The WAWLI Papers, page 1


as told by Irving Wadler, retired violinist

The posters were plastered all over town.   "Symphony Concert and Wrestling Match!" The Houston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ernst Hoffman, followed by a wrestling match featuring champions Bashara and Gorgeous George.   Admission: purchase of one War Bond.]

It was 1944 and America was at war.   Sidney Van Ulm, sports editor of a local paper, conceived a brilliant idea.   Van Ulm, who covered the weekly wrestling matches also attended the Monday night Symphony concerts.   Both events were then held in the City Auditorium.   "Why not," he reasoned,"combine the two events into one Gala evening?   The sports enthusiasts would be exposed to good music, while the concert-goers would get a taste of the manly art of wrestling.   The admission purchase of a War Bond would help our country's war effort."   The idea was enthusiastically received by Symphony conductor [Ernst] Hoffman and Morris Sigel, wrestling promoter, and the musicians and wrestlers agreed to donate their services for what promised to be a memorable evening.

The City Auditorium served as a multi-purpose hall.   It had a large stage for the Symphony concerts, but the seats on the floor level were movable, so that a ring could be set up in the center for the Friday night matches.   The day of the big event arrived.   At the rehearsal that morning Van Ulm was introduced to the orchestra.   "I want you to know that this event will go down in the history of our city.   The house is completely sold out; reporters from New York and Washington and newsreel cameras will be present.   I want to thank you all for your cooperation."   His enthusiasm was contagious and we all applauded heartily.   Then Hoffman outlined the program: after some short speeches by local dignitaries, the orchestra would perform about an hour playing works by only American composers.   After intermission, the wrestling match would begin with the symphony accompanying the action.   "We will use four pieces," he said.   "If the action in the ring becomes exciting, I will hold up one finger and we play the storm music from William Tell.   If the men get into a clinch, I'll hold up two fingers and we go to the Blue Danube.   Three fingers is the signal for Delibes' On H earing the First Cuckoo in Spring.   And if one wrestler is finally pinned to the mat, we play the Chopin Funeral March."   It sounded like fun!

That night the hall was packed.   Since there were no reserved seats, we chuckled at the sight of elegantly dressed matrons and bank presidents sitting next to cigar-chomping wrestling fans.   All were out to do their part for culture and country.

Finally, the lights dimmed and Hoffman gave the downbeat for the Star Spangled Banner.   At the conclusion, a voice boomed out, "Play ball!" and everyone laughed.   The concert continued without incident, although we sensed a certain restlessness on the part of the wrestling fans.

After intermission, the wrestlers entered the ring to the roar and shouts from the audience.   In one corner stood the 300 lb.   Bashara waving to the crowd while the equally massive George glowered at him from the other corner.   The bell rang and the two men lunged at each other to the sounds of the storm music.   They soon got into a clinch and as they waltzed around the ring, we switched to the Blue Danube.   Bashara broke loose by landing a smashing blow to George's head.   As the dazed George reeled back, we began the Delibes piece to the amusement of the crowd.   Fuming, George grabbed Bashara from behind, lifted him and with a mighty heave, tossed him out of the ring.

Bashara was helped back in the ring by his trainers, blood streaming down his face.   Before he realized what was happening, George grabbed him again and pinned him to the mat.   This was our cue for the Funeral March; the auditorium rocked with laughter.

Bashara rose, and visibly upset at hearing the funeral march, turned toward the stage.   He leaped out of the ring and ran onto the stage.   He grabbed Hoffman in a headlock while the crowd roared at the incongruous sight of the gargantuan wrestler attacking the slight, bespectacled 120 lb. conductor.   Hoffman tried to laugh it off, and we all assumed it was just part of the act.   But when his eyes began to bulge and his face turned blue, we realized something had gone wrong.   Had Bashara suffered a brain injury and gone berserk?

Pandemonium broke out.   While women were screaming, several musicians rushed to Hoffman's aid.   One big bass player began pounding the wrestler on the back with his heavy German bow.   The conductor's stand came crashing down and cracked a beautiful Vuillaume cello wide open.   The police finally made their way through the maze of instruments and players and dragged the ranting wrestler off the stage.   Hoffman, somewhat dazed, bravely mounted the podium and signaled for us to resume playing, hoping to restore order.   Before we could begin, however, there was a flurry of excitement in the second violin section and shouts of "Call a doctor!" One of our elderly violinists had fainted and she had to be carried off the stage.   That ended the Gala evening.

At our rehearsal the next morning, Van Ulm appeared somewhat sheepishly to thank us for helping to raise more than $100,000 for the war effort.   He assured us "Bashara's blood was simply a mixture of ketchup and mercurochrome poured on him by the trainer, and the whole act was prearranged.   Bashara just got carried away a little."

I thought if Bashara was just acting, he deserved a special Oscar for his performance!

Note: Ellis Bashara was there that night -- although weighing nowhere near 300 pounds.   Gorgeous George?   Not likely, though he was from Houston.   The above correspondent remembers him as "equally massive."   George Wagner, as he was still known in January, 1944, was barely 180 pounds, soaking wet.   I suppose this is an example of literary license ... or excess.   Nonetheless, there was an occasion on which wrestlers and symphony staged a combined show.   I believe Bill Longson was on the card; Lou Thesz may have been, as well.

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