Saturday TV sports in the 1970s — a long, strange trip indeed

Saturday TV sports in the 1970s — a long, strange trip indeed


Basement budgets, puny prizes, and endless entertainment

By David Giddens, CBC Sports
April 27, 2018
 

On Saturday afternoons in the 1970s, broadcast sports were a thing unto themselves.

The Canadian television business was less consolidated, which meant there were a lot of quirky local shows. Depending on where in this country your parents left you unattended, 70s kids could dial in some truly unique, and still underappreciated, sports television.

In Quebec for example, in the 1970s (and 80s and 90s) mini golf was a serious TV thing. It seems ridiculous, and maybe it was, but that didn’t make “le mini putt” any less entertaining to watch.

 

The great Carl Carmoni. The Mozart of Mini Putt. While you admire his uncanny ability to read those green carpets — picture yourself as a nine-year-old, watching on an old Quasar in the living room. Is there anything better than Carmoni’s hopping-mad fury when he blows a birdy chance? Angry as he got, Carmoni always had the self-control to unleash only the mildest oath. Never has a man hissed “taberouette” with more gusto.
 

L’heure du Mini Putt, and Défi Mini-Putt were weekly shows. On each one, four golfers took an hour to rattle through an 18-hole mini skins game. The first six holes had $50 riding on them. The next six were $100 holes … the final six, $150. Each season ended with a knockout tournament. All the holes were par 2, which is why the excitable host could growl “biiiirrrrrrrDEEE,” rather than “Un trou d'un.” A little bit like how Argentinian announcers shout “gooooooaaaaalll” for an eternity in soccer games now. The secret star of mini putt TV was announcer Serge Vleminckx. You can probably still amuse friends in Montreal today with a decent imitation of his "birdie" or "la normale."

Viewers outside Quebec might ask; where are the windmills? Where are the fibreglass dinosaurs? The answer: they are in Myrtle Beach. That’s not how we do it in Trois–Rivieres.

 

Restless wrestling

It was on TV for so many years that it almost felt normal, but there was always something peculiar about Saturday afternoon wrestling. For many decades, Hamilton’s CHCH TV fed the Greater Toronto area’s appetite for wrestling. Every few years a new promoting organization would cultivate another crop of characters, but some “wrasslers” always stood out from the grimacing crowd: Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon, Haystacks Calhoun, Edouard Carpentier, Eric the Animal, Tiger Jeet Singh.

 

Then as now, villains stole all the thunder, and no one was more villainous than The Sheik. In hindsight, it’s hard to move past the galloping racism of the time, but there is no arguing with the Sheik’s command of his cartoonish character. Edward George Farhat was a U.S. army vet from Michigan, but there was never a chance that he’d break character.

The Sheik’s shtick (try saying that five times) was that he was an enormously wealthy Syrian maniac. He’d stomp around the ring, blaspheming and muttering and generally stalling his opponents until he had whipped the crowd into a frenzy. His patented “camel clutch” was a sleeper hold that fans dreaded.

 

The man knew his audience: his favourite cheat was perfect for school kids. Whenever The Sheik got into a jam, he’d pull his secret weapon — a sharp HB pencil — out of his trunks or boots, and use it to shiv his unsuspecting opponent. Why couldn’t they ever see the pointy pencil coming? He did it every match! I can’t count the old friends who still have hunks of lead under their skin from Sheik-inspired pencil attacks in the schoolyard. The Sheik amped up the xenophobic frenzy by hiring Abdullah Farouk to be his treacherous manager. In fez and shades, he committed all sorts of sneaky villainy while the refs were distracted. If officials frisked The Sheik before matches, and confiscated his deadly pencil, old Abdullah Farouk would always reach into his fez and sneak out another one for The Sheik to jab the good guys with.

Abdullah Farouk was actually Ernie Roth from Ohio, but that sort of information would only spoil the party. One of Roth’s other wrestling characters was “The Grand Wizard of Wrestling,” which was deliberately tweaking the nose of Ku Klux Klan leadership … so these guys knew that racism was uncool, even while their careers were spent mocking Arabs. What to make of it? The 70s, man. They were a weird time to be a kid.

