Wednesday, February 28, 2018

George Richards: Mr Big & Tall

George Richards is an interesting name from the past. Famous for his Big and Tall clothing shops which catered to athletes and big men, including many of the Toronto smart dressers including Whipper Watson, Pat Flanagan, and Athol Layton.

Before opening his chain of stores Richards was a pro wrestler here in the 1930's and '40's. Born in 1914 he had taken up wrestling to help support his family after his father died. When Maple Leaf Gardens opened in Nov 1931 the teenage Richards was selling programs at the arena he would later wrestle in.

He went pro in the early 1930's and in addition to the local scene he traveled a bit working around New York and Ohio (as Benny Stein) alongside fellow Toronto stalwart Jerry Monahan.

Here he was mostly a prelim type guy wrestling on the openers. One listing in NJ has him (if he is Benny Stein) wrestling Gino Garibaldi.

In 1936 he tried his hand at boxing and entered into the Jack Dempsey 'White Hope' tournament under the tutelage of Ed Kellar who had competed in the 1930 British Empire games in Hamilton.

During World War II he enlisted in the Air Force and helped to train troops on the ships going from Halifax to London. On the return trip he'd be in charge of German prisoners of war coming to Canada.

After the war he opened his first store and noticed he was seeing a lot of his athletic colleagues so started catering to men taller than 6'1 (sized 38-60) and to stout men 200-450lbs (sizes 42-66), It was in an instant hit for football players and of course the wrestlers who were now able to get quality suits in their sizes.

Athol Layton who was 6'6 265 wore a size 52 tall and appreciated the bright colors, shirts in pink, lilac, and chartreuse. He was one of the snappiest dressers among any athlete both on TV as a commentator and at the many charity functions he appeared at. .

It wasn't exclusive to athletes, some of the city's more famous 'stout' men were customers including former police chief Harold Adamson (6.2 210lbs) and Sam Shopsowitz of Shopsys -the hot dog king (5'10 270lbs). Shopsowitz once said about Richards suits 'The fact that I'm fat doesn't mean that I don't like to follow fashion trends. I object to elephant pants but I like patch pockets on my suits'  indeed!
In 1954 after the Toronto Tag Trophy (sponsored by Calvert Distillery and dubbed the Calvert trophy) was destroyed by the Mills Brothers,  Richards donated a new trophy to be awarded to the Tag champs - the George Richards Trophy which was awarded through the balance of the 1950's.

By 1980 under the banner George Richards Kingsize Clothes  it had grown to 16 locations around the country and while George still remained active his son Michael was running the day to day operations. The Grafton-Fraser company who had bought 50% share in 1977 purchased the balance of the company in 1981

George was still leading exercise classes for seniors into his mid 80's and at 87 (2002) was still working out 4 times a week. Was unable to find a date of death, if anyone can help please contact me.

The name lives on as George Richards Big and Tall and I still frequent the one near me today. (6'3 240- but working on it!)
1957 with Whipper and Pat 

some info from the book - I Know that Name!: The People Behind Canada's Best-known Brand Names from ...By Mark Kearney, Randy Ray

edit : Always a pleasure to receive a note from Roger Baker , our Maple Leaf source of golden info

... enjoyed it (George Richards post) as old memories of the days when I worked out at the Bloor St. YMHA. came back. Alfie Richards, who was George's younger brother was in the weight room on a regular basis, he was a big guy, and so were some of the guys that he had workouts with, he was friends with Les Lyman (promoter/wrestler), who also occasionally worked out at The YMHA.. I remember the time when Alfie invited myself and a friend that I worked out with to be seconds at a wrestling show that he had a hand in. Insofar as Alfie Richards being an active wrestler, no don't believe he ever was, I'm thinking that he worked in men's fine clothing sales, as did his older brother George.

Roger also sent over a photo of Alfie Richards wrestling with Les Lyman on a mat at the YMHA. Richards clad all in black. It sent me looking through some ads from shows that Les Lyman promoted around Toronto in the mid 1950's. On some of those shows, one 'Blackjack Richards', Roger remembers 'Killer' Jim Conroy on those shows too.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Lou Marsh

The legendary sportsman Lou Marsh was a mainstay on the Toronto scene as an athlete, referee, and journalist for many years. You could write a book on his exploits and accomplishments but we will look at his close connection to pro wrestling in the city. He was involved from the very early days as both a referee and then covering the sport on a regular basis as a reporter for the Toronto Star.

