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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Ed Francis | PBS Hawaiʻi

August 12, 2019


I can say to the Hawaiian people that if it
wasnít for them and all the fans, I wouldnít have had that, a life like Iíve had. From a kid living on the mean streets of Chicago
to a entertainment sports legend in Hawaii, meet wrestling icon, Gentleman Ed Francis,
next on Long Story Short. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaiiís
first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition. Aloha mai kakou. Iím Leslie Wilcox. In this episode of Long Story Short, weíll
talk with legendary wrester and wrestling promoter, Ed Francis. We catch up with him at age eighty-six. He was a household name in the Hawaii of the
1960s and 70s, during the run of the wildly popular 50th State Big Time Wrestling. Long before his involvement with wrestling,
however, Edmund Charles Francis, Jr. began life in the tough city streets of Chicago,
in the midst of the Great Depression. Iíve read what you ate, the sandwiches you
ate during the depression. What were they? Oh, yeah. Well, they called it charity then. We used to go with my mother, and weíd stand
in line at about four oíclock in the morning, and they give you some cheese and dried beans,
and a big can of lard, and all that kinda stuff. And thatís what you took home to eat. And I used to make Ö and they gave her flour,
so my mother used to make bread. And then I would put lard on a piece of bread
with some ketchup and salt and pepper, and Iíd put it in the oven, and let it warm up
a little bit, and thatís what Iíd eat. Oh Ö [CHUCKLE] [CHUCKLE] But it tasted good. [CHUCKLE] [CHUCKLE] How did your parents handle that
depression? Well, finally, when it hit real hard and then
my father lost the business. He didnít work for six years. He couldnít get a job anyplace. And my mother worked several different jobs,
but she worked for the Vassar underwear company I remember she got a dollar a day there. And then, she got a job working at an ice
cream parlor that was right down the street from us. The guyís name was Pete Palastini [PHONETIC]. He had this ice cream parlor, and he hired
my mother. So, she worked a few little jobs like that,
and thatís how we survived. How many children? Just my brother and I. So four people living on aó Yeah. –reduced income. Yeah. I know for a while, you moved to public housing. Were you in rough neighborhoods? That was quite a ways after that, when I was
around twelve or thirteen years old, we moved to public housing. But before that, I had all kinds of things
that I did. I a little shoeshine thing, and I would go
in all the bars. How old were you? I was about, I guess, nine or ten years old. Uh-huh. And Iíd go in the bar, and I knew nobodyís
gonna want me to shine shoes. But they had a free lunch counter there. So Iíd come in with the thing on my shoulder,
and Iíd go over and make a sandwich, you know. [CHUCKLE] [CHUCKLE] They had good food in those bars. [CHUCKLE] [CHUCKLE] And the bartenders never kicked me out or
anything, you know. Thatís after, of course, prohibition was
Ö Roosevelt Ö I forget when they repealed the law. After Ed Francisí family lost the business,
life was bleak in the Depression-ravaged, rat-infested Chicago of the 1930s and 40s. But a casual visit by young Ed to a gym near
his home would plant the seeds for a better life, with pay. When did the wrestling bug hit? Well, the wrestling bug hit me when I was
about twelve years old. That was when I was already in the Julia Lathrop
Homes, where we moved. The public housing? Yeah. And I went to this park called Hamlin Park. And it was like a circus when you walked in
there, because there were wrestlers and weightlifters, and hand balancers, and they had a high bar
with a guy swinging on that. And, boy, I looked around there and I said,
Man, whatís going on here? You know, so I tried to get in with the guys,
you know. What kind of personality did you have? Were you a showman? Well, I had it underneath, a showman, but
I was really shy, to begin with. But there was a wrestling coach there named
Lou Talaber, and he took me under his wing, and he started teaching me amateur wrestling. And then, they had a big weightlifting platform
there. The German American Weightlifting Club were
