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I'm Going to Turn the Three of You into Pretzels
by Don Drewniak

During the mid-to-late 1950s, local professional wrestling was featured Saturday afternoons on Boston's WBZ. The telecasts proved to be immensely popular. A major reason for the popularity was Edward Wladyslaw Spulnik, better known as Killer Kowalski. At six feet six inches, Kowalski was one of the largest professional wrestlers from the late 40s into the early 70s. With rare exceptions, he was cast as the villain. His appearances (most often as the “World Champion”) drove the ratings for the telecasts.

Kowalski's signature weapon was the Claw Hold, in which he would drive his fingers into an opponent's abdomen and thereby supposedly paralyzing the foe.

It was while watching one of the telecasts that I learned pro wrestling was coming to the Academy Theater in my hometown of Fall River. The main attraction featured “World Champion” Kowalski against a Japanese wrestler, Mr. Moto, in a best two-out-of-three-falls match. Tickets were to go on sale the following Monday (a school day) at the Academy.

I hustled from high school on the first day the tickets went on sale and managed to scoff up six on-stage, second-row tickets. Other than my ticket, the remaining five were for friends. The ring was set up on the stage with three or four rows of folding-chair seats on both sides.

Although I am not certain of this, I believe the program was held on a Friday night. The theater was packed. While the preliminary bouts were entertaining, like most in the theater I was looking forward to the last two matches. The semifinal pitted all 601-pounds of Haystacks Calhoun against a long-since-forgotten opponent. Calhoun, who was the first of wrestling's super-heavyweights, was deceptively agile and was adept at using a variety of traditional holds. He adopted a country-boy persona complete with long hair, a flowing beard and the wearing of t-shirts and blue overalls held in place by suspenders. When entering a ring, he complemented his attire with a horseshoe that was held in place around his neck by a chain.

Calhoun was a fan favorite and delighted the crowd when he ended the match by sitting on his opponent. That helped fire up the crowd for the arrival of Kowalski. After fifteen minutes passed and no sign of Kowalski and Moto, the assembled audience began to grumble. The collective mood turned decidedly sour at the twenty-five minute mark. All was forgiven (temporarily) with the appearance of the night's star attraction shortly before the forty-minute mark.

Following his introduction, Moto was greeted with a heavy amount of booing and jeering, the result no doubt of the memories of World War II. This extended to kids who had no direct knowledge of the War, but whose parents and other relatives molded their perceptions. Kowalski drew a mixture of cheers and thunderous boos. Since he was Polish, I was among the cheering.

Both wrestlers went to their corners following the instructions to await the bell for the first fall. While Kowalski turned his back to the center of the ring to stretch against the ropes, Moto removed a pair of thick-soloed wooden clogs.

He proceeded to race across the ring, hitting Kowalski over the head with one of the clogs seconds before the bell rang. The referee, as was to be expected, did not see the attack. The bell rang and a seemingly dazed Kowalski staggered around the ring and was quickly pinned by Moto.

Kowalski was billed as the heavyweight champion at that time (at least in eastern Massachusetts) and, therefore, was not supposed to lose the match, especially to a second-tier wrestler. Such losses were reserved for major venues and first-tier wrestlers such as Buddy Rogers.

There were two versions as to what happened at the start of the second fall. The first was that Moto reached into his bag of tricks and threw sand at Kowalski's face. Grains of the sand lodged in Kowalski's right eye causing temporary blindness and pain. The second was that he was hit in the eye with a pea or bean fired from a peashooter by some kid in the audience.

Apparently semi-blinded and genuinely stunned, Kowalski zigzagged around the ring covering his eye with his right hand. Moto looked confused as if he were asking himself, “What the hell do I do?”

Finally, he approached Kowalski, bumped into him and fell to the mat. Kowalski reached down and applied the Claw Hold with his left hand. Moto began wildly flailing his arms and legs before turning motionless. He was not only counted out, but deemed by the referee to be too hurt to continue the match.

The two raced out of the ring to a chorus of boos from the audience and dodged various objects being thrown at them. In its next-day morning edition, the Herald News reported that Kowalski and Moto were late getting to their match because the car in which they rode together broke down on the way to Fall River.

Lenny, Mitch and I attended a second wrestling show at the Academy during the summer following our freshman year. Without Kowalski or any other “superstar,” the theater was a third full at best. We chose to sit closer to the back of the theater rather than the front. The only person in front of us for a half-dozen rows was a woman sitting three rows down.

The announcer was veteran wrestler Frankie Scarpa (also known as Manuel Cortez among other pseudonyms) who was a frequent opponent of Kowalski. While an accomplished wrestler, his English language skills left much to be desired. Consequently, the three of us began to alternately mimic and poke fun at him. (Not loud enough for him to hear.) This went on each time he took center stage to announce the next opponents and deliver short biographies about each one.

We were being particularly obnoxious as Scarpa was introducing the fourth-match wrestlers. The three-rows-down woman stood up and faced us. All three of us immediately recognized her from the wrestling matches telecast on WBZ. She was June Byers, the Women's World Champion. The ensuing conversation was very brief.

“You boys say one more word about Mr. Scarpa, I'm going to turn the three of you into pretzels. You understand me?”




She leaned forward putting one foot on the top of her chair, looking for all the world like a giant cat ready to pounce on three mice. “Yes, what?”
“Yes, Sir...I mean Yes, Ma'am.”

“Yes, Ma'am.”

“Yes, Ma'am.”