Did we believe what we were watching? Inside the wrestling world, breaking the dramatic fourth wall was forbidden. The wrestlers had a code for staying in character. They called it “kayfabe.” All the contrived rivalries and storylines fell within kayfabe. No one knows for sure where that word came from. It might be sort of pig Latin for “be fake,” it might even have sprung from a pre-war London Jewish slang term “to keep cavey,” which meant to be on the lookout, but that’s a mystery for another writer to solve.
Just like Carnies did, the oiled and sequined giants referred to the rest of us as “marks.”   During those glory years, no one in wrestling ever broke character. If you don’t look too closely, there is heroism in their gig. Every public breath they took, every word they uttered, propped up their crazy act. Many wrestlers went to their graves in character.

 

The wrestling code ran deep in Calgary, where Stampede Wrestling was a revolutionary entertainment. The Hart Family dynasty owned the brand, and reigned for 50 years, going back to just after the Second World War. Stu Hart launched the Stampede Wrestling promotion business, and it was a diverse one. There were a dozen wrestlers in the family, most famously, Bret the Hitman, and many, many more came through “The Dungeon,” their wrestling academy.

The show was a smash hit with fans. Calgarians loved their Stampede Wrestling. Dented lampshades and baffed sofa springs developed in rec rooms across Alberta as viewers practised body slamming their friends and siblings. The Stampede Wrestling program eventually syndicated in 50 countries. I just hope international parents are grateful to Canada for rounding out their kid’s TV diets.

 

Roller derby craze

Roller derby was wild television from the get-go. The roots of the sport stretch back to the indoor marathon crazes of the 1930s. Like the so-called bike races to nowhere, roller derby drew thousands who watched the action go round and round and round on small banked tracks at Madison Square Garden, and with a bit less hoopla, in smaller arenas across Canada and the U.S.

Like so many aspects of North American culture, roller derby hit peak wackiness in the 1970s. You can still get a remarkably clear sense of what the decade was like by watching a few minutes of this international roller derby session between the Canadian Braves and the San Francisco Bay Bombers.

 

Roller derby had it all: outsized personalities, real and fake fights, the occasional thrill amid a sea of spills, and managers who were exceptionally cheating. 

The rules, for what they are worth, are simple. Two teams of five skate around counterclockwise. On each team four “blockers” try to stop one “jammer” from passing them.

 

Beyond that straightforward setup, all manner of crazy action was expected. Managers tripped opposing skaters, collapsible furniture was thrown around. Stars were born.

Skinny Minnie Miller is the most famous name in derby. She was a feisty lil jammer who would take on whole stadiums in her frantic drives to burst through the packs.
Roller derby even got itself a movie deal, starring Raquel Welch, no less.

Klassy!

 

Roller derby is easy to poke fun at, but give the spectacle its due: it kept morphing through the decades, and always managed to mirror its times. As the raunchy 70s wound down, “derby” took on a much more sparkly disco boogie kind of feel. And don’t count it out yet! Roller derby is enjoying a big renaissance, riding the hipster retro zeitgeist.

Meg Black moved over from hockey to play in the Toronto Roller Derby League a couple of years ago.

“It has always been a grass roots, fun, feminist space,” she says. “It attracts people who are athletes but who don’t take themselves too seriously. We are now seeing an expanding, very serious, women’s flat track roller derby association. So there are two streams. It is an exciting time.”

 

Wink wink skater names are part of the fun now. Beaver Mansbridge, Wheat-a-bitch, BatMa’am,  Mamma Crass ... Black pays attention to the labels.

“What’s interesting is if you just say ‘roller derby,’ the immediate assumption is women. So the men have to specify: no — it’s men’s derby.”
Where are the new recruits coming from?

“The Society of Beer Drinking Ladies has given us some players … but usually roller derby fresh meat comes to us rather than us reaching out to them.”

 

Actors, athletes get involved

In the 1970s, our American friends dabbled hard in new sports entertainment properties. One milestone was Battle of the Network Stars. It was just like the Olympics, if the Olympics pitted Charlies Angels against Welcome Back Kotter, and if everyone involved was encouraged to work up "side hustles" in smoking cigarettes, racist wisecracks, and bra avoidance.

Watch as much as you dare. If you weren’t around for that era, this is a crash course in 1970s culture.