lifting there. So, they eventually got around to showing
me how to do the different lifts. And they showed me how to do a lift called
the one-armed bent press. And thatís where you rock your weight to
your shoulder, and you bend down between your legs and push it up. And I finally got to be able to do my body
weight with one arm/ Wow. So, they were paid to go around to different
taverns and perform weightlifting, and theyíd take me along. So Iíd do the one-armed bent press and all
the Germans were drinking beer, and clapping their hands. And did the weightlifting keep you out of
trouble? Probably did. Yeah. ëCause Iím sure there was trouble to be
found in the area. Yeah. Well, I was coming home from school, and I
was in high school, and there was a car parked near the Julia Lathrop Homes. And as I was walking by, this guy stepped
out of the car and he said, Hey, I want to speak to you. And he showed his badge, and he was a police
detective. He said weíre gonna sit in the car. I said, Well, I wonder what the heck I did,
you know. I thought they were gonna arrest me for something. So, I got into the car, and they start showing
me pictures of criminals in there. And they said, This guy was wanted for murder,
this guy raped, this guy, and they went on and on. He said, We want you to help us. I said, Well, how can I do that? He said, Well, you meet us here tonight at
8:00 p.m., and uh, weíll tell you then. But donít tell anybody else where youíre
going. Young Ed Francis met the two lawmen, who then
drove him to a place nicknamed Little Sicily in Chicago. The men told him to go into a nearby bar,
purchase whiskey, and return to their car. Then, the officers took Francis back into
the bar and confronted the bar owner for selling to a minor. Ed Francis left the bar, as instructed by
the officers, and headed for a rendezvous point where they would pick him up. Just as the teenager thought the ordeal was
over, the night took a scary turn. So, I finally got over to the Bowman Dairy
Company, and Iím standing there waiting and waiting. And all of a sudden, a big Lincoln pulls up,
Lincoln automobile, and out jump two guys. One of them was in a uniform, soldierís uniform. And they grabbed me and put me in the car,
and took me back to the bar. And they took me in the back room, and they
told me what these cops did, that they were trying to get this guy to pay money. That was a shakedown. Shakedown. And so, he said, If we ever get these guys,
weíre gonna kill ëem, these two detectives, they told me. So the phone rang in a phone booth. He said, Hey, this is for you, bartender said. So I went in there, and it was the detective
on there. He said, Listen to me. He said, Watch for a good spot, and then he
said, run right out the door. And he said, And turn right and run down,
and weíll pick you up, you know, so you can get out of there. So, I went back and told the guys it was the
detectives, and told them what happened. And thatís when he said, Oh, donít worry
about those guys. He said, But donít ever do this again, donít
ever come back in this neighborhood again. And he gave me money, and we went to the streetcar
so I could get on the streetcar to go home. Oh, they escorted you to the streetcar? Yeah, they did, the soldier did. And he said, You can look in the paper tomorrow. He said, These two guys are gonna be dead. Wow; and you were fifteen years old. [CHUCKLE] At what point did you set off on a wrestling
career? Well, I found a fellow named Carl Pergelo
[PHONETIC], and he was an old-time wrestler, and he had a wrestling gymnasium. And I used to go there all the time, and then
he would put on shows at like the Shrinerís Clubs and all that. Theyíd just put mats out, and Iíd go there
and wrestle somebody who would just wrestle an amateur. And then, he started teaching me some professional
wrestling. But then, the war came along. And my brother, whoís three years older than
me, he joined the Navy, and my cousin who was about my brotherís age, he joined the
Navy. And I wanted to go. So, I couldnít; my parents wouldnít sign
the papers for me to go. So, I found a way to get around that. Ed Francis served in the Coast Guard during
World War II. By January of 1945, Ed was discharged, and
spent some time as a sketch model at the Art Institute in Chicago. Soon after, he felt a calling to a profession
heíd been introduced to as a teenager. And then, I started wrestling for Pergelo
again, and then there was a fellow named Ray Fabiani. Ray Fabiani was a concert violinist with the
Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra, and also, he went to Chicago. And he loved wrestling, and he got hooked
with a promoter in Chicago, and he saw me at Carl Pergeloís gym and he signed me up
as one of his wrestlers. So, he decked me out and got my hair bleached,
and decked me out with a cape with sequins on it and all that stuff, you know. At that point, did you acquire your moniker,
Gentleman Ed Francis? No; that didnít come up ëtil Al Ventres. So, my career went on from there. You wrestled all over the place? Oh, yeah. Were you usually the good guy, or not? Sometimes one way, and sometimes another way,
depending on what the promoter wanted me as. So, what are you like as a bad guy? Well, I did a pretty good job, I guess, because
I had plenty of riots. [CHUCKLE] Is that right? People got so angry at youó Oh, yeah. –they stormed the ring? Oh, yeah. By the early 1960s, Ed Francis was making
frequent stops in Hawaii, wrestling for promoter Al Karasick. During a conversation with Karasick, Francis
saw a golden opportunity he knew he couldnít pass up. Well, when I was wrestling for Al Karasick
and he told me that he was thinking of selling out his business, I thought that would be
a good opportunity where I had my kids, and be a good opportunity to get off the road. You know, because it was killing me and killing
them not having their father home, you know, all the time. So, I asked him how much he wanted for the
promotion, to have the rights for the promotion. And he said he would agree to ten thousand
dollars. So, a friend of mine, a promoter in Oregon,
Don Owen, who liked me a lot, Don gave me the ten thousand. I paid Al, brought everybody over. How old were you at the time? I was in my thirties, I guess. And doing business; how was that for you? Tough. Because now, I was an outsider coming in. Now, Iím sitting in Al Karasickís office. And in order to get to Alís office, I had
to pass Ralph Yempukuís desk. Who was a promoter extraordinaire, and a fixture. I told him I was trying to get television. He said, If you get television, why would
people come to the matches if theyíre going to watch ëem on TV? I said, Well, it doesnít work that way, Ralph. I said, Thereís a certain way you have to
build things up, and not show them the main events or whatever, and then theyíll come
to the matches. He said, Nah, itíll never work. He said, Never work. So they all expected me to fail after a few
months, you know. But youíd seen it work differently on the
mainland. Oh, yes; uh-huh. Yeah. So, when it came around to, you know, television,
I went to all the stations and they were all saying, Oh, we donít want any of that phony
wrestling on TV in Hawaii, and all that stuff. And finally, I think it was at KHVH when Kaiser
owned that station, Denny Kawakami was the program director there. And I finally talked him into give thirteen
weeks. He said, Weíll give you a shot at this, he
says. ëCause I went back to him about ten times. [CHUCKLE] And you wanted a live show from the studio
at KHVH? Yeah. TV and radio. Yeah, and then I had to figure out who I was
gonna have do the announcing. Couple of guys told me about Lord Blears. And so, I contacted him, and heíd been wrestling
for Al Karasick for years. So, he loved Hawaii because he was a surfer,
all his kids loved the beach, so he jumped at the chance and came over. So he agreed to be your narrator, your on-air
guy. Yeah; and he had a lot of contacts through
wrestlers too, you know. Different wrestlers that I didnít know out
of the Los Angeles area and all that. So, the two of us put together like that,
we got a lot of wrestlers to come over. Because theyíd say, What do you want? Oh, how much can I make? He said, Well, you want to come to Hawaii,
itís just like a vacation, stay here for a few months, you know, or whatever. [CHUCKLE] And you get your airfare back and
forth, and weíll give you a hundred and fifty dollars a week. You had some wild characters. Did you create those characters, or did they
come to you fully blown up and crazy? Sometimes, we had to create them. Like the Missing Link, you know, we named
him the Missing Link. But he brought the shrunken head on, and heíd
talk about that. So, he wasnít a great performer in the ring,
but he was a great performer on television. So that sold it, you know. May I mention some names to you? Could you maybe give me some thoughts about
each of these wrestlers that you worked with? Yeah, sure. Handsome Johnny Barend. Great guy, but crazy. He really was a little crazy. [CHUCKLE] [CHUCKLE] He was always a great drawing card. But I never knew what he was gonna do on the
television show. So, he and Phil Arnone were conjuring all
this stuff up. So, when I come out to interview him, now
heís sitting there and heís gonna wrestle Billy White Wolf, and heís sitting there
with a teepee. Heís sitting in front of a teepee with a
feather in his head. [CHUCKLE] [CHUCKLE] Smoking a cigar. [CHUCKLE] Another name; Ripper Collins. People loved to hate Ripper Collins with his
deliberate mangling of the Hawaiian language, saying Moo-ey, and Mo-wee, and Kamimami instead
of Kamehameha. Yeah. Ripper was Ö the ultimate Haole. [CHUCKLE] And then when he started talking
about Georgia and mint juleps and all that stuff [CHUCKLE], get everybody mad at him. And he was doing it with great deliberation
and forethought. Yeah. [CHUCKLE] What was he like off ring and off stage? He was a good guy. Wasnít like that at all? Mm-mm. But he really knew how to just rile people
up. People who arenít wrestling fans would know
Tosh Togo, who became Odd Job on the James Bond movie, Gold Finger. What was your relationship like with him? I think you did some shaping of him in his
career. Yeah. Well, a promoter came over, and Tosh had been
wrestling for me for a while. A promoter came over from England, and he
came to my house when I lived on Mokapu Boulevard. And he said that the movie producers over
in England wanted a Oriental guy with a good body. I said, Well, I think I got the right guy
for you. His name is Harold Sakata. Harold Sakata; yeah. And he won a silver medal in the Olympics
too, Harold did, for weightlifting. And so, he had a fantastic body. And so, they arranged for him to go back and
forth, and finally, they were gonna bring him over to England to test out for the part. And I knew what the storyline was gonna be. I said, Tosh, we gotta go down to a costume
shop and get a derby. And you wear the derby, and you put some bricksóëcause
he could break bricks with his hand. Put some bricks in this briefcase and handcuff
the briefcase to you. That was your idea? Yeah. Thatís fabulous. And when he got off the planeóëcause they
said they were gonna have news people there and everything. He got off the planeóI didnít see it, but
I was told that he got off and he took the handcuffs off and opened it up, put the bricks
down and had this one brick across that, and he broke it. Got the part. A legend was born. Yeah. Among others in the ring for wrestling promoter
Ed Francis were two of his sons, Bill and Russ, who went on to pro football. Moody and disgruntled fans came with the territory
at 50th State Big Time Wrestling matches. Ed Francis recalls that an incident at the
Civic Auditorium in 1961 got the fans so riled up, it turned into a life-threatening riot. Tell me about the riot. It was Curtis Iaukea, a Hawaiian, versus Neff
Maiava, Samoan. Yeah. And there was race that played a role in the
riot; right? Yeah; oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, I forget how Curtis beat Neff. but I
think I wasnít even standing outside. I was outside the locker room, and I heard
this riot coming off, people screaming, and I came out. And Curtis was coming back from the ring,
and a couple of cops were escorting him to get back in the locker room. And Neff was laying in the ring. Now, did he do something? He was a heel, a bad guy. Yeah. Did he do something bad to Neff? Yeah, I donít remember what it was. But then, the people went completely wild. And there was a sergeant there, Sergeant Capellas
who also worked for me on the wrestling match, you know. And they picked up some chairs, and the chairs
in the Civic at that time, they were like four chairs that were together. So they picked it up, and they had Capellas
and I against the ring. And heís hitting them, and Iím hitting them. [CHUCKLE] And theyíre going down so we could
