William Terry amassed championship gold and wrestled a who’s who of legends and hall of famers worldwide as the evil Kurt Von Hess. His daughter Paige shares stories of her father’s life on the road and the dangers she encountered as the daughter of one of the last ethnic heels of the territory days.
The Art of Being an Ethnic Heel in Wrestling
The World Wrestling Entertainment recently came under fire for rebranding Walter Hahn (known to wrestling fans by his first name) as Gunther Stark. A decent wrestling name — their writers must have thought to themselves — until realizing that Mr. Stark was a U-Boat Commander for Germany during WWII.
If Walter was at the beginning of his wrestling career, this decision could possibly be justified (notwithstanding the choice of name).
However, Walter had been a star of WWE’s NXT brand for several years. In fact, his 870-day title reign with the NXT UK Championship is the longest in professional wrestling for over thirty years.
If kayfabe wasn’t already dead, this gaffe by the WWE was quite Kevorkianesque.
(Although the WWE initially trademarked the name “Gunther Stark,” they have wisely decided to drop the surname.)
Name and gimmick changes were very commonplace during the territory days.
Using my hometown WWWF (when it was headquartered in a Manhattan hotel suite) as an example, talent would be imported from one of the territories, renamed and re-gimmicked, and then built up to invincibility. This would inevitably lead to at least one, and sometimes multiple sellouts against Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden.
John Quinn, a journeyman wrestler in many territories, for instance, was brought in as Virgil “The Kentucky” Butcher.
Bob Orton Sr., a mainstay in the midwest, was brought in as Rocky Fitzpatrick.
Throw in legendary manager Bobby Davis, and you now have instant heat.
On the ethnic side, Canadian Oreal Perras, who had been wrestling as Red McNulty, was brought into the territory as the Russian Bear, Ivan Koloff.
While Quinn and Orton Sr. went back to their previous identities upon their departure from the WWWF, Ivan Koloff kept his gimmick for the rest of his wrestling career.
Kurt Von Hess – One of the Last Ethnic Heels of the Territory Days
One of the last ethnic heels of the territory days was William Terry, who spent most of his wrestling career under the moniker of Kurt Von Hess.
Terry had a very solid career, wrestling in many of the major territories. His body of work includes over twenty championships, many of the tag team variety, including the very prestigious Stampede Wrestling North American Heavyweight Championship.
Von Hess retired from active wrestling in 1984 due to health issues and passed away on March 13, 1999, a month shy of his 57th birthday.
Von Hess’ daughter, Paige Von Hess Sutherland, was a recent guest on the Dan and Benny In the Ring podcast. Here, she described the trials and tribulations of growing up as the daughter of a professional wrestler in the territory days and the ultimate sacrifice it had on her home.
In Paige’s case, her situation was exacerbated by two issues: her father wrestled as a heel for most of his career, which always caused problems for their offspring in the days of kayfabe, and additionally, he wrestled as an ethnic (German) heel, which increased these issues many times over.
So how did Canadian wrestler William Terry become the hated German heel Kurt Von Hess?
“I asked him a long time ago,” Paige began. “He was, you know, careful about how he would answer questions because right up until he passed away he still was kayfabe. I’m not kidding. He just believed in it.”
A mindset many old-school wrestlers share.
Paige continued, “Back in the New York (Buffalo) days, working for Pedro Martinez, he worked with Hans Schmidt; and Hans was a little older than my dad.
“Dad wanted to get as much heat as possible and he saw through Hans that he was quite successful in getting this heat with the crowd. He just latched on to that persona and loved it. So, I think Hans Schmidt was the one who really helped him with that, and Hans Mortier as well.”
A bit of backtracking and historical perspective may be in order here.
The use of ethnic heels in the golden age of professional wrestling was prevalent in all the major territories to throw a log or two on the perpetual good versus evil flame, hoping to pack the arena for that next show.
In the 1960s and ’70s, a promoter’s sole source of income was filling the seats. Peacocks? You would have to go to the zoo to see one of those.
German and Japanese heels were prevalent in the post-WWII days.
Men like Waldo and Fritz Von Erich, Baron Von Raschke, Hans Schmidt, Tojo Yamamoto, Toru Tanaka, and Mitsu Arakawa graced our televisions in the ’60s and ’70s.
Russian heels became a thing after the Cuban missile crisis. One of these “Russians,” Ivan Koloff, did the unfathomable and defeated a man who many thought could never be beaten, Bruno Sammartino, in Madison Square Garden on January 18, 1971.
Koloff captured the WWWF Championship with this victory, which Bruno had held since May 19, 1963.
Koloff was a transitional champion (though he could have been a credible long-term WWWF Champion) and was dethroned by ethnic babyface Pedro Morales 21 days later.
