For the edification of the younger fans who never lived during the territorial days when kayfabe ruled I am posting my article that was published in the program/magazine of the 2016 PWHF Induction Ceremonies.
SAY GOOD BYE TO KAYFABE
By Mike Tereshko
Today’s wrestling fans toss around the word “kayfabe” without really knowing its true meaning and the deep concept that the word encompasses. As we will see, the use of the word “kayfabe” to describe modern wrestling is, in fact, an anachronism. The definition of kayfabe given by the “US English Dictionary” is:
“In professional wrestling the fact or convention of presenting staged performances a genuine or authentic.”
While this definition is basically correct, the concept of kayfabe goes much deeper and, in fact, represented a sociological phenomenon that created a separate world for the wrestling industry and its fans.
The origins of the word can be traced back to the carny circuit and was used to protect the secrets of the trade. If a stranger appeared someone would say, “kayfabe” to warn everyone to stop talking because a “mark” or an outsider was present.
A “mark” or “kayfabian” was a sucker who was set up for a scam. The one assigned to look out for an easy victim was called the “agent.” When the agent spotted someone whom he believed to be easy pickings he would strike up a conversation with him and mark his back with chalk to indicate to his carny accomplices that this was a fish to be played. Thus, the origin of the term “mark” for an easy victim.
The Golden Age of Wrestling is loosely construed to be the period from 1950 to 1965. During that time kayfabe was at its height and pro-wrestling was watched by its fans as a competitive sport – no less legitimate than boxing or baseball. Kayfabe not only suspended disbelief in its followers, but actually fostered true belief in a large number of fans that professional wrestling was a competitive sports contest.
I was raised in the 1950s and 1960s in a blue collar immigrant neighborhood in East New York Brooklyn. Everybody – and I mean EVERYBODY – was into professional wrestling.
On Thursday evening from 9 PM to 11 PM the streets were empty and everyone was in their apartments watching Capitol Wrestling from Washington DC. Hosted by the iconic announcer/commentator Ray Morgan, the best wrestlers of the NWA’s Northeast Territory were brought into our living rooms. The next day at school and in the streets there would be serious discussions between the adults as well as the kids regarding the previous evening’s bouts.
Television was in its infancy and having difficulty coming up with shows to fill its empty time slots. Wrestling was used to bolster TV programming and, as a result, was brought into the living rooms of millions of families who, otherwise, would never have watched it.
The sports sections of major newspapers reported on wrestling events the same as they reported on other sports. Without computers and the internet we kept up on the game through the monthly and bi-monthly publications such as “Wrestling Revue” and its sister publication “Boxing Illustrated-Wrestling News.”
The one thing that was inviolate during the Golden Age was the concept of kayfabe. No wrestler would dare break the code and admit that the results of the matches were pre-arranged. On television, in print, and in their real lives kayfabe ruled.
Many of you may be familiar with the story of Wladek “Killer” Kowalski visiting Yukon Eric in the hospital the night that he accidentally chopped off Eric’s ear with a mistimed knee drop in 1952 during a match at the Montreal Forum.
At the request of promoter Eddie Quinn, Kowalski went to the hospital to see him. When Killer saw the large turban appearing head bandages around Eric’s head and the two men’s’ eyes met, Kowalski broke out laughing. To his surprise, a number of reporters were present. The next day in the sports sections of the newspapers headlines read “Kowalski Taunts Injured Yukon Eric in Hospital.”
People who never lived and experienced the Golden Age of Wrestling simply cannot imagine the hold that kayfabe had on the industry and the fans.
I remember personally seeing Count Karl Von Hess and Abe Jacobs, “The Jewish Champion,” create a near riot on the live broadcast of Capitol Wrestling TV one Thursday night back around 1959. Jacobs entered the square circle carrying a flag with the Star of David while Von Hess goose-stepped around the ring giving the Nazi salute to the fans. The bell never rang as Von Hess attacked Jacobs from behind after the referee gave them their instructions. Total chaos ensued with the fans throwing garbage into the ring as Von Hess wrapped the tag rope around Jacobs’ neck and put him in a literal “Hangman’s Noose.”
Von Hess was disqualified and quickly escorted out of the arena before the irate crowd could get their hands on him. What no one knew was that Karl Von Hess, i.e. Frank Faketty, was not only not a Nazi, but a WW II veteran who served as a U.S. Navy “Frogman” fighting against the Nazis. Also, he was not German, but the son of Hungarian immigrants to the United States.
