Tag team Russell, Brown reunite for wrasslin'

Former wrestling announcers Lance Russell (left) and Dave Brown reunite Friday for a rare public appearance.

Former wrestling announcers Lance Russell (left) and Dave Brown reunite Friday for a rare public appearance.

Such brawny duos as the Fabulous Ones, the Interns, the Assassins and the Rock 'n' Roll Express certainly had their fans.

But the most successful and longest-running team in Memphis professional wrestling never strapped on a pair of shiny tights or hit a foe over the head with a metal chair, at least not in public.

Beginning in 1967 and continuing into the 1990s, Lance Russell and Dave Brown were a beloved TV tag team, working the microphones as announcers for hit "studio wrestling" programs on WHBQ-TV Channel 13 and then WMC-TV Channel 5.

The longtime friends reunite Friday night for a rare Memphis public appearance, in conjunction with a 7:15 p.m. screening at the Orpheum of "Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin'," a funny, informative, thrilling documentary that chronicles a true pop cultural phenomenon, the 1950s to 1980s heyday of local wrestling, from Sputnik Monroe to Andy Kaufman. The screening is part of the historic Downtown theater's summer "Memphis Film Fest."

Produced by Sherman Willmott and Ron Hall and directed by Chad Schaffler, "Memphis Heat" premiered March 24 at the Malco Paradiso, and ran in local theaters through April 14. The Orpheum event could be the film's last big-screen showcase before its eventual arrival on DVD.

In recognition of that fact, the screening will be a celebration of Memphis wrestling. Promoter Jerry Jarrett, grappler Bill "Superstar" Dundee and other wrestling celebrities will attend, to introduce the film and meet fans. Wrestling books and memorabilia will be on sale.

"Nothing compares to the old Memphis wrestling, and I mean that," said Russell, 85, who is traveling from his home in Gulf Breeze, Fla. "A lot of people still give a hoot about it. I talked to a guy from Australia, and he said his biggest hobby was trading Memphis wrestling tapes."

"Several people have said that we were the best wrestling announcing duo ever," said Brown, who remains one of WMC-TV's most popular news personalities. "I don't know if that's accurate, but it's very nice to hear."

Russell said the flamboyant personalities and dramatic innovations of Memphis wrestling paved the way for the multimillion dollar international wrestling industry that exists today, as embodied by Vince McMahon's WWE company.

"Memphis wrestling started the business in a direction that nobody else had done. When Jerry Jarrett took over the promotion (in the late 1970s), it was the shot of life that it needed. We had storylines that involved real situations -- life, death, marriage, love, all that stuff. It wasn't simply 'I hate you because I'm a wrestler and I want to beat you.' When Bill Dundee put his wife's hair on the line, when he said, 'I want Lawler bad enough I'll put up my wife's hair as the prize,' that was something."

When Jerry Lawler won the match, Russell said, "I thought the fans were gonna kill us all when the barber got so nervous, he wasn't cutting fast enough. He didn't want to cut off her hair but the fans wanted to see it all go."

At Channel 13, Russell was program director as well as on-air personality (and ringside announcer at live wrestling matches). When TV wrestling moved to Channel 5, he worked as an employee of Jarrett's wrestling company, because "the honest truth was, wrestling paid a whale of a lot more. The ratings were so high."

Russell said he didn't mind when the action turned unexpectedly rough during the live TV broadcasts, or when he was hit with a bag of flour or called "Banana Nose" by Lawler. What bugged him were potential violations of FCC standards of decency.

"As best we could, we just didn't allow things like blood, or profanity. We had one of the wrestlers, Gorgeous George Jr., who deliberately got near the microphone, and he let loose, saying 'you dirty (swear words)' -- that was the last time you ever saw him on our show."

More famously, Canadian "lumberjack" wrestler Jos LeDuc sliced his arm with the blade of an ax on live TV, while reciting a "blood oath."

"Oh my Lord, that totally was a shocking thing," Russell said. "You can't believe how many people still ask me, 'Did he really cut himself?' Buddy, he almost cut his arm off, and I tell you that shocked me."

"In later years, I did try to be a touch of sanity amongst a bunch of insanity," commented Brown, who inducted the now retired Russell into the NWA Wrestling "Hall of Heroes" in Charlotte, N.C., in 2009.

Russell has a daughter (Macon-Hall Elementary School assistant principal Valerie Houston) in Memphis, but he and his wife, Audrey, -- who celebrated their 64th anniversary June 28 -- don't get back here as much as they used to. (In 1997, Russell underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery.) So tonight's reunion may not be repeated any time soon.

"Really, the honest truth is, it's the fans that keep Memphis wrestling alive," he said. "They're so dedicated, they make me more of an enthusiastic wrestling fan now than I've ever been in my life."

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Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin'

7:15 p.m. Friday at the Orpheum, 203 S. Main.

Broadcasters Lance Russell and Dave Brown, referee Jerry Calhoun and wrestlers Jerry "The King" Lawler, Bill "Superstar" Dundee, Buddy Wayne and Bobby Eaton are scheduled to attend, to introduce the film, sign photos and meet fans, before and after the show.

Promoter Jerry Jarrett will sign copies of his new autobiography, "The Best of Times," with co-author Mark James of the Web site memphiswrestlinghistory.com.

Author Ron Hall will sign copies of "Sputnik, Masked Men and Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling."

Tickets: $7, or $5 for 12 and under. For more information, visit orpheum-memphis.com or call (901) 525-3000.

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© 2011 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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