How a Jewish St. Louisan introduced the city to ‘Wrestling at the Chase’

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Credit: Wrestling at the Chase book pictures 

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Great things happen on planes, a time and space where people can either sleep, talk or read. Thankfully for wrestling fanatics, Jewish St. Louisan Sam Muchnick used a plane trip in 1958 very wisely. Thanks to Ed Wheatley’s book, “Wrestling at the Chase,” (Reedy Press, $39.95), Muchnick’s gamble is getting acclaim more than 60 years later.

It was on that plane ride that Muchnick connected with Harold Koplar, a Russian-American Jewish hotelier and businessman in St. Louis who owned the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. The two men came up with an idea that would enthrall wrestling diehards and entertainment seekers of all kinds. Instead of backlots and abandoned warehouses, wrestlers could line up on a prestigious fight card at the Chase and be noticed and seen by hundreds of people at each event.

Wrestling at the Chase Book

It was that plane ride where “Wrestling at the Chase” was born. Launched in 1959 and catapulting the sport into superstardom, Muchnick’s event took place every Saturday night and would fill the Khorassan Room in the Chase. Well-dressed folks would sit ringside and the place would get loud quickly as the matches began. While the sport has reached new highs due to cable television and arenas these days, Saturday nights at the Chase certainly helped to launch the phenomenon.

If you couldn’t find a ticket inside the Khorassan, wrestling fans could tune in at 9 p.m. sharp to see the fights. As a young wrestling fan, I took in the fights during the 1980s seated before a television with face paint on and no shirt, and my mom firing up popcorn for her wrestling-addicted son. Multiply that by hundreds and you had Koplar’s part of the deal coming through big time.

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No matter where you were during those days, it was appointment television. Author Wheatley, an award-winning producer here in St. Louis, brought it all back with his wonderful book, a thrilling account of wrestling gone wild in Midtown. The 168-page book includes numerous photos and stories, as well as perspectives from the people involved with the event. We’re not simply talking about the people who put up the lights and made sure the ring was level. Actual wrestlers chime in and give their account of the thrilling period of time at the Chase.

Sam The Giant

In Wheatley’s book, you’ll find out all about the three legs of the stool, aka the location, delivery, and the product. Behind every great event is a great planner, and that was Muchnick. If you’re a Jewish wrestling fan in St. Louis, there should be a large poster of Sam next to the Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. The book illustrates, with words and pictures, just how important this event was to people around town. Look, at the end of a hard week, some souls needed to see grown men in tights being thrown out of a ring a few times.

Wheatley said it only took those four words with anyone over 40 years old to spark a conversation as well as a memory: Wrestling at the Chase. It would be like saying Franco Harris to a Pittsburgh Steelers fan: 2,000 words of adoration and vivid recollection come thundering back to the present mind.

The Chase event went on for three decades, becoming a hotter ticket in town than the Cardinals (football or baseball) and the Blues. Parents could understand because most of the action was staged in a wrestling match, unlike a Bobby Plager hip check down over at the Old Barn that would send a guy flying over Interstate 64.

The Future Was Then

At the center of it all was Muchnick. His television program would become the basis for Vince McMahon and the WWE after his retirement. Without “Wrestling at the Chase,” we may not see the sport sitting atop the heights it currently enjoys today. There may not be a Wrestlemania for my brother and me to take in as kids, or all those Monday Night Raw presentations for people suffering from the terrible Mondays.

According to Wheatley’s book, Muchnick brought wrestling together under the NWA, the National Wrestling Alliance. That was similar to Pete Rozelle forming the NFL in football.

Ladies and gents, I’m only skimming the surface of Wheatley’s book of treasures. There are stories about some of the best wrestlers of all time, including Lou Thesz, Pat O’Connor, Dick the Bruiser, Cowboy Bob Ellis and King Kong Brody, along with TV personalities like Joe and Mickey Garagiola, George Abel and Larry Matyick.

Available online and at local bookstores, “Wrestling at the Chase” captures lightning in a bottle, a place and time where wrestling was king atop the rest of the sports. All thanks to two idealistic Jewish men — Sam Muchnick deciding to have a conversation on a plane with a guy named Harold Koplar.

For more information about the Wrestling at the Chase Book or to order a copy, go to stlwrestlingbook.com.