Club Clearpool was the scene for the 1964 Les Debs dance, and the girls had hired my band, Randy and the Radiants, to supply the music. At evening's end, there was an argument between the club owner and the band over what time to stop. He had flipped the lights on 15 minutes early, and we were contracted to play to the hour.
When the partygoers were herded out, a tussle broke out between band members, the owner, and his two greaser bouncers, one of whom followed me outside and punched me while my hands were filled with musical equipment.
I was just 16, and when I entered my parents' home with a bloody shirt and a busted lip, my mother lost her mind and my father called the police. We went to court, where the club owner and his bouncers received stiff fines for assault and battery and malicious mischief, which would have been great were we not scheduled to appear at Club Clearpool again the next weekend. This time, I hired a security guard with a sidearm to join the band, but when we set up on the stage facing the concession stand on the opposite wall, the same three men were glaring at us with blood in their eyes.
Suddenly, the front door crashed open and in walked Sputnik Monroe, followed by our young DJ manager, Johnny Dark. The entire room erupted, and the dance stopped cold. Then, like Babe Ruth at bat, Sputnik pointed directly at the concession stand, saying, "I want to tell everybody" (then he paused for dramatic effect and jerked a thumb back over his shoulder in the band's direction), "these boys are Sputnik's boys, and if you mess with them, you're messing with Sputnik." Thanks to Johnny Dark, Sputnik took a rare Saturday night off to attend a teenage party and put the fear of God into some bullies. The following morning, the club owner called and apologized for the entire mess, telling me that he had fired his two associates and we were always welcome to play at Clearpool. I have been one of "Sputnik's boys" ever since.
Like others of the Mouseketeer generation who grew up in Memphis, I was addicted to Saturday-morning TV wrestling and especially fascinated by the blood feud between good-guy Billy Wicks and the evil Sputnik. After one particularly violent encounter, Sputnik swore revenge at the Monday-night matches at the downtown Ellis Auditorium. I had never been to the live matches before, and I begged my father to take me. He said, "Call your grandfather. He loves wrestling." My eyes widened. I couldn't believe my immigrant grandfather, with his continental manners and ever-present jacket and tie, could be a closet wrestling fan.
We drove downtown in a taxi and got ringside seats to view the mayhem. I watched fascinated as toothless men screamed epithets at Tojo Yamamoto and howled at the shoulder-length hair of Mario Galento, but the main attraction was Wicks and Monroe. When Sputnik entered, the arena burst into open hostility, with boos and calls of "Commie" and "Skunky," referring to the white streak in Sputnik's hair. Wicks arrived like the Golden Boy. It was a two-out-of-three fall marathon match, which Sputnik won by cheating. He hit Wicks with a foreign object and held his trunks while applying the pin, but the referee raised his arm in victory anyway. I was aghast that he could get away with it, and it was left to my grandfather to explain to me that sometimes the good guys have to lose for the sake of the gate.
As a Billy Wicks fan, I could never have imagined myself 15 years later, hanging out at the Phillips Studios on Madison, sharing a joint with the evil Sputnik. It was the early '70s, and Sputnik was frustrated because he couldn't get the fans to hate him like before. I said that in these times, everything was upside down and what the fans truly despised were the hippies preaching peace and love. My friend Skip Ousley, a black man, suggested that Sputnik find a black wrestler to tag-team with.
The next Saturday on studio wrestling, Sputnik appeared with Norvell Austin, the "Black Panther." Their hapless opponents were tangled in the ring ropes when Sputnik retrieved a bucket of black paint from ringside and poured it over their heads. Grabbing the announcer's microphone, Sputnik declared, "Black is beautiful." Norvell shouted, "White is beautiful." And linking arms they said in unison, "Black and white together is beautiful." The next time I saw Sputnik, he was a happy man, and proclaimed, "They hate me again."
Last Thursday was declared Sputnik Monroe Day by the mayors of Shelby County and Memphis, and Representative Steve Cohen read a declaration into the Congressional Record commending the late professional wrestler for his role in desegregating public accommodations. The honor was to coincide with the premiere of the new documentary Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin', and it was such a success, I would like to offer a suggestion. Make Sputnik Monroe Day an annual event, and then the congressman can take it national.
We need this, people. Directly on the heels of Valentine's Day, where you are required to cough it up for cards, candy, and flowers, there needs to be a day when you're allowed to tell somebody to kiss your ass. (Not you, sweetheart.) Every March 24th, in Sputnik's honor, you would be entitled to spill your boss' coffee in his lap and smash him over the head with a folding chair. (What would pro wrestling be without the folding chair?)
But listen good: Anyone who recalls a packed Mid-South Coliseum with Jerry "The King" Lawler, Bill "Superstar" Dundee, "Handsome" Jimmy Valiant, or the antics of Andy Kaufman on the bill and doesn't see this film is just another ignorant, pencil-neck geek.