 

For thirty years, beginning in 1973, The Superstars pitted pro athletes against one another. They all came from different sports, and they squared off in a peculiar assortment of events. The idea came from Olympic figure skating champion Dick Button, and his concept was a winner.
The producers wrangled a tantalizing assortment of star athletes. In the debut, pole vaulter Bob Seagren, who ultimately won, was up against skier Jean-Claude Killy, tennis icon Rod Laver, auto racer Peter Revson, Cincinnati catcher Johnny Bench, basketball player Elvin Hayes, Rangers great Rod Gilbert, pro bowler Jim Stefanich, boxing legend Joe Frazier, and quarterback Johnny Unitas.

If that didn’t get viewers’ attention, the sports themselves cinched the deal. The events appealed to weekend athletes: swimming, bike racing, tennis, golf, bowling, weightlifting, baseball hitting, ping pong, and two running races; the half mile and 100-yard dash.

 

There really was something for everyone. A couple of hitches in the first episode: Hayes broke his nose just before the games got underway, and Frazier, incredibly, had the guts to try swimming for the first time in his life, which did not go so well. According to legend, after he was fished out of the pool, Joe had an unrepeatable wisecrack about Mark Spitz and the toughness of swimmers.

Eighteen years after its debut, Toronto fans had cause for cheer. In 1991, Blue Jay Kelly Gruber won the whole Superstar ball of wax. Ratings were great. Spin-offs brought a version of the show with women athletes, and a super teams edition, in which World Series and Super Bowl teams faced off. It was a pretty cool idea. No wonder it lasted so long.

 

Tramps ahoy!

Slamball is the logical answer to an unusual question. Back in the early 2000s, TV honchos were freaking out about video gamers, who weren’t watching broadcast TV. So they asked: what sport can we invent that will look a lot like a video game, only with real people? Measured by that setup, slamball was a total success.

 

Measured any other way, it was just too goofy for words. Even by California standards, slamball was a head scratcher. Canadians own a speck of history here. Former Canadian national basketball team player Robert Wilson was the No. 1 first-ever draft pick in the sport in 2002.

He came to the sport for all the right reasons, and he envisioned the game thriving on an influx of Karl Malone-like players. It was football-like defence, with basketballish vertical action. The league lasted three years in total, one of which was carried, sort of fittingly, on the Cartoon Network. Boiiiiinnggg.

 

A look back at Saturday sports TV in Canada would not be complete without taking a moment for Championship 5 pin bowling on CBC. The sport is famously a Canadian invention (in 1909 Thomas Ryan, bowling alley owner, heard his clientele grumble that 10-pin balls were too heavy. So Ryan cooked up the smaller — ball five-pin game, and then added a later innovation, rubber bumper rings on the pins, to stop them from flying out the windows of his alley onto startled pedestrians on Richmond Street below).

I asked around the CBC sports department, and was surprised to learn that nearly every senior staffer took a turn running the five-pin show. Ernie Afaganis, who is a broadcast legend himself, was host for many years. Championship 5 pin bowling ran every Saturday for 10 or 12 weeks at a stretch. All 12 shows in a season were shot in one weekend-long blitz at one bowling alley, Winnipeg’s Roxy Lanes being a prime example.

 

How to account for the popularity of the TV program? Walter Heeney, a champion five-pin bowler with deep knowledge of the game, said “it’s a game of the masses. Even at my age, you're able to still play somewhat competitively in a sport." 

The bowlers were delighted to have the TV exposure — and accommodating when it came to new production ideas. CBC executive Chris Irwin recalls an innovation that had mixed results…Thinking that viewers would love a close up shot of the strike action, he had a camera lens hole cut in the rubber curtain that the pins bounce into. The camera did not quite fit behind the rubber though, so they moved the curtains up a few inches to squeeze the camera in.

The new pin angle shots were excellent, but there was a gradual, unsettling realization in the broadcast truck, that an AWFUL lot of strikes were suddenly being caused by pins bouncing back off that new curtain location. Uh oh.

Part of the magic of nostalgia is that even boring stuff becomes entertaining if you go back far enough. The weekend sports we can see now on TV in Canada are infinitely better and more entertaining than the crazy stuff we gobbled up in the 1970s. No argument. But it’s a little bit like the feeling I get as I tuck into nutritious steel cut oats on a Saturday morning nowadays.

Good for me, but the molars still ache a little for Honeycomb and Frankenberry.

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