I have been wrestling with this story for a long time.
|Macho Man demonstrates the Sleeper Hold |
|Bruno Sammartino |When I was a 10 years old, I remember going to a birthday party at The Newark Armory. We went to see a wrestling match featuring some of the legends of that time (1964). The star of the show was Bruno Sammartino who I thought was Superman’s brother. He played the good guy and would never stoop so low that he would need a gimmick like most of the other wrestlers. You would never see him pick up a chair and slammed it in the face of an opponent. He was a real athlete and had a mythic quality about him. Even his name sounded so legendary - Bruno Sammartino.
Wrestling at the Armory
|Bo Bo Brazil |
This armory was an old building back in 1964 and must have originally been used during WWII for recruitment and training. I think the place smelled liked bricks and beer. But the stage was filled with classic performers of that era like Haystacks Calhoun, Bo Bo Brazil, Argentina Apollo and Andre the Giant. These were literally larger than life athletes who provided me with hours of amusement and a strange form of entertainment. Wrestling at the time was like The Three Stooges recruited to work at the circus. It was both comical and semi-athletic with virtual no redeeming qualities. It was pure rebellious fun that in 1964 felt like anarchy. It didn’t have any of the slick overproduced hype of the current productions.
|Andre the Giant|
The Human Circus
In this human circus the elephants and lions were replaced with huge creatures who had to work out at a gym to get their mountain of muscles. No steroid shortcuts for these guys. Oddly, something in this show connected with me since I was never the aggressive, super competitive male like these men.
|Argentina Apollo in his bare feet and signature white shorts|
I don't what it was about this spectacle but this tragic/comic theater spoke to me. Haystacks Calhoun, who was so aptly named, was as wide as a Volkswagen Beetle and Bo Bo Brazil who was as tall as amazon tree with limbs that could wrap around several opponents at one time. Even Andre the Giant who went on to appear in one of my favorite movies (The Princess Bride), was another over sized star from that time period. Those were the days.
The mid 60's were strange times as the country was changing and culture was in a bit of shock. Keep in mind that this was the era of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and the assassination of President Kennedy. Wrestling provided amusement, entertainment and distraction as I watched grown men apply the sleeper hold or the flying elbow from high above the ring. Like my fascination with magic tricks, I always wondered if the sleeper hold was real?
Thirty Years Later
Fast forward from 1964 to 1994 when I was working at GoodMark Foods in Raleigh, North Carolina. We had sold our wholesale bakery business (Rachel’s Brownies) in 1989 to this Raleigh based snack food company. For the first few years I was involved with their bakery businesses. Then around 1994 I became involved in managing the marketing for their core brand of snack foods and eventually was promoted to VP Marketing for the entire company.
|Sales Collateral From 1997 for Slim Jim with Randy|
Our largest brand was Slim Jim® the thin smoked meat stick that was a staple of every convenience store in America. This was a very big brand and one of the American icons in junk food like Twinkies® and Cheetos®. One of my favorite ironies from those times was that I didn’t eat red meat so I was the vegetarian VP of Marketing for Slim Jims. (Note to self: update this fun fact on your resume)
The main marketing vehicle for Slim Jim was professional wrestling and it provided the fuel to help double the brand sales and triple the company’s profits.
Our Connecticut advertising agency, North Castle Partners, had brought forth an idea to use wrestling as a marketing vehicle in the late 1980's. Their logic was that a Slim Jim, like professional wrestling isn’t quite real. It also represented the anti-authority image we wanted to project to young male teens (our demographic). Credit goes to Hal Rosen who was the Creative Director and had this inspired insight. This marketing work preceded my involvement and added credit is due to the team who worked on this before I was involved in our core business. Dick Miller, Mike Ritchie, Andy Modlin and George Stewart all played a key role in bringing this great idea to life as did many others from our marketing team. The phrase “You guys a bit bored? Snap into a Slim Jim” became part of the lexicon during this period. So with the strategy in place, I got the best job of all.
I got to spend time with Randy Savage AKA Macho Man.
Randy was the star of our commercials and our primary spokesperson and like my faux heroes from childhood, he was one of the superstars of the sport. Along with Hulk Hogan, Randy was truly royalty among the top wrestlers from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
Now, those who know me probably don’t think professional wrestling fan.
I like to read thoughtful books, cook elaborate recipes, listens to romantic opera, drink Italian wine and watch foreign films- not your typical wrestling fan.
Truth be told, I grew out of my interest in wrestling when I was about 13 as I moved on to playing baseball in high school. I really didn’t care for all the fake violence and soap opera like story lines anymore but I did know Randy Savage with his bold and a over-the-top personality. He was a genuinely interesting guy and as he was an emerging wrestling star; I even knew who he was way back in the late 70's.
