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“Wrestling is not sport, it is a spectacle”*…

Your correspondent has been musing on Roland Barthes’ eerily-prescient essay on wrestling, and on its relevance to the Manichean dramas playing out in the political arena today. At the dawn of his career, your correspondent had a close encounter with wrestling (on the television production crew of a weekly wrestling show in Charlotte, NC), so you can imagine his interest in the following, from that same period…

One Friday morning in the spring of 1971, Geoff Winningham picked up the sports section of the now defunct Houston Post. At the time, Winningham had just begun teaching photography at Rice University, but at night, he’d grab his camera and head wherever he could find a crowd to shoot. In the paper, he saw an ad for a wrestling event happening that night at the Sam Houston Coliseum. “I’d bet there be some crowds there,” he thought.

Winningham was familiar with wrestling; he’d grown up in Tennessee, watching Saturday night fights on TV. Yet what he saw at the coliseum that Friday floored him. “I walked in and walked down the aisle, through the crowd, and toward the ring,” he remembers. “All these bright spotlights coming down on this white mat with the ropes around the ring, crowds screaming, and big guys throwing each other through the air and jumping on each other and torturing each other. It was madness.”

The coliseum’s promoter, Paul Boesch—who also served as the ring announcer—welcomed Winningham, and the photographer became a regular, returning to the revelry night after night. Boesch let him photograph locker rooms, gave him access inside and outside the ring, and introduced him to the wrestlers. With that, Winningham—who became known inside the coliseum as the professor of wrestling—spent the next nine months photographing the Houston wrestling scene, capturing the villainous heels, heroic baby faces, and fervent fans…

Almost fifty years later, Winningham—still a professor of photography at Rice, whose work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—has revived the spirit, grit, and excitement of those sweaty wrestling nights in Friday Night in the Coliseum. The book, which was first published in 1971, saw its second edition released in February of this year.

Geoff Winningham‘s glorious record of baby faces, heels, and their fans: “Houston’s 1970s-Era Friday Night Wrestling Come Alive in a Stunning Photo Book.”

* “There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.” – Roland Barthes, “The World of Wrestling,” Mythologies

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As we roll off the ropes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1954 that the first of five hour-long “Davy Crockett” adventure-dramas aired on ABC as part of Walt Disney’s Disneyland series. While the form became popular in the mid-1970’s with limited series like Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots, “Davy Crockett” has some claim to the title “first mini-series on American television.”

Fess Parker in “Davy Crockett Goes to Congress”

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Written by LW

December 15, 2020 at 1:01 am

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