An occasional feature in which we honor the sport's fallen and examine their legacies. Today: Captain Lou Albano, who died of a heart attack in 2009.
One could forgive a child of 1991 if he were to look at a photo of Captain Lou Albano and say, "That's Super Mario," or a teenager from 1986 if he were to say, "That's Cyndi Lauper's dad." Similarly, one could forgive a late '80s wrestling fan if he saw Albano only as a buffoonish torchbearer for the good guy wrestlers, or an older wrestling fan if he knew him only as a loudmouth heel hypeman.
The popular image of Captain Lou Albano is probably a crude amalgamation of the first three; the lattermost is certainly the most accurate if longevity — or the opinion of wrestling diehards — is the measure of a reputation. But if Albano can't be defined without some acquiescence to all of these disparate parts — if he's as much none of them as he is all of them — the confusion was largely of his own creation. And in that way, he kicked open the doors for wrestling's erratic modern era, his dissociative personality spreading to his sport at large. In retrospect, it's paradoxical that a performer footed in the Golden Age of wrestling would incite its unraveling.
In the early days, pro wrestling was a pristine, primitive enterprise. The good guys were good, the bad guys were bad, and rarely — save a cataclysmic about-face or a physical relocation to a new territory — would the two paths overlap. After a lackluster go in the '50s as a singles wrestler — sometimes known as "Leaping Lou" — Albano teamed up with Tony Altomare to form "The Sicilians," two stereotypical Italian mobsters who were securely situated on the bad guy side of the spectrum. It was also a more naive era: not only were Albano and Altomare hated by the fans, but their shtick was convincing enough that, during a run in the Midwest, they elicited threats from actual organized crime in Chicago. Despite the fact that they were holding the Midwest tag titles, the threat of reality won out, and afraid for their well-being, the duo hightailed it back to the Northeast without even dropping the belts.
Albano and Altomare also appeared on a 1963 episode of Jackie Gleason and His American Scene Magazine (aka The Jackie Gleason Show), as professional wrestler Sandpaper Sam Staccato and referee Harry Hornet respectively. I won't claim to have seen the show, but it's interesting nonetheless that Gleason, in bringing the wrestling world in all its oddity to mainstream culture, chose a young Lou Albano as his shepherd. And it's instructive that Albano so straightforwardly and eagerly became someone else for mainstream exposure. This basic equation would repeat itself throughout Albano's career.
The Sicilians had a good run — they even briefly held the United States tag titles in Vince McMahon Sr.'s World Wide Wrestling Federation (the progenitor of the WWE) — but by 1969 they had dissolved their union. Never the most talented ring technician to begin with, Albano was nonetheless indisputably good at provoking the fans. On the advice of the iconic Bruno Sammartino, Albano made the first significant shift of his career, ending his days as a grappler and refashioning himself into a diabolical manager, determined to dethrone Sammartino and end his years-long championship reign. He dubbed himself "Captain Lou" — a direct (albeit imprecise) reference to Albano's pre-wrestling military career. It was a convenient storyline for pro wrestling's territorial era: Sammartino was a WWWF mainstay, but his villainous opponents were often imported on short-term contracts to feud and, once dispatched, to disappear into a different territory. This kept the card fresh but it limited the long-term storytelling potential. In his new role, Albano bridged the gap. He became Sammartino's principle foil, despite the fact that he hardly set foot in the ring; Albano sent fearsome heels at Sammartino like an ornery god lobbing thunderbolts at antiquity's heroes.
Under Albano's tutelage, Ivan Koloff, a Russian monster (who was actually a Canadian named Oreal Parras) defeated Sammartino for the heavyweight title — though he quickly dropped it to fan favorite Pedro Morales. (The bad guy in this sort of switch is derisively known as a "transitional champion" — a means of moving the title from one good guy to another without requiring them to face off directly; in wrestling's golden age, a face-face rivalry would have been unthinkable.)
His goal had been accomplished, but Albano's diabolical coterie didn't fare quite as well in the following years. Never again did Albano manage a wrestler to the heavyweight title, though Greg "The Hammer" Valentine and Don Muraco each won the secondary Intercontinental belt with Albano as their mouthpiece. Albano would find his real niche managing tag teams; over the remainder of his career, he led seemingly innumerable duos to championship gold.
The tag team manager displays the manager's role in its most distilled state. The world of tag teams is the land of the also-ran — the wrestler incapable of working out the psychology of a full-length solo match, too small to act as a believable adversary, or unable to summon the voice or charisma needed to convey the element of threat. This last type was the bread and butter for Albano and other managers of his ilk.