Faketty’s kayfabe persona was creating such volatile reactions among the fans that Vince McMahon, Sr. actually did the unimaginable and broke kayfabe in 1956. In response to the District of Columbia Athletic Commission’s outrage over the violent feud between Von Hess and Jackie Fargo, McMahon, Sr. made a statement that Von Hess was not really a Nazi.
The statement was picked up by the Washington Post and printed in the paper. Apparently, this rare break in the kayfabe code had little to no effect on the fans judging by their reaction to the aforementioned match between Von Hess and Jacobs three years later!
It also didn’t have much influence on Faketty who continued to live his Karl Von Hess persona in and out of the ring. After Faketty was stabbed by an irate fan he was subpoenaed to testify in court. Faketty refused to speak English and break kayfabe when he was called upon to testify!!! The judge met with him and the two agreed to have Von Hess testify but in German using a translator.
The self-proclaimed “sports entertainment” of today is not your father’s or grandfather’s wrestling. In fact, the creation of the concept of wrestling as “sports entertainment” killed kayfabe as surely as the WWE killed off the competing independent territories as it expanded its monopoly in the mid-1980s.
To be fair, kayfabe’s demise was the result of a number of factors not the least of which was the high tech revolution in communication which began in the mid-1990s with the advent of the internet. Perhaps the stake driven through kayfabe’s heart was due to the WWF’s admission that pro-wrestling was, indeed, not a competitive sport. What do you say when the industry itself tells you that everything is a pre-arranged show and that wrestling is not a sport, but “sports entertainment???
Interestingly, the term “sports entertainment” was used as early as the 1930s. The eccentric promoter Jack Pfefer was famous for saying that “wrestling was fake, but it doesn’t matter to fans who will believe it anyway.” It turned out that he was right. Pfefer carried out a number of campaigns to discredit the legitimacy of wrestling – the first being in the mid-1930s when he felt he was disrespected by a group of promoters. Later, after Nature Boy Buddy Rogers fired him as his manager in 1949, Pfefer again “bit the hand that fed him” and went after the legitimacy of pro-wrestling using Rogers as one of his major examples.
Pfefer’s attacks on wrestling had little effect on kayfabe and the fan’s belief in it. However, on December 28, 1984 the popular television news program “20/20” broadcast John Stoessel’s damaging expose on the legitimacy of wrestling that shook the foundations of kayfabe.
With kayfabe already on the ropes Vince McMahon, Jr. went before the New Jersey Senate on February 10, 1989 and testified that wrestling was prearranged and not a real competitive sports contest. McMahon was fed up with paying state Athletic Commission fees and was testifying in support of legislation to remove professional wrestling from the list of legitimately competitive professional sports.
The death of kayfabe erased the passion which moved fans to riot in Madison Square Garden in 1957 during a bloody match between the iconic high flyer Antonino Rocca and his partner Edouard Carpentier against the legendary monster heel Dr. Jerry Graham and Dick (the Bruiser) Afflis. The McMahon admission liquidated the enthusiasm that drove fans in Winnipeg, Canada in 1964 to attack and trap the Fabulous Kangaroos under the ring and try to smoke them out by burning chairs and garbage.
For better or worse, the mentality of today’s wrestling fans has been irreversibly altered. Back in the day we watched a wrestling match the way one would view a competitive sport, and everyone associated with the industry lived kayfabe during and after the event.
Today’s fans watch wrestling the same way they would view any television show. The wrestling is merely a backdrop and vehicle to convey the latest adventures in a never ending soap opera where the participants are acknowledged as actors who are just playing a role.
The double edged sword of technological progress along with the corporate agenda of the WWE monopoly killed kayfabe. Whether this is a good or bad is something that each individual will judge for himself. One thing is for sure – the days of kayfabe have long since come to an end and the NYPD will most likely never again be called out to Madison Square Garden to put down a wrestling riot.
Long lived kayfabe!
FROM MY COLLECTION:
The newspapers back in the day reported on pro-wrestling in their sports sections the same way they reported on baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.
The Chicago Sun Times was only one of myriad newspapers around the country that reported on the June 30, 1961 title switch at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. A record crowd of 38,662 was present to watch that NWA World Championship match The Rogers/O’Connor attendance record held for over 20 years!
3.5 million readers read the photo essay in the June 2, 1957 Sunday Daily News.
Eccentric promoter Jack Pfefer was notorious for biting the hand that fed him. He went on a “wrestling is fake” kick back in the '30s when he felt he was disrespected by other promoters. Again in 1950 Pfefer went berserk when Nature Boy Buddy Rogers fired him as manager. Rogers became the target of his second “expose” of pro-wrestling.