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DON GONYEA, HOST:
How do you react when you hear the words professional wrestling? Do you cringe and dismiss it all as fake? Maybe you smile at the notion of these cartoon gladiators. Maybe you're a fan. Maybe you pay no attention at all. In his new book, "The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling," author David Shoemaker takes us deep inside the world of pro wrestling. He examines the business, as well as the theater, the choreography, the often very real athleticism and the very real pain the wrestlers' experience. He portrays it all as sort of a crash course in American mythology with more than its share of tragedy. David Shoemaker joins us now from our New York studio. Greetings, David.
DAVID SHOEMAKER: Greetings. Thanks for having me on.
GONYEA: I think we need to address the authenticity of this right off the bat. It's all fake. The wrestlers follow a script, but you make it clear that the fans are in on the joke and that they always have been.
SHOEMAKER: Right. I mean, the shows are scripted. The matches are loosely choreographed. The damage they do to each other and to themselves is by and large real. But like you said, the fans have always been in on it. When I first started writing this book, I decided that I should start it not at the beginning of wrestling. You know, wrestlers would tell you that people wrestle in the Bible. You know, there's the ancient Greek wrestling and there's all kind of stuff throughout history. But I wanted to start it where wrestling became fake. And so I traced it back basically to America in the early, early 1900s at carnival sideshows when they would put on wrestling exhibitions. And just like everything else in the sideshow, it was all a put-on.
GONYEA: And in those early days, we didn't have network television, we didn't have cable TV. We certainly didn't have pay per view or live streaming. We had all of these little regional fiefdoms, right, where you had regional stars, regional players and they were a big deal.
SHOEMAKER: Like you said, before the expansion of national television, every local big city had their own wrestling show, and they had their own promoters and they were all sort of united under this aegis of the NWA. And for all those local fans, as far as they could tell, that was the most important wrestling, you know, city in the world. They were the center of the wrestling universe.
GONYEA: I grew up in Detroit. I thought of these guys as big national stars. Maybe they weren't. We had Dick the Bruiser, we had Bobo Brazil, we had the Sheikh. Those were the guys on my grainy black and white TV set.
SHOEMAKER: Yeah. I mean, for you, that was the entire wrestling world. For me, I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky watching Memphis wrestling and, you know, Jerry the King Lawler was, as far as I was concerned, the biggest wrestler in the United States.
GONYEA: I want you to talk about one of wrestling's biggest stars from the 1950s - perhaps the sport's first superstars - a guy named Gorgeous George.
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SHOEMAKER: He was one of professional wrestling's first superstars - probably the biggest ever up to that point. He was also one of the world's biggest sport stars at the time. He was certainly paid as one of the biggest sports stars of the time. When the Dumont network started airing Chicago-area wrestling, he was its first face, and he was an incredible villain that changed the entire complexion of the sport, not just by being loathed but by being effete, sort of. He was despicable because he was scared to wrestle. He had permed blond hair and an attendant brought him to the ring spraying perfume ahead of him. He was everything that the brawny, brawling good guys were not. And he was one of the best marketing machines of the era and for years past. And he influenced such guys as, you know, Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan.
GONYEA: How so?
SHOEMAKER: Well, I mean, showmanship. He was a self-promoter and a showman in a way that no one had been before. And Muhammad Ali famously realized that, you know, to be antagonistic was in some way to be loved, to set yourself off from everyone else that's in the world around you. And no one exemplified that more than Gorgeous George.
GONYEA: Some years after Gorgeous George, we enter what you describe as the WrestleMania era and a promoter named Vince McMahon. Tell us about him.
SHOEMAKER: Vince McMahon as the son of this well-established and wrestling promoter we call Vince, Sr., even though they don't share the same middle name. Vince Sr. ran shows all over the D.C.-Baltimore area and then up to New York finally. That's where, when Vince took it over, he made the stunning move to go from just a territorial regional promotion to a national promotion. Now, partly this was inevitable. Cable television was expanding to the point where, you know, channels like TBS and USA were all over the country. Vince was the first promoter to actually air his shows all over the country and tour all over the country, acting as if, you know, the only wrestling that mattered was the WWF.
GONYEA: He also understood that there was a lot of money to be made and a lot of attention to be gotten if you merged wrestling with broader, popular culture.
SHOEMAKER: Yeah. Promoters before him were almost to a one scared of any overlap with pop culture because they thought that would de-legitimize the sport or give it a sheen of performance that would turn fans off. Vince went in exactly the opposite direction, embraced the sort of, you know, cartoon lunacy inherent in wrestling and teamed with, you know, outlets like MTV, even though people, you know, knew more than ever that, you know, wrestling was fake. He wasn't shy about agreeing with them on that.
GONYEA: Tell us about Owen Hart, who on May 23, 1999 died in the ring.
SHOEMAKER: Well, Owen was one of the most beloved people in the locker room. And for fans, particularly serious fans, he was one of the most respected in-ring performers. He died when he was portraying a kind of comical superhero gimmick called the Blue Blazer. And he was to be lowered to the ring in sort of a mock superhero flight situation but his harness somehow didn't get tethered the right way and he fell in the middle of a pay per view event from the rafters into the ring.
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SHOEMAKER: When they were informed that he had fallen, fans watching assumed that they were viewing the next chapter in the storyline. Part of the hardest thing to wrestle with - no pun intended - in this whole world is the line between reality and unreality. It's sort of the most delicious part of the enterprise. But it's also the most confounding part, not just for outsiders but for fans, because when something real intervenes in this unreal world, you're left to wonder at what point the unreality and the reality converge. But that was one of the rare instances in which, you know, the fourth wall was broken down.
GONYEA: At the end of the book, you say you hope that by telling their stories you've done the wrestlers and the industry a little bit of justice. What do you mean?
SHOEMAKER: Well, I mean, professional wrestling is a deeply American sport and it's a deeply American kind of performance art and it's too easily ignored most of the time because of this sort of misconception that it's secretly fake instead of being deliberately fake. To me, it was really important just to sort of, like, drag it out of the closet, you know, write 400 pages about it and to take it sort of seriously, not as a scholarly enterprise but as a legitimate thing for fans to love and a legitimate source of entertainment for millions and millions of people. And above all else, you know, a legitimate part of American, you know, entertainment and sports history.
GONYEA: David Shoemaker is the author of "The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling." Thanks for joining us.
SHOEMAKER: Thanks for having me on.
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GONYEA: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.