Long before there were loud, flamboyant, pretty boy characters like Miz, Larry Zbyszko, Larry Sweeney, Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair and the late Rick Rude, there was Gorgeous George, a man who set the tone for outrageous characters, and inspired a nation.
Born George Raymond Wagner on March 24, 1915 in Butte, Nebraska, George would move around a lot as a child, with his parents. Starting near a farm in Nebraska, he would travel to Waterloo, Iowa, Sioux City, and finally Houston, Texas by the young age of 7. He grew up in a tough neighborhood, full of bullies and seedy townsfolk, but he was able to make friends, and as a boy, he would train at the YMCA and stage matches with his friends. In today’s world, this would be considered amateur or backyard wrestling, but this was a day and age in which nobody would think about it. In 1929, a 14 year old George Wagner dropped out of high school, and took on many odd jobs, to support his family.
A born wrestling prodigy, Wagner started wrestling at carnivals. His biggest paychecks were only ¢.35. Just enough for half a sandwich at the local deli, during the Great Depression.
One of the top regional promoters ~ Morris Siegel ~ began booking the boy wonder all over the place. By the age of 17, Wagner was becoming a star. How ever it wasn’t until 1938 that the 5’9, 215 pound star, won his first title (The Northwest Middleweight title) from Buck Lipscomb. On May 19, 1939 he would take the Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight Championship as well.
At 5’9 even at his best, Wagner was considered to be too small to be an imposing threat to any of the wrestlers he faced. Most people underestimated his prowess in the ring, and his wins were considered to be flukes. But Wagner never let it bother him, and he carried on.
Before the close of the 1930’s, Wagner met Betty Hanson, and soon he would marry her, in the ring. The real in-ring ceremony brought a HUGE crowd, and tons of publicity, and was such a hit that promoters through to today, still copy the lush festivities, every so often.
Around the same time that Betty was getting used to having “Mrs.” Precede her name, George would find for himself a copy of the latest issue of Vanity Magazine. In this issue was an article about another wrestler named Lord Patrick Lansdowne, a flamboyantly robed wrestler, who would have two females escort him to the ring. The proverbial light bulb went off in George’s head, and he decided to re-invent himself in a flashy style.
How Gorgeous George came about is a story with many variants, but this is the most commonly accepted tale, as it’s been posted on several wrestling sites and Wikipedia:
“In Portland, Oregon Elizabeth “Betty” née Hanson, George’s wife, told Dean Higginbotham, the nephew of Betty's sister, Evangeline “Eva,” how George got the name Gorgeous George. In the early 1940s George had a wrestling match at the Portland Oregon Armory. As he walked down the aisle to the ring, there were two mature women on his right, two rows back from the ring. One of the women loudly exclaimed: “Oh, isn’t he gorgeous.” That word “gorgeous” struck George and he immediately felt he had found his new professional persona. He would be “Gorgeous George.” Elsie Hanson, Betty’s mother, was a skilled seamstress. George asked Elsie to make him some resplendent capes that would accentuate his new persona. George wore those capes in all his future matches.”
A legend was born.
The glamorous “Gorgeous George” debuted in 1941 in Eugene, Oregon. Fans despised the pretty boy, and were quick to root for his opponent.
George soon found himself in Los Angeles, where promoter Johnny Doyle helped George fine tune his character. George grew his locks long, dyed them platinum blonde, placed spray-painted golden bobby pins in his hair (George pins as they were later called), and dubbed himself “The Human Orchid”. He would also be the world’s first wrestler to have his own entrance music, which was the tune “Pomp and Circumstance” later adopted by “Macho Man” Randy Savage several decades later. George would also bring a valet, and would enter the ring with a lavishly decorated robe, complete with sequins. He had his own red carpet, rolled out by another valet, Jeffries, who would also adorn the ringside area with fresh rose petals, and would place a mirror in front of George, so he could check himself. George often had a soft, purple light, which shone over the ring, and though you can’t tell by the black and white footage, many of his robes were bright pink, though he had a robe for every color of the rainbow.
Another thing that would annoy fans sitting at ringside, was Jeffries insistence upon disinfecting George and everything at ringside with Chanel #5. Though later it was changed to Chanel #10. “Why be half safe?” mused the colorful heel.
