SLAM! Wrestling was honored to have a chat with “The First Ladies of Wrestling” — Penny Banner, Ida May Martinez and Ella Waldek — on April 29, 2004, to promote the documentary Lipstick Dynamite, Piss Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling.
Greg Oliver: We’re ready to go here today with Ella Waldek, Ida May Martinez, and Penny Banner, here in Toronto to promote Lipstick Dynamite, Piss Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions so far. Keep ’em coming. We’ll go for about 45 minutes.
Tamii Smythe Who were your idols when you were growing up?
Ida May: Frank Sinatra
Penny: Hank Williams Sr. was mine. We didn’t have television. Howdy Doody.
Ida May: I used to listen to the radio. The Shadow!
Alex: What was your favorite arena to work in?
Ella: Texas, in Houston. The Auditorium. It was huge. It was always very full, they drew fantastic, and the hotel we stayed in was right across the street, and you could sleep in a little longer.
Penny: I’ve got several. I like Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and the Calgary Stampede. I loved the Calgary Stampede.
Ida May: I like the Cincinnati Gardens. One night we had 26,000 people. And the Boston Garden.
Mr. P: Women’s wrestling was banned in many territories including Toronto, Montreal and New York state. Did that ever make any sense to any of you?
Ella: No. We finally convinced them that it didn’t make sense either.
Penny: We finally convinced the commissions.
Ella: They were afraid of exposed breasts and buttocks.
Ida May: Jack Dempsey defended us. I have a copy of an article he wrote saying that we could stand up with anybody.
Aaron Kiebler: How hard was it to break into the business?
Ella: If you had the guts for a tryout, it wasn’t that hard at all. But you had to have some talent, and a body.
Ida May: I did a couple of acrobatic moves and Billy Wolfe was impressed.
Dale: As I understand it, Billy Wolfe and the Fabulous Moolah controlled women’s wrestling as promoters. First, Wolfe in the ’40s and ’50s, and then Moolah from the ’60s on. Did the ladies find it any different finding work under Billy Wolfe (husband of Mildred Burke) as opposed to Moolah?
Ella: No one would go with Moolah. With Billy Wolfe, you were in a decent organization with decent bookings. If you were with Moolah, you were lucky to work anywhere because she couldn’t work anywhere, she was an outlaw.
Penny: I never heard of Lillian or her school until 1964, and that was after June Byers had an accident and retired. Billy Wolfe died in 1962, with his school of wrestling. What was there left but Lillian’s school? She did start a lot of girls.
Ella: But the older girls booked themselves.
Dale Did the women’s lib movement in the ’60s lead to more and better opportunities to appear in the ring, or did it still remain a man’s world in pro wrestling?
Ella: Well, it did remain a man’s world, but we did get better bookings, with less travelling and better pay.
Ida May: I retired, gave it up, by 1960.
Penny: I never even knew I was being discriminated against. I opened up Minneapolis in 1957 for girls tag teams and Indianapolis in April 1957 because they didn’t allow girls in Indianapolis, and St Louis tag. They were good to me. Then Chicago before a mixed audience with men and women. Ella worked in front of audiences that were just women.
Ella: When Chicago first started, it was a test to see what women could do and behave properly. We had physicals we had to do. Nothing but women were allowed to come into the arena, and nothing but women wrestling. But the men were hanging from the rafters trying to get in, coming in the skylights. They were picketing outside too!
Captain wrestling What do you think of the current top female wrestlers?
Penny: I do not watch today. I think Vince McMahon’s daughter Stephanie could be fantastic. She would have been a great girl wrestler in our day.
Stinger: What did you learn while filming the movie?
Penny: I learned about how Ella got started. I didn’t know it. I got to learn about Gladys Gillem – what not to do.
Ida May: I didn’t know what was going to come about when Ruth came to my house.
Ella: We furnished all the information.
Penny: It’s not long enough, and a whole lot more needs to be said.
Ida May: She just touched the surface of our lives. It’s very good, and people are talking about it everywhere.
Mr. P We’re in Canada so lets talk about a great Canadian. What made Stu Hart different from other promoters?
Ella: He did a helluva of a job promoting up there. I went up there four years in a row. They would have it in conjunction with the Stampede, and we’d be in the parade. I got to see other parts of Canada.
Ida May: He was the true patriarch of the family. I wrestled there many times, including Al Oeming in Edmonton in the early 1950s.
Ella: It was always snowing in June!
Penny: Stu Hart, when we were on our way to Moose Jaw or Medicine Hat, we had to jump on the bumper to keep the gas from freezing.
Ida May: I have never been so cold in my life!
Greg Oliver: We’re all done here. Lots of chatting with these three great wrestlers here. On behalf of our readers, thanks to Penny, Ida May and Ella for coming in.
Ida May: So long and I really enjoyed being here, and the people have been great here in Toronto. Thank you.
Penny: I love the city. I like the oldness of it. It reminds me of my hometime of St. Louis. The people are very friendly. Maybe we’ll get to come back some day.
Ella: I’ve enjoyed being here, and happy to discuss things with you. We tell the truth, but only when they ask the right questions. Hopefully we’ll be back for the next film!
- Apr. 27, 2004: Lipstick & Dynamite documentary honors women of ’50s
- Review: Guts & endurance calling card of Lipstick & Dynamite
- May 5, 2008: Mat Matters: Goodbye Penny Banner; I’ll miss you
- Jan. 19, 2010: Ida Mae Martinez was wrestler, yodeler, nurse
- Apr. 19, 2013: Women’s wrestling legend Ella Waldek dies