Wrestling roots: How the Lehigh Valley catapulted the wild world of WWF and WWE to superstardom
BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Nearly 40 years ago, the crazy world of professional wrestling intersected with the prim and proper world of public television at PBS39’s old studio atop South Mountain.
Executive producer and host Shelley Brown made just one demand, which in retrospect was very wise on her part.
- The original World Wide Wrestling Federation taped its matches at the Allentown Fairgrounds
- In 1984, a PBS39 show featured WWE leader Vince McMahon and several wrestling managers and personalities
- The Lehigh Valley's passion for wrestling aligned with the fledgling organization's trajectory
“Right before we went on (the air), I said to the wrestlers, ‘I only have one rule, and that is you can’t touch me,” said Brown, who feared she might be body-slammed or locked up in a full nelson.
“I didn’t know what might happen, but I had a dress on, I was wired to hear the director. I told them you can do anything, say anything to me, but don’t touch me …
“… Fortunately, they were very professional.”
On a Wednesday night – May 23, 1984, to be exact – nearly 150 avid pro wrestling fans packed the PBS39 studio, which was supposed to have a capacity of 120. They were primed and juiced to watch the 60-minute taping of the old show “Your Turn, Lehigh Valley.”
The topic was “Superathletes/Superentertainers: The World of Professional Wrestling.”
Brown recalled the first “Your Turn, Lehigh Valley,” topic was on whether there should be a performing arts center in the Lehigh Valley and where should it be located. Another airing examined rising home prices in the area.
“I loved ‘The Phil Donahue Show’ and the audience interaction on his shows,” said Brown, who is now president and CEO of Easton’s State Theatre since 1993 and the executive director and creator of the annual Freddy Awards.
“I’m not sure how we did it (promotion), but our phone was ringing off the hook requesting tickets.”Shelley Brown, on preparations for a 1984 taping with pro wrestlers at PBS39
“But we literally had to go begging for people to sit in the audience. We’d call senior centers, anywhere we might get people who’d be willing to come to the studio.”
Things were different with the wrestling program. Once word got out the next “Your Turn, Lehigh Valley” would include a panel of famous wrestlers from the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) and the company’s owner Vince McMahon Jr., everyone from Macungie to Bangor wanted a free studio ticket.
“I’m not sure how we did it (promotion), but our phone was ringing off the hook requesting tickets,” Brown said.
Management at the time said the station received 400 to 500 ticket requests. The waiting list was cut off at 150.
The Lehigh Valley’s wrestling love affair
The Lehigh Valley is known nationally as a hotbed for high school wrestling, which was spawned by the late Billy Sheridan and his powerhouse Lehigh University teams of years past. For years, Lehigh wrestling from Grace Hall was a staple of Channel 39’s winter programming.
The Lehigh Valley also was passionate about what transpired in the “squared circle” of pro wrestling, which purists say should never be confused with amateur wrestling. The region’s yearning for pro wrestling escalated even more once the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) began taping its syndicated “Championship Wrestling” show every three weeks at the Allentown Fairgrounds’ Agricultural Hall in the late 1970s.
The WWWF, which became the WWF in 1979, was then a regional company built and owned by McMahon’s father, Vince Sr.
The WWWF would tape three one-hour “Championship Wrestling” segments on a Tuesday night and then air them over the next three Saturdays along the East Coast. They originally were taped at the Philadelphia Arena until McMahon Sr. struck a deal with Allentown Fairgrounds management to move operations to Ag Hall.
The first taping at Ag Hall occurred on Nov. 21, 1978, and featured 15 matches split into three 60-minute time slots. By night’s end, the fans must’ve felt like they were in a time warp.
According to wrestlingdata.com, in the night’s opener, 7-foot-4, 470-pound Andre the Giant disposed of Mark Pole and Tony Russo in a “2 on 1” match. The Giant did likewise to Johnny Rodz and Frankie Rodriguez in Match No. 10 (Week 2’s finale).
Moreover, the Lumberjacks successfully defended their WWWF tag team title against Special Delivery Jones and Dino Bravo in Match No. 2 only to lose it the “next week” to Tony Garea and Larry Zbyszko in Match No. 7. Ivan Putski and Ivan Koloff were among the night’s double winners.
In Week 1’s final bout, Zbyszko and Garea defeated Baron Mikel Scicluna and Mike Masters.
What’s significant about this bout was that Scicluna was among the wrestlers who were part of the WWWF’s first foray into Allentown for a live show in 1964. The announcer that night was Allentown’s own Joe McHugh, who gained worldwide notoriety for his handling of the microphone during the WWWF’s “Championship Wrestling” stay at Ag Hall.
Admit it, you can still hear “And I’m Jooooooooooooooe McHugh,” rattling around in the depths of your memory bank.
If you see a chance … take It
Brown by no means was a fan of professional wrestling. She appreciated the athletic skills and theatrical talents of the wrestlers, and she was aware the WWF taped its weekly shows in Allentown. In fact, her then husband, Kerwin Silfies, was a director at Channel 39, and the station worked with the WWF on various post-production aspects of the “Championship Wrestling” shows.
“When I first got the idea for the show on wrestling, the first person I booked was Lou Petrucci,” Brown said.
Petrucci was a young sports writer at the old Bethlehem Globe-Times who authored a popular weekly column “The Lip.” The column addressed off-the-wall ideas – luging down South Bethlehem’s Wyandotte Street as a potential event in the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Petrucci’s favorite topic was pro wrestling. He’d pit local athletes and celebrities in steel cage matches and predict winners.
Brown then boldly declared she was going to ask Vince McMahon to come on her show. She had never spoken to him, but she had seen him around the Channel 39 building overseeing the editing for “Championship Wrestling.”
“I decided I was going to ask Vince McMahon to come on the show,” said Brown, who enthusiastically recalled the moment during a recent interview in her State Theatre office. “My husband wasn’t crazy about the idea, and I said, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen, he says no?’ I talked to Vince about the show. I explained the (Phil) Donahue format and asked him if he could also bring along some wrestlers.
“And, he said yes.”
Brown looked around her office, almost like she was worried it was bugged, and continued the story behind the story.
“I’ve never told this, but I guess it’s OK to tell it now because it was so long ago. The night before we are scheduled to tape the show, Vince calls me and says he’s not going to do it, he’s not going to go on the show and take questions.
“I told Vince I don’t invite guests onto the show to embarrass them. I said we have to do it; we have an audience coming.”
The next morning, McMahon again called Brown and told her he wasn’t coming to Bethlehem.
Pondering the thought of a mob of fans later that night demanding to see pro wrestlers, Brown offered a solution – which McMahon agreed to.
“I told him when we got to the part of the show when we took questions from the audience, I told him he could have the microphone and take the questions,” she said. “The next time I talked to him was when they showed up in the conference room at the station.”
And along with McMahon came celebrity wrestling managers Captain Lou Albano and Classy Freddie Blassie and wrestlers Sergeant Slaughter and Rowdy Roddy Piper.
“The guys were hilarious,” Brown said. “They weren’t quite in their personas yet, and they couldn’t have been nicer. This was going to be a big deal for our little station. It was exciting, and I was sweating bullets. I was going to be out there, the only woman, in a dress and high heels.”
Thus, she laid down her one ground rule: “You can’t touch me.”
In some respects, “Superathletes/Superentertainers: The World of Professional Wrestling,” was a gateway to what the WWF became. The Channel 39 show aired a few days later on a Saturday and Sunday.
Less than a month later, on June 19, 1984, McMahon’s organization taped its final “Championship Wrestling” shows (for June 30, July 7 and 14) at Agricultural Hall. McHugh opened by introducing Hulk Hogan, who was immediately attacked by George “The Animal” Steele and Mr. Fuji.
The WWF moved its “Championship Wrestling” tapings to the larger Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, and McHugh was replaced by Howard Finkel as the ring announcer.
In March 1985, the WWF held the first WrestleMania at a sold-out Madison Square Garden.
The event, which drew 1 million pay-per-view spectators, featured many of the same wrestlers who had graced the Ag Hall ring – Hogan, Piper, Paul Orndorff, Cowboy Bob Orton and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka.
But it was the celebrities who were on hand for WrestleMania that launched the WWF into another universe – Muhammad Ali, Billy Martin, Liberace and the Rockettes, Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T.
Lauper’s recent association with Albano and the rise of MTV meshed perfectly with McMahon’s vision for the WWF. The fledgling music video channel hosted a pair of wrestling events leading into WrestleMania.
“I remember my (ex) husband telling me once that Vince told him, “I’m going to take wrestling to a whole new level,’” Brown said.
And that began with signing top wrestlers from around the country and Canada to WWF contracts. All of them wrestled at one point in Allentown, including Hogan, the superstar of superstars, who made his WWF debut during a Nov. 13, 1979, taping at Ag Hall.
'What’s Under Your Kilt?'
Brown opened the taping by bringing McMahon and Petrucci to the stage for a straightforward discussion. McMahon was met with mild disdain and catcalls from the audience. Otherwise, the segment was moving along just like previous “Your Turn, Lehigh Valley” tapings.
“I remember coming out into the studio and the place was mobbed with people,” Petrucci said. “When I met the guys (backstage), they were regular guys.”
But when the wrestlers were introduced for the next segment, the audience, if on cue, took their antics and passion to another level – Ag Hall on Tuesday night level. They knew their role.
Sergeant Slaughter, who was in the midst of his rivalry with the Iron Sheik, was the crowd favorite and greeted by cheers of “USA, USA!” Albano, and Blassie, who at the time was the Sheik’s manager, were jeered vociferously.
Piper, a relative newcomer to the WWF, was just making his name with the organization primarily through his “Piper’s Pit” interview segments. He had been cast as a heel.
Petrucci started laughing uncontrollably remembering the audience’s reaction to the wrestlers.
“A few weeks later (after the taping), I was watching (the WWF’s) ‘Tuesday Night Titans’ and they showed a clip from the audience of a guy giving the (middle) finger to the wrestlers,” Petrucci said.
Petrucci served as Bethlehem’s goodwill ambassador bringing presents for all. He gave Albano a bag of rubber bands to keep his beard “well-groomed.” Piper received a way-too-small Globe-Times T-shirt. Slaughter left with a plastic tank and Cobra Corps soldiers. Blassie was given a pair of dollar bills, which he immediately crumbled and threw into the crowd.
Albano and Blassie verbally sparred with the audience. Blassie called everyone he addressed a “pencil-necked geek.” Albano bragged he trained championship wrestlers by making them drink “unborn virgin goat’s milk.”
Brown’s goal might’ve been to bring a Phil Donahue-type show to the Lehigh Valley. But for one night, she experienced what it might’ve been like to host and produce Morton Downey and Jerry Springer shows rolled into one.
“I was concentrating so much, listening for cues (from the director), it went by so fast,” Brown said. “I can honestly say it’s the most fun in the (pre-show) green room I’ve ever had. The wrestlers were really good. Once they determined I knew my stuff – I did my research before the show – they were good with me.”
Petrucci, who left the Globe-Times soon after to become a teacher and highly successful baseball coach on Long Island, sat in awe of what was unfolding in front of him in the PBS39 studio.
“The interaction with the wrestlers and McMahon … it was all ad-libbed, but it was choreographed,” Petrucci said. “They were so good communicating and feeding off each other. They did it without a script. They all had great timing. It was so entertaining, and they played their roles so well.”
The wrestlers were so outrageous with their comments that when the camera wasn’t on them, they, too, couldn’t suppress their laughter at what their comrades were saying. And leave it to Piper and Brown to steal the show.
With McMahon stoking the audience into a fever pitch during the final segment of the show, a fan asked Piper what he wore under his Scottish kilt. When Brown repeated the question, Piper looked directly at her.
“Piper said, 'Let’s see how much guts you have,'” Petrucci recalled, “and he raised his kilt in front of her.”
To this day, Brown, who played right along with the act, won’t say what she saw – if anything -- under Piper’s kilt, other than to say it happened so fast and that she had to quickly transition to the next question.
“The wrestlers all had a wonderful time,” Brown said. “Afterward, we shook hands, and they went on their way.”
Most of them headed home in Slaughter’s camouflaged limousine, which had to weave through a throng of autograph-seeking fans in the public television station’s mountaintop parking lot. The 60-minute taping even elevated Brown to star status in the local pro wrestling community.
“I went one time to Ag Hall after our show aired,” Brown said, “and the crowd recognized me and starting chanting ‘Shelley, Shelley, Shelley! When are you going to do another (wrestling) show?’ That was awesome.”
Spawning of superstars
Allentown remained an active host for various pro wrestling organizations. The WWF continued to return after it ceased its TV operations at Agricultural Hall and even became the opening night tradition for the annual Great Allentown Fair for a short run.
The ECW set up camp during the late 1990s at Ag Hall. A May 18, 1996, card drew 1,200 fans, and they witnessed Raven defeat Chris Jericho for the organization’s world title.
Even old stalwarts such as Slaughter, Koloff, Superstar Billy Graham and Zbyszko returned to Ag Hall in 1985 under the Jim Crockett Promotions banner.
But perhaps – indirectly -- the biggest contribution that taping “Championship Wrestling” in Allentown produced was the creation of two of pro wrestling’s future superstar acts – The Nasty Boys tag team and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
The Nasty Boys -- Brian Knobbs and Jerry Sags – captured multiple tag team titles during their career. They won the WWF tag team belt by defeating the Hart Foundation at WrestleMania VII in 1991.
Long before they hit the big time, the Nasty Boys were former Whitehall High School athletes Brian Yandrisevits and Jerry Saganowich, who were regulars at the Ag Hall tapings. They weren’t afraid to express their opinions.
In fact, Knobbs’ good friend and Florida neighbor, Hulk Hogan, recalled in a Morning Call story how he remembered the Nasty Boys being among the Ag Hall hecklers as youngsters. Another well-known Whitehall graduate, NFL Pro Bowler Matt Millen, inspired his fellow Zephyrs to try pro wrestling.
