Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Farewell to The Hoky Hero

Gene Okerlund was the best straight man in wrestling.

Back in Minneapolis, Mean Gene was the guy who conducted the pre- and post-match interviews on broadcasts of the American Wrestling Association. Wrestling had been big on TV in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. In the early ‘80s, Vince McMahon, Jr. figured he could expand wrestling nationally and make some changes to appeal to a young age group. McMahon’s WWF used the AWA as kind of a farm system, offering contracts to its top people. One of them was Gene Okerlund.

Gene’s job was to help move along the WWF’s storylines by asking occasional questions while being browbeaten by the bad guys during interviews. Gene was a little hammy and his “surprise” reactions were far-too-obvious, but he had a really likeable personality. There was always something amusing about Gene shouting at the camera “Teams of five strive to survive!”, as if he knew we knew he just being entertaining.

I’m sorry to read that Mean Gene has passed away. He was 76.

I’ve dug up a feature story about him from the Minneapolis Star and Tribune of August 26, 1982. He was doing other things than TV wrestling before McMahon offered him mega-bucks. He took an unorthodox route. People go from radio announcing into sales, where the money is. Gene went from sales back into announcing, and quite unexpectedly.

Pro wrestling TV show has hold on ad executive
By Mike Kaszuba

Staff Writer
At the moment, a man wearing an Elvis Presley hand-me-down jumpsuit is yelling into the camera about some guy who tried to ram his head into a post. His name is Rock'n Roll Buck Zumhoff. After him comes Jesse (the Body) Ventura, wearing beatnik sunglasses and a feather boa wrapped around his neck.
Then there is Big Bad Bobby Duncum. And Baron Von Raschke, the Claw Master. And Sgt. Jacques Goulet, the guy with the French Foreign Legion outfit and horsewhip.
In the middle—always in the middle—is Gene Okerlund of Burnsville. Sometimes he is called Mean Gene, but usually just Gene. Unlike the others, Okerlund is short, balding and, dressed as he is in a fire engine-red blazer, looks like a vacuum cleaner salesman.
It is Wednesday at Channel 9 studios in Edina and all of these people, except for Okerlund, are professional wrestlers. Okerlund is the announcer. The show is All-Star Wrestling.
Each Wednesday, Okerlund steps in front of the camera and with a face and voice that is all business, tries to interview one, two and occasionally three screaming and weirdly dressed wrestlers amid the noise. He will do this as many as 27 times on a given Wednesday, once for each of the markets in the United States and Canada where All-star Wrestling is shown. At the end of each spot, Okerlund will remind fans where to buy their tickets for the big one in Brainerd, or wherever the match that is being plugged might be.
All this organized mayhem is taped each week for the following Sunday morning telecast of All-Star Wrestling, the only show in which you can regularly see the man who holds the world record for tearing phonebooks.
Okerlund has become as much a part of Sunday morning television as Tom and Jerry cartoons and the Rev. Rex Humbard and his singing family. He is recognized at airports across the country and although he says it initially was embarrassing, he has grown accustomed to people asking for his autograph.
He is also a believer in wrestling as sport/entertainment and the part he plays in it once a week. He will trot out figures he says show that wrestling has gone beyond the beer and T-shirt crowd. And while he concedes his interviews might be hyped, Okerlund raps his fingers on the table to make the next point: "It is a very well-produced sports entertainment program."
In his other life, Okerlund is a mild mannered 39-year-old advertising executive in Minneapolis. He wears monogrammed shirts. His teen-age son, Todd, was drafted in June by the Stanley Cup-champion New York Islanders.
His wife, Jeannie, never has been to a wrestling match and talks as if she wouldn't mind if she never goes to one. His other teen-age son, Tor, says the kids at school think what his dad does is pretty cool.
Okerlund occasionally helps NV Advertising Associates Inc., the advertising firm he owns a third of, by appearing in commercials. He can still be seen on TV as the Hoky Hero, advertising a floor and carpet sweeper.
In the commercial, a woman drops something on the kitchen floor and makes a mess. Okerlund appears with the Hoky Hero. The woman, obviously happy, sends a kiss over to Okerlund that—with a ping—magically appears on his cheek.
"We wanted to have a spokesman . . . sort of a nonthreatening spokesman ala Mr. Whipple," said Richard Cohen, majority owner of the advertising agency. But Cohen said he has some genuine misgivings when Okerlund exchanges the carpet sweeper for a microphone to interview Hulk Hogan. He is afraid of what some of the firm's advertising clients think when they connect Okerlund to All-Star Wrestling.
"Twenty percent have got to be turned off by it. If he called on a new account . . . there's a 20 percent chance they would say, 'Gee, this buffoon?,' " he said.
Although it might be the face they recognize, it is the voice that is hard to forget. It is a deep voice, the kind that used-car salesmen usually have.
Okerlund is a master at using it to roller-coaster his way through a sentence, literally pouncing on the first word:
"Hel-lo again, everybody" or "I can't believe. it What a bomb shell!"
Since 1975, Okerlund has, been holding the microphone and standing in front of the red-white-and-blue American Wrestling Association seal as its TV announcer. He got the job full time when the legendary Marty O'Neill, who had held the job for two decades, became ill.
Before that he had made a career out of bouncing from one radio station to the next. There was KOIL (Omaha, Neb.), KDWB (Twin Cities) and WDGY (Twin Cities). He then went on to Channel 11 as a salesman.
Okerlund happened to be walking across the studio at Channel 11 in 1971 during an employee strike just before a live professional wrestling show went on the air. Someone remembered he had some on-air experience, asked him to fill in as the announcer, and that was that.
He is good at what he does. He knows—as do all real wrestling fans—that Otto Wanz, the European Federation Wrestling champion, is 1.92 meters tall and weighs 152 kilos. He can make an interview with Baron Von Raschke come across as if the fate of the entire planet rested on its outcome. He can also play a great straight man.
"Where is Ken Patera?" Okerlund wants to know, shoving the microphone into the face of Bobby "The Brain" Heenan.
"It's none of your business where Ken Patera's at," Heenan spits at him.
Or there was the interview last Sunday with Sheik Adnann El Kaisey, a guy wearing an Arab headdress and rattling a saber. When the Sheik started to get out of hand with his on-camera threats to Wally Karbo, the TV wrestling matchmaker. Mean Gene had to interrupt:
"OHHHh, just a second, Sheik!"
Usually, the on-camera emotion is turned on and off like a faucet. As soon as the camera is off, the wrestlers walk off to the side and sit silently. Okerlund goes over and takes a drag on a cigarette. Sometimes, though, there is not enough elbow room in the studio for everybody and their egos.
Last Wednesday, for example, Jesse the Body Ventura was mad at Okerlund. Heenan, Ventura's manager, was mad at Okerlund largely for the same obscure reason Ventura was mad at Okerlund. Okerlund, in turn, was mad at both Heenan and Ventura.
Ventura warned Okerlund during a break to stop interrupting him when he talks during the interview. Ventura, who was suspended temporarily from wrestling after tearing off Wally Karbo's clothes, is considered one of the bad boys of wrestling.
"You'd like to ask them a couple of intelligent questions," said Okerlund."

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