When Dale Barnes looked back at the thousands of television shows he produced over the years, everything from soccer to Expos baseball to variety shows to documentaries, he found one love of his missing: Wrestling.
Barnes has managed to remedy this oversight in his career with a 13-part series, entitled Icons of Wrestling, which debuts on Sunday, May 29 on Canada’s digital Biography Channel. The first four 30-minute episodes are profiles of Gorgeous George, Yukon Erik, “Mr. America” Gene Stanlee and Hard Boiled Haggerty.
When Barnes came to Canada from England as a young adult, he discovered wrestling, and was quickly hooked, attending matches at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. “I would never miss it in my younger days. Oh, wrestling is on, and I’d be there watching, cheering and booing like everybody else,” Barnes told Slam Wrestling. “I could never make up my mind if it was real or fake. But that really didn’t matter. It was the event. They were superb athletes.”
As the years went on, and he became a backstage power in television (at one point running CBC’s sports, variety and documentary programming from Montreal), Barnes kept “a lingering interest” in wrestling.
“I would always watch a lot that was going on, and I was a fan of some of the great oldtimers. As time went on, I said, ‘I know what they do today, but it’s not the same as yesterday.’ I loved the antics and the things that they did. They were the originals,” he said. “I got a chance to present an idea to do some shows, and I started doing them.”
The first person Barnes tracked down was Cheri Dupre, the ex-wife and valet for Gorgeous George. “She was living in Florida on welfare, which was very sad. I was lucky enough to get there and film her,” said Barnes. “I took her out to dinner and gave her some money and stuff. A wonderful, wonderful lady, and I met her daughters. She told me so many wonderful stories about Gorgeous George. Obviously, I’ve got tons of footage that I haven’t used. Unfortunately, six months after that, she passed away.”
Having extra footage could be a boon down the road. Barnes’ favorite wrestler growing up was Yukon Erik, and that was also his favorite piece to put together, as it required “espionage work” to dig through the wrestling hyperbole and find out about the man.
In each episode, Barnes tries to give a feel for what the time was like when the wrestler was born, what his life was like. Each one starts simple with the date of birth. “By doing that, you’ve got a really good feel for the man, and who he was, and what-incredibly-he achieved in his life,” Barnes said.
He has gone out of the way to make the episodes accessible to anybody. “I wanted to reach as many people as possible. My theory was doing it this way, you don’t have to be a wrestling fan to enjoy the show,” he said. “I wanted people to watch it and know the person. I didn’t want to do endless clips of them fighting. I wanted them to know this guy that was in the ring.”
Barnes, 70, worked with his son Claude on the Icons of Wrestling shows, as he did on the two-hour documentary for OMNI, Soccer in the New World (produced in four languages, yet). Claude Barnes is a veteran cameraman who runs his own production company, Keep It In The Family Productions Inc. “It’s nice because I trust him. I know I can leave something with him and it’s going to get done,” said father Barnes.
While the Biography Channel has a relatively small reach, Barnes hasn’t ruled out other avenues. He has been approached about DVD sales already, but wants to wait. “It may kill TV sales, so first, we’re hoping to get some sales in the States and around the world.”
The plan is to finish the 13 episodes first. Six are in the can: Gorgeous George, Yukon Erik, “Mr. America” Gene Stanlee, Hard Boiled Haggerty, Abdullah the Butcher and the Iron Sheik. Others will include Lou Thesz, Pepper Gomez, Paul “Butcher” Vachon, Jack Brisco, Penny Banner, Antonio Inoki and Jimmy Valiant.