with these other girls, but when I came along it was different. Then one promoter heard about the matches we had, then the next promoter heard. They all wanted to see the matches that she and I were having. Now, they might have called them matches, but I don't call them matches. I purely got the dookie knocked right out of me in each match. But it made me good."
Banner Days will be an interesting read for non-wrestling fans too. Banner, born Mary Ann Kostecki, came out of St. Louis and stumbled into pro wrestling because she had a bit of training in judo, which she had started to prepare for an overzealous beau. Later, she really did date Elvis Presley, and after her wrestling career, she worked in real estate and kept in shape to compete as a Senior Olympian as a swimmer and tossing the discus.
"It's the time of segregation, and so much where you don't give a woman the same opportunity as you give a man. It tells about those times. Our payoffs weren't the same as men," added Banner. "But the young fan today, they don't care about that. If you're a fan of wrestling today, you probably not going to buy my book. That's as plain as I can think."
Banner doesn't want to rule out today's fan completely, however. "For today's fan, they just might want to know what opened the door for what's going on today. But for me, you can't even compare what's going on today with my day. They might want to know what wrestling is."
Her own eyes were opened over the last number of years, both through the writings of Mooneyham and by reading other books by wrestlers.
"When I read some of the things that [Mooneyham] had put in the paper, I found out the answers to the questions that I asked myself all the years that I travelled from one state to another state in a week. Girl wrestling is not like men wrestling. It's as plain as that, and that's all there is," Banner said. "Today, I don't know what goes on today, but back in 1954 when I began wrestling, there were cities and states that didn't allow women wrestling because they thought we were lewd. Then there were girls wrestling who would break an ankle the first week, and they stopped, went home, got their nose broke, got their jaw broke in the ring, and stopped and they went home. Then there were those that were the athletes that got by and didn't leave. They had other reasons. Some of them had the same reasons as the girls to today, which is money, travel and fame. But none of that appealed to me."
Other mysteries were revealed as well. "I always wondered why I would go to a territory, and then a month later, two months later or three months later, the same guys would be in the territory, still. How come those guys get to stay in the territory so long? And my book says that in my time, there was no time for any programming, planning, doing these things that these books are saying that the men have written."
In the end, Banner Days is more of a story of a life than a story of a wrestler.
"Penny is an amazing, resilient person. She went through experiences that would have crushed a lesser woman and came out all the better for them. You might expect a certain coarseness in a lady wrestler, but there is none in Penny," said Hostetler. "My biggest surprise was her lack of using any foul language either in person or in the book. I would have expected some of that, but she didn't use any curse words. If some are in the book -- I put them there for emphasis. The book is so good that it doesn't need to rely on shock value."
For more on Banner Days, see the book's web site, www.bannerdays.com.
Greg Oliver founded SLAM! Wrestling with John Powell way back in
1996, and has been writing about pro wrestling since 1985. He is the
author of the recently published book The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame:
The Canadians from ECW Press. Order it from the SLAM!
Wrestling Store. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.