Before becoming an Associate Producer on The Wrestler and 350 Days, lifelong wrestling fan Evan Ginzburg witnessed some of the greatest moments on the grandest stage of them all: Madison Square Garden. He saw childhood heroes Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales battle villains like Ivan Koloff and George Steele. Later, he converted his love for wrestling into passion projects such as the Wrestling-Then and Now newsletter, a film documentary by the same name, and interviewing a who’s who of wrestling legends on his internet radio show, Legends Radio. Through these avenues, he was given the opportunity of a lifetime by becoming an Associate Producer for Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-nominated movie The Wrestler. He later landed a similar role with the highly lauded documentary, 350 Days.
Discovering Wrestling and Never Looking Back
From a very early age, professional wrestling was an integral part Evan Ginzburg’s life and has led him in a variety of different directions, with wrestling never being too far away. As a guest on The Genius Cast podcast with Lanny Poffo and Pro Wrestling Stories’ JP Zarka, he fondly reminisced on how he discovered wrestling at an early age in Brooklyn, New York.
"In 1972, I was switching the UHF dial, flipping the 10-12 channels it had, and I see this Indian getting pounded by this much larger guy," says Evan, who at the time had no idea what he was watching. All he knew was that he was hooked.
The "Indian" Evan mentions was "Chief" Jay Strongbow, whose real name was Joseph Scarpa, an Italian-American from New Jersey, no less! The Chief was one of the most popular performers during the ’70s for the WWWF despite being a "fake Native American" character. Evan distinctly recalls how he made his comeback by doing a "herky-jerky" dance and subsequently beating up the bigger man who, just a short moment ago, had been getting the best of him.
"Wrestling shows then were mostly squash matches and very different than what we see on Raw and Smackdown."
It is now known that the logic behind this was that the "good" matches were mostly saved for live events to encourage people to purchase tickets. Bruno Sammartino was interviewed maybe a couple of times a year on television, but if you wanted to watch him wrestle, you had to see him live.
Evan later discovered wrestling out of The Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. The show was simply called Lucha Libre and was broadcast in New York City on channel 41, a Spanish-language station. He fondly remembers stars like "The Golden Greek" John Tolos, The Hollywood Blondes (Jerry Brown and Buddy Roberts), the hated tandem of Gordman and Goliath, Oliver Humperdink, and of course, Freddie Blassie.
Fortunately, he was also exposed to Championship Wrestling from Florida with "Gordon Solie making every match sound like the Super Bowl, and the World Series rolled into one. You had The Briscos (Jack and Jerry) and The Funks (Dory Jr. and Terry), The Assassins… just unbelievable talent!"
Live Show At The Grandest Stage of Them All
His father, a cab driver that Evan says never broke 25 grand a year, took him to Madison Square Garden to watch a live show that Evan holds dear and is amongst his most cherished memories.
"It was the Valiant Brothers with Lou Albano as their manager versus Dean Ho and Tony Garea. There also was Nikolai Volkoff with manager Fred Blassie versus Bruno Sammartino and "Chief" Jay Strongbow in the main event." June 24th, 1974 was the date, and it’s still embedded in his soul. He also frequented monthly shows at The Westchester County Center and Nassau Coliseum.
Watch The Valiant Brothers vs. Dean Ho and Tony Garea:
Evan is very aware of the importance of family and how fragile life can be. "If you talk to any older fan, as a kid, your greatest childhood memories were going to wrestling with your dad, your mom, your grandfather, your grandmother, your uncle, whoever it was that took you. 20, 30, 40 years later, and now they’re gone," says Evan with somewhat pensive sadness in his voice but happy that he has these cherished memories of going with his father to the matches.
Seeing these larger-than-life stars really enthralled Evan to no end, and the mat game became his obsession. "I was just fascinated. In my head, it was the equivalent of Marvel and DC superheroes and supervillains, and I started watching religiously." He compares Nikolai Volkoff to a villain with superpowers when he’d come out and smash fruit with his bare hands. Later, Nikolai would become one of Evan’s closest friends and someone he would regularly work with. He recalls when Nikolai challenged him to an arm-wrestling contest one night. "I wasn’t even able to move him an inch; that’s how strong he was," says Evan, who is still astounded at how powerful the man that was billed from the USSR was.
Sammartino would’ve been the equivalent of perhaps a Superman character reportedly being able to bench press 565 lbs. "Luscious" Johnny Valiant is another wrestler Evan considered a dear friend, so much so that Evan would later produce Valiant’s one-person comedy show: An Evening with Johnny Valiant. In a funny incident where Johnny V. was unable to make a date because of a family emergency, Nikolai Volkoff and real-life manager and actor Nikita Breznikov stepped up and entertained a few dozen fans by telling jokes, some road stories, and performing magic tricks to the delight of the small crowd at hand.
"What was interesting to me was a man who entertained 22,000 at Madison Square Garden was nervous being out of his element with this tiny crowd, but he more than pulled it off." Evan regrets that it didn’t occur to anyone to videotape this memorable night for posterity.
The Day Kayfabe Died
The more shows Evan went to, the more of a hunch he got that there was more (or less!) to wrestling than was presented to the public. He would wait outside of the arenas with many other fans, hoping for an autograph from one of his heroes, or at the very least one of the villains! Even as a youngster, Evan saw cracks in kayfabe that made him wonder, "Wow, George Steele talks! And Lou Albano is nice! And Billy Graham is nice!" exclaims Evan, still with child-like enthusiasm as if he had just been transported back to Madison Square Garden in the ’70s. "Sometimes the heels were nice, and the faces would turn out to be not so nice. Bruno always signed [autographs], though. Most [wrestlers] signed, but it was always disillusionary when one of your heroes didn’t want to be bothered."
April 30th, 1977, is a dreaded date Bruno Sammartino fans remember well. It was the last time he held championship gold after dropping the title to "Superstar" Billy Graham in a controversial fashion. Graham used the ropes for illegal leverage, leading many to believe that this was a tainted win. But Evan remembers this date for another reason as well. He recalls two months before the match, some older kids he knew were unrelenting, claiming that Sammartino was going to lose the belt on that fateful night, and of course, he did. He had wondered, "How could they possibly have known this?" One positive that came from all of this was that fans witnessed many babyfaces challenge for Graham’s title where they wouldn’t have been able to during the years Sammartino was the champ — Pedro Morales being the exception, of course.
Even after this shocking blow and tear in kayfabe’s curtain wall, the joy of wrestling certainly didn’t die for Evan, even though he was now smartened up to the predetermined nature of the contests he held dear.
"I just looked at it differently," he says and compares it to movies to explain his new way of thinking. "If you’re watching a movie from that era, Clint Eastwood isn’t shooting the guy. Bruce Lee isn’t killing the guy, Charles Bronson isn’t killing the muggers, you know?" He could still enjoy wrestling while beginning to appreciate it "on a different level."
Evan Ginzburg – From Fan To Insider
Before working as Associate Producer for The Wrestler, Evan held an interesting array of jobs that kept him very close to wrestling and enabled him to meet and befriend many stars.
Wrestling- Then and Now was a monthly newsletter created by Evan Ginzburg that ran for two decades (until 2006 or so) and started when he found himself in somewhat dire straits. "I was laid off from a job, and I had time on my hands, and I said, ‘Why don’t I do a wrestling newsletter/sheet/fanzine?’ But I didn’t want to do the usual one that focused on news and over-analyzing of matches." The zine was very heavy on the nostalgia in an attempt to differentiate itself from the other conventional newsletters that circulated at the time. Issues are very hard to find "out in the wild" and are now considered collector’s items.
"I poured my guts out about my experiences and took a different approach," recounts Evan. "Let’s do writing and not just recording results, analyzing often meaningless angles. I just came at it from a different way. And in that journey, guys like Killer Kowalski and Johnny Valiant started to write for us and do columns; it was a great experience. Ultimately, like many things, technology hurt it. Many things became free on the internet. But we had a 20-year run with it, so I really can’t complain."
Evan Ginzburg has done radio since 1991 and started at the 50,000 Watt WBAI-FM 99.5 in New York, a "world-famous and politically powerful station," where he considers Fred Geobold, his radio mentor. During the arts program called Light Show, Evan began hosting a five-minute wrestling update segment. After Geobold passed away, the station went through staff changes that unfortunately didn’t include Evan. When this door that had been open for 16 years was suddenly and indeed unfairly "slammed in his face," a new door opened—another door into wrestling.
A few weeks after no longer being a part of the station, Evan Ginzburg joined forces with co-host Dr. Mike Lano to form an internet radio show aptly called Legends Radio. Evan and Lano had the privilege of interviewing some of the biggest names wrestling has ever known. To name a handful, some guests included: Eddie Guerrero, Sherri Martel, Bruno Sammartino, Killer Kowalski, Lou Thesz, Paul "Butcher" Vachon, Magnum T.A., Ivan Koloff, Roddy Piper, The Destroyer, Pat Patterson, Verne Gagne, Larry Zbyszko, and many others. Evan is very unassuming when talking about the caliber of guests he was able to converse with during the almost 9-year run of the show, but he knows that he has been very fortunate.
Of course, nobody has ever been able to interview every important name in the wrestling business. However, if anybody came close, it would be Evan. Many late nights and into the early mornings, engrossing conversations ensued — all at this time sadly unavailable for the public — but we’d like to in the future have these cassette tapes transcribed and available here on Pro Wrestling Stories for your reading enjoyment with Mr. Ginzburg, time permitting! Legends Radio also saw many artists and musicians come on-air, almost too many to count.
In 2002, years before being hired as Associate Producer for Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, starring Micky Rourke, and subsequently for the documentary 350 Days, Evan was approached by underground filmmaker Dwayne Walker to do a full-length documentary on wrestling. As Evan describes, "It was shot on pennies and was from the heart." Wrestling-Then and Now featured greats like Killer Kowalski, Nikolai Volkoff, Don "Dr. Death" Arnold, and Tiger Khan, along with an eclectic array of other wrestling legends, personalities, and indie wrestlers. You can read more about how his first wrestling documentary came to be here.
This is only the start! If you want to learn more about the behind the scenes stories of The Wrestler and Evan’s involvement with this phenomenal film, you can go here.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss the following articles on our site:
- Jimmy Snuka vs. Don Muraco – The Legendary Steel Cage Match at MSG Remembered
- 350 Days: The Story of Sex, Drugs, and Rock n Roll in Wrestling
- Nikolai Volkoff Stories: A Smelly Rib and a Joke in the Ring!
Evan Ginzburg was an Associate Producer on The Wrestler and 350 Days starring Bret Hart and Superstar Billy Graham. He is a 30-year film, radio, and TV veteran. Check out his Facebook page Evan Ginzburg’s Old School Wrestling Memories and his new radio show Wrestling and Everything Coast to Coast with Buddy Sotello. He is currently working on his second book, a short story collection. His first book, Apartment 4B, Like in Brooklyn, was about his growing up in the turbulent Brooklyn of the ’60s and ’70s.
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