get out of there ourselves. And somebody called the Metro Squad, and there
was Larry Mehau. I think he was lieutenant then, or sergeant,
and he was handling the Metro Squad at that time. And they came down with police dogs and everything,
and man, there was real turmoil there. And those were the bruisers; they were big
guys. Yeah. And then, somebody grabbed the guyís gun
out of his holster, and Luigi knocked it out of the guyís hand, and grabbed the gun and
ran in the locker room with it. Then the riot was over, gave it back to the
police officer. So there could have been a lot worse things
happen. Now, if that happened today, wrestling would
have been banned from the auditorium. Yeah. But what happened instead? Life went on? This is funny. I went to the police station the next day. They wanted to know, you know, whatís going
on and how this riot began, and all that, I guess. So, Iím coming up the steps, and out of the
police station is Ö about four Samoan guys. Oneís got a bandage on his head, and one
got a arm in a sling. And they said, Eh, Mr. Francis. [CHUCKLE] Whatís going on next week at the
Civic? [CHUCKLE] It was acceptable damage? Was that the idea? Guess so. The days of wrestling have changed so much. You closed out your business in the late 70s,
and I think it was probably in the 80s, thatís when wrestling went national and, you know,
it ceased to be a local phenomenon as it had been in the past. Itís all national, and I canít imagine the
security that must be present with the WWF matches, which are just spectaculars of television
and pyrotechnics. Yeah. Well, yeah, itís put everybody out of business,
really. But he was a great promoter, the guy, and
you know, heís doing a fantastic job. Did you fight that trend, or did you see it
coming and say Ö Yeah, I saw it coming. And you decided, Iím not gonna hang in when
thereís not gonna be a good return? Yeah. ëCause you have to have a lot of money, you
know, to do it. That must have been really hard, because you
werenít ready to retire, and you were seeing the end of a business, and thereís nothing
like it to go to. Yeah. Went back to the ranch. [CHUCKLE] Which you knew; you knew how to ranch. Yeah. And you already owned a ranch. Yeah. Old cowboy. [CHUCKLE] So, how old are you now? Eighty-six. How does it feel? Horrible. [CHUCKLE] Why do you say that? Well, you always have flashbacks of, you know,
when you were young. I still have dreams about going to a wrestling
match, and driving two hundred miles, and arriving there, and getting out of my car,
and realize I didnít bring my tights and my shoes along with me. [CHUCKLE] [CHUCKLE] I have dreams like that all the time. [CHUCKLE] So now, what am I gonna do, I canít
perform. And Iím worried about what the promoter is
gonna say, heís gonna be mad and Iím in the main event. So, I guess that wrestling stuff stays with
you over the years. Wrestling promoter Ed Francis has stayed with
us over the years through the many memories of die-hard fans. I spoke with him on a Hawaii visit he made
in December of 2012, and people still recognized him on the street, calling out, Eh, Mista
Francis! His amazing life is chronicled in the book,
Gentleman Ed Francis Presents 50th State Big Time Wrestling, which was released shortly
after our conversation. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, Iím
Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou. [CHUCKLE] Well, I used to test the waters
all the time. Before a big match was coming off, I got disappointed
quite a few times. Iíd go to Ala Moana Center, go through all
the stores and everything, and there were several times not one person said a word to
me. And sweat would break out. [CHUCKLE] My god, no house tonight. You know. [CHUCKLE] [CHUCKLE] But I always did have a pretty good house. But I thought that was kind of a gauge, and
Iíd say, Well, if nobody talks to me, then nobody is talking about wrestling on TV. [END]
Ed Francis Page 12 of 12

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2 Comments

  • Reply Rick 808 April 17, 2016 at 7:52 am

    I really love this man! He was one of my favorite. I got to talk to him at Enterprise Rent a Car.

  • Reply catyear75 September 2, 2016 at 12:42 am

    A great interview with a legend of wrestling

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