“Matt Millen, who’s a good friend of ours, gave our reference,” Knobbs told lehighvalleylive.com in June 2015 prior to the Nasty Boys’ appearance at a Legends of Wrestling Show at Citi Field.
“He said, ‘Hey man, if you keep acting the way you are, you are going to wind up on the wrong side of the tracks and maybe in jail.' He said, ‘Knobbs, why don’t you and Sags try that wrestling? You’ve always liked it and you’ve always wanted to do it.’ And we said, ‘You know what, that’s a good idea Matt.'”
It didn’t take much arm twisting for Knobbs and Sags to follow Millen’s advice.
“So we hunted down George Steele. At the time, WWF was doing TV tapings in Allentown all the time. And we bugged George “The Animal” Steele and he sent us up to Verne Gagne’s camp and said, ‘This will either make you or break you’” Knobbs told lehighvalleylive.com.
“From then on, from 1985, was when we went through camp. It did, it almost broke us, but we never quit. It started with 22 students, and me and Sags were the only ones who lasted.”
Dwayne Johnson, one of the world’s most famous actors with more than 90 movie appearances to his credit, is a 1990 Freedom High School graduate. The reason “The Rock” attended Freedom, where he earned a football scholarship to the University of Miami, is his father Rocky Johnson moved to the Lehigh Valley when he became part of the WWF crew of wrestlers in the early 1980s.
In 1983, Rocky Johnson teamed with Tony Atlas to form “Soul Patrol.” During a Nov. 15 “Championship Wrestling” taping, Johnson and Atlas won by disqualification over the reigning tag team champions the Wild Samoans, Afa and Sika. However, Soul Patrol didn’t gain the belt because it was by disqualification.
No worry. Later in the evening during the taping of the next week’s show, Johnson and Atlas wrested the title in a “No Disqualification” match to become the first Black world title holders in WWF history.
Rarely, for obvious reasons, did the WWF show anyone in the crowd at Ag Hall. However, The Rock once posted on his Instagram account a clip of him in Allentown sitting in the front row as an 11-year-old intently watching his father and Atlas wrestle as champions.
After his aspirations of becoming a professional football player ended in the Canadian Football League in 1996, The Rock embarked on his successful wrestling career. He was billed as the first three-generation WWF performer competing as Rocky Maivia, a name that honored his father and his maternal grandfather, Peter Maivia. Peter Maivia, the godfather of the long line of Samoan wrestlers, appeared on that first TV show at Ag Hall in 1978.
The Rock wrestled in a pair of televised shows at Lehigh University’s Stabler Arena early in his career before becoming a regular WWF headliner and multi-champion prior to concentrating on his movie career.
“So we hunted down George Steele. At the time, WWF was doing TV tapings in Allentown all the time. And we bugged George “The Animal” Steele and he sent us up to Verne Gagne’s camp and said, ‘This will either make you or break you.’”The Nasty Boys' Brian Knobbs, to lehighvalleylive.com in 2015
During the late 1980s, aspiring pro wrestlers came to the Allentown area to learn the tricks of the trade at the Wild Samoan Training Center operated by Afa. Among its future stars was Parkland High School graduate Peter Alan Gruner Jr., who reigned as the WCW Cruiserweight champion under the name Billy Kidman. Kidman currently works for the WWE.
More than 30 years after the last taping of “Championship Wrestling” in Allentown, the national media shone its bright spotlight on the events surrounding an Ag Hall show on May 10, 1983.
That’s the night when Jimmy Snuka’s 23-year-old girlfriend Nancy Argentino was found unresponsive in their hotel room at the former George Washington Motor Lodge on Seventh Street near Route 22. She died later at Lehigh Valley Hospital under suspicious circumstances.
Snuka was not charged with anything at the time and continued to return to Allentown for “Championship Wrestling” tapings.
Eventually, Argentino’s family was awarded $500,000 in a wrongful death civil suit, but Snuka defaulted saying he was broke.
In 2015, after a Morning Call investigation revisited the Snuka-Argentino incident, a grand jury determined sufficient evidence existed to bring Snuka to trial on charges of third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
Ultimately, the gravely ill Snuka was determined to be unfit to stand trial in June 2016. The homicide charges were dismissed. The 73-year-old Snuka died the following year of cancer, and brought down the final curtain on the glory days of professional wrestling in the Lehigh Valley.
Corky Blake is a freelance writer who has covered sports for more than 40 years in the Lehigh Valley. He was in the audience that May night in 1984 covering “Your Turn, Lehigh Valley” for The Globe-Times. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @CorkyBlake.