CHAOS AT CHRISTMASTIME--FSM#136

 

The holiday season brings joy and happiness around the world, but for us old-school, American pro rasslin' veterans, it also brings a twinge of wistfulness, nostalgia for the "old days" when the holiday season meant big cards, big matches, and big money. Thanksgiving gets the lion's share of the attention these days, mostly due to the three-decade-long Thanksgiving night tradition of sellouts at the Greensboro Coliseum that evolved into Starrcade, and the Supercards of the 70's and 80's in cities like New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta and more. I've even written about Thanksgiving night tradition here in the past. But some have now forgotten that Christmas night was huge for wrestling in many places, and indeed all of Christmas week was usually strong for gates around the country. 

It was Christmas week in Louisville back in 1982 that saw the final appearance there of the iconic Roughouse Fargo, then past 60 with grey hair and a body that could generously be described as frail-looking. But when Jerry Jarrett had the chance to book "the Nuthouse" because he was visiting brother Jackie for the holidays, he knew he had the perfect Christmastime family attraction. Even though Jarrett ran the Gardens every week, 52 weeks a year, Fargo--the biggest-drawing "special attraction" in the Tennessee territory's history--hadn't appeared there in over seven years. That night, old Roughouse drew over 5500 fans to the Gardens, more than either the NWA or AWA World Champions had in their previous last appearances in Louisville.

Christmas week was also a time you might see the wrestling bear on the card, or a midget match. Of course, the main events, the money matches, were serious--for revenge, or championships, or status. But a good Christmas week card had something for the kids and the older fans who may not have been following the TV regularly--the old time promoters knew from experience that there would be a lot of both. Christmas night itself was the big draw in places that featured that tradition, which would usually take a few years to establish with a territory's fans. Only one town in the territory could get a Christmas night tradition, so it was usually either the home base, or the biggest grossing town in the area.

The sports-entertainment era fans might be asking at this point, "What? Why would people go to wrestling on Christmas night?" The answer is easy--what else was there to do?

It was conventional wisdom among wrestling promoters for years that, after opening the presents and eating an early meal, one of two things set in for families across the country--boredom, or madness with being closed up with the entire family. Bear in mind that unlike today, in those days nothing was open on Christmas except for movie theatres in all but the biggest cities. No restaurants, no businesses--I recall eating Christmas dinner at Waffle House after the show the first few years I was in wrestling--so there was very little competition in the entertainment field. Since there was already a regular monthly--at minimum--wrestling card in any of the strong Christmas towns, there was a regular fan base, and the local broadcast TV programs plugging the shows in the days beforehand would get a stronger-than-normal walkup of occasional fans looking for something to do.

Past Christmas night itself, the rest of the week would be strong, because many people were off work, and while some folks were tapped out from spending money on food and gifts, others had actually GOTTEN money and were looking for a place to spend it. In the territory days, a lot of young kids across America begged their parents to take them to see pro wrestling live for birthday or holiday presents, so since there was no school, the parents would cave in. Once again, adding all that to the regular fan base, and presenting cards with special personalities or big matches, meant a license to print money for some promoters. And wrestlers.

For example, Christmas week 1986. Jim Crockett had graciously given all of the wrestlers a week off, ending Christmas Day. He knew, of course, from experience that that week is the absolute WORST time to draw in most cases. Then, he proceeded to work us like Alaskan sled dogs.

Christmas Day started with a 3PM show in Greenville, South Carolina where 3566 fans paid the "Fan Appreciation" price of $3 each to see the show. It was a "warmup" for the Midnight Express and I before we grabbed the Waffle House meal and sped 130 miles down the road to the Omni in Atlanta, where SIXTEEN THOUSAND fans paid $5 each--about half of the average ticket price of the time--for an 8PM event, totalling an $80,000 gate. After driving 240 miles back to Charlotte after the show, we flew to Richmond, Virginia on the 26th where over 7000 paid regular prices--about $78,000--to see the start of the Bunkhouse Stampede tour. Then, it got interesting.

