Best of mapleleafwrestling.com: Excerpt from 'From Nanjo to the Sheik...'
As early as 1940 it was being discussed in Toronto papers of how Television would impact the country's game - hockey. In New York they were televising boxing and other sports to movies theaters. Conn Smythe, owner of the Maple Leafs and MLG had been invited to take in a Football game at a theater in New York and while not duly impressed remarked 'It was like the old flickers, but remember the handicap of making these impressions outdoors and on a cloudy day.'
In 1947 the President of RCA suggested that Television may soon be received in Toronto and Hamilton from across the border in Buffalo, NY. As the 'TV receiver' was available in the U.S. for 200-300$, it was reasonable to expect the Canadian price to be 395-435$. At that point there was said to be 45,000 TV's in use in NY and another 35,000 in the rest of the U.S. with a projected 160,000 over the next year.
An article claimed that of all sports, boxing probably televises best, because the camera can focus on the ring and remain in fixed position. Basketball and Football came next. Baseball was said to present a problem because of the players spread out, No mention of wrestling and already, promoters in boxing were blaming TV for low attendance at bouts.
Football too was blaming short attendances on TV while other sports blamed what was on at the same time as their event. A boxing promoter claimed to have been going broke as his weekly show took place at the same time Milton Berle was on TV.
Conn Smythe was quoted in Nov 1948 as saying 'Sure, I'll go for television if the television people pay me the equivalent of a capacity house each time they televise.'
At the same time Frank Tunney felt television in the homes would hurt him grievously on rainy, snowy, or cold nights. 'I know it would hurt my business on such nights, Tunney said, his fingernails starting to bleed just at the thought.' 'Otherwise I couldn't say just how it would affect boxing and wrestling.'
By 1949 TV's were on sale in Toronto by General Electric with the sales byline of 'see and hear your favorite programs daily, hockey, fights, wrestling, and news.' You had to order now or face wait times of up to 6 months to see 'Wrestling matches from Buffalo,' and 'Boxing matches from Madison Square Garden.' You also needed $599 - installation extra, plus each household needed a license. The CBC was said to be moving with 'extreme caution.'
By 1950 those lucky enough to own a TV in the Toronto area could look forward to 2 channels. WHAM from Rochester, and WBEN in Buffalo airing from about 12 noon to 12am. Wham had wrestling variously on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights at different stages showing the Dumont wrestling from Chicago. WBEN had 'Wrestling at the Aud' which featured many of the local Toronto stars. Ontario fans could catch announcer Chuck Healy and Sports Director Ralph Hubbell calling the action and interviewing wrestlers during the preliminary bouts on Friday evenings from Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo.
'We had a TV at home from the time that I was twelve, and I was glued every Saturday night to that little box to see all of the great stars that appeared in Chicago. These shows were shown on The Dumont Network and featured stars such as Verne Gagne, Hans Schmidt, Yukon Eric, Killer Kowalski, Bob Orton, Wilbur Snyder, The Mighty Atlas, and many others that entertained the faithful viewers weekly. These events were televised live from The Marigold Arena. As well I watched TV broadcasts of top flight wrestling from Buffalo N.Y. These matches took place in Buffalo's War Memorial Auditorium, and this show ran for years. The play by play announcer for many years was Chuck Healy, a very popular Buffalo sports announcer.’
Closed circuit broadcasts were being shown here in theaters of select boxing cards from NYC. It was said to be in the test stage though they were adding about 100 theaters to the network which could open a card to 200,000 people. It was still viewed as small time compared to what was coming. Other ways of getting the public to buy included 'Phonevision' where you would order by phone and pay at the end of the month, and 'telemeter' by dropping coins into a box attached to your TV.
In early 1950 Tunney was quoted as saying to be 'weighing the options of TV after success in the US.' He also pointed out though that pal Paul Bowser of Boston had put his shows on TV for 23 weeks-and almost starved to death. Many of his regular ticket-holders cancelling their ticket holds. It was opined that Tunney would do well to allow the New York lead. To build up the wrestlers by televising shows and then when matched at MSG, to cut the TV off.
In a 1951 'Canadian Sports Parade' column it imagined the effect of TV on Canada's sports. Wrestling, due to its attraction in the U.S. had its success assured. They asked that Frank Tunney and the other Canadian promoters follow the national trend. 'Tunney could come up with a whole galaxy of Canadian wrestlers suitably titled. Imagine such drawing cards as the 'Brampton Benumber,' the 'Terrible Torontonian.' or the 'Ottawa Ostrich', and perhaps the Kitchener Kook.'
Conn Smythe was still resisting TV at MLG saying 'I think the radio broadcast is good enough.' The NHL owners chief complaint was the same as Tunney's., that the fans would not brave winter weather to come to the arenas. The fight among the NHL and the emerging technology would continue to debate until 1952 when the CBC first started to televise hockey.
In fact the first try was from Maple Leaf Gardens when they televised a Memorial Cup game in closed circuit to executives from the network and advertisers in order to prepare for the coming NHL season. The first game from Montreal on Oct 11 1952 was followed by the first game from MLG, called by Foster Hewitt.
Hewitt had once called the wrestling over the radio from MLG starting with that first card on Nov 19 1931. He would pick up the card for the main event and sometimes second to last bout from high up in the gondola and broadcast live after the late news on CKCL. Coverage was sporadic but would continue even after TV took hold. Foster's son Bill would also call wrestling occasionally on Foster's station CKFH in the early-mid 1950's picking up around halfway through the card at 930pm. Prior to MLG being built there had previously been radio broadcasts from the cards held at Mutual St Arena.
In May 1952 it was announced Canada would begin its TV programming production in September with 3 hrs or less daily. Ad rates set at $1600 hourly for Toronto, Montreal at $500 as there were few TV's in Quebec. They would be connected with the 4 U.S. networks but would focus on Canadian production and development of shows in Toronto and Montreal.
On Sept 8 1952 CBC would open CBLT transmitting on channel 9 with an opening ceremony lasting three hours. Montreal's CBC station CBFT would start on the previous Saturday. Quebec got started first in the homegrown wrestling side also. In the fall of 1952, they presented wrestling every Tuesday night live from the Verdun Auditorium. Right away TV was the talk of the Toronto sports columns. Tunney's Wrestling shows were regarded as 'a likely feature.'
Here by mid-1952 you could get 5 channels including CBLT which only ran a few hours a day. The price had come down to about $300 (still huge in today’s equivalent) and in the ads for sales, Wrestling was getting billing after Hockey, Baseball, and Boxing. Wrestling could now be found not only on WHAM and WBEN, but also WICU out of Erie, PA showing live bouts from Pittsburgh.
In early 1953 CBLT started showing wrestling at 1030 on Friday nights and again on Saturday in the same time slot as WHAM. Along with the others you could also get a show on WHEN out of Syracuse at 11pm on Saturday.
The CBLT show initially consisted of film from other spots. One 1953 item said much of the Toronto TV wrestling came from the 'Grapefruit Belt' of the Southern U.S. The first broadcast appears to be Feb 23 1953. In a recap of the Dec 10 1953 card, Joe Perlove noted that the Yvon Robert vs Mr Kato bout had been the 'feature TV match.'
It didn't take long for wrestling to become one of the most popular programs on CBLT, with Holiday Ranch, and Playbill rounding out the top 3. More channels would come aboard including CKSO Sudbury, Canada's first privately owned TV station. And in 1954 they started airing a Wrestling show after the news at 10pm Saturdays.
CBLT/CBC here and in Montreal and later in Ottawa were broadcasting from the live card and would not turn to in-studio wrestling until later in the decade.
By the close of 1954 viewers now had access to 20 channels depending on where in the province you were. And there was quite a bit of wrestling to choose from. Eleven stations had wrestling as part of their programming.
CBOT first tried live coverage on July 13 1954 at the Auditorium in Ottawa. Producer Pierre Normandin headed a 15 member mobile unit crew for a card featuring a main event of Killer Kowalski vs Bobby Managoff. The broadcast of all three main bouts did not go beyond the building and was said to be a trial run in anticipation pf live telecasts from ringside in the near future
In 1955 more channels appeared with more wrestling including WKTV Utica, WEWS Cleveland, as well as WCNY Watertown with 'Texas Wrestling.' WGN added Wrestling in 1956 from the studio in Buffalo. It was said to be the first to originate from a studio in Western New York - and Ontario. The Buffalo show would become a favorite in the Toronto area right into the 1960's.
When I spoke to Barry Lloyd Penhale some years back he said he hosted the first Studio Wrestling show in Canada. A 1957 article included a look at Penhale, now on CKGN North Bay. The author says 'he (Penhale) staged the first studio live wrestling events to be seen in Canada -or anywhere else with two exceptions.' CKGN in North Bay had decided to produce their own local shows instead of showing old movies in the evening; one of those was Live Studio Wrestling. The Penhale show featured the stars of Northland Wrestling headed by Larry Kasaboski and often featured stars from MLG who would make the trip up North.
By 1957 in addition to the U.S. channels, there was CKVR Barrie, CHEX Peterboro, CKWS Kingston, CKCO Kitchener, CFCL Timmins, CKNY Wingham, and CHCH Hamilton all running wrestling. Some, being CBC affiliated, would have been a twin of the CBLT show. Some would show tape from Winnipeg.
Kingston's CKWS ran Texas Wrestling while CHCH (later to host the homegrown show for many years) and CKCO ran wrestling from Chicago and the 'Wrestling from Ringside' show out of Ohio. If you had tuned into CHCH on Apr 12 1957 at 11:30pm you could have caught Verne Gagne & Bobby Bruns vs Al Williams & Rudy Kay, and also Lou Thesz vs Bronco Nagurski. (The Gagne/Bruns tag is on youtube with the announcer introducing Vern GAG-NEE).
Just a few years in and wrestling had taken hold on TV here. The stars of MLG including The Fabulous Kanagaroo's, the Kalmikoff's, Yukon Eric, Lord Layton, and Whipper Watson were now 'TV stars' and in high demand across the country.
The Whipper-Gene Kiniski feud in 1957, along with many of the Toronto area wrestlers would travel through Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver due to the coverage from TV wrestling. They had moved away from the 'live' aspect by then, a letter in the Star from a fan in Nov 1957 asked to have 'live wrestling returned.'
The CBLT show was still film of the Thursday MLG shows at least till mid-1960. A tidbit in May noted the CBC were moving the Saturday night CBLT show to Friday to allow CBC to meet the late movie competition of other channels, but that the show will continue to run on Saturdays 'on the network.'
CBOT in Ottawa was also on the air with wrestling in 1960 while CFTO and CHCH would take over the weekly Maple Leaf show with Lord Layton as announcer.
'Wrestling was taped by the CBC at a studio on Yonge St. near Dupont. You had to be there early to get in to watch the taping. The announcer's name was Fred Sgambati. I saw him interviewing Ivan Kalmikoff and the Russian kept repeating that there are people in the know that agree that he and his partner Karol Kalmikoff are superior wrestlers. Sgambati insisted that Kalmikoff reveal the name of the wrestling expert. Kalmikoff blurted out, 'his name is Earle Yetter' who at that time was active in as a wrestling photo journalist working out of Buffalo NY.'
Lord Layton would take over announcing duties in 1961 and go on to host the Toronto ‘Ringside’ show into the 1970’s. Pat Flanagan would also host both on the CBLT & CFTO shows right through the 1960s.
In 1977 at the conclusion of the Sheik era the TV show was renamed Maple Leaf Wrestling. That name would become synonymous with the brand as they moved into the 1980’s, now with former star Billy Red Lyons hosting.
-AC 2018 (included in 'From Nanjo to The Sheik..') Thanks to Roger!