By DAVE “The Kidd” FRANKS – For SLAM! Wrestling
Growing up middle class in what I consider the wrestling capital of Canada — Winnipeg, Manitoba — I have fond memories of going to the Winnipeg Arena to see the stars of the AWA. But I didn’t know at the time that my dad had once been a wrestler in the 1950s, and that I would one day follow in his footsteps.
The matches were every month on a Thursday (a school night) and I can remember the few times Dad took me to the matches and cheered beside me. I did not know it at the time but he was keeping a secret from me that I did not learn until my teen years, when he “came out of retirement”.
I was dumbfounded to learn that Dad had been a local wrestler back in the ’50s under the name Johnny Franks, learning the trade at the famed Madison Club. He was “old school” to say the least; Dad was pure science and a joy to watch. He was never much of an interview but he was a great worker and he could make everyone look good. He held a few titles over the years but always preferred to have a low profile.
My dad ended up getting back into it in the ’70s to get some exercise. I think he got back into it because he worked with a fellow named Rick “Crowbar” Jones who was a second-generation wrestler (his father was “Big Bad” Bobby Jones) in Winnipeg. He would stay involved in pro wrestling until the ’90s, when he would work occasionally as a referee.
Wrestling was not a topic to talk about in my home, as Mom was not overly thrilled about it. Dad would go to Tony Condello’s gym and train and would work the odd match or referee. I was in my mid-teens and seemed to end up in more than my share of fights; the truth is that I started most of them. Dad started teaching me holds in the basement and even a few routines. I believe his thinking was that if I could use the holds to avoid taking so many punches (I didn’t say that I was a great fighter) and could at least control the fight. I have to say that 20 years later I used what I learned many times while working in law enforcement.
As a kid, it was AWA Wrestling and All-Star Wrestling (out of Vancouver) that mattered. Even now that I am in my 40s, I can still fondly remember the greats like The Crusher, Gene Kiniski (who I met later in life), “Superstar” Billy Graham, Verne and Greg Gagne, and many others. Every Saturday, kids all over Winnipeg would tune in to watch the matches on TV and dream of being there.
It was a time when we believed everything we saw was true. We were able to believe that Wahoo McDaniel could take a beating from Baron Von Raschke and then be able to “comeback” and with one “tomahawk chop” put the Baron down for the count.
In those days the heels were hated and the babyfaces were cheered. With my friends, I would always cheer for the bayfaces, but inside I wished I was Nick Bockwinkel beating on Verne Gagne. I remember being in Grade 5 and trying to get a body like Billy Graham or talk with a raspy, Ray “The Crippler” Stevens-like voice.
Fast forward a number of years, and Dad is training me (all three of his sons would get some sort of training, but I was the only one to get into the ring on a regular basis).
It was then that I learned the shocking truth — wrestling was not real. It was tough, but everything I had dreamed about as a child was gone. That is what I thought at least; thankfully, kayfabe to the public was still alive and well back then.
Dad was doing a little wrestling for a local promotion that became “New Brand Wrestling” and I would tag along once in awhile and would referee the matches. I enjoyed it and was amazed how the fans were so caught up in the show. I got a thrill too because there I was, “in the ring”, just like I dreamed about as a child. I would get a chill up my spine as the wrestlers would work the crowd. I also liked being able to referee matches that Dad worked. He was a great technical wrestler–very low key–but the crowds always loved him. He would sell for everybody and he could make anyone look good. He has a lot of respect from the boys, as he helped train many of them.
I remember being somewhere in Northern Manitoba the night I took my first “bump”. It was at the end of a tag team match, and Walter Shefchyk decided to bodyslam the ref–too bad he did not tell me! I took the bump and the next thing I knew Dad and Chris Pepper hit the ring and “cleaned house”. The crowd went wild and the fever hit me. I had to get in the ring but not as a referee.
Despite Mom’s pleas, Dad undertook to make sure I knew what I was doing and was not going to kill myself. I think it was five or six months before I finally made my debut at Chalmers Community Club in Winnipeg, which was a loss to the ageless Caveman Broda. I might have lost that match but for those 10 minutes, I had the crowd “in my pocket.” I could make them cheer and could make them boo. I was hooked.
Kayfabe was alive and well, here I was 17 years old and would have people approach me on the street and ask for autographs. Kids would plead with me when I entered the ring to hold my warm up jacket or, when I held titles, to touch the belt.
I was lucky. I was accepted immediately by all because I was the son of Johnny Franks; they all told me that they would work with me anytime as they knew I had been trained right. I got my nickname that first night from the late Larry “Moose” Jones. He called me “The Kidd” and I was Dave “The Kidd” Franks throughout my short career. With dad’s help I was able to not only hold junior heavyweight titles but also competed for heavyweight titles.
I have had a full life, and loads of different experiences, but one of my most cherished moments were the times I was able to tag team with my Dad. Not many fathers and sons can say that. The first time we teamed together was also my first main event after three months in the business. A lot of hype went into the grudge match between Dad and “Handsome” Larry Anson and Mike Stone. Dad could have been the hero and grabbed the glory but, as was his style, he let me lead the match and allowed me to be the one to pin Stone for the victory. Dad wanted it to be my night; he was so unselfish in the ring.
It was an innocent time really; we provided good entertainment–not what you see today. The crowds were small and the entrances were low key, other than maybe doing a lap around the ring shaking hands before the match. The WWF was not even an issue; the AWA and All-Star Wrestling was a Saturday mainstay. The wrestlers had incredible characters that people believed. There were good guys and bad guys and there always to be some little old lady in the crowd that would hit a heel with her purse.
The business has changed so much since those days, and to tell the truth, I miss the old days and don’t watch wrestling now. My eight-year-old son, Jacob, watches from time to time and one day he asked me if I watched wrestling as a kid. I told him I did and told him about his “Poppa Jack” and how things were in the old days.
He sat on my knee as we looked at Vance Nevada’s archive site where he saw his Poppa Jack’s name and my name. He promptly told me in his serious eight-year-old voice, “If I become a wrestler, I will have to be called Jacob Franks, because you and Poppa used the name Franks.”
My son then said something that I will always remember: “I wish I could have seen Poppa Jack wrestle when wrestling was real.”
I miss those days and am sure I am not the only one.
Dave “The Kidd” Franks wrestled from 1980 to 1983 around Manitoba and retired due to repeated knee injuries. He goes by his real name these days, Dave Quail, and lives on Vancouver Island with his wife, their daughter, Brittany, and their son, Jacob, and works as an investigator for the Government in an Investigation & Intelligence Division. He can be emailed at The_Kidd@shaw.ca.
Johnny Franks is now retired at 68 years old, and had a successful career with the Manitoba provincial government.