Saturday morning December 27, we flew to Atlanta to tape two TBS shows, one for that night and one for the following night. After completing those two tapings, we flew to Minneapolis, Minnesota--almost 1200 miles--to face the Road Warriors and Dusty Rhodes before 4000 fans paying $46,000. The next morning, we flew to Greensboro, North Carolina for a 2PM matinee at the Coliseum where nearly 10,000 paid $103,000 to see the 25 man Stampede. Immediately after the show, Crockett's plane left for Albuquerque, New Mexico, a distance of FOURTEEN HUNDRED miles and crossing two time zones. There was only room for 14 on the plane, so JJ Dillon and I got bumped to a United Airlines flight through Chicago and we arrived at the arena just in time for me to head to the ring to manage the Midnight Express against the Road warriors before 500 fans paying $52,000. Thank heavens I hadn't changed clothes since the match in Greensboro! 

Monday morning, we flew the rest of the way to the West Coast and appeared at the Forum in Los Angeles before a disappointing 7000 paying $75,000, but we brightened up on Tuesday as the Crockett debut in San Francisco sold out the to the tune of around 8000 fans paying $80,000. The next day, New Year's Eve, we were off and flew all the way back to Charlotte--over 2500 miles. We actually got to sleep in our own beds before heading out on New Year's Day 1987 to...the Omni in Atlanta, where another 5000 fans paid regular prices--$55,000--in an arena we'd just sold out a week beforehand.

In 9 events in 8 days, from Christmas until New Year's, Jim Crockett Promotions alone--and this was a hot period for the WWF AND when most of the US territories were still running regularly--had drawn around 55,000 fans and grossed almost $600,000, equivalent to $1.3 MILLION in today's money. Bobby Eaton, Dennis Condrey and myself each made a little over five grand for our participation--equal to $11,000 today. Flair and Dusty probably made three times that. Not a bad week, but the travel was challenging. 

The strong Christmas crowds were why I established the tradition in Smoky Mountain Wrestling with my Christmas Chaos events. Mick Foley appeared on one in 1994, and liked the title so much he "stole" it for one of his books. Even though by the early Nineties the territories were gone, and not even Vince was drawing huge crowds like the ones just a few years before, Christmas was still one of my strongest periods. Stealing the "Fan Appreciation" gimmick and making all seats $6.00--$10 today-- we drew over 1800 fans in Knoxville on Christmas night 1993, and almost 2400 in 1994--during a period where WCW shows in major markets sometimes drew 500 or less.

Of course, with the death of the territories and the emergence of only one real national promotion, the Christmas tradition died with a lot of other wrestling traditions. But, after moving back to Louisville in 1999 to book and promote Ohio Valley Wrestling, I had the thought of bringing the Christmas spectacular back. It didn't work out as I planned, but it DID lead to the most successful event OVW ever presented--when it finally happened.

OVW's Christmas Chaos 2000 will go down in history for a number of reasons, and also probably shortened my life span by at least five years. It came about due to a unique set of circumstances. In the Spring of 2000, we were finally able to obtain a clearance for our TV program on WBKI-7, a local, full-power broadcast station with great coverage of the area. At almost the same time, Clear Channel Communications, owners of half a dozen radio stations in the city including the two top rock stations, came to us with the idea of promoting a wrestling card.

Clear Channel bought the event and promoted it on their stations. We took the guaranteed money and assembled a top card, and promoted it on our TV show on WBKI. The TV station was so happy with our ratings that we were even able to negotiate a two-hour, prime time TV special the week before the event, with air time paid for by our regular sponsors. On June 23, 2000, the "Rockin' Rumble" at the Louisville Gardens drew nearly 3000 fans paying over $30,000. The main event saw OVW's top heel, Ironman Rob Conway, with his manager Starmaker Bolin team with WWE Superstar D-Lo Brown to face OVW's top babyface, the Damaja and his partner Kane. Mick Foley served as special referee. OVW Champion Nick Dinsmore defended against the WWE's Al Snow, and the undercard saw matches featuring OVW and WWE talent like Mark Henry, Bull Buchanan, and the only meeting ever between former NCAA Heavyweight Champions Kurt Angle and Sylvester Terkay. The Fabulous Ones, Steve Keirn & Stan Lane appeared, managed by the Fabulous Jackie Fargo himself. There was even a mixed tag with the two competing rock station's DJ's teaming with two wrestlers.