“Win if you can, lose if you must, but always CHEAT” was George’s motto, which he lived by to the extreme. George would always find a way to sneak in weapons of all kinds, long before it was considered the norm to fight in such an extreme way. Referees were often met with a loud “GET YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF OF ME!!” from a frantic George, every time a boot was patted.
George would wrestle and dance his way through fights, pissing off wrestlers and fans alike. And once television became the top medium for wrestling, George stole the spotlight. While fans would threaten and even try to attack George outside of the ring, the media moguls of the day were praising the loudmouthed heel, and soon George was a Superstar, with his image on the cover of every magazine in America. The more loud and obnoxious he was, the more Hollywood listened.
By the time he had made his official televised debut on November 11, 1947, George had perfected his wrestling ability. He was not just a gimmicked, sports-entertainer, he was also a gifted wrestler, who was still picking up new moves in his prime. Over the next few years, George traveled to the AWA, NWA and many other promotions, where he would wrestle such names as Lou Thez, Enrique Torres and George’s soon to be arch nemesis, Whipper Billy Watson. Celebrity comedian Bob Hope even donated several designer chic robes to George, as his star continued to rise. When wrestling was once again allowed at Madison Square Garden, after a 12 year exile one cold night on February 22, 1949, George was the main star. Within a year’s time from that event, George’s star power garnered him an unheard of $100,000 a year salary. George was not just the world’s top heel, he was the best paid, most expensive wrestler in the world. No other wrestler at that time had ever made even a quarter of what George would make off of ONE show.
George’s personal life however, was not without it’s pitfalls. George and Betty would adopt two children, and in 1946 George sired (actual birth name) Gorgeous George Jr. with his longtime mistress, Victoria. George and Betty later divorced, and in 1951 he married his second wife, Ms. Cherie Dupré, who later bore him a son, Gary. George would also battle a drinking problem, but this was mostly kept out of the public’s eye.
George would carry on an amazing career, until March 12, 1959, where luck began to run out on the still highly acclaimed heel. For it was on this night that George would lose his locks in a hair vs. hair match, against longtime rival Whipper Billy Watson. 20,000 wrestling fans eagerly showed up EARLY to the Toronto Maple Leaf Garden, many armed with cameras, giddy to see the world’s loudest heel, obtain his comeuppance. George left the arena in tears, humbled and shamed, as magazines began to put the match to print.
Even as his time in the ring was drawing to a close, George carried on into the early 1960’s, wrestling a new crop of rookies. One such rookie, by the name of Bruno Sammartino, scored a well loved victory over George, and later George would lose his locks in a hair vs. mask match, against The Destroyer, on November 7, 1962. Sadly, this would be George’s last match.
That same year, George was diagnosed with a liver disorder, brought about by drinking and some of the more risky moves George had done over the span of his career. Doctor’s prescription? Stop wrestling, and slow down the drinking.
Wagner had his own restaurant (Gorgeous George’s Ringside Restaurant) and turkey ranch, which cost him $250,000, but this and many other investments fell through, and the once expensive wrestler was soon back down to the bare minimum of finances he had started with in his early teens.
On Christmas Eve, 1963, Gorgeous George suffered a heart attack. Two days later, he passed away, leaving behind an impressive legacy, and four children who missed him greatly. George was only 48 years old. His children left a plaque by his grave, which reads “Love to our Daddy, Gorgeous George”.
Over the course of the next several years, many celebrities came out of the woodwork, praising George for inspiring them. Such stars as James Brown, Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan, would all credit George’s flashy style, for their own acts. Movies such as “The One and Only” were loosely based on his epic heeldom, and in 1951, Warner Brothers parodied him in the Bugs Bunny short “Bunny Hugged” as a tiny, blonde pretty boy who gets decimated by The Crusher.
In 2010, George’s first wife Betty inducted him into the WWE Hall of Fame. Despite the divorce and all that had happened, it was clear that she still holds a huge spot in her heart for Mr. Wagner, and she spoke quite well of him.
Though most of his matches have not been televised in 48 years, Gorgeous George’s image still lives on in many heels today, and certainly we have him to thank for the great lengths many wrestlers and their promotions go through, to create the biggest and most memorable entrances possible. But few can outshine the Human Orchid, Gorgeous George.
Yes, the ring IS surrounded by water: