Lou Thesz: World Champion wrestler, real estate mogul, interior designer? Dive into the lesser-known side of this renaissance man!
Lou Thesz And His Savvy Business Practices
Lou Thesz was recognized as a shrewd businessman during his wrestling career. When he was NWA champion and paid based on the percentage of the gate, Thesz would only deal in cash and demanded a statement from promoters showing the numbers for the event and deductions to make sure he was paid what he earned.
“Lou not only had great wrestling coaches, he had phenomenal business coaches: Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis and Ray Steele,” Thesz’s widow Charlie Thesz once said in the book, Pro Wrestling FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the World’s Most Entertaining Spectacle.
That business savvy carried outside of the ring as well. According to Tim Hornbaker’s great book about the history of the National Wrestling Alliance, Thesz made $50-60,000 per year during the ’50s and supplemented his income with his partial ownership of the St. Louis territory from 1948-55.
By 1961, Thesz had earned more than two million dollars during his career. To ease the heavy income tax bite on his wrestling purses, Thesz, and his second wife Fredda, invested his money in real estate in California after giving up breeding and training Doberman Pinschers. “Cost me about 10,000 to win a few blue ribbons,” he said.
Thesz owned and lived in a beautiful 20-unit apartment house on LaJolla Beach in California called Pacific Manor. He loved food and had a big appetite, as he and his wife often hosted BBQs at their LaJolla home.
This financial responsibility was different than many of his colleagues who blew their money and ended up with little to show from their years of work in the squared circle. Thesz, however, earned a reputation as a shrewd businessman.
“You know the story of most athletes — they end up broke,” he said. “I plan to end up a bookkeeper, counting my money.”
Thesz expanded his real estate holdings with an investment in Arizona. He first wrestled in Phoenix on March 2, 1953, before an overflow crowd at Arizona’s Madison Square Garden, defeating Gino Garibaldi in a best-of-three falls NWA Heavyweight Championship match. He occasionally returned to Arizona’s capital city after that match and became acquainted with the growth happening in the Valley of the Sun.
In 1961, Lou, his wife Fredda, and two children moved to Phoenix and he purchased the 6 1/2-acre Casa Siesta Lodge, located in a part of the city with multiple resorts that attracted visitors from around the world. Thesz wasn’t the only wrestling royalty at Casa Siesta’s grand opening though as Gorgeous George also attended as a special guest.
“We came to Phoenix four years ago for a visit, liked what we saw and bought the lodge,” Thesz said in a September 5, 1965 interview with The Arizona Republic.
Newspaper ads billed Casa Siesta as a “Truly Unique Western Resort” with beautiful and spacious grounds where you can relax in the firelit charm of the lodge. The warmth is reflected in hospitality and new Spanish décor throughout. Lovely luxurious wall-to-wall carpeting is the prelude to a new concept in custom Spanish furnishings – from golden lamps to original Spanish oils. Each room and suite is separated by a private sun patio to ensure absolute quiet and privacy.
Giant eucalyptus surrounded beautiful and unusual plant life making this oasis an unequaled way of enjoying the West as it should be. There are 20 casitas, a beautiful fire-lit lodge, 60-ft. swimming pool, and a putting green, all lying amid orange trees and framed by Camelback Mountain.
The Thesz’ operated the facility as a resort during the winter tourist season where you could rent a twin-bedroom casita for $12 a night, and as a swim club during the summer. When Lou was home, he was very involved in maintaining and managing the property – tree trimming, painting, whatever it took. This blue-collar attitude isn’t surprising for a guy who grew up mending soles and smashing heels for his immigrant Hungarian father who was a shoemaker.
Thesz also fancied himself a gourmet and loved continental cuisine, which he offered at his resort and was unique to the area. Lou imported a Belgian chef to meet his menu preferences.
“Phoenix is a meat, potatoes and bourbon town,” Thesz said in the December 19, 1962 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We think it’s ripe for a continental touch.”
Kurt Holbrook, son of wrestler Vic Holbrook, posted a story on the Lou Thesz message board in March 2005 about how Kurt and his dad would visit Thesz at his resort every week.
“Mr. Thesz loved good food and loved to cook. In Phoenix and Scottsdale, there are large waterways of an irrigation system for all the produce areas. Us kids would go to the irrigation ditches as they became shallow at the end of the summer and we would wade in and procure all the crawfish we could carry. Mr. Thesz would give us a penny a piece for the little red guys. Then he would whip up a feast of these shelled creatures to us all.”
While Thesz spent most of his time on the resort, he occasionally grappled with opponents at Madison Square Garden and Central Stadium in Downtown Phoenix but usually traveled the world capitalizing on his wrestling fame to earn bigger paychecks. One stretch saw him wrestling in India four times in 10 days, including one show in New Delhi in front of 60,000 fans. After wrestling, Thesz would return home for more mundane tasks such as hanging drapes.
In 1963, Lou stepped away from a full-time wrestling schedule to give full-time attention to the lodge. That lasted a year before the former world champion had to return to the ring.
“It was a different world,” Thesz said of his year of leisure in a December 15, 1966 interview with the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “I’d sit around and puff on those cigarettes and drink me a highball now and then and before long I was feeling lousy. I needed something to do, so I went back.”
Lou Thesz and Other Various Entrepreneurial Interests
Thesz sold Casa Siesta in 1968 and considered building homes in a Phoenix suburb. Once he was asked why he was continually building real estate empires only to liquidate them, Thesz smiled his enigmatic smile. “Getting in cheap and getting out when the price is right,” Lou said softly, “is the name of the game.”
By 1970, Thesz was mostly retired from wrestling but was still very active when it came to his entrepreneurial interests. In April of that year, Thesz started Champion Carpets where he imported carpet from around the world through connections he made wrestling in other countries. He started with two locations and expanded to six by September – five in Phoenix and another in Tucson. The plan was to eventually open 30 franchises around the state.
Thesz attended the grand openings and attempted to attract fans and prospective customers with free autographed photos. When you needed the latest shag rug to carpet your bathroom, Thesz wanted you to shop at his store and utilize the interior design services of his wife Fredda, who was a talented artist and had an interior design business.
Dave Meltzer wrote in his book Tributes II that Thesz lost so much money that in 1973 he went back to wrestling at age 56, working mainly for Nick Gulas in Tennessee for $100 a night. Thesz left Phoenix in 1973 after living there for 12 years.
Thesz’s marriage to Fredda came to an end in 1975. He later married Catherine “Charlie” Thesz, whom he met while wrestling in Tennessee and remained with her for the rest of his life. The couple lived in Norfolk, Virginia for much of his later life.
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