Response at Clear Channel was off the charts--especially since they made their money back--and they contacted me again about another event, to take place towards the end of the year. But this time, they said, they wanted a complete sellout.

I went home from the meeting thinking about how to accomplish that, and thought about a Holiday event, either Thanksgiving or Christmas. However, I was quickly shot down by several parties, notably Jim Ross, who as WWE Talent Relations VP told me if they could get the wrestlers to work on Thanksgiving or Christmas anymore, they'd probably be running the dates themselves, Clear Channel, whose execs may have liked wrestling but didn't want to spend their holidays at the Gardens, and most importantly, Danny Davis, who told me the Gardens would jack us for double to triple rent and expenses on a Holiday.

But Clear Channel DID like the idea of an event during the Christmas season. A check of the WWE road schedule showed the talent on the road in Little Rock, Arkansas--a short flight from Louisville--on December 12, right before their Christmas break. So it was decided that Wednesday night, December 13, would be the date of our supershow. Clear Channel still wanted a sellout, and I held my breath and told them it would cost $60,000 to do that. To my amazement, they said yes! But now, I actually had to sell it out, and only two wrestlers at that time--Steve Austin and the Rock--were hot enough to do that on name value alone. Neither would be allowed to wrestle on an outside show in case of injury--they were too valuable to the WWE. But if either wanted to, they could make an appearance. So I played the Danny Davis card.

I called Bruce Prichard on a Monday afternoon knowing he'd be at RAW. He was in the catering area. I asked him if Austin was anywhere around, and he said he was at the next table. I told Bruce to ask Steve if he wanted to do Danny Davis a favor and make $25,000 doing it. The answer came back yes immediately. Ten years before, when Austin was a starving rookie in Memphis, he had contemplated quitting wrestling, and Danny had talked him out of it, telling him he had something. So even though Steve was regularly turning down appearances at twice that amount, Danny's involvement was the key. Once Austin was booked, I called Clear Channel and told them the show was sold out--now I just had to put the card together.

The promotion ahead of Christmas Chaos was textbook. Spots played on all the radio stations, including on-air callins from the wrestlers, sponsor tie-ins, and in-studio bits. Event posters and lifesize cardboard cutouts of Steve Austin were in every Thornton's convenience store in town. OVW TV and all our angles hard-sold Chaos for weeks prior to the show, and another two hour prime time special the Saturday night before the event did a 2 rating and around 15,000 homes in Louisville. The first 4 rows of ringside had been designated "Golden Circle" tickets, priced at $50 each and allowing the bearer into a pre-show meet & greet with the stars, with the rest of the tickets priced from $20 down to $12. The Golden Circle tickets had sold out the first week on sale. Everything was peaking, and by 48 hours before belltime, we had over 3000 tickets sold with over a $50,000 advance, indicating a sellout. Then we got the first weather report.

They were calling for snow that Wednesday, only a few inches, but it wouldn't help the walkup. At minimum, I thought, Clear Channel would almost recoup their investment from the advance if no one else came, and the sponsorships they had sold would mean they'd turn a small profit. I slept that night, but not well. 

Tuesday morning I got the call from Jim Ross that the weather report in Little Rock that night was for an ice storm--much worse than snow, especially for traveling. By that night, with the ice forming in Arkansas, JR was still determined everyone would be there, even if they had to charter a plane.

Wednesday morning is when they found out that if the commercial pilots won't fly, neither will the rest. Little Rock was iced in, and there was no way for the WWE crew to get out of town, much less to Louisville. We would have to postpone the show. As the realization of the fact that the biggest show I had ever promoted was now not happening, I made the call to Clear Channel, then drove two miles in four inches of snow to get a family-size bucket of fried chicken, ate the whole thing in bed, then went to sleep convinced my life was over. 

