MEDIA: How Ray Stevens helped win the Fresno Wrestling War


Posted on 6/08/121 by Mike Informer

How Ray Stevens helped win the Fresno Wrestling War



When it comes to professional wrestling promotional
rivalries, the “Monday Night Wars” between the WWF vs. WCW
from 1995-2001 might come to mind.

Current fans might say AEW vs. Nxt in the “Wednesday Night
Wars.” Old school fans might say the Atlanta promotional war
in the 1970s.

But Fresno had its battle of wrestling promotions that
started 60 years ago, in June 1961. An upstart promotion,
affiliated with a new group based in San Francisco, started
airing a show taped at a local Fresno TV studio.

The established group wasn’t on TV. A year later, only one
group survived — the newcomer with the TV show.

Fresno Studio TV Wrestling

“Big Time Wrestling” debuted on KJEO-47 — then an ABC
affiliate, now KGPE-47 a CBS station — Tuesday nights at
10:30 p.m. They taped live at the studio in central Fresno
near Shaw and Cedar avenues.

The Fresno show ran for about 10 years on varying days and
times. The TV ran essentially as a one-hour advertisement
for the cards to be held at the Memorial Auditorium about
every three weeks.

Jim Boren, long-time Fresno Bee editor and current director
of the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust,
recalls going to the studio events as a child with his
brother.

“We would walk over there because it was not too far of a
walk from our neighborhood. And we’d get there early and we
get the front row. We’d make silly faces to the camera,
knowing that we can see it on TV. We saw some of the great
wrestlers for that era,” Boren said.

‘Seeing Yourself on TV’

Boren recalls seeing the likes of Ray Stevens, Pat
Patterson, Kinji Shibuya, and Mitsu Arakawa. The show was
taped in front of an audience of 100 in a metal warehouse
studio.

“Part of the thrill of seeing yourselves on TV because that
was still a relatively new medium then. The second was just
that we love the Big Time Wrestling,” Boren said.

During one taping, Boren found it odd that cameras were
already set up in the parking lot outside the TV studio.

“They had a tag team match where it spilled into the parking
lot. And it was a brawl. It was all part of the but the
setup,” Boren said.

Later in life, Boren ran into wrestling legend Pepper Gomez,
who became a greeter at Scoma’s — a well-known San Francisco
restaurant.

“We got our picture taken with him and, reminisced about all
the all the good old times,” Boren said.

Dinner Time with the Stars

Marlyne Dutson inherited her love of wrestling from her
father and grandfather. She recalls going to the studio
matches with her brothers.

“Everybody pretty much enjoyed the whole environment. It was
a fun thing to see as a kid,” Dutson said.

Marlyne Dutson says her father invited the wrestlers over to
their Sunnyside-area home because he was proud of living in
an area where Armenians were once not allowed to live.
Her father befriended the wrestlers at the studio and
invited them home for dinner.

“He would tell my mother in advance to prepare a nice big
Armenian dinner at the house ready for them after the
matches,” Dutson said. “I’m sure in those days, I’ll be
honest, they’re not going to turn away free food.”

“My mother would have a full-on Armenian traditional dinner
from shish kebab, the pilaf, and the whole nine yards of our
culture. And we would sit there as kids and jibjab with
these wrestlers,” Dutson said.

Related Story: Pro Wrestling Legend Pat Patterson, Noted
Fresno Headliner, Dies at 79

Fresno Hosted Legendary Haystacks Calhoun

Stevens, Patterson, and Gomez were among the guests. But,
600-pound Haystacks Calhoun never arrived.

“He was too big because these guys would pull up in a
Volkswagen,” Dutson said.

She says her father invited the wrestlers over to their
Sunnyside-area home because he was proud of living in an
area where Armenians were once not allowed to live.

“He was proud of himself. But yet knowing these wrestlers
could come and have this, you know, phenomenal meal… (and
say) hey, I have these wrestlers at our house for dinner,”
Dutson said.

Dutson also recalls her family befriending a retired former
world heavyweight champion, Ali Baba. By the 1960s, he
worked as a massage therapist in Dinuba and would also be a
guest at the wrestling dinners.

The irony was that Baba, known as the “Terrible Turk,” was
really Harry Ekizian, an Armenian.

Unfortunately for Dutson, pictures with those wrestlers were
destroyed in a house fire. But, her love for wrestling
reached a fourth generation. Her son Josh Dutson operates
local wrestling promotion Best of the West.

What happened in Fresno mirrored what was happening in the
San Francisco wrestling scene, and almost in the same
fashion. Roy Shire, a wrestler originally from Indiana who
had a great mind for the business, migrated to San
Francisco, seeing it ripe for a wrestling war.

The established group was owned by an old-school promoter,
Joe Malcewicz. Shire began televising his matches on
recently founded independent TV station, KTVU-2. The
incumbent group didn’t believe in airing its product.

“The real key was KTVU out of San Francisco being so
strong,” Wrestling Observer Newsletter publisher Dave
Meltzer said. “The Cow Palace (arena in Daly City, adjacent
to San Francisco) carried the territory and was No. 2 to
Madison Square Garden (in New York City) in wrestling in the
early 60s.”

A year later, only Shire remained and promoted wrestling at
the Cow Palace and throughout northern California for the
better part of the next 20 years.

An Attempt to Block Promoter’s License Fails

Shire wanted to expand the cities where he operated. He
worked with a man by the name of Bob Hill, a Northridge
wrestling promoter. Under the corporate name of “Fresno
Athletic Club,” Shire supplied the wrestlers, using Hill’s
wrestling license.

Ray Stevens “was the difference between a good successful
company and being arguably the best promotion in the U.S in
the early 60s.” — Dave Meltzer, Wrestling Observer
Newsletter publisher

The new promotion was known as “Big Time Wrestling.”

The existing Fresno wrestling group was promoted under the
auspices of the local Disabled American Veterans club. Al
Dermer — also known for promoting live boxing and other
sports — served as the matchmaker. The group had promoted
weekly wrestling — first at Ryan’s Arena and later at the
Fresno Memorial Auditorium — since 1929.

Dermer and the DAV vociferously objected to the state
athletic commission’s licensing of the new group. George
Zenovich, who later became a longtime state legislator and
judge, was the attorney who represented the existing group
at the commission hearing.

“The commission said it could not disapprove the license
applications simply because the wrestling clubs would
compete with DAV-sponsored events. The DAV contended the
club’s activities would seriously hurt its wrestling
revenue,” The Fresno Bee reported on June 11, 1961.

The new Hill/Shire group would hold weekly live TV shows.
Dermer told the commission that the “free studio telecasts
would be injurious to the DAV Saturday night shows,” The Bee
reported.

The Blonde Bomber Destroys the Competition

Stevens, the biggest star in San Francisco, easily became
the biggest star in Fresno. Wrestling historians consider
Stevens one of the top wrestlers of the era. He has been
described as the “Stone Cold” Steve Austin of his day — a
kick-butt, tough-talking brawler who could work any style.

“Ray Stevens was the guy. It’s really evident as when he got
hurt, crowds fell greatly and when he’d return, business was
on fire. Many would say he was the best worker in the
business a the time, but he was more than just that. He
could talk and had charisma and was huge box office,”
Meltzer said.

“He was the difference between a good successful company and
being arguably the best promotion in the U.S in the early
60s,” Meltzer said.

In San Francisco, fans voted Stevens the most popular and
the most hated in the same year. He could bounce around the
ring with ease. His “corner flip” bump — a wrestling move
where he went head over heels into the corner and sometimes
landing on the ring apron — was emulated by the likes of
Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair.

Shire/Stevens Hit Fresno

The first Big Time Wrestling in Fresno card took place July
20, 1961. More than 2,000 fans watched Mitsu Arakawa beating
John Weaver in the main event.

Stevens won his match that night against Ray “Thunder”
Stern, a bodybuilder turned wrestler.

“The Blonde Bomber” main-evented the next five Fresno cards
and was a mainstay through the 1970s.

Meltzer also credited Shire, the mastermind behind the new
West Coast wrestling scene.

“The keys to the success were that Roy Shire was a genius as
far as logical booking from show-to-show went. He was the
storyteller. He produced the interviews and made the angles
and matches,” Meltzer said.

Meanwhile, the DAV/Dermer promotion tried to keep up. Their
shows ran weekly at the Memorial Auditorium on Saturdays;
Hill/Shire shows were about every three weeks also at the
auditorium, usually on Thursdays.

With Malcewicz throwing in the towel on his San Francisco
promotion, the Fresno group needed a new supplier of talent.
They turned south to the Southern California Boking Office
of Hollywood, run by Jules Strongbow.

Being on TV first provided a huge advantage for Big Time
Wrestling. Dermer’s group finally made the plunge on March
10, 1962, airing a live hour Saturday night at 10 p.m. on a
station that no longer exists — KICU-43 in Visalia (Bay Area
natives may recognize those call letters later used for
Channel 36 in San Jose).

But it was too little too late. The DAV group suspended
operations in May 1962 — never to return.

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