Ernie Roth, AKA The Grand Wizard of Wrestling, was a spittle spewing, venom spouting, gaudily attired, smooth-talking heel WWWF manager who fans loathed with every ounce of their being. And although Roth was terrific in his role as the sidekick of the biggest stars of the 1970s and early ’80s, his life outside of the ring places him high on the list of many.
Ernie Roth and The Grand Wizard of Wrestling
In the 1970s and early ’80s, it was like he had been dropped from another planet.
Nobody looked or sounded like him with his sequined jackets, wildly decorated turban resplendent with its sequins and feathers, and wraparound sunglasses.
“McMahon…when my man gets in the ring with that Sammartino…” he’d say with utter disdain as the bumblebee yellow-jacketed Vince McMahon, then a mere announcer, glanced at him in disgust. And some towering giant protégé of his like Blackjack Mulligan, Ernie Ladd, Killer Kowalski, Magnificent Muraco, or Sgt. Slaughter would smirk and hold back laughter as the surreal spectacle played out for us on weekly TV.
For fans like me based out of NYC, it was like our secret little world on our hidden station, UHF Channel 47, where superheroes and villains delighted us with their over-the-top antics. And he was their commander leading the charge.
While fellow manager “Captain” Lou Albano would consistently get clocked by beloved faces like Chief Jay Strongbow, Ivan Putski, and Gorilla Monsoon, floundering on the mat like a fish out of water, the dastardly Wizard would hide behind a protégé’s massive leg like a baby behind his mommy, utterly infuriating us fans.
In an era where the heel always- and I mean ALWAYS- “got his,” nobody ever laid a hand on the guy. The heat he generated was off the charts.
While my father chuckled at his antics and wild interviews, my hatred for the man only grew with every triumph he attained.
Then, he led villainous Professor Tanaka and Mr. Fuji to the WWWF tag team titles twice. It wasn’t bad enough that they used their then mysterious martial arts to chop opponents in the throat; they also weren’t shy about blatantly throwing salt in their eyes either.
The Wizard was preening arrogantly about his charges, deaf to the cascade of boos emanating from those Hamburg, Pennsylvania fans during those legendary TV tapings.
The Grand Wizard of Wrestling and Graham together on the stick were like this stream of consciousness, jazz riffing off of each other, Muhammad Ali meets god knows what- nothing like we’d ever, ever seen before- hypnotic patter.
It was amazing. You couldn’t take your eyes off of them.
And although Roth was terrific in his role as the sidekick for many, it’s who he was in real life that places him so high on the list of many. Outside of wrestling, Ernie Roth was a gay, Jewish man. He named his WWWF character as a shot at the KKK’s “grand wizard.” That takes some guts.
It dawned on me, especially as I got “smartened up,” that I had somehow morphed into a fan of The Grand Wizard of Wrestling. I had grown to appreciate just how truly great he was at his unique role.
And then it happened.
One night as a teen, I was waiting outside the mecca of pro wrestling, Madison Square Garden, when I spotted someone walking out the stage door who looked oddly familiar. He could have been any middle-aged New York businessman dressed in a basic, inconspicuous dark suit.
“No!” I said to myself, suddenly realizing just who it was.
But, yes indeed, the Grand Wizard of Wrestling himself was walking past me, minus the gimmick.
I hesitatingly stepped toward him.
“Can I have your autograph?” I meekly asked, bracing myself for a rejection.
Saying nothing, he stopped, looked me in the eye, smiled warmly, and graciously signed my old-school little autograph book.
“Wow, he’s NICE,” the starstruck kid in me thought as he walked away, clutching my new treasure.
When the man I once “hated” died on October 12th, 1983, at the very same age my dad had just a few years earlier-both, a mere 57 years old– I knew that some of the very best nights of my life were sitting with my father at Madison Square Garden watching the Grand Wizard of Wrestling in all his glory.
And I revered and now mourn him, too.
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