Fortunately, the next day began the thaw, and I began negotiations to save Christmas--Chaos, at least. Clear Channel agreed to the postponement, and began announcing that everyone should hold their tickets. JR went to the schedule and determined that Wednesday, January 31, 2001 was the next date possible to get the WWE talent I had booked to Louisville. Now, I just had to figure out how, after peaking the angles to a fever pitch for the first date, I was going to keep these matchups warm for six more weeks before I could present them, while running OVW's normal January schedule of events at the same time. There were a few switches on the undercard, and a few added stipulations, but incredibly, the card came off almost as intended, and maybe better than the original.

The "Show So Nice We Had To Promote It Twice" finally came to the Gardens on January 31. In the main event, the Match Made in Hell, Kane battled Leviathan (Batista) in their first-ever meeting. As the co-attraction, Jim Ross did the live interview with Stone Cold Steve Austin, who ended up delivering a stunner to Bolin's man Rico Constantino after a confrontation, and to the delight of the crowd. Nick Dinsmore defended the OVW Title against Chris Benoit in a wrestling clinic. Maybe the biggest pop of the night was reserved for the 6 person tag, when Matt & Jeff Hardy and Lita defeated OVW Tag Champs Payne & Damien, the Disciples of Synn, and the Wicked Witch of Kentuckiana herself when Jeff swantoned Synn through a table. Big Show faced Mark Henry in a Battle of the Giants, and there were six other matches featuring OVW talent like Flash, Rip Rogers, the Damaja, Rob Conway, and some unknown, green rookies named Brock Lesnar, Shelton Benjamin, and Randy Orton.

Best of all, the fans came. No one had asked for a refund on their original ticket, and sales for the remaining tickets had picked back up immediately after the new date was announced. In the final tally, 5010 fans paid $72,166--$99,000 today--selling out the modern Gardens wrestling setup, making Clear Channel a profit even before sponsor packages were figured in, and convincing them to do another mega-show that summer. OVW got our guarantee and almost $10,000 in merch sales that night. We paid Austin's fee, the WWE talent their guarantees, paid the OVW talent for the show--the developmental talent in the main matches made as much for the night as they were making from WWE in a week--and still profited over $25,000 for the night. It was the biggest independent wrestling crowd in the United States that year, and one of the biggest in the previous several years. Not bad for a wrestling school on local television. To add to the exhilaration of the night, my mother--Mama Cornette herself--got to come to the show and see that, twenty seven years after she took me to see my first wrestling event at the Gardens at the age of 12, I booked and promoted a sellout there for a company of which I was partial owner. 

My only disappointment was one benchmark we just missed. The WWE had drawn a couple of huge crowds in Louisville in 1998 and 1999, at the height of the Monday Night Wars when everything was hot, at Freedom Hall in Louisville, a much bigger arena than the Gardens. But their best at the Gardens was in February 1996 for an In Your House Pay-Per-View, headlined by Bret Hart vs. Diesel (Kevin Nash) for the WWF Title, when about the same number of fans as at Christmas Chaos paid $77,000. I had wanted to use OVW's local TV, and a few of their stars mixed with my own, to have the WWE's developmental program actually promote a show that outdrew one of their own PPV's in the same arena--but we fell about $5,000 short.  

However, all in all, Christmas Chaos 2000/2001 was a high water mark in my career, in OVW, and in pro wrestling history in the city of Louisville itself. It was an incredibly stressful situation on me personally, but also one of my proudest accomplishments. If you've ever thought being a wrestling matchmaker or promoter was as relaxing as a Sunday lie-in, now you've learned differently.

If you've paid attention, you've also learned something else--what do Steve Austin, Kane, Batista, Bret Hart, Diesel, Nick Bockwinkel and Harley Race all have in common?

None of them drew as many people to the Louisville Gardens as Roughouse Fargo did.