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AWA Flashback - The Announcers
by Marty Goldstein on 2001-10-01

In past columns I have described the social setting of the 60's and 70's, that made what now seems like a bland and simple production of pro wrestling, AWA style, a compelling weekly must-watch. The athletes were larger than life (Crusher), recognized amateur champions (Verne Gagne), obviously skilled shooters (Billy Robinson), crossover stars (Angelo Mosca), and legit tough guys you wouldn't dare utter the f-word in front of (Mad Dog Vachon).

Shot in a Minneapolis TV Studio, the production values were minimal. A pair of cameras covered the action, with a small but loud studio audience of maybe 100 fans. That was a common setting in the industry, indeed the first wrestling show I announced did the same thing, cram a ring into a studio, with no music or special lighting. The play was the thing in that simple environment.

To get across the credentials of these men and the nature of the game, it took a special kind of talent. The AWA viewed itself as sport, and wrestlers in the midwest were regarded as athletes, not performers. So the call of the action was like a sports play by play. A simple table and chair was set up by the ringpost along one side of the ring. There were no colour men as sidekicks. Almost every match was a squash. Imagine Michael Cole or Kevin Kelly doing 5 or 6 bouts with no help. In the early days of TV wrestling, many were thrown into the breach of announcing because the station was obligated to provide a body. many show business legends such as Dick Clark, Steve Allen and Dennis James did the 50's wrestling bit. That is why I thought it was a legit pursuit when I branched out from musical theatre. Eventually the offices co-opted the spot in most territories as part of the operation.

The lead announcer for the AWA was diminutive Marty O'Neill. He had been a baseball shortstop in the 30's, a teammate of Casey Stengal, who was a sportcaster in the Twin Cities. He had the look of an announcer in the 50's, and was the Midwest equivalent of BC's Ron Morier or WWWF's Ray Morgan, a respected broadcaster who always wore sportcoats, and dark sunglasses on camera to protect his eyes from the glare of the hot TV lights. His was a serious straight-up view on the issues and events. He was totally believable. He was like your grandfather.

When I was a kid, Marty only rarely called the matches, as he specialized in the localized promo interviews with the stars. About the only times he cracked up was when the Crusher would deliver his annual Christmas greetings dressed as Santa, or when Superstar Billy Graham would frisk him, towering over Marty, looking through his jacket pockets muttering about O'Neill looking like a spy for the CIA and "packin a pistol".

The play by play was almost always handled by the baritone voiced Rodger Kent. He was taller (6'4") than most of the wrestlers, so on rare occassions when he had to do interviews he sat upon a stool. At ringside Kent was full of hyperbole. He was not really very good at play by play a lot of the time, legend has it he enjoyed his cocktails, but he was into his role like a loony uncle, and many of his sayings became common in the language of Winnipeggers who grew up watching him.

For instance, a typical match would start out with the introduction of "the very well known", "the very popular" or "internationally known", opponent. If a name was preceeded by these phrases, he might get one or 2 spots. if a jobber was introduced solely by name, he was going to get eaten alive, and everybody knew it.

A wild match that started with a heel attack, and turned into a donnybrook before the finish would sound something like this- "Hey, he Pearl Harbored him, c'mon ref, break it up...oh that was a haymaker, (jobber) doesn't know if he's foot or horseback, now the arm wrapped arounf the rope, hey c'mon, the bone don't bend that way!...hang out the socks mother we're stretching out the yarn, there goes my table, oh now his dander is up, Katey bar the door it's a pier six brawl! Now the atomic drop, that'll realign yer spine, but oh no, he put his head down for the backdrop and got the big boot, and here it comes, the piledriver, they outta bar it, it IS barred in some states...1,2, 3, and like it or not, there's your winner (headline heel)". It was a dramatic and colorful style.

A number of those terms are familiar to any Winnipegger of my generation, and were used in everyday situations. We were frequently Pearl Harbored by surprise Hebrew tests, and at least one of my friends when entangled in a 1977 romantic clinch uttered the line about the bone not bending THAT way, which sent the girl in question straight to me the following Monday morning wondering what he meant.

Another Kentism was "I got my tongue in front of my eyeteeth and couldn't see what I was saying." I swear I am not making it up.
Kent was over the top but always put over the credentials of the boys, like Lars Anderson, Larry Hennig, Buddy Wolfe, and this added to the call and made up for his getting lost from time to time.

(Rodger briefly appeared on WWF shows in 1984 but was soon gone and died of a liver condition I believe.)

Then came Gene Okerlund, who walked on during a strike at the studio in 1975 out of the ad department and found a brilliant career with the microphone. Part shill, part huckster,undeniably knowledgable, witty and humerous, Gene got great interviews out of everybody, and redefined the role. His play by play on Bockwinkel title bouts was like an old-style boxing or world series call, he let the crowd tell the story and added great insight, like a Cosell. The role of the announcer WAS 75% of the importance in getting a product over on TV, (the credibility of the face on TV was paramount), but the announcer was not to upstage the boys or become a star.

Gene changed that. When Jesse Ventura began calling him "Mean Gene", it elevated him to a cool character. There is no doubt he helped make Hulk Hogan a huge babyface star. The addition of modern pop entrance music and fancier production values in the early 80's, following the lead of the Von erichs and Watts territories, added to the AWA appeal in it's greatest heyday of drawing huge houses and big ratings.

When Okerlund would no-show AWA Winnipeg cards and Ken Resnick appeared at ringside, the fans BOO-ed long and loud. The reaction to him in public was bigger than to most of the boys. Gene was a star. His jumping to the WWF was a major nail in the AWA coffin with the fans. The AWA couldn't replace his cred with the marks.


Other announcers included Al Durusha, a part-time ref and producer who was just not very good or comfortable in front of the crowd; Rod Trongaard came on board around 1983 and had a run on the syndicated shows as well as the ESPN telecasts "with Lord James Blears" thru 87, great pipes and an authoritative voice, but fans didn't respond to him too well. He worked in the WWF briefly but was out of his element, a sportcaster calling bouts in a circus environment. Ken Resnick was over-earnest and didn't click at all on camera. His WWF Superstars interviews are classics for his overplayed breathy end of the world tones. He was funny, in a laugh-at-him not with-him kind of way.

Doug Mcleod was the voice of the NorthStars and did the matches around the same time Larry Nelson started in 1984. McLeod was OK but was too much sportscaster and not enough into wrestling, Nelson has written a book about his days in the business which I will review. It was obvious that Nelson was frequently bombed on the AWA TV in that era, he had a professional broadcaster sound but was prone to overacting. He was joined around 1987 by Lee Marshall, another big radio voice who I thought was good on colour but as play by play couldn't follow the match or actually describe the action well.

Towards the end came Eric Bischoff, who will never be mistaken for a top-notch play by play guy, and NorthStar colour man Ralph Strangis who was stuck in a bad spot, describing the great potential of Tommy Jammer or explaining the Team Challenge Series. Kent and O'Neill were turning in their graves by this point.

There is a fine line in the minds of wrestling fans between being pulled into the wilfull suspension of disbelief and being shilled by someone overselling the product. All of us who have done play by play strive to find a balance and keep promoter and fans and wrestlers happy.
Credibility comes with believability. The true original legends of the AWA broadcasts, Marty O'Neill and Rodger Kent, were in their time totally believable, and the AWA rode that credibility well into the early 80's when Gene Okerlund became grandfather/uncle to a whole new generation of fans.

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Quotes from the boys: Ed Moretti says "Hey kid, its already ten minutes in, people are going crazy, and we ain't even tied up yet".
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