So, what was it like being an ethnic heel in the territory days and having a father that many people wanted to run out of town?
Sadly, Mr. Von Hess is no longer with us to share his story, but his daughter Paige has many recollections, both wonderful and some anything but.
“We were harassed several times,” Paige emotionally admits after I asked what it was like being out in public with her father.
“My dad wouldn’t let us go to the matches very often, and it would be a big treat (and threat) if we got to go.
“One time, in Cloverdale, B.C., we went to the matches. If he was in the ring, we often didn’t get to finish watching the match because we had to get to the car as he’d be running out to go. If he had his family there, that’s what he would do. Otherwise, he would just stay in the dressing room.
“He came out that night and beat the heck out of Sika Anoa’i, one of the Wild Samoans (and father of Roman Reigns).
“The crowd came out that night! They were throwing pop and garbage at him. Then, he jumped in the car and locked the doors as fans crowded around and shook the doors.
“My sister and I were crying because we thought the car would turn over.
“A few wrestlers eventually came out along with the police and broke it up. It was quite scary. I’d have to say that was the scariest moment I faced. After that, he wouldn’t let us go very often.”
Hearing Paige’s emotional recollection of an angry crowd jeopardizing the lives of a hated heel and his two young daughters vividly demonstrates how real this was to so many people.
When Kurt Von Ness captured the coveted Stampede Wrestling North American Heavyweight Championship in 1971, he was relatively young (29) and had only been in the business for a few years.
For a young and inexperienced wrestler to receive this type of push from a legendary promoter like Stu Hart speaks volumes to his in-ring abilities and Hart’s faith in Von Hess’s ability to draw money.
“He had a big rivalry with Carlos Colon,” Paige shared about her father’s time in Calgary. “They had a huge feud. And for Stu to have given him that belt [was so meaningful]. He carried it right through Christmas into February. I think Tor Kamata took it off him.
“He loved working for [Stu]. My father was very devoted to him. He was a great man to work for.”
Von Hess and his partner Karl Von Shotz (John Ansen) would soon travel to Montreal to work for the Rougeau Brothers.
During a show at the legendary Jarry Park (home for many years to the Montreal Expos), the despised German team had to make a legitimate run-in to rescue Ed Farhat, “The Original Sheik.”
The Sheik had agitated the crowd to the point where a riot was about to ensue!
Farhat later expressed appreciation for the save, said he enjoyed their work earlier on the card, and offered them a job with his Detroit-based Big-Time Wrestling promotion.
So, one might ask, what does a territory wrestler do when his job location changes from Calgary to Montreal to Detroit, all in the span of several months?
Well, if you are Kurt Von Hess, you move. A lot!
“We moved seventeen times in ten years,” Paige admitted.
“Could you imagine trying to put my school record together? It would be a puzzle!
“We went from Washington State to British Columbia to Montreal, down to Tennessee (Knoxville, Nashville), Pensacola, Florida — all the major territories.
The feeling of moving into a new neighborhood, starting a new school, with the resulting stress that goes with both, and then repeating this process every few months was a routine Paige grew familiar.
For her and her family, living in a U-Haul was the norm.
Throw in the fact that her father quickly became the most despised person wherever they moved, and you have all of the elements for a volatile childhood!
You could interject the names of hundreds of wrestlers trying to feed their families just like this in the 1960s and 1970s.
William Terry was a solid hand, trusted by many promoters to generate heat and fill their arenas. However, a reliable paycheck was never guaranteed for him and so many of his co-workers who lived on a week-to-week basis, not knowing how much money they would earn at the matches.
What if Kurt had broken a finger, sprained an ankle, or cracked a rib the night before his next match?
How about being on the road during Christmas, Thanksgiving, or your child’s birthday?
For Von Ness and many others plying their trade on the road, these special days mainly were spent traveling in a cramped car with malodorous co-workers en route to the next town.
“It’s not an easy business to have a family at the same time. We lived in motels, hotels, and rentals.”
The ultimate sacrifice on the home for their hero on the road.
But for Paige, she is grateful for the memories, and her father is her favorite subject to talk about.
“My dad loved us so much. That’s why we went with him. He couldn’t bear being away from us for more than a few days.”
You can hear Paige Von Hess Sutherland share more stories about her father, Kurt Von Hess, and what it was like to grow up the daughter of an ethnic heel wrestler on Dan and Benny In The Ring:
These stories may also interest you:
- Growing Up The Daughter of a Wrestling Heel
- Evil Russians – 10 Wrestlers Who Flourished In This Role
- 12 All-Time Legends the WWE Hall of Fame Did Wrong