Even as a heel — some would say especially as a heel — Albano was a ragtag supernova of charisma: long, frazzled mane; Hawaiian shirts unbuttoned to the navel; rubber bands tying off his unkempt goatee and dangling from his ears. He was in some ways the same streetwise bully he portrayed in his earlier wrestling days, challenging his rivals' manhood and hurling decidedly un-PC epithets at the gathered crowds. He was a jerk, but above all he was a weasel, a guy willing to talk big but unwilling to compete, and that made him truly detestable. There were other mangers who can be said to have worked the routine as well as Albano — The Grand Wizard and "Classy" Freddie Blassie were the other two greats of that period, and they, along with Albano, are referred to as the "Holy Trinity" of heel managers — but Albano's act was an inversion of the usual loud-mouthed-stringbean-manager type: He looked like your tough uncle, like he could actually throw his weight around, and yet he remained safely situated behind his various protégés. His cowardice seemed almost inexplicable, and so it was all the more infuriating.
Albano made a notable return to the ring in this era as the payoff to a feud against Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka. Snuka had been in a rivalry with Albano disciple Ray "The Crippler" Stevens, but since feuds against Albano's stablemembers were always de facto feuds against Captain Lou himself, Snuka eventually got Albano into a steel cage at Madison Square Garden. Years removed from the ring at that point, Albano nonetheless put on a satisfying show, recoiling comically from Snuka's blows and (very obviously, for some reason) razor blading his forehead to bloody himself — or, in wrestling reality, to be "bloodied at Snuka's hands."
Albano's career continued along this crowd-(dis)pleasing mid-card path until an odd confluence of events landed him in an unlikely cultural spotlight. In 1983, Captain Lou Albano met pop star Cyndi Lauper on a flight to Puerto Rico. Perhaps seeing in Albano a kindred spirit — or maybe because her manager-cum-boyfriend Dave Wolf was a longtime wrestling fan — Lauper asked Albano to play her father in the video for "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." As legendary rock writer Richard Meltzer (uncle of "professional wrestling journalist" Dave Meltzer) puts it in his devastating Wrestlemania I treatise "The Last Wrestling Piece": "Granted you might not've had an actual concrete rock-wrestling Connection — so-called — at least not the official horror the thing is currently saddled with, had not Lou Albano made a guest appearance in one of Lauper's videos (and History proceeded from there)." It's unarguable that the video instigated the most commercially propitious period in wrestling history. Due to both his notoriety from the Lauper video and his electric, eccentric personality — to say nothing of his shaggy, bloated accessibility — Captain Lou would serve as the mascot and ambassador of pro wrestling to the world at large.
Albano's appearance in the video was an incredibly high-profile cameo for a pro wrestling personality; as far back as the Jackie Gleason days, wrestlers were often ghettoized by their unconventional enterprise. Moreover, though, the Lauper video offered the quintessence of the burgeoning mainstream Captain Lou persona. "Girls" is often viewed as the antic counterpart to the more self-serious "Papa Don't Preach," and Albano stood out in stark contrast to the distractingly earnest Danny Aiello, who played the songstress's father in the Madonna video. Where Aiello was sober and cinematically gauzy, Albano's Papa was an over-acted technicolor epiphany, wagging his finger and throwing up his arms in dismay — all the camp that served him so well as a blowhard antagonist playing to the wrestling world's cheap seats, now made newly potent under the lights of MTV hyperactivity.
It must be said that Albano was playing only a very minor variation of the "Captain Lou" character — he was uncostumed, or rather costumed simply as Captain Lou Albano; setting the stage for much of the rest of his Hollywood career, Albano portrayed his WWF character with minimal affectation rather than delving fully into any new character. It's stunning — galling even — how seamlessly he adapted to his new role. For years, the pro wrestling world had protected its secrets under a veil called kayfabe — a pledge among its players that "wrestling reality" should never be disrupted in any public setting. (Vince Sr. supposedly fired Hulk Hogan for his role in Rocky III on the grounds that it disrespected this tradition.) But Albano's appearance on MTV is the moment modernity at last entered the petrified WWF. And rather than evict Albano for crossing the line, Vincent K. McMahon, who had recently taken over the company from his father, embraced the crossover appeal it provided. It would prove to be a savvy business decision, but it would also bring to wrestling what modernity brings to every precinct it touches: a culture that values ratings over tradition and histrionics over history, a culture in which everything is disposable, a culture of … whatever.
The Albano-Lauper relationship segued into WWF television, where Lauper made a surprise appearance on Piper's Pit. Albano — still a bad guy to the WWF audience — interrupted and heelishly tried to take credit for Lauper's celebrity. (Such an assault on Lauper by the predominant heel manager of the era was actually a masterstroke in lending her pro wrestling credentials. Wrestling fans are notoriously touchy about outsiders invading their turf, but Albano's factually absurd anti-Lauper act cemented her as a comprehensible presence on the wrestling stage.) Once suitably provoked, Lauper assaulted Albano with her purse — he sold the attack with all the gusto that he summoned for Snuka's headbutts years earlier — and challenged him to a proxy match between female wrestlers of their choosing: a setup for the legendary Fabulous Moolah-Wendy Richter match on July 23, 1984, on MTV — an event solemnly entitled "The Brawl to End it All."
It was odd, to paraphrase Richard Meltzer, that they chose the near-invisible realm of women's wrestling as the site of their duel, but this was the dawning of a new era, and so … whatever. The WWF touted the 20-plus years that Moolah had held the women's strap, and so her defeat at Richter's hands was made epic despite the notable lack of women's wrestling intrigue in the preceding decade.
Richter's win earned her the title, but more importantly it signaled the victory of the incipient Rock 'n' Wrestling movement. (Interestingly, Richter herself proved disposable; she never became as significant a wrestler as she was here a symbol — a vessel for feminine strength and coolness. Her WWF run was interrupted due to a contractual dispute, and her later employers were unable to muster the hype that attended her WWF run. That the legendary Moolah was jobbed out to such a one-hit wonder seems hardly significant in retrospect; legacy has become disposable, too.) The younger McMahon, who was eager to expand the promotion nationally, thrilled at the potential for such exposure. He wedded Hulk Hogan, newly reacquired from Minnesota's AWA, to the Rock 'n' Wrestling movement, and Albano, newly chastened by Moolah's loss (and brimming with crossover popularity), converted and joined forces with Lauper and Hogan.
It was a logical business decision — and a positive career move for Albano — but it was another slap to wrestling's purist history. As Meltzer snarls: "[W]hile roleplay flexibility, including the option of 180° reversals on a dime, has always been a vital part of the trip, bad-to-good transitions have become an all-too-prevalent fat of life, as witnessed by the surrender-of-self of far too many Significant Malevolents in the last couple annums: Hulk Hogan, Sgt. Slaughter, Superfly Snuka and — saddest of all — Lou Albano. (Reagan Era culture death at its most chilling.)" For all his enthusiasm, Albano was basically neutered by being a fan favorite. Before long, he was marching the other Rock 'n' Wrestlers to the ring as little more than a glorified bouncer. These were good guys who, if decades of wrestling had taught us anything, didn't need a manager. If it wasn't culture death writ large, it was still a painful shift. Nevertheless, this new interdisciplinary endeavor pushed wrestling — as now defined by the Vince Jr.'s WWF — to new heights of cultural legitimacy.
The year 1984 saw the debut of the cartoon Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling, which featured Hogan and his band of fan favorites — including Captain Lou — in an orgy of semi-comical, multicultural animated horseplay opposite "Rowdy" Roddy Piper's team of bad guy all-stars.
Finally, wrestlers were fully in the mainstream, albeit in animated form. And it must be said that their portrayals were borderline parodic and oddly inauthentic — the wrestlers didn't even voice their own on-screen avatars. (Brad Garrett notably portrayed cartoon Hogan.) This was followed in short order by wrestlers on talk shows, on awards shows, seemingly everywhere. Here was the ultimate victory for the Rock 'n' Wrestling movement: Wrestling had been there all along, lurking in the shadows, but suddenly it was inescapable.
And there in the middle of it all was Captain Lou, the nominal patron saint of the whole WWF. Now commonly appearing in too-tight t-shirts emblazoned with his own visage, he was wrestling's ambassador into the mainstream. Hogan — the champion, the figurehead — appeared on MTV and in commercials, but Albano was the era's true crossover star, amplifying his wrestling career with appearances in Lauper videos, on TV shows Miami Vice and 227, and in the movies Body Slam and The Fixer.
Of these, only Body Slam merits special mention. With a game Dirk Benedict roughly portraying Vince McMahon and Roddy Piper repackaged and polished into clean-cut babyface, the film was either easily digestible rasslin-lite for the non-fan or a mindbending circus-mirror caricature of the sport for the zealous viewer. If Albano's turn in "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" imperiled kayfabe, this schlockumentary treatment did more to dismantle the barrier than anything in wrestling until the late '90s, when a postmodern wave discarded the whole concept altogether for the sake of the pseudoreality of in-jokes and obscenity. In Body Slam, Albano, as was his standard, more or less played himself. Technically, he went by "Captain Lou Murano," but he wasn't trying to be anything other than Captain Lou Albano — in some ways he was a sort of bastion of wrestling "reality," a concrete connection to the "real" fiction of the ring beyond the "fake" fiction of the film. But more than that, the resemblance of Murano to Albano actually underscored the gap — or lack thereof — between pro wrestling's unreality and Hollywood's plain falsehood.
And again, there was something off-putting about the ease with which he moved between worlds. His familiar presence made the movie seem palatable, but it raised deeper questions: If pro wrestlers weren't going to keep up the façade, then why should the viewer continue to act like they believe, or care? When Albano appeared on Gleason's show under a new identity, the television market was new and its ramifications for kayfabe were indiscernible. With Body Slam, though, the same couldn't be said. Albano and Piper either didn't know what they were doing, or they didn't care.
He did finally put on another costume, but only in deference to a cultural icon even greater than himself: He portrayed the live-action Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!. (He also voiced the cartoon Mario.) Albano once said that he almost turned down the show out of reluctance to shave his infamous goatee, but that too proved to be disposable.
Despite a paltry number of unique episodes, the series has had remarkable cultural currency. It functioned not just as a touchstone but as a larger culmination: the union of the new (video games) with the old (children's programming). The cartoon sequences were mundane, no more remarkable than those of Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling, basically fantasy adventures based on the video-game lore. But the anthropoid segments — featuring the two Mario brothers running a plumbing outfit from a basement in Brooklyn — were often bizarre and Beckettesque non-linear quandaries. Somehow, grounding the fantasy in live-action reality made the enterprise even more bizarre. There were frequent celebrity cameos, and Albano and Danny Wells (as Luigi) sometimes played other characters, including female versions of themselves. One of the most bizarre sequences had Lauper appear in pursuit of a missing Captain Lou, whereupon "Mario" professed to be a big Albano fan. This can certainly be viewed as a great victory, if not for wrestling at large than certainly for Albano — his fame was suddenly on equal footing with Mario's, the role to which he subjugated himself. But at what cost?
After his Mario chapter ended, Lou made a return to WWF television, managing the Headshrinkers. (Lou had a history handling Samoan wrestlers — he managed the Wild Samoans early in the early 1980s, and Fatu played "Tonga Tom," Piper's tag team partner in Body Slam.) In his return to ringside, Lou continued to play the good guy, but he otherwise reverted back to the elements of his early managerial heyday: Blustery and grating, he steered the Headshrinkers almost instantly to the tag team championship. He had re-appeared in the WWF almost incidentally and disappeared without the booming farewell one might think he deserved. It has to be said that Lou's absence was hardly noticeable — but again, this was his own doing; he had turned his back on wrestling when he donned Mario's red coveralls. Nostalgia was disposable now, too.
(I feel obligated to reference here the recent return to the WWE from Hollywood of the Rock. Contra Albano, the Rock returns as something of a conquering hero; he left on top, actually achieved the mainstream success that has eluded so many others, and in his absence, scores of other wrestlers began imitating his act. And yet the fact that the WWE booked him to run immediately afoul of John Cena shows that they're hedging bets. They were safe no matter how the audience received his comeback. Had the Rock returned to caustic boos, they could simply put Cena over him and benefit from the fans' disgust.)
On his 75th birthday at a restaurant in Queens, ECW mainstay The Sandman gave a drunken toast to his longtime friend Albano, then got into a brawl with the restaurant's owner. The melee made the New York papers and was heckled widely on the internet, Albano once again shepherding his sport and all its silly excess into the mainstream.
Much of the story of wrestling is the story of its slow liberation from its old moorings — from the territories, from the traditions, from the physical event itself, so that what actually transpires in the ring now is almost incidental to the sport. To become a part of the cultural wallpaper today, pro wrestling had to absolve itself of its distinctiveness. Above all, it sacrificed a great deal of its wonderfully peculiar internal logic for the logic of television, where there is little room for history or tradition, where there is no such thing as "parts unknown," where the culture of disposability will always hold the belt. Albano's role in this can't be overstated. He had led pop culture into pro wrestling and led pro wrestling into pop culture; he was an ambassador for the crossover success that redefined the wrestling trade, a manager on a grand scale.
The older wrestling fans might see this change as a travesty, and to the late '80s wrestling fan it might seem wholly insignificant. Pro wrestling is in everyone's life now to some degree, and Captain Lou was the trailblazer, for better and for worse.
So we bid you farewell, Captain Lou. We booed, we cheered, we forgave when you left us behind. You were never disposable.