When I was 7 years old, I attended my one and only wrestling show at the old Boston Garden. The seats we paid for weren’t near the floor, but the seats we sat in were. The arena was half-full, and ushers didn’t play the Garden Gestapo role they play now. Nor did stadium turnstiles then resemble airport security checkpoints, with X-ray machines, patdowns, and metal detectors. My father politely explained after we got dropped off for the matches that he had to go to a nearby package store to buy some “medicine,” which he managed to smuggle into the Boston Garden without hassle. Judging from the crowd behavior — which included spirited debates on whether wrestling was real and impromptu matches throughout the stands — my father was not alone in bringing his own medicine.
Once in the arena, we followed a crowd up one of the innumerable cave-like ramps in the old Garden. Andre the Giant, scheduled to wrestle, had made a brief appearance, which helped explain why he wouldn’t be making an appearance in the ring. A Killer Khan-inflicted injury had sidelined Andre — at least that’s the story us wrestling fans believed — from the ring, but not from signing a few autographs in the bowels of the ancient venue. While the four-foot me didn’t get to see the seven-foot Andre step over those ring ropes, I watched in awe as Pedro Morales, Stan Hansen, Pat Patterson, Bob Backlund, and, most memorably, Captain Lou Albano plied their trade.
Captain Lou Albano passed away yesterday at the age of 76. Given that he looked like the walking embodiment of heart disease, I am shocked that he lasted so long. Wrestlers, who, like rock stars, are known to go before their time, should perhaps study Albano’s life as a means to greater longevity. They might also brush up on Albano’s role as a transformative figure, along with Vince McMahon Jr. and Hulk Hogan, who took wrestling from the traveling side show that I witnessed in 1981 (with an audience as colorful as its performers) to today’s ratings juggernaut that cable-television subscribers see every Monday night.
Though McMahon and Hogan are most often credited with rescuing wrestling from its pop culture reputation, which was somewhere above pornography but below football betting cards, Captain Lou Albano deserves his place alongside them as a savior of sports entertainment.
After three nondescript decades as a wrestler, announcer, and manager, Albano began a late-career renaissance thanks to a chance meeting on an airplane with an up-and-coming pop star named Cyndi Lauper. The pink-haired Lauper must have recognized in Albano, a sweaty, swarthy, supersized loudmouth with rubber bands dangling from his face, a kindred spirit. She was so unusual — and so was he.
The singing cartoon character asked the wrestling cartoon character to play her father in an upcoming music video. The overwhelming success of the song, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” catapulted Lauper’s face atop Newsweek, People, and Rolling Stone. It also launched the “Rock and Wrestling Connection,” a non sequitur pop-culture cross-pollination that remarkably boosted, rather than killed, the careers of all parties involved.
After Albano appeared in the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video, Lauper began popping up on World Wrestling Federation broadcasts. A memorable Saturday morning installment of Piper’s Pit, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s popular interview show within the larger wrestling show, featured Captain Lou taking credit for Lauper’s career success. “Tell ’em how women, Cyndi, belong in the kitchen and pregnant; Cyndi, that no woman has ever accomplished anything without a man behind her.” “One second in the video!” a bemused Lauper responded. “What are you crazy?” The segment concluded with an indignant Lauper attacking both Piper and Albano with her purse.
With the mid-eighties wrestling demographic as likely to side with the sexist Albano as with star Lauper, the feud blurred the lines between heel and face. Later, when Albano and Lauper had made amends, Roddy Piper smashed an award over Captain Lou’s head, kicked Lauper, and, most gratifyingly to the average wrestling fan, slammed her slight artist boyfriend David Wolff — who later produced a WWF music album — to the canvass. Hulk Hogan came to their rescue. The feud, and the mainstream exposure, set the stage for Wrestlemania. The 1985 closed-circuit television event took the WWF from a regional mom-and-pop outfit to an international megacorporation.
It wouldn’t have happened without Captain Lou Albano. Like professional wrestling, Albano parlayed his late-career stardom into bigger and better things. He appeared on Miami Vice, Wise Guy, and, in the role he was made for, as the Saturday morning voice and live-action version of “Mario” of Super Mario Brothers fame.
In the late 1990s, when a struggling WWF sought to bolster its bottom line, it sought out the lowest common denominator through crude language, barely dressed escorts, and gory “hardcore” matches. Gone was the good guy/bad guy dichotomy that dominated ’80s wrestling. Only bad guys, of varying degrees of fan popularity, were left standing in the WWF “Attitude” era. One might say the business finally caught up to the culture, or that my fellow fans with whom I had watched wrestling as a seven-year-old had finally got the product they had paid to see. That “Attitude” era, like the kid-friendly wrestling of the 1980s, resuscitated the business. But it, too, eventually fizzled. Renamed World Wrestling Entertainment, Vince McMahon’s wrestling outfit is taking the Albano route again. They have stressed cartoon-like characters, such as Ray Mysterio Jr., who appeal to children, and have reached for crossover appeal by featuring Donald Trump, Shaquille O’Neal, and Maria Menounos on its programming.
Captain Lou would have approved. The few thousand wrestling fanatics, who cheered along with me as Tony Garea pounded on Lou Albano’s head at the Boston Garden back in 1981, might not.