It's a terrible day for fans of Memphis wrestling. Lance Russell, a longtime program manager for WHBQ and one of the most beloved wrestling commentators in the history of sports entertainment has died. In 2014 the man known to heels coast-to-coast as ol' Banana Nose, talked to The Memphis Flyer about King Lawler, Memphis wrestling, and playing himself in the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. This is a reprint of that interview with lots of links.
Lance Russell: Well, it's easier down here [in Florida] than it was when I lived in Memphis. When I wasn't talking in person to some fan about wrestling, I was talking on the telephone. Somebody was always calling. You know, people say, "Boy, whatever happened to the good old days of Memphis wrestling?" Well, I can tell you Memphis wrestling is just as alive as it ever has been.
You'd be the one to know.
My son was looking at his computer a couple of nights ago and found where somebody had made a list of people who were involved in wrestling as promoters or wrestlers or managers or referees and even announcers. And they have them ranked by age. My son said, "Did you realize that in the United States you are the fifth oldest person involved in wrestling that is still alive?" When I got up the next day I said to my son, outside of wanting to kill you, I was amused all night long. I didn't sleep, but I was amused.
I suspect that makes you a go-to resource, having seen wrestlers from so many territories and having also worked for Turner Broadcasting.
I can tell you as a director of programming for WHBQ in Memphis for all of those years, I'm not proud of the fact that I didn't put an edict out that there will be no erasing of tapes fromTalent Party or wrestling or any of those kinds of things. We erased everything. And sometimes we would record on the same tape two weeks in a row. We kept telling ourselves we were saving money.
You know Vince McMahon is getting ready to program Memphis wrestling on the network he started so he's trying to pin down all the programs. And, in Memphis, everything we ever had in terms of tapes is all just blasted asunder. Jerry Lawler ended up with the biggest quantity of tapes. Jimmy Hart, a wrestler and wrestling manager who worked with Vince McMahon in New York after he left Memphis, ended up with a lot of tapes. People pay good money for them too, and now Vince McMahon wants to broadcast Memphis wrestling every day.
Why are people still fascinated with Memphis wrestling?
I'm gonna tell you, Memphis was absolutely totally different than any territory in the country. I eventually went with Turner Broadcasting, and when I went there and I ran into guys from the East Coast and West Coast they'd say, "All you clowns in Memphis spend more time making jokes than anything else." And we did, because it made people happy. They were tickled to death to look forward to some of the foolishness that went on. And we were proud of it. It was good entertainment.
What made Dave and I different was the programming. The different matches that we booked. The different characters that were made up. Like Kamala the Giant, who is from right down in Mississippi and was very popular all over the country. I hired Dave to work in television. Dave was an all-night radio jock for WHBQ, and I knew him as a person and liked him very much. Anyhow, he questioned wrestling. I said, "Man, if you want to work in television, you will learn more in two months of wrestling than two years of anything else." So he took a chance, and he was great. Dave and I also agreed on one thing you never talk about in wrestling. See, I was a wrestling fan, and I had been ever since the days when I grew up in Dayton, Ohio and worked in the auditorium as an usher. I never wanted anybody to say to me, "Hey, I'm going to win in the third fall on this match." I don't want to be a stiff actor saying some lines, I wanted to call things as I saw them in my face for the first time.
My lifetime friend, Lance Russell died early this morning. I cannot express how sad I am. He was responsible for my tv career success. pic.twitter.com/6jXV8OtEex
No matter how over the top it was, it was completely alive. Anything could happen.
We had great matches too. But in the meantime, we didn't mind tickling your funny bone. We'd have a guy or a gal shaved bald right there in the middle of the ring.
I thought I was going to get killed one night in the Memphis Coliseum, when Jerry Lawler put up his hair and Bill Dundee put up his wife's hair and Dundee lost. We had our own barber who was there to cut hair when necessary. He thought he was going to be killed. The crowd was incensed that Lawler had cheated to win and this vivacious young redhead was losing her hair. It's hilarious when you stop and think about a situation getting that serious over what was actually a very funny incident.
But that's the Memphis audience, right? It's why the famous Lawler/Kaufman feud couldn't have happened anywhere else.
You're right about that. There was a kind of audience reaction that we had cultivated either on purpose or unknowingly. And this is the thing that attracted Andy Kaufman. As a kid, Andy would watch wrestling and he would see the bad guy: Just by raising his hand he could get this big reaction from the crowd. That power that wrestlers held captivated him, and he initially tried to get the attention of Vince McMahon's father and his grandfather who, in addition to promoting boxing, also promoted wrestling. They said "What are you trying to do, make a joke out of wrestling?" Well, Andy ran across a guy who worked for the wrestling magazines and he said to check out the guys in Memphis, who will do anything. And they're great show people.
Even if the outcomes are known, this is unscripted stuff.
I got a big guy from Canada supposedly. He comes out there [to interview] and he says, "Jerry Lawler! I'm going to get him! I'm taking a blood oath!" And I'm the program director at WHBQ, so I say, "No, I don't want any blood. Don't be busting his eye open on television. We don't want our audience to have to put up with that." And this idiot has got one of these big double-headed axes, and he runs the blade down his massive arm and I'm sitting here looking at it, and I know that the camera is right on this thing, and all of a sudden here comes the stream of red right into the camera. I thought, "Oh my God, he's cutting his arm open on television for crying out loud." I almost had a heart attack.
[Let's talk about] Jerry Lawler, the King of Memphis wrestling.
The superlatives for Lawler? I don't have enough of them. But I can tell you I've seen a lot of wrestlers, and Jerry Lawler is a guy who is gifted in so many directions. I promise, I don't owe him money or anything. I'm just telling the truth. He is the most talented guy in the business and people hated him in the East because of what he's done in Memphis. I mean, he became a television host on Channel 5, and he was very good at what he did.
When he was 15, his dad took him down to the auditorium every Monday for wrestling. We had no way to record the matches; it was too expensive at that time. So when Dave and I did the show, we'd have to just talk about what happened. Well, Jerry was a natural artist. He draws these 11" x 14" pictures on pieces of cardboard. He drew maybe the finishing move from a match or something. Then Dave and I could talk about the picture.
I found those pictures in my attic about five years ago. I've had them for 35 years.
You got to play yourself in Man on the Moon. That had to be affirming to have that Kaufman/Lawler feud become widely recognized as a big moment in pop culture.
Yeah, yeah. I've got several copies of it. Unfortunately they cut out some of my best scenes. That was fun though.
And what about the actual feud. Did you guys know you were making history?
We were all working. That's what we did for a living.