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Jack Pfefer Wrestling Collection

 Collection
Identifier: MS/PFEFER

Scope and Contents

The Jack Pfefer Wrestling Collection comprises more than 120 cubic feet of materials accumulated by Pfefer over a 45-year promotional and managerial career in professional wrestling, 1924-1969. Types of materials especially well represented include business and financial records; letters and telegrams; photographs; posters, handbills, and other publicity graphics; newspaper and magazine clippings; and wrestling programs and periodicals. Pfefer himself referred to these items, with characteristic hyperbole, as his "Museum Collection," though he was less a collector in the accepted sense than the seemingly exhaustive preserver of all the records and other documentation—personal papers, printed accounts, and images—relating to his business, and indeed to professional wrestling as a whole. The resulting collection provides both an extensive printed account of American professional wrestling from the 1920s to the 1960s, and an inside look at how the wrestling business was conducted over the same period. Of particular interest are Pfefer's financial records of thousands of bookings and promotions, and his extensive business correspondence (which is almost entirely incoming). Also significant is an accumulation of more than 13,000 photographic prints, mainly publicity portraits, representing most pro wrestlers of note from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth centuries.

Dates

  • Majority of material found in 1924-1969
  • 1913-1974, 1999-2000, 2018

Creator

Language of Materials

Collection materials in English, Russian, Polish, German, Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic

Conditions Governing Access

Folders 3383, 5098-5101, 5105-5106, and 5108-5111 are restricted.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright status for collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Biographical / Historical

Jacob Isaac (Jack) Pfefer was born near Warsaw, Poland on 10 December 1894, the son of Shoel Pfefer and his wife Faiga (Lichtenstein). At that time Warsaw fell within the Russian Pale of Settlement—those areas of the empire, mostly in the west, where permanent residency by Jews was permitted. Little is currently known of Pfefer’s life in Russia. His own comments on the subject, as reported in the press and elsewhere, often strain credulity. The common thread is an involvement in the world of Russian musical theater or opera, though specifics are invariably lacking. The earliest document in the collection is a passport Pfefer obtained in March 1921 at the Polish delegation in Harbin, Manchuria, a city then filled with refugees from the Russian revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war. Pfefer here identifies himself as handlarz or commerçant, a dealer or trader of some kind. In December 1921 Pfefer sailed for Seattle from Japan as a member of the Russian Grand Opera Company, a group of itinerant performers headed by the impresario Leo Feodoroff. Here, on the ship manifest, Pfefer is identified only as “messenger”. He may well have travelled with the company, in an unknown capacity, before and/or after his arrival in the U.S. But a petition for naturalization, dated 25 December 1923, indicates that by that time Pfefer had adopted a different if not wholly unrelated line of work: managing professional wrestlers.

At the end of World War I professional wrestling in the United States was not yet the patently theatrical spectacle familiar to us today. It was, rather, a curious combination of sport and show, featuring both “shooting matches” (in which competitors genuinely attempted to defeat their opponents) and “business matches” (with results pre-arranged by managers and promoters, so that reputations could be built or maintained and profits maximized). Nor did wrestling have, as yet, a broad following—though celebrated matches like those in Chicago in 1908 and 1911 between the American Frank Gotch and the Russian George Hackenschmidt had attracted large crowds and considerable newspaper coverage. One thing that hurt the sport’s spectator appeal was the seeming in action that characterized many matches: even in the freestyle or "catch-as-catch-can" type of wrestling practiced in American rings, competitors could lie entangled in a given position for long periods of time, generating little spectator interest.

Over the following two decades this situation would change. During the 1920s professional wrestling showed a steady increase in popularity; by the early Depression years it was one of the most lucrative forms of sporting entertainment in the country, receiving broad coverage in the nation's dailies (where it was still treated, by and large, as a legitimate competitive sport). Under the promotional auspices of the "wrestling trust" headed by New York's Jack Curley, crowds filled Madison Square Garden to watch Curley heavyweight champion Jim Londos (Christopher Theophelos) defeat yet another carefully groomed opponent. But this popularity was achieved only by the near elimination of any competitive premise. Shooting matches became infrequent, unless resulting from a managerial "double cross". Wholly inexperienced wrestlers—including college football stars like Wayne Munn, Gus Sonnenberg, and Joe Savoldi—were made contenders or champions strictly because of perceived gate appeal. Other contenders were chosen to create interest in the various urban ethnic communities of the East and Midwest. Style-wise, wrestling became more acrobatic, and less a matter of "scientific" locks and holds. The expression of emotion was encouraged. By the late 30s, professional wrestling was performance rather than sport; in its theatricality it resembled, in kind if not always in degree, the televised rituals of today. Yet even as it sacrificed its competitive premise for spectator appeal, the game was declining in popularity. Madison Square Garden neglected to book professional wrestling from 1938 to 1949, and everywhere there was a retrenchment to smaller towns and smaller arenas. Wrestling storylines were no longer national, but local. Infighting among the major New York and regional promoters had led to public recriminations and legal actions that revealed much about the true nature of the game. The newspapers ran story after story exposing the trust and declaring wrestling fans to be the victims of fraud on a grand scale. The result was a deep decline in public interest, which reversed itself only with the advent of television in the 1950s.

Central to many of these events was Jack Pfefer, whose startlingly rapid ascent in the business was facilitated by his foreign contacts and by his unabashed sense of wrestling as theater. He established himself, in Chicago and thereafter in New York, by importing colorful East European heavyweights to the U.S. to wrestle on the American circuits. Among the first he managed were the ex-European champion Ivan Poddubny and "Alexander the Great" Garkawienko, both natives of Ukrainian Russia. As foreigners, these wrestlers were "exotic"; as representatives of ethnic groups with large immigrant communities in the United States, they had an inherent appeal, which Pfefer exploited in the foreign-language press. Some of these men were built up into contenders to generate appealing match-ups with top Americans, whereupon the Europeans would lose, and continue around the circuits until waning popularity or other circumstances dictated their replacement.

By 1928—the year he became a U.S. citizen—Pfefer was promoting his own shows at several smaller New York venues. By 1930 he had become an inside partner in the Curley trust, and one of the most powerful figures in the game. His title was "Manager of the Foreign Department" or "Manager of Foreign Talent"; his imports included the acrobatic German Fritz Kley; a Polish giant named Leo Pinetzki; the "Cossack" Matros Kirilenko; and the Hungarian Sándor Szabó. Pfefer’s years with Curley corresponded quite precisely with pro wrestling’s "golden age" of high profits, and he made a great deal of money. But an unsuccessful bid to replace Curley as number one man in New York (1933) left Pfefer on the outside looking in, ostracized by a new, expanded alliance of New York and regional promoters. To confront this situation and bring down his former partners, Pfefer took the extraordinary step of revealing the inside workings of the wrestling business to the press. Through Dan Parker, sports editor of the New York Daily Mirror, Pfefer relayed to the public the full extent of professional wrestling's "fakery" and its promoters' machinations—not excepting his own. Drawing on his own exhaustive records, he would reveal the circumstances behind the trust's "championship" matches, resulting in headers like the following in the New York Daily News for November 19, 1934: "LONDOS AND MARSHALL MEET AT GARDEN TONIGHT FOR 26TH TIME. SCORE—LONDOS 26, MARSHALL 0." The publicity resulting from all this contributed significantly to a new cynicism on the part of the public and press, epitomized by Edward Merrill's statement in The Ring for October 1934:

"Regardless of any pre-arrangement—and the boxing commission must be aware that such agreements are made in all championship and other exhibitions—there can be no kick by the fans because they know what to expect and get what they come to see—good entertainment. That's all wrestling is nowadays. Legitimate competition is gone. The days of real, honest-to-goodness wrestling matches are things of the past and we all might just as well get accustomed to the other type because it is the only kind we can see in these days of commercialized sport."

Curley's death in 1937 marked the end of an era, but even before that time Pfefer was again booking wrestlers and promoting matches in New York—though he would never again enjoy the financial success of the early ‘30s. He also never withdrew from his public stance that professional wrestling was pure show, and for a class of patrons who, whatever their gullibility, now went to matches primarily to be entertained, he sought new ways to entertain them. Even in the 1920s, when promoting his East Europeans, Pfefer had had a keen sense of wrestling as theater, and in the more difficult financial climate of the late '30s and '40s, he pulled out all the stops. The essayist A. J. Liebling aptly described the difference between Pfefer's matches and Curley's as “that between avowed fiction and a Hearst news story.” He became known for the exaggerated, even bizarre, ring personas of his wrestlers—personas which he would occasionally change from booking to booking to suit the ethnic makeup of the crowd. He was quoted in Collier's for October 22, 1938:

"Freaks I love and they're my specialty. I am very proud of some of my monstrosities. You can't get a dollar with a normal-looking guy, no matter how good he can wrestle. Those birds with shaved, egg-shaped heads, handlebar moustaches, tattooed bodies, big stomachs—they’re for me!"

From the late '30s to the '50s Pfefer featured a string of wrestlers called the Angels, chosen strictly for the ugliness of their features. Many of the other acts he managed around this time were also heavily gimmicked, like the enormous Martin Levy, billed as the 625-pound Blimp. Pfefer worked out of the Piccadilly Hotel on W. 45th St., with a single employee, a publicist named Al Mayer. He remained a controversial figure among his peers. Pfefer’s exposure of the Curley trust in the ‘30s is merely the best-known example of his penchant for vindictive behavior. As his correspondence indicates, he was quick to take offense at any perceived slight, and made many enemies in the business. He was a perpetual subject of debate within the membership of the National Wrestling Alliance, the new cartel of regional promoters formed in 1948—though he was always allowed to book his stable of wrestlers with NWA members.

In the television era Pfefer continued to work much of the time in New York, though as the need arose he would shift his base of operations—to Toledo and the West Coast in the '40s, to Nashville in the '50s, to Chicago and Boston in the ‘60s. He was often on the road. For a decade or so after the war Pfefer continued to manage some very successful wrestlers. He booked future NWA champ Buddy Rogers (Herman Rohde) until the two separated acrimoniously in 1951. He was instrumental to the careers of The Fabulous Moolah (Lillian Ellison) and the ballet dancer-turned-wrestler Ricki Starr (Bernard Herman). But by the ‘60s he had become a figure of marginal significance, managing wrestlers who were knock-offs of famous contemporaries: Argentina Zuma, Bummy Rogers, Bruno Sanmartino. He continued booking matches through 1967, working with Boston area promoter Tony Santos (Anthony Sannizzaro). Unmarried and without a family in the U.S., Pfefer lived with the Santos family until declining health forced him into a nursing home. He died in Plymouth, Massachusetts on 13 September 1974, at the age of 79.

Extent

122.79 Cubic Feet

Arrangement

The collection is arranged into nine series: I. Biographical Materials; II. Promotional Materials; III. Photographs; IV. Scrapbooks; V. Subject Files; VI. Business Records; VII. Correspondence; VIII. Graphics; and IX. Realia. Series I consists of two subseries, i. Documents, and ii. Clippings and Articles, and is arranged chronologically. Series II consists of two subseries i. Programs and ii. Press Releases, and is arranged alphabetically. Series III consists of nine subseries: i. Portraits; ii. Portraits with Belts; iii. Tag Team Portraits; iv. “Ethnic Files”; v. “Before and After” Shots; vi. Action Shots; vii. Pfefer Personal Collection; viii. Miscellaneous Photographs; and ix. Oversize. Series III is arranged alphabetically by subject. Series IV is arranged chronologically. Series V is arranged alphabetically by subject. Series VI consists of five subseries: i. Promotions and Bookings; ii. Office and Travel Expenses; iii. Tax Records; iv. New York State Athletic Commission Reports; and v. Contracts. Series VI is arranged chronologically, by format. Series VII consists of two subseries, i. General Correspondence and ii. Received Correspondence, and is arranged alphabetically by correspondent. Series VIII consists of two subseries, i. Posters, Flyers and Broadsides and ii. Handbills, Postal Cards, and Tickets, and is arranged by size. Series IX is unarranged.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Most of the present Jack Pfefer Wrestling Collection was donated to the University of Notre Dame by Eddie M. Einhorn in 1977. Einhorn had purchased the materials from Boston promoter Tony Santos, who had inherited the property at Pfefer's death in 1974. A much smaller collection of miscellaneous Pfefer materials was purchased by Notre Dame from the Santos family in 2010. Other Pfefer materials have appeared on the market over the years; these may or may not have been among the items inherited by Santos.
Title
Jack Pfefer Wrestling Collection
Status
Completed
Author
Hannah Sabal and George Rugg
Date
08/15/2018
Description rules
dacs
Language of description
English

Repository Details

Part of the University of Notre Dame Rare Books & Special Collections Repository

Contact:
102 Hesburgh Library
Notre Dame IN 46556
574-631-0290