He was a tell it like it is type and could be critically honest in his views of the sporting world. He demanded utmost participation and effort and his view of pro wrestling was no different. His column in the Star titled 'With Pick And Shovel' (and later as Sports Editor) frequently covered the sport and as a referee he had a unique perspective on the going ons in the squared circle.

During a March 1921 bout between Canadian Champion Jack Forbes and Steve Graf in a bout described as a sensational 20 minute bout full of 'head spinning, bridging, and high and lofty tumbling,' referee Marsh called a sudden halt to the proceedings. He told the two wrestlers that from then on 'a real contest was demanded.' The two accepted 'the hint' and in 3 1/2 minutes Graff pinned Forbes shoulders to the mat. Another fall ensued with Forbes being disqualified for roughhousing tactics. The chairman of the Ontario Athletic Commission was in attendance and was said to be taking further action against the main bout wrestlers 'for faking.'

Marsh was an early supporter of boxing promoter Jack Corcoran and his Queensbury Athletic Club who later got into pro wrestling before passing the office to the Tunney Brothers. Marsh and Corcoran ran in the same circles hunting and fishing together. They had both served as judges for amateur trials held across the county in the 1920's and Marsh frequently served as ref on Corcoran's boxing cards.

In May 1924 Marsh reported on a card held at Arena Gardens with a main of Stanislaus Zybysco vs Canadian heavyweight champion George Walker. Calling it as Toronto's first taste of 'big league wrestling' he described the then 53 year old Zybysco as having a 'stomach with a double chin effect.' and a 'rolly polly Pole with the bullet head,' and that the bout was like an 'acrobatic contest between an eel and a seal lion.' He summed up the prelim bout between Larry Ness (lightweight champ of New York) and Jim Watson (champ of Canada) as 'the bunk'. 'If either one is champion of anything I'm Carry Nation.'

After Ivan Mickailoff brought regular pro wrestling into Toronto, Marsh was a frequent critic of the participants. He could also be impressed so would assume he was 'smartened up' or maybe the style was just that convincing. Upon seeing Gus Sonnenberg defeat Dan Koloff  in Oct 1929 he remarked 'Gotta give the wrestling champion (Sonnenberg) credit, boys. He certainly gave the lads and lassies who packed Andy Taylor's parlors to the roof plenty of action. What a sweet workman he is. Short squatty, with all his weight where he needs it most, he is as quick as a flash and he knows the game, a brainy, smart fellow.'

In 1930 after Corcoran's first pro wrestling card at Massey Hall Marsh weighed in on what he perceived as a double cross against the promoter. He stated that Corcoran was 'butting into the racket of well organized combine' and 'he might be dead lucky that the only thing that gets the ride is his pocketbook.' He implied that main eventer Jack McCarthy  was  'pie-eyed' and that Corcoran would be 'well advised to stick to the boxing end of sports promotion.'

A couple of weeks later on the eve of Corcoran's second card featuring Jon Pesek Marsh opined that the first card which had been plagued by 'razzers' were in fact a 'paid clique' sent to disrupt the card on behalf of others (presumably rival promoter Ivan Mickailoff). He said it was openly charged that the hecklers were paid 25$ to start trouble at Corcoran's debut and that the same parties set up a pair of double crosses on the same show.

Pesek proved to be popular and even impressed Marsh who also suggested that Corcoran and Mickailoff get together and set up a Pesek-Sonnenberg (Sonnenberg appearing on Mickailoff cards) bout to 'pack them in.'

He retired as a referee several years later though he would occasionally come back for one-offs,  some at the Bowmanville Lions Club. Corcoran had more than once offered Marsh as much as $500 to ref a bout in Toronto. it would have made for some publicity as Lou didn't like modern wrestling and the public knew it. Marsh always refused. Just a few weeks before Marsh passed away suddenly in 1936 he had reffed at a Corcoran charity show in Hamilton. Corcoran had asked and Marsh offered to do it only if Jack worked one bout as well, so they did.

In late April 1936 Marsh was having a bite at a cafeteria and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Initially they thought he would recover but on Mar 4   suffered a fatal stroke. Upon his death Corcoran related several anecdotes including crediting him with saving him when their canoe turned over on a fishing trip. He was said to have saved close to a dozen people from drowning over the years.

Marsh was so influential and respected the Star devoted all of its cover and most of its first 4 pages to him when he died.

They named an award after him to be awarded to Canada's top athlete each year starting the year of his death. No pro wrestler has ever won it  but in 1953 Doug Hepburn won it for weightlifting. He had a brief tenure as a pro wrestler here in Toronto in 1955, we looked at him in another entry here on the site.