Wrestling with reality: Monthly bouts in East Carondelet really get a hold on fans

News-DemocratMay 5, 2013 

East Carondelet steps back in time one Saturday a month, reviving a spectacle made popular by the St. Louis TV show "Wrestling at the Chase" in the '60s and '70s.

Professional wrestlers in Spandex briefs rumble in the ring, shout insults at their opponents and rile up crowds with inflated egos and charged rivalries.

"I love it," said Stella Schmid, 87, who never misses a match at East Carondelet Community Center. "I love everything about it."

The former village clerk used to go to wrestling shows at Kiel Auditorium with her late husband, Edward. They met "King Kong" Brody at Dupo High School in 1984.

Last month, Stella sat on the front row at the community center, drinking a draft beer and eating a hot dog with daughter Kathy Pannier, 55.

"Me and the wrestlers get into it once in a while," Stella said, grinning. "I yell at 'em, raise heck with them. It's all in fun."

Shows are produced by Herb Simmons, East Carondelet mayor for 30 years and director of St. Clair County's CenCom 9-1-1 system. He donates profits to the community center.

His Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling also takes shows on the road. The next one is May 11 at Argosy Casino in Alton.

"If you talk to any of these fans, they will tell you that this is as close to 'Wrestling at the Chase' as you can get," said Herb, 59. "We're trying to keep the tradition alive."

The boys are back

A typical Saturday night crowd for East Carondelet is 200 people, who pay $10 for adults, $5 for children. Wrestlers enter the 18-by-18-foot ring to songs such as "We Are the Champions" and "The Boys are Back in Town."

One of last month's big matches pitted Ron Powers against Bull Schmitt. Before the bell even rang, Ron knocked Bull's manager's glasses off his face.

That started a fight between the two wrestlers, who toppled over the ropes and into the crowd. At one point, Ron picked up a chair and waved it menacingly.

"Let them fight! Let them fight! Let them fight!" people chanted.

Other wrestlers burst from behind a curtain, wearing body suits and capes, masks and go-go boots, neon and camouflage, velvet and sequins.

Spectator Tom Boyd, 50, of Mascoutah couldn't help but laugh at the brawl.

"The good guy doesn't always win," he said. "They mix it up a bit, and I like how the wrestlers interact with the crowd. Some of the people really get into it. They're spitting, they're so mad. To me, it's kind of funny."

It was Tom's fourth wrestling show with 5-year-old son Jonah. The boy's eyes widened and his grasp tightened whenever action heated up.

"He'll crawl in my lap, and I'll say, 'It's OK, Daddy will protect you,'" said Tom, a police officer. "He kinda knows (it's improvised). He'll say, 'Daddy, he hit him in the mouth, but he's not bleeding.' Then when we get home, he wants to wrestle with me."

St. Louis tradition

"Wrestling at the Chase" was filmed before live audiences at the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis. It aired from 1959 to 1983 on KPLR-TV Channel 11.

The hit show familiarized viewers with body slams, airplane spins, head butts, toe holds, leg locks and back breakers.

"I grew up watching it with my dad," said Sherri LaCroix, 56, of East Carondelet. "I love it when (Herb brings back) the old wrestlers like 'Cowboy' Bob Orton, Harley Race and Jimmy 'Superfly' Snuka."

Sherri, a nurse, took in last month's show with family and friends, including granddaughter Alexis Hutchinson.

"My favorite wrestler is 'The Big Texan,'" said Alexis, 7, of Waterloo. "I just like him 'cause he's real big."

Alexis brought a poster for The Big Texan to sign. He and other wrestlers stepped out of the dressing room after the show to talk to children and pose for photos.

Sherri feels professional wrestling has been a boost to the village.

"Everyone comes out, and they have a good time," she said. "There's never any trouble. It's not my main sport, but it's very entertaining."

'Labor of love'

Herb has been a wrestling promoter for more than 40 years, starting at South Broadway Athletic Club in St. Louis and expanding in Southern Illinois. He started East Carondelet's monthly series in 2007.

Independent TV producer Charlie Ragle has been taping them for broadcast at noon Sundays on Charter cable (channels 8 and 89), but he's retiring, so Herb is looking for a replacement.

"It's been a labor of love," said Charlie, 41, of Belleville, noting he watched "Wrestling at the Chase" as a boy.

"In those days, there was no cable TV. We didn't have 100 channels. We had 2, 4, 5 and 11, and sometimes 30 if you moved the rabbit ears just right. There were kids shows, church shows and wrestling. So we watched wrestling."

Charlie's play-by-play is done by Larry Matysik, former "Wrestling at the Chase" announcer for 11 years, who also helps Herb with his operation.

Larry, 65, of Belleville, has written several books on the subject. His latest is titled "The 50 Greatest Professional Wrestlers of All Time: The Definitive Shoot."

Larry knows many people think professional wrestling is dumb, but he insists Southern Illinois Championship shows are higher quality than most.

"We try to book (matches) in a way that makes sense," he said. "We try to treat it a little more seriously than some, and we never lose sight of the fact that people deserve the chance to come out for a couple of hours and scream and yell and blow off steam, forget about their troubles, forget about their bills."

Ongoing soap opera

Sometimes, Herb arranges for special activities at wrestling shows, such as a "contract signing" last month.

Reigning Southern Illinois champion Ricky "The Puerto Rican Sensation" Cruz and rival "Flash" Flannigan agreed to face off on May 11.

The crowd cheered Ricky and declared "Cruz can't lose," but they booed Flash. One young spectator yelled, "Someone help him out. He can't read!"

Herb outlined what Flash viewed as unequal contract terms, so Flash threatened Herb with a kendo stick. Commissioner Keith Smith intervened, and Flash threw him on a table, causing it to collapse.

"Wrestling is like a soap opera," Herb said. "You want to keep people interested."

Such shenanigans are nothing new for Margaret "Mickey" Simmons, Herb's wife of 38 years. She collects money at the door for wrestling shows.

Several of their four children and 18 grandchildren also help with the operation. Grandson Jerame Simmons, 11, serves as ring boy.

"This makes (Herb) happy," said Mickey, 66, a nurse at Dupo High School. "And it's fun. I've met all kinds of people over the years. Most of the people you see here tonight, they come every month. We know them by name."

At a glance

What: Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling show to celebrate the 54th annivesary of "Wrestling at the Chase"

Where: East Carondelet Community Center, 823 State St.

When: 8 p.m. May 18 (doors open at 6:30)

Admission: $10 for adults, $5 for children

Information: 618-286-4848

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