As a spokesperson for Slim Jim, Randy knew that he had a job to do on stage but also had an incredibly soft heart for children who were ill and in the hospital. I got to witness an interesting aspect of Randy. He made it a requirement that when we would be doing publicity in a city for a Slim Jim event we would spend time visiting kids at the hospital. No one asked him why- remember he had arms the size of loins of beef- but we knew it was his way of giving a little back. He had an enormous heart but his Macho Man character didn’t allow it to emerge too often. So I got to witness this conflict between the public Macho Man and the private Randy the Man. Looking back it was a real privilege to be a part of this behind the scenes experience.
|Randy at one of many hospital visits and charity events|
One day in the early Spring in 1997, I got a phone call from Randy. Now Randy’s voice is so distinctive that you would never forget it. It was raspy, deep and sounded like a truck backfiring diesel. Everything always started with Oh yeah or Brother.
My friend Britt Carter, our publicist at the time is the only person who could do his voice so perfectly that he could even fool Randy. I could never tell if it was Randy or Britt on the phone.
Randy: “Jeff, I need your help with something. I want you to teach me how to use email”.
Jeff: “Do you have a computer”
Randy: “Yeah, I bought one last week and I thought that you could fly down to Florida and show me how to use it. I don’t want to be left behind and everyone else is using email so I figure it would be a good thing to do.”
Teaching Macho Man How to Email
So in 1997 I got to teach Macho Man Randy Savage how to use email. I imagine what Bruno Sammartino would think? Of course Bruno would be clueless about email but still this connected me back to my days at the Newark Armory.
Randy asked one more favor:
|Macho Man and Gorgeous George|
Randy: “One more thing- can you also teach Stephanie too?"
(Stephanie was his girlfriend at the time and used the name Gorgeous George as she was his side kick in the ring). I said that I would bring my daughter Fanny along and she could teach Stephanie and I would work with him.
|Fanny Slater beats Macho Man in an arm wrestle|
So I bought some tickets for Florida and off we went down to Treasure Island where he lived. We came over to his apartment and immediately got down to work. Randy had enormously thick fingers although his hands were of average size and I worried that he would never be able to type on a key board. His knowledge of typing was pretty limited so we had to hunt and peck our way along the keyboard. We signed up for an AOL account using part of his real name which was Randy Poffo.
Fanny and Stephanie hit it off and they probably talked more about girl stuff than email. I think Fanny was all of 12 at the time but she had fun hanging out with semi-celebrities. She quickly taught Stephanie the basics while Stephanie impressed Fanny with her flashy costumes and her makeup skills.
That evening we celebrated Randy’s new success by going out to dinner at one of his favorite local restaurants. You would think Mickey Mantle or Michael Jordan had walked in for dinner by the reception he got. I remember him telling the Maitre’d that I was his friend who was teaching him how to use a computer and he asked him if he had an email address so he could write to him later tonight to practice.
I worked with Randy over many years as our star in our commercials (Snap into a Slim Jim!) and later as our PR spokesperson for everything from the X Games with Dave Mirra, 3 on 3 Hoop It Up basketball, Country Music Concerts with George Strait and even Nascar with Bobby and Terry Labonte. Even around other super stars from music and sports, Randy was always the center of attention. Randy even got to appear in The Original Spiderman Movie and several other minor roles.
Time Goes By
Randy and I lost touch after I left ConAgra Foods in 2003. They had acquired GoodMark Foods about 5 years prior and eventually moved it to Minnesota. I stayed in Raleigh and eventually went to work at Nomaco and then at a sister company in the wine business called Nomacorc where I hang my hat today. (see photo)
|Jeffrey Slater as Macho Man at work. Oh yeah. |
Of the many pieces of memorabilia I kept, I had one of Randy’s costumes from one of our commercials. It consisted of a cool jacket with yellow streamers, Randy's over sized sun glasses and a nifty hat.
Two years ago I dressed up as Macho Man at Nomacorc for our Halloween party. I know I probably looked a little foolish but I have to admit it was an honor putting it on. The best part was the looks I got driving on I540 to work.
This costume got around as even our Chairman of the Board, Ron Doggett, wore it at several GoodMark occasions to pump up the team. In fact, Ron wore it recently at a GoodMark reunion. We all wanted to be like Randy.
|Ron Doggett, Jeff Slater and Randy Savage in 1999|
I hope Randy is out there on twitter and Facebook using those skills that I helped him with many years ago. In exchange, he showed me the secret of the Sleeper Hold and the Flying Elbow – and for that I will forever be grateful.
Most of all, he allowed me to see a that behind the Macho Man is a big heart and a real human being who thought he needed to give back to kids who needed a little break from their illnesses.
Funny how eventually everything connects.
Labels: ConAgra Foods, Famous Encounters, Famous Moments, GoodMark Foods, Macho Man, Randy Savage, Slim Jims