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The Joyce Sports Research Collection: Wrestling

The Jack Pfefer Wrestling Collection

Introduction

At the end of World War I professional wrestling in the United States was not yet the patently theatrical spectacle familiar to us today. It was, rather, a curious combination of sport and show, featuring both "shooting matches" (in which competitors genuinely attempted to defeat their opponents) and "business matches" (with results pre-arranged by managers and promoters, so that reputations could be built or maintained and profits maximized). Nor did wrestling have, as yet, a broad following — though celebrated matches like those in Chicago in 1908 and 1911 between the American Frank Gotch and the Russian George Hackenschmidt had attracted large crowds and considerable newspaper coverage. One thing that hurt the sport's spectator appeal was the seeming inaction that characterized many matches: even in the freestyle or "catch-as-catch-can"type of wrestling practiced in American rings, competitors could lie entangled in a given position for long periods of time, generating little spectator interest.

Over the following two decades this situation would change. During the 1920s professional wrestling showed a steady increase in popularity; by the early Depression years it was one of the most lucrative forms of sporting entertainment in the country, receiving broad coverage in the nation's dailies (where it was still treated, by and large, as a legitimate competitive sport). Under the promotional auspices of the "wrestling trust" headed by New York's Jack Curley, crowds filled Madison Square Garden to watch Curley heavyweight champion Jim Londos (Christopher Theophelos) defeat yet another carefully groomed opponent. But this popularity was achieved only by the near elimination of any competitive premise. Shooting matches became infrequent, unless resulting from a managerial "double cross." Wholly inexperienced wrestlers - including college football stars like Wayne Munn, Gus Sonnenberg, and Joe Savoldi - were made contenders or champions strictly because of perceived gate appeal. Other contenders were chosen to create interest in the various urban ethnic communities of the East and Midwest. Stylewise, wrestling became more acrobatic, and less a matter of "scientific" locks and holds. The expression of emotion was encouraged. By the late '30s, professional wrestling was performance rather than sport; in its theatricality it resembled, in kind if not always in degree, the televised rituals of today. Yet even as it sacrificed its competitive premise for spectator appeal, the game was declining in popularity. Madison Square Garden neglected to book professional wrestling from 1938 to 1949, and everywhere there was a retrenchment to smaller towns and smaller arenas. Infighting among the major New York and regional promoters had led to public recriminations and legal actions that revealed much about the true nature of the game. The newspapers ran story after story exposing the trust and declaring wrestling fans to be the victims of fraud on a grand scale. The result was a deep decline in public interest, which reversed itself only with the advent of televison in the 1950s.

Jack Pfefer

Black and White Photograph of Jack Pfefer.
Jack Pfefer
Central to many of these events was the colorful figure of promoter Jacob (Jack) Pfefer. Pfefer - also commonly spelled "Pfeffer" - was a small, energetic Polish Jew with an unabashed vision of wrestling as theater. He was born near Warsaw (in what was then the Russian empire) on 10 December 1894, and came to the United States in late 1921, perhaps as manager or booking agent with a touring theatrical company (his passport describes him only as commerçant or trader). His involvement with professional wrestling dates to 1924, in Chicago, when he brought the first of a long line of East European heavyweights to the United States to wrestle on the American circuits. As foreigners, these wrestlers were "exotic"; as representatives of ethnic groups with large immigrant communities in the United States, they had an inherent appeal, which Pfefer exploited in the foreign-language press. Many of these wrestlers - Russians, Ukrainians, Poles - were built up into contenders to generate appealing match-ups with top Americans, whereupon the Europeans would lose, and continue around the circuits until waning popularity dictated their replacement.

After several years based in Chicago Pfefer moved to New York, where by 1930 he had become an inside partner in the Curley trust, and one of the most powerful promoters and booking agents in the game. His title was "Manager of the Foreign Department" or "Manager of Foreign Talent"; his years with Curley corresponded quite precisely with pro wrestling's "golden age" of high profits, and he made a great deal of money. But an unsuccessful bid to replace Curley as number one man in New York (1933) left Pfefer on the outside looking in, ostracized by a new, expanded alliance of New York and regional promoters. To confront this situation and bring down his former partners, Pfefer took the extraordinary step of revealing the inside workings of the wrestling business to the press. Through Dan Parker, sports editor of the New York Daily Mirror, Pfefer relayed to the public the full extent of professional wrestling's "fakery" and its promoters' machinations - not excepting his own. Drawing on his own exhaustive records, he would reveal the circumstances behind the trust's "championship" matches, resulting in headers like the following in the New York Daily News for November 19, 1934: "LONDOS AND MARSHALL MEET AT GARDEN TONIGHT FOR 26TH TIME. SCORE--LONDOS 26, MARSHALL 0." The publicity resulting from all this contributed significantly to a new cynicism on the part of the public and press, epitomized by Edward Merrill's statement in The Ring for October 1934:

Regardless of any pre-arrangement — and the boxing commission must be aware that such agreements are made in all championship and other exhibitions — there can be no kick by the fans because they know what to expect and get what they come to see — good entertainment. That's all wrestling is nowadays. Legitimate competition is gone. The days of real, honest-to-goodness wrestling matches are things of the past and we all might just as well get accustomed to the other type because it is the only kind we can see in these days of commercialized sport.

Curley's death in 1937 marked the end of an era, but even before that time Pfefer was again booking wrestlers and promoting matches in New York — though he would never again enjoy the financial success of the early '30s. He also never withdrew from his public stance that professional wrestling was pure show, and for a class of patrons who, whatever their gullibility, now went to matches primarily to be entertained, he sought new ways to entertain them. Even in the 1920s, when promoting his East Europeans, Pfefer had had a keen sense of wrestling as theater, and in the more difficult financial climate of the late '30s and '40s, he pulled out all the stops. The essayist A. J. Liebling aptly described the difference between Pfefer's matches and Curley's as "that between avowed fiction and a Hearst news story." He became known for the exaggerated, even bizarre, ring personas of his wrestlers — personas which he would occasionally change from booking to booking to suit the ethnic makup of the crowd. He was quoted in Collier's for October 22, 1938:

Freaks I love and they're my speciality. I am very proud of some of my monstrosities. You can't get a dollar with a normal-looking guy, no matter how good he can wrestle. Those birds with shaved, egg-shaped heads, handlebar moustaches, tattooed bodies, big stomachs — they're for me!

From the late '30s to the '50s he featured a string of wrestlers called the Angels, chosen strictly for the ugliness of their features. Moreover, Pfefer was instrumental in popularizing many of the more outlandish rituals of modern wrestling: tag team matches (between pairs of opponents), matches between women, midget wrestling, even the blood capsule, a prop used by wrestlers to simulate gore.

During these years gates were small, but by booking his wrestlers virtually every night of the week and promoting shows in various smaller venues, Pfefer was able to turn a profit. A measure of prosperity returned in the '50s, with the revenue and enormous publicity generated by televised matches. Pfefer continued to work much of the time in New York, but would occasionally shift his base of operations — to Toledo and the West Coast in the '40s, to Nashville in the '50s, to Boston — as circumstances required. He was often on the road. For a decade or so after the war he continued to manage some very successful wrestlers — Buddy Rogers, Mildred Burke, The Fabulous Moolah, among others — but thereafter became a figure of decreasing significance in the business. He continued booking matches through 1967. Pfefer died in a nursing home in Massachusetts on 13 September 1974, at the age of 79.

The Jack Pfefer Wrestling Collection

The Jack Pfefer Wrestling Collection, donated to the University of Notre Dame by Eddie M. Einhorn, comprises over 100 cubic feet of materials accumulated by Pfefer over a 45-year promotional career in professional wrestling, 1924-1969. Types of materials especially well represented include business and financial records, personal correspondence, photographs, posters and broadsides, newspaper and magazine clippings, and wrestling periodicals and programs. Pfefer himself referred to these items, with characteristic hyperbole, as his "Museum Collection" — though he was less a collector in the accepted sense then the seemingly exhaustive preserver of all the records and other documentation — personal papers, printed accounts, and images — relating to his business, and indeed to professional wrestling as a whole. The resulting materials provide both an extensive printed account of professional wrestling from the 1920s through the 1960s, and an inside look at how the wrestling business was conducted over the same period. Of particular interest are Pfefer's financial records of thousands of bookings and promotions, and his extensive personal correspondence. Also significant is an accumulation of many thousands of photographic prints, mainly publicity portraits, representing most wrestlers of note from the late nineteenth through the mid twentieth centuries.

Finding Aids to the Collection

What follows is a series listing of the materials in the Jack Pfefer Wrestling Collection, linked to finding aids to those series